State of the Union

The Case for “Serfdom,” Rightly Understood

Baker County Tourism / Flickr
Baker County Tourism / Flickr

Last Saturday I had the honor of addressing the 50th anniversary meeting of the Philadelphia Society. The title of the meeting was “The Road Ahead—Serfdom or Liberty?” My remarks sought to suggest that conservatives should be more circumspect about their rote incantation of the word “liberty,” and that there may even be something to be said for “serfdom,” properly understood. My remarks in full are printed, below.

“The Road Ahead—Serfdom or Liberty?”

 The Philadelphia Society Annual Meeting—50th Anniversary

Patrick J. Deneen, The University of Notre Dame

I would like to begin my remarks by calling to mind two commercials that aired at different points during the last five years. The first aired in 2010, and was produced by the Census Bureau in an effort to encourage Americans to fill out their census forms. It opens with a man sitting in his living room dressed in a bathrobe, who talks directly into the camera in order to tell viewers that they should fill out the census form, as he’s doing from his vantage as a couch potato.

Fill out the census, he says, so that you can help your neighbors—and at this point he gets out his chair and walks out the front door, past his yard and the white picket fence and points at his neighbors who are getting into their car—You can help Mr. Griffith with better roads for his daily car pool commute, he says—and then, indicating the kids next door, “and Pete and Jen for a better school,” and continues walking down the street. Now neighbors are streaming into the quaint neighborhood street, and he tells us that by filling out the census, we can help Reesa with her healthcare (she’s being wheeled by in a gurney, about to give birth), and so on… “Fill it out and mail it back,” he screams through a bullhorn from a middle of a crowded street, “so that we can all get our fair share of funding, and you can make your town a better place!”

The other ad, produced in 2012, was produced by the Obama re-election campaign, though it was not aired on television and has today disappeared from the internet. It was entitled “The Life of Julia,” and in a series of slides it purported to show how government programs had supported a woman named Julia at every point in her life, from preschool funds from a young age to college loans to assistance for a start up to healthcare and finally retirement. In contrast to the Census commercial—which portrayed a neighborhood street filled with people who knew each others’ names—“The Life of Julia” portrayed a woman who appeared to exist without any human ties or relationships, except—in one poignant slide—a child that had suddenly appeared but who was about to be taken away on a little yellow school bus, and as far as we’re shown, is never seen again. No parents, no husband, a child who disappears.

The first ad is a kind of Potemkin Village behind which is the second ad. The first ad shows a thriving community in which everyone knows each others’ names, and as you watch it—if you aren’t duped by what it’s portraying—you are left wondering why in the world would we need government to take care of our neighbors if we knew each other so well? Why is my obligation to these neighbors best fulfilled by filling out the Census form? The commercial is appealing to our cooperative nature and our sense of strong community ties to encourage us to fill out the Census form, but in fact—as the commercial tells us—it is in order to relieve us of the responsibility of taking care of each other; perhaps more accurately, it’s reflecting a world in which increasingly we don’t know our neighbor’s names, and instead turn to the government for assistance in times of need.

The second commercial is what lies “behind” the Potemkin village of the first. Read More…

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Catching On to the Pyrrhic Victory of a GOP Senate

Gage Skidmore / Flickr
Gage Skidmore / Flickr

And here you thought I was being all #slatepitch-y: In February, I argued that President Obama shouldn’t get too uptight about Democrats losing the Senate; and, more, that the dead-end ideological fealty required to control Congress is, paradoxically (but only seemingly), what prevents Republicans from being a true national party; and, finally, that a Congress fully under Republican control will make a fat target for Hillary Clinton.

Zeke J. Miller reports in Time that GOP moneybags, as well as potential Republican presidential candidates currently serving as governor, share the latter concern:

Behind closed doors and in private conversations with reporters and donors, GOPers eyeing the White House in 2016 are privately signaling they wouldn’t mind seeing the party fall short in this year’s midterm elections. For all the benefits of a strong showing in 2014 after resounding defeat in 2012, senior political advisers to some of the top Republican presidential aspirants believe winning the Senate might be the worst thing that could happen.

The opinion is most strongly held by Republican governors, who are hoping to rise above the Washington political fray. Already the central theme adopted by governors like Chris Christie of New Jersey, Rick Perry of Texas, Bobby Jindal of Louisiana, and Scott Walker of Wisconsin is their ability to cut through partisan gridlock to lead their states. A dysfunctional Washington hamstrung by ideological division accentuates their core argument.

