In The New Year, Conservatives Should Modernize (Not Moderate)

Matt K. Lewis Senior Contributor
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In the New Year, Republicans will have a big choice to make. It’s not an exaggeration to say this choice is between a bridge to the past and a bridge to the future.

One direction seeks to “Make America Great Again,” as if America has ever stopped being great (and as if the old days were perfect). This is the direction being championed by Donald Trump, and embraced most eagerly by those who are “less affluent, less educated and less likely to turn out to vote.” Not only that, “His very best voters are self-identified Republicans who nonetheless are registered as Democrats.”

This direction actually embraces many liberal policies, while posturing as conservative (by virtue of eschewing political correctness, etc.). This direction is a quick fix that may satisfy many in the Republican base today, but will make it harder for conservatism to win in the future.

The other way seeks to “modernize, but not moderate.” Rather than abandoning first principles in favor of nationalist platitudes and rhetoric, this way seeks to apply conservative policy ideas to 21st century challenges, while simultaneously expanding the base of Americans who vote conservative. (This way actually might keep America great.)

This theory suggests that conservatism can become more attractive to modern Americans than liberalism, and can win in a free market of ideas.

One such evangelist of modernization is Alex Castellanos, the longtime Republican political consultant who heads a PAC called New Republican. Castellanos is passionate about fixing the Republican brand and is astounded that the GOP doesn’t already own the twenty-­first century. He argues quite convincingly that big-­government liberalism is tantamount to a top-­down command-­and-­control assembly line system that worked in the Industrial Age, but is antiquated in the modern era.

While writing my book, I spent some time with Castellanos. In between puffs of smoke, he showed me a picture of classical liberal economist Adam Smith and harrumphed, “We were right too early.”

A few seconds later, he continued. “This whole ‘all men are created equal’ thing”—he paused to hold up his iPhone—“it’s never been more true.”

This is a conflict of visions. People who agree with Trump doubt conservatism can win the hearts and minds of diverse Americans. People who agree with Castellanos think the only thing stopping conservatism from flourishing as a superior philosophy is the cultural baggage and identity politics perpetuated by men like Mr. Trump.

One side is pessimistic, while the other side is optimistic. But here’s the reality: We can’t go back to the 1950s or even the 1980s. So we can either desperately try to do so, or we can boldly take our ideas into the future.

Are Republicans bullish about 2016, or fearful? I think we’re going to find out in a few weeks.

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Matt K. Lewis