Yesterday I attended a panel here at Princeton featuring three and a half right-of-center thinkers: Daniel Larison, Virginia Postrel, Ross Douthat, and David Frum. I say three and a half because Postrel warmed my heart by beginning her comments with the disclaimer that she was a liberal and wasn’t particularly interested in the vitality of conservatism.
Princeton did a fantastic job of choosing representatives of four different strands of right-of-center thought. Douthat, along with my friend Reihan Salam, penned a book arguing that conservatives should make their peace with the welfare state and focus on building a populist brand of “Sam’s club conservatism.” He reprised these themes in his talk. Frum has a reformist agenda of his own, focused on re-building the conservative movement on the twin pillars of free markets and an activist foreign policy, while sanding off some of the rough edges that have turned off more educated voters.
Larison focused on foreign policy, arguing that the Republican Party’s political failure flowed from its failure to recognize that conservative admonitions about the dangers of big government apply to issues of foreign policy and executive power. Larison writes one of my favorite blogs, and I wish his perspective were more widely shared within the Republican movement. He hails from a faction of the conservative movement that has an illustrious past but declined precipitously during the Cold War. And I wish it were true that a more restrained foreign policy and stronger commitment to limits on executive power were the key to Republican success. But I’m not sure there’s much evidence for this and Larison didn’t entirely persuade me. The last two serious non-interventionist