Others are taking a ride on my hobbyhorse. Amy Walter of the Cook Political Report recently conveyed the similarly glass-half-empty sentiments of “Republican umbrella carriers” who “worry that success in 2014 will mask the real, structural problems that Republicans need to fix before 2016. Namely, that the party doesn’t stand for much more than standing against President Obama. As important, the GOP heads into 2016 with a brand that has been deeply tarnished and not easily repaired.”

The redoubtable Charlie Cook himself added:

This is so true. If Republicans do gain a Senate majority, which they may very well do in November, and manage to pick up eight or more House seats, it will be because of who they are not, not because of who they are. They aren’t in Obama’s party, and they aren’t in the party that unilaterally passed the Affordable Care Act, which, like the president, is unpopular. Republicans may win a bunch of races without measurably improving their party’s “brand” and without making any clear progress among minority, young, moderate, and female voters. The fact that midterm electorates are generally older, whiter, and more conservative than their counterparts in presidential elections exacerbates the difference between the world of 2014 and the one that will exist in 2016. The Republicans can win in 2014 without having fixed their problems.

Granted, Cook and Walter are not making precisely the same argument as mine, though I of course agree that a win in 2014 might give the GOP “false hope.” I go a bit further: I believe Republicans, or at least a good portion of those who matter, know full well that the party has a problem going into 2016, quite apart from what happens this fall. The crux of it is this: there’s nothing they can do to change it in the near term. The adjustments they need to make in order to recapture the White House—find some way to deal with undocumented immigrants; give up on tax cuts for the wealthy; acknowledge the painful trade-offs of any serious Obamacare alternative—would jeopardize their grip on Congress.

It’s possible that Republican leaders are merely biding their time until the Senate is in hand. Why rock the boat when you can win by default? I suspect, however, that the truth is more inconvenient: Rocking the boat will be no easier in 2016 than it is now.

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Hobby Lobby vs. the Order of Justice

The Crimson White /
The Crimson White /

Ross Douthat affectionately calls out me and Rod Dreher for applauding Patrick Deneen’s moral-economic brief against Hobby Lobby and other big-box retail chains. He laments that the paleo/crunchy-con mentality tends toward self-marginalization.

Speaking only for myself, I actually agree with Ross.

I’m not Catholic. I’m not a traditionalist (if I were, I’d have a lot of explaining to do regarding that infatuation with Keith Richards). When asked to describe my politics, lately I call myself a good-government Bush 41 conservative. (I maintain that H.W. was inferior to Reagan as a communicator and politician—obviously—but at least as great, and maybe even better, a president. I think his leadership during the meltdown of the Soviet empire was brilliant, and I’d take Dick Darman over Grover Norquist every day of the week. Sue me!)

All that said, I fear I’ve muddied the waters on where I agree with Deneen, and where I part ways with him (as well as, I’m going to presume, Dreher).

I am taken with Deneen’s argument that there is an uninterrupted continuum between the Founding (“progressive” in a Baconian sense) and the present; that classical liberals and modern liberals are both liberals. If there’s anything remotely distinctive about my blogging here and at U.S. News since ’10, I hope it’s been a counterweight to the despair of both moral traditionalists like Deneen and Dreher and market purists-slash-declinists like Kevin Williamson. My gravamen, my conceit, my shtick is this: Government has grown alongside our continental economy. There is not a hydraulic relationship (one goes up, the other goes down) between markets and government. If our capitalists were smart, they’d favor effective social insurance alongside free enterprise. Etc.

While I sympathize, somewhat, with Deneen’s aesthetic recoil from Hobby Lobby and strip malls and big boxes, I don’t get nearly as exercised about such things as he does. In any case, I don’t think there’s much that can be done practically to change it at the level of policymaking. I’m all for traditionalists and orthodox believers bringing their beliefs to bear in the marketplace. To the extent that I used the Hobby Lobby case as a springboard for my last post, it was only tangentially about contraception and religious liberty. My beef is not with religious conservatives participating in modern capitalism; it is with those who conflate modern capitalism and the Constitution with Judeo-Christianity. I have a beef with them because this conflation, I believe, is one of the main drivers of our current antigovernment ferocity, the rampant and irrational fears of inflation, and the counterproductive fear over short-term budget deficits.

I could be wrong about that.

