The party of Theodore Roosevelt and Ronald Reagan has now lost the popular vote in five of the last six presidential elections. The marketplace of ideas will render us irrelevant, and soon, if we are not honest about our time and place in history. Unfortunately, much of the discussion has focused on cosmetic solutions to, say, our underperformance among ethnic and young voters. This is a mistake: we cannot cross this river by feeling for stones. Instead, we need to take a hard look at what today’s conservatism stands for.
Conservatives can start by examining how Republicans working with Democrats have governed in several successful states, including Utah; free-market-based healthcare reform, tax reform that eliminated deductions and closed loopholes to bring down rates, and practical education reforms that spoke to 21st-century realities.
Instead of using immigration reform as a wedge issue, like many leaders in Washington, Utah passed legislation to help manage immigration based on our real economic needs. If conservatives come to the table with solutions that put our communities first, it will go a long way toward winning elections.
But it’s difficult to get people even to consider your reform ideas if they think, with good reason, you don’t like or respect them. Building a winning coalition to tackle the looming fiscal and trust deficits will be impossible if we continue to alienate broad segments of the population. We must be happy warriors who refuse to tolerate those who want Hispanic votes but not Hispanic neighbors. We should applaud states that lead on reforming drug policy. And, consistent with the Republican Party’s origins, we must demand equality under the law for all Americans.
While serving as governor of Utah, I pushed for civil unions and expanded reciprocal benefits for gay citizens. I did so not because of political pressure—indeed, at the time 70 percent of Utahns were opposed—but because as governor my role was to work for everybody, even those who didn’t have access to a powerful lobby. Civil unions, I believed, were a practical step that would bring all citizens more fully into the fabric of a state they already were—and always had been—a part of.
That was four years ago. Today we have an opportunity to do more: conservatives should start to lead again and push their states to join the nine others that allow all their citizens to marry. I’ve been married for 29 years. My marriage has been the greatest joy of my life. There is nothing conservative about denying other Americans the ability to forge that same relationship with the person they love.
All Americans should be treated equally by the law, whether they marry in a church, another religious institution, or a town hall. This does not mean that any religious group would be forced by the state to recognize relationships that run counter to their conscience. Civil equality is compatible with, and indeed promotes, freedom of conscience.
Marriage is not an issue that people rationalize through the abstract lens of the law; rather it is something understood emotionally through one’s own experience with family, neighbors, and friends. The party of Lincoln should stand with our best tradition of equality and support full civil marriage for all Americans.
This is both the right thing to do and will better allow us to confront the real choice our country is facing: a choice between the Founders’ vision of a limited government that empowers free markets, with a level playing field giving opportunity to all, and a world of crony capitalism and rent-seeking by the most powerful economic interests.
Adam Smith was not only an architect of the modern world of extraordinary economic opportunity, he was a moralist whose first book was The Theory of Moral Sentiments. The foundation of his thought was his insight that free markets and open commerce strengthened our moral fiber by reinforcing the community of shared and reciprocal economic interests. Government, he thought, had to be limited lest it be captured and corrupted by special business interests who wanted protection from competition and the reciprocal requirements of community.
We are at a crossroads. I believe the American people will vote for free markets under equal rules of the game—because there is no opportunity or job growth any other way. But the American people will not hear us out if we stand against their friends, family, and individual liberty.
Jon Huntsman is a former governor of Utah and was a Huntsman Corporation executive and U.S. ambassador to China and Singapore.