by Mitch Kokai
Senior Political Analyst, John Locke Foundation
James Pethokoukis and Yuval Levin discuss Levin’s recent essay, “Conservatism in an Age of Alienation,” in which Levin describes 21st-century conservatism as “a conservatism that is uncertain if this election has marked a victory or a defeat, and is therefore both aggressive in pursuit of opportunities and alert to dangers.”
In this essay, you write that while the Republican party may be up, conservatism may be down. I think the phrase is: “This doesn’t feel like winning.” Why doesn’t it feel like winning?
Well, I think that the past year and 2016 election year was a time that would have to force conservatives to search our souls some. The Republican party ended up doing well in the election at all levels, and, of course, winning the presidential election. But it did so in the course of also opening up some distance between the Republican party and conservatism that I think is greater than the distance we’ve seen any time since the 1970s. And Donald Trump simply didn’t run as a conservative, didn’t really pretend to, and in many ways ran over a lot of conservative sacred cows on the way to the presidency.
Conservatives need to think about the fact that even though Republicans won this election, the past year’s revealed there’s some serious weaknesses in what conservatives are offering the country—especially at the level of agenda, of policy, where it seemed like the 15 conservatives that ran against Trump for the Republican nomination couldn’t get the attention of Republican voters in making the case for a conservative policy agenda. Instead, Trump got their attention largely by attacking that case and that agenda and by making a very different case, by making an appeal to a very different set of concerns and a different set of issues than conservatives have tended to argue for. So the guy saying that we need lower taxes just isn’t enough. I think that should lead conservatives to think about what it is we need to be for today, what it means to be a conservative in contemporary American politics which can’t start in policy; it has to end in policy. It has to start in the sense of how we understand the country’s problems, how we think about the role of the government in politics and solving problems, and then what that should mean for public policy.