In any case, I don’t think I made this point clear in my post on Hobby Lobby (which, for the record, I had never heard of before it became news).

While I’m at it, I might as well spell out what I think about the particulars of said case. On that score, I’ll associate myself with Yuval Levin’s recent post in NRO’s Corner. He writes that conservatives:

take the arrangement of rights and liberties at the core of the liberal-democratic understanding of society to exist in the service of sustaining the space in which society thrives, rather than of taking society “forward” and away from its roots. There is room in that space for different parts of society to sustain quite different ways of living, and room for people to debate our broader society’s social and political course – which can take different directions at different times in response to different circumstances. Liberty is not the yearned-for endpoint of that story, when we will be free at last from the burdens of the past. Liberty is what exists in that space now, what allows for different people (and groups of people) to pursue different paths and debate different options, and what allows society to address its problems in various ways as they arise. Liberty is not what we’re progressing toward but what we are conserving.

Here, Levin calls to mind Garry Wills’s distinction between the progressive-liberal “order of justice” and the “order of convenience.” To sum up a complex essay, Wills believed it should not be the aim of the state to dispense “raw justice” (Chesterton’s phrase), but rather to facilitate convenience (in the John Calhoun sense of the word—to “convene” or “concur” or bring about social peace). Sounding a lot like Burke and Nisbet, Wills wrote:

For if the state arises out of man’s social instinct, then the state destroys its own roots when it denies free scope to the other forms of social life. The state, when it is made the source of justice, must be equally and instantly available to all citizens; and, in achieving this, in sweeping away the confusion of claims raised by families, economic orders, educational conventions, codes of conduct, natural gradations of privilege, the Liberal leaves society atomized, each man isolated, with all the weight of political power coming unintercepted upon him. The higher forms of organization do not grow out of and strengthen the lower, but counter and erase them. This is what happened under the Order of Justice from the time when Plato pitted the state against the family to the modern breakdown of divided jurisdiction in the centralized state. …

The state, as extending throughout all other levels of social solidarity, must have a certain neutrality towards them all, and as the order-enforcing agent, it must take upon itself a certain negative, punitive function. This neutral and negative aspect of the state will be perverted, and become a positive push—as life-giving, rather than life-preserving—if the other forms of spontaneous activity wither; or if the state officials try to use their power to call up a positive vision of their own; or if politics is considered the all-inclusive area of man’s achievement of excellence. …

A proper order of convenience would be able to accommodate Hobby Lobby’s religious objections. On this matter and others, the Obama administration seeks an order of justice. I hope, in this case, that it loses.

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The Greatest Trick the Devil Ever Played

Every Sunday, the rector of my church appends a brief note of spiritual guidance to the weekly bulletin. Recently, he noted that whereas “the world” encourages individuals to satisfy their desires, the Scriptures teach that we’re often to deny those desires.

That generality—“the world.”

I get it. I appreciate the New Testament connotation of the “world” as distinct from the church and its principles and disciplines. Still, I don’t think it’s quite right. “The world,” depending on where you live and which tradition you may or may not have been raised in, says a lot of different things. American consumerist culture, on the other hand, very definitely does encourage us—entice us, seduce us—to satisfy our desires. That culture is now global and, on balance, I think material human welfare is vastly better for it.

Thinking holistically of the human person, however, consumerism, with its valorization of individual choice and autonomy, is spiritually problematic.

And so it’s a great and terrible irony that the church—I should specify, a large segment of the conservative Protestant church—has invited “the world” into the church. It has embedded its economic imperatives into its doctrines. Indeed, it has elevated the marketplace into a thing affirmed and designed by God himself.

With characteristic brilliance, Patrick Deneen shone a klieg light on this “delicious irony,” with his post on the Hobby Lobby contraception case currently before the Supreme Court. A self-styled “religious corporation” seeks

to push back against the State’s understanding of humans as radically autonomous, individuated, biologically sterile, and even hostile to their offspring. For that “religious corporation” operates in an economic system in which it has been wholly disembedded from a pervasive moral and religious context. Its “religion” is no less individuated and “disembedded” than the conception of the self being advanced by the State. It defends its religious views as a matter of individual conscience, of course, because there is no moral, social, or religious context to which it can appeal beyond the autonomy of its own religious belief. Lacking any connecting moral basis on which to stake a social claim, all it can do in the context of a society of “disembeddedness” is seek an exemption from the general practice of advancing radical autonomy. Yet, the effort to secure an exemption is itself already a concession to the very culture and economy of autonomy.

