In the latest issue of Commentary, Michael Gerson and Peter Wehner have offered the latest volley in the ongoing war to define conservatism’s future. While less comprehensive than the path offered by Dreher or Salam/Douthat, Gerson and Wehner offer their own distinct blend of foci as a cure for the Republican intellectual and political malaise.
Which is why this foundation is a tad surprising: “Any serious attempt to revivify the GOP might begin with a full-throated stand for a strong national defense.” I, for one, am supportive of including national defense as one among many Republican policy positions. But to remain belligerently focused on it in the face of enormous fiscal challenges strikes me as (at best) tone-deaf. While I am sympathetic to their attempt to frame foreign policy around global issues like “global issues like genocide, poverty, women’s rights, religious liberty, malaria, and HIV/AIDS,” I suspect that any presentation of conservatism that leads with national defense will quickly be identified with traditional formulations.
What follows is a relatively mixed bag of proposals that includes winners like making the tax code simpler and more family friendly, and losers like picking out the “Religious Right” for the “anger, personal attack, and extreme language” of the Republican party. As best I can tell, it was not the Religious Right who gave the world Mark Levin, Glenn Beck, or Rush Limbaugh. And while we agree on the substance of the point, it’s curious to see tone listed alongside national defense, the economy, and other such matters of social import.
The most hopeful suggestion is this one:
In this last connection, and again with an eye toward immigrants and the poor, the GOP would be wise to strengthen its reputation as the party of community and order. Republican rhetoric can sound intensely individualistic, as if to suggest that once government impediments were cleared away, all persons and all families would thrive as a matter of course. Individual freedom is indeed central to conservatism but so is the belief that individual freedom is given purpose and direction in the context of strong communities. It is a staple of conservatism that strong social bonds are essential to human flourishing.
While it is precisely this sort of understanding that can help ground traditional social conservative arguments, Wehner and Gerson refuse to go there. In this, Wehner and Gerson are provocative in what they don’t say as much as in what they say. That they thought such proposals would be appealing without any mention of traditional social conservative causes suggest that they think such causes expendable, and that they would pick on the “Religious Right” suggests they are too eager to chasten them.
What to make of this? Not much. If social conservatives can win back the philosophical ground by striking at the heart of an unrestrained liberalism by reintroducing the concept of human communities, their generation, and continuation as meaningful and relevant categories, then they shall inevitably make progress in their social agenda. Meanwhile, Wehner and Gerson can continue to strum the tune of national defense to an audience that isn’t listening.