Most Americans are conservative, at least in one respect. Their basic political goal is to conserve the country’s greatness. They are driven by their affection for the people, the land, the opportunities, the local communities and civic institutions, the traditions and heroes, the ideas and ideals of America. But deep as these affections are, they often lack a common language to convey them.
The language suited to this broad conservatism is rarely even to be heard among movement conservatives today. Conservatives end up in camps, each responding to one or another set of problems facing the country. Tea Party conservatives talk about the rise of big government. Social conservatives talk about the degradation of the family and culture and threats to religious liberty. Fiscal conservatives talk about taxes and regulations that harm businesses. So it is that movement conservatives go around sounding pessimistic. They talk about limits, not about possibilities. Rarely do they express the variety, complexity, beauty, and hope of American life. Our challenge, then, is not one of policies so much as it is one of poetics—of the language we speak.
I say this as a policymaker. In three election cycles and four years in the Washington State House of Representatives, I have a learned a few lessons about how to communicate conservative principles in a reputedly liberal state. Before I was elected, I was working on a PhD in Political Science because I wanted to understand political thought and rhetoric. In becoming a grad school dropout, I have continued my studies in other ways.
I have studied politics in legislative committee hearings and caucus deliberations, campaign committee conference calls and precinct officer meetings, League of Women Voters candidate forums and party booths at the State Fair, city council and school board meetings, Kiwanis and Rotary luncheons, historical society and water utility board meetings, neighborhood picnics, church men’s groups, charity breakfasts, PTA dinners, and countless face-to-face chats with constituents at Anthem Coffee in downtown Puyallup, Washington.
Many of the people I have interacted with in the last four years are anxious for a generation of conservative statesmen and women who will stand for the things they love, not merely oppose the things they dislike. They want leaders whose conservatism is expressed in a language of affection.
Let me suggest three key words that can help movement conservatives to communicate more affectionately and, therefore, effectively with the country.
The first word is community. Shortly after my first election, I settled on a vision statement that I have since repeated to audiences of all political stripes: “We need to build up our communities, not our bureaucracies.” I have yet to hear anyone disagree with this. If anything, I have heard from a lot of young people who are eager for public leaders who celebrate the value of communities. Perhaps it’s why Paul Ryan—famous for his emphasis on civil society in the tradition of his mentors Jack Kemp and Bill Bennett—received the highest support for the 2016 GOP presidential nomination among 18-34 year olds in a recent poll by Fusion.com. Young evangelicals, yet to identify with either political party, are deeply concerned about poverty, which is best addressed by strong communities rather than bureaucracies. If we need more of anything in America, it surely isn’t bureaucracy. We need moms and dads, grandparents, friends, volunteers, entrepreneurs, mentors, and coaches.
This leads to a second word that conservatives should include in their vocabulary: service. It is a wonderful thing that the John Jay Institute is working so effectively “to prepare principled leaders for faith-informed public service.” Recently I have had the pleasure of helping to launch a similar but smaller effort called the Chapman Center for Citizen Leadership at the Seattle-based Discovery Institute. Named after former Washington State Secretary of State and Discovery Institute founder Bruce Chapman, the Center arises from a recognition that politics can be good, not merely something to be tolerated. Politics is a noble thing in a free society, where it is expected of citizens that some among us will volunteer to lead. Citizen leadership can come from small business owners and blue collar workers, teachers and journalists, doctors and lawyers. Today we need a new generation of conservative citizen leaders who are willing to prepare themselves for the big public challenges of our time and step up to serve their communities.
Of course, service is more than an activity of government. Service means volunteering in a homeless shelter, tutoring a child, or caring for the elderly. It means organizing a block watch, teaching Sunday School, cleaning up a roadside, or giving time to a local Scout troop. In these ways, service can be an alternative to government itself. As young Congressman John F. Kennedy said in 1952, “Only by doing the work ourselves, only by giving generously out of our own pockets, can we hope in the long run to maintain the authority of the people over the state, to ensure that the people remain the master, the state the servant. Every time we try to lift a problem from our own shoulders, and shift that problem to the hands of government, to the same extent we are sacrificing the liberties of the people.” A self-governing society is a caring society, a society where neighbors serve one another, especially the most vulnerable. Service must be central to our conservative message.
Finally, conservatives should remember that the word that matters most to America’s families is children. James Q. Wilson once declared the first precept of welfare reform: “Our overriding goal ought to be to save the children. Other goals—reducing the cost of welfare, discouraging illegitimacy, and preventing long-term welfare dependency—are all worthy. But they should be secondary to the goal of improving the life prospects of the next generation.” Indeed, we should advance free markets and promote limited government, we should win elections and enact reforms, and we should do all of it insofar as it furthers the pursuit of a bright future for our children. This pursuit is shared and understood by America’s families. Moms and dads care about the quality of the schools that their kids attend, the affordability of college tuition, and the safety of their neighborhoods. We must offer creative conservative policies that address issues like these and a language to express the signal importance of children in our vision of America.
Whittaker Chambers once wrote to William F. Buckley that “each generation must find its language for an eternal meaning.” We must do that today. The truths we love and the principles we Americans regard highest are unchanging. But we cannot get by on yesterday’s language. We do honor to those who have come before us in the conservative movement to adapt and to embrace the challenges of our own age.
Today we must speak an affectionate language, a language that expresses our love for the country. We need a language that celebrates community, service, and children. And of course, we need conservative spokesmen and women. The John Jay Institute deserves thanks for its work to prepare such people for the task ahead.