Deneen of course is a conservative Catholic. I’ve yet to come across a rejoinder from a conservative Protestant arguing against Deneen’s contention that there is, or should be, a “separation of church and economy.” If no one has written it yet, someone will soon. For this is an unfortunate, ahistorical, heretical bedrock belief of the conservative base: the American economy is God’s economy. Any attempt to regulate it is contrary to the God-breathed Constitution. It is atheistic, humanistic, and tyrannical.

This could be the greatest trick the devil ever played.

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Rand Paul and Libertarian Switcheroos on Race

Gage Skidmore / Flickr

Like the very evenhanded Jamelle Bouie here, I think Sen. Rand Paul’s heart was in the right place when he remarked on the irony of a black president presiding over a domestic security apparatus that, decades ago, had targeted civil rights leaders like Martin Luther King Jr. “You don’t have to support Rand Paul or his policy agenda to see that he was right to call out the president on the tension between his position and his actions,” Bouie writes.

Yet Paul’s invocation of race and civil liberties still gave me the heebie-jeebies.

Perhaps uncharitably, I see in it the same kind of ideological switcheroo that conservatives have, in the past, employed to distance themselves from other abuses involving race. Like segregation: over the years, the right has sought to evade guilt for this legacy by sowing confusion over party ID: Segregationists were Democrats! True, but only trivially so. (It was possible, back then, to be rightwing and belong to the party of Jefferson and Jackson.) The more sophisticated version of this defense says that segregation was economically wasteful and inefficient; it violated free-market principles. Also true, and also trivial.

A similar rhetorical trick was brought to bear on South Africa in the 1980s. The Jack Abramoff-fronted International Freedom Foundation held up the apartheid government as a bulwark against expansionist communism. After apartheid ended—presto!—it was apartheid itself that was socialist: a “pervasive system of government regulation, regimentation and control.”

This kind of sleight of hand ignores the lived reality of libertarian ideas in America. As historian David Hackett Fischer has written, the ordered liberty of 18th-century New England was altogether different than that of Virginia in the same period, with its conflation of liberty and the “hegemonic condition of dominion over others.”

The unfortunate fact is that, when it came to segregation, apartheid, or domestic spying before Obama, the oppositionist energy issued from the left.

Too often, my conservative friends sound like post-WWII Frenchmen: we all joined the resistance! During the years between the September 11 terrorist attacks and the inauguration of Barack Obama, for example, the line was that Sen. Frank Church and the left had eviscerated our intelligence-gathering capabilities. Now you can find a positive gloss on Church at!

Rand Paul’s criticism of Obama from this flank amounts, in my opinion, to an inadvisable sort of concern-trolling.

By all means, slam the brakes on the NSA.

But save the convenient harrumphing about MLK.

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GOP Needs a Better Story for Women

During the CPAC panel, “Why Conservatism is Right for Women: How Conservatives Should Talk About Life, Prosperity & National Security” five conservative women did a decent job pitching conservatives on women, but neglected to provide a roadmap for pitching women on conservatism.

They noted CPAC’s own lapses (only one woman spoke on stage during the first day of the conference, most female speakers were placed on Saturday, the worst attended day) and said a positive effort was required to recruit women as leaders and voters.

But, if they came with a message for conservatives to hear from women, the speakers on the panel had scant advice for how conservatives should speak to women. The entire discussion was light on references to specific policy, save for when Sabrina Schaeffer of the Independent Women’s Forum endorsed guns at universities, saying, “You really want your daughter to be defenseless on a college campus without a gun?”

Instead of contrasting Republican and Democratic policies, the speakers contrasted the narratives and expectations of both parties. Kate Obenshain, the author of Divider in Chief, said that discrimination was a real problem, but only Republicans empowered women by not casting them as ”a victim class.”

The moderator, Tammy Bruce of The Washington Times, agreed, heaping scorn on Democratic women who, she said, talk about supporting women, while, in reality, “Liberals infantilize women by saying the government needs to take care of them.” The other women on the panel cheered.

But the women’s own remarks cast conservatives into a victim class of sorts, oppressed by some outside, unreasonable force, that could respond only to power, not to persuasion or negotiation. In order to build a coalition of and for women, these speakers might have done better to crib from the rhetorical strategies Rand Paul used in his speech at CPAC.

Paul opened by saying that his remarks were addressed not to Republicans, but to all “lovers of liberty,” which excluded some of his audience but also proffered an invitation to people outside the usual CPAC crowd. The first thinker and activist he referenced was William Lloyd Garrison, the unflinching abolitionist. From there, he proceeded to trace out a series of attempted tyrannies in American history, and the men and women who, in the words of Garrison, were “as harsh as truth and as uncompromising as justice” in opposing them.

He strung together the generalized warrants issued by the British that helped spark the Revolutionary war, the wide abuses of slavery and Japanese internment, the personal persecution endured by Richard Jewell, falsely accused of 1996 Olympic bombing, to the present lawlessness of the NSA. His story was united to the past accomplishments of activists, including those who might agree with him on civil liberties but disagree with him on economic or foreign policy. Paul was making a claim about intersectionality, that groups with different personal interests share a broader interest in opposing all tools that could be used for oppression.

The speakers at the women’s panel would have benefited by making a similar appeal to the victories of the past and looking for bridges of solidarity. It is doubtful that the suffragists known as “iron jawed angels” for persisting in hunger strikes for the right to vote felt infantilized by their struggle.

By speaking solely in terms of contempt and condemnation about liberal women, the panelists precluded the kind of solidarity that Rand’s speech offered. If they want the Republican party to offer a compelling message to female voters, it won’t be enough just to elect women, if all they have to offer is a negative message. The Republican party won’t be persuasive unless it can consistently recognize and celebrate the accomplishments of the women’s rights movement, and tell a compelling story to establish their policies as an extension of that legacy.

They could tell a different story, about the powers that women sought and what they used them for.  Carrie Nation sought the vote not just as a symbol of equality, but because the exclusion of women from the polling place meant that the needs of the family were ill-served by the government. She fought against drunkenness, but women today might fight for maternity and paternity leave.

Betty Friedan told the stories of women who were left adrift when they were still expected to be housewives, even as the work of running a household had been automated away.  They wanted to enter the workforce, not just to make money, but to stop being isolated. Learning from her example, we might speak up for the workers whose factory jobs are being automated away or the college students who enter a hopeless job market, trying not only to make them financially stable, but to secure them the dignity of work and to strengthen the local institutions that offer community and relationships.

Tell a story about how women sought rights in order to be able to fully live out their responsibilities to their families, communities, and nation, and then you’ll be ready to ask to carry on the torch they bore.

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We Know Obamacare Is Not At All Like Slavery

The most well-received remarks at this year’s CPAC were indubitably Rand Paul’s, who was likely test driving his Republican National Convention nominee acceptance speech. Barely trailing him in cheers, applause and audience size was Dr. Ben Carson. Carson is known as one of the most accomplished physicians of his time, but is building momentum as a rising star among conservatives. Hotel room keys and the shuttles to Union Station are adorned with Carson’s face, next to slogans endorsing him for president in 2016. During his speech, enthusiasts held up signs that read, “Run, Ben, run!” and the ballroom’s sudden swelled in size from onlookers and supporters. Carson’s relaxed mannerisms and tightly focused speech make him a natural, if unlikely, politician, and his prodigious career in medicine certainly qualifies him to discuss health care policy. But President? CPAC has had no shortage of eyebrow-raising moments, but that is the most unconventional one yet. Though Republicans once nominated a former Hollywood actor who went on to be a two-term president, so anything is possible.

Dr. Carson hit his talking points with airstrike precision, to the delight of his audience, who punctuated nearly every point he made with an ovation. Carson disparaged political correctness, likely a nod to the social conservatives who have been feeling that their place in public discourse is increasingly restricted as of late. And then, predictably, he launched into his tirade against Obamacare. And that was precisely when he lost anyone with a level head who has been following Carson’s ascendancy with interest.

Carson referenced—and defended—his claim that Obamacare is the worst thing to happen to this society since slavery, calling anyone who believes that he equated the two institutions a “dummy”. Aside from that claim being patently false—there were a number of things that were nearly as bad as slavery, but none so awful as slavery itself—it is an irresponsible claim to make as a physician. Doctors are trusted to be objective and rely on facts to make decisions on courses of treatment. The fact that Carson was willing to wade into the political fray, making claims that can be easily misconstrued is alarming. Anyone hoping that Carson would bring some balance and perspective to the blaring rhetoric from CPAC this weekend was in for a disappointment.

Carson’s best-selling books—the nonpolitical ones—are nothing like his speeches, and the vast disparity between the two personas is unsettling. The pediatric neurosurgeon whose memoirs I read as a child emphasized self-reliance, hard work, and trust in Providence to achieve the impossible. The speaker today was a speech away from running for office on fearmongering and repealing Obamacare. I was hoping to see more of the man I trusted to perform a complex operation instead of a pedantic speaker that validated the borderline irrational whims of CPAC attendees.

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At CPAC, Rand Paul Stands Ascendant

This year’s Conservative Political Action Conference has had something of a deflated feeling floating about it. The crowds are smaller, the panels are fewer, and the entire enterprise has a sneaking feeling of being scrimped on. For Rand Paul, however, CPAC was bigger and better than ever.

At last year’s conference, Paul was freshly coming off of his launch into the full national spotlight thanks to a filibuster of John Brennan’s nomination to the CIA in protest of Justice Department equivocating on executive domestic droning authority. Yet for all the positive attention he received from that filibuster, Paul was still treading softly on the Republican political ground. Libertarian politics had not been overly welcome in the wider GOP, especially after a decade of Bush II foreign policy. So he took to the 2013 stage with a rock star’s reception, complete with Metallica’s “Enter Sandman,” but deployed a sophisticated rhetorical strategy intended to make libertarianism more comfortable for conservative ears.

What a difference a year makes.

When Paul arrived behind the podium Friday night, he walked and talked with the assurance of a man confident in his base of support, and spoke more to rally the faithful than sell the skeptical. From the beginning, Paul centered his remarks around liberty, telling the audience he was not calling for more Republicans, but more “friends of liberty.” And where last year’s speech was essentially grounded, a friendly pitch to make common cause, Paul deployed much loftier rhetoric, interspersing (as he often has) quotations and references to classic thinkers like Madison and Montesquieu in his rousing call to arms. The running theme was the “great battle” coming, and an urging to not be “lemmings” rushing towards destruction, but rather men who would defend their inalienable rights.

Paul castigated a progressive majoritarianism run amok, whose free-floating definition of legitimacy puts all minorities at risk, whether the racial minorities persecuted in generations past, or minorities of ideas at risk in the present day. He made frequent reference to his fight against the security state’s overreaches, and insisted upon the imperative importance of specific warrants and open, free trials instead of general warrants and secret determinations of guilt.

Finally, Paul closed on a muscular message rejecting the gradualist’s insistence on a hesitant program of changes, telling the CPAC crowd that their job is not to minimize liberty lost, but to maximize liberty.

Paul packed in the biggest crowds of the conference by far, and walked off to the adoring cries of his supporters, who then launched him once again to the top of CPAC’s straw poll, as he pulled in 31 percent of the vote. With the enthusiasm of Ron Paul’s supporters rallying behind a son of considerably more political savvy and talent, Rand Paul has more enthusiasm and organization than any other potential 2016 contender could hope to claim. It seems without question that Rand will be able to marshal more support than Ron.

It remains to be seen whether Paul will be able to ride a tide of libertarian enthusiasm all the way through the primary process on a platform of maximizing liberty, or whether Republicans will demand he make painful, perhaps too painful, concessions to the various constituencies of American conservatism.

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CPAC Panels Pack More Punch Than Speeches

Day two of CPAC was livelier than the first, perhaps auguring the required change the GOP needs to undertake to include demographics it has willfully neglected in time for the midterms and 2016. Instead of the soporific, self-congratulatory speeches saddled with the overused phrase, “America is the greatest country on Earth,” several panels raised issues that have significant impact on the future of both parties and the country. Leah Libresco summarized the panel debating Snowden’s actions, during which former intelligence officer and Governor of Virginia Jim Gilmore, who firmly believes Snowden is a traitor, went tête à tête with Snowden’s family attorney, Bruce Fein. Gilmore’s unequivocal statements drew angry responses from the crowd (upon hearing the officer’s remark about his knowledge of the Fourth Amendment, a heckler shouted, “You lie!”), and little else from the panel resulted aside from a passionate crossing of swords. Nonetheless, it was encouraging to see conservatives disagree on two legitimate points of view. Disagreement strengthens ideas, and willingness to listen to those within the party may translate into bipartisan collaboration down the road.

The criminal justice reform panel, though less heated, provided insight into the reality of non-violent first-time offenders. For crimes that are as trivial as selling non-weapon contraband on eBay are languishing in prison while state governments foot the bill. Governor of Texas Rick Perry elaborated on his effective management of the prison system in Texas: fewer inmates are incarcerated in Texas than in New York, and as a result, the state is spending less. “You want to see real conservative governance?” Governor Perry asked in a rare moment of eloquence. “Shut those prisons down. Save that money.” Indeed, the entire panel, including former New York City police commissioner Bernard Kerik, who served a short prison term himself, agreed that mandatory minimums and sentencing guidelines were inefficient and branded too many offenders as felons, a title that would haunt them for the rest of their lives. For the first time at CPAC, there were practical, applicable solutions presented to address an unwieldy problem.

Finally, the panel titled “Can Libertarians and Social Conservatives Ever Get Along?” was perhaps the panel with most genuinely engaged participants at CPAC yet. The crux of the panel focused on religious liberty within the context of gay marriage. Does the state have the right to enforce a definition of marriage that goes against those who oppose it on moral grounds? Do the states have the right to define marriage? This is a tough question, and has two perspectives: an individual contract upheld by the state, and a state institution that individuals choose to participate in. 20-year old Alexander McCobin, cofounder and president of Students for Liberty, offered remarkably deft and insightful input referencing the 13th amendment and comparing gay marriage to the repeal of interracial marriage laws, an apt legal comparison that was immediately shot down. The panel was unable to find common ground to agree on, which may be the beginning of irreconcilable differences that could lead to a larger split within the conservative movement.

The GOP needs to take the golden opportunity the debacle of Obamacare has given them to reassess its stance on social issues them before getting back in the ring with the Democrats. If they don’t, they will continue to alienate libertarians with their out of touch messaging and stale ideas. Republicans must be willing to strike a compromise for the sake of its own viability in the next two rounds of elections.

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Closing the Gap Between Politics and Policy at CPAC

Yesterday afternoon, a panel of conservative policy luminaries shared their ideas and expertise with a small group of reporters and conference attendees. They included John Allison, president and CEO of CATO, Carly Fiorina, chairman of the American Conservative Union Foundation, Tom Fitton, the president of Judicial Watch, and Lawson Bader from the Competitive Enterprise Institute. All had gleaming resumes and extensive experience, but were as passionate about their causes as recent college graduates, an encouraging sight in a party with a reputation for stagnation. Many professionals approaching the twilight of their careers have long ago shed their idealism for pragmatic cynicism and attend panels as an opportunity to make excuses for the ineptitude of their employers. This panel not only had innovative suggestions, but also discussed how to package new ideas in ways that the average voter can connect to. The presidential elections of 2008 and 2012 demonstrated the power of effective messaging on a grassroots level, and Republicans need to stop licking their wounds and come up with effective strategies.

Fiorina, who ran for public office in California, criticized Republicans for merely lambasting Obamacare while offering no viable alternative. Though she didn’t say it outright, her implicit conclusion was sobering: criticism paired with inaction was an irresponsible move, jeopardizing the already precarious health care system and costing Republicans valuable yardage on the political battlefield. One of the strategies Fiorina outlined to rectify this problem was communication with the poor—not merely buying a marketing strategy and hoping a critical mass of voters jump the fence, but taking the initiative to listen to the concerns of those struggling, and address them with dignity.

“People are poor not because they lack intellect. People are poor not because they lack ambition. People are poor not because they lack ambition,” Fiorina said. “The poor are poor because they lack the training and tools to tap their potential. They are poor because they lack the opportunities to fulfill their potential.”

This strategy and others were generally well received, but others wanted a clearer path from policies to votes. “These ideas are too intellectual,” one audience member said, visibly agitated. “I want to know how we’re going to win elections!”

He had a point. Talking the high art of policy is one thing: changing voters’ minds is quite another. I asked the panel how to bridge the gap between desperately needed policy recommendations and the heavy lifting of politics: phone banking, registering voters, proselytizing conservative principles. Fiorina’s solution was simple yet elegant: engage the average voter with empathy and respect. If Republicans can consistently demonstrate they are willing to do more that spout rhetoric on talk shows and from the pulpit and have genuine conversations, then perhaps Republicans can repair their reputations and regain their political prowess. Effectively communicated ideas translate into changed minds, which mean a strong turnout at the ballot box for the GOP. One can only hope that they start sooner than later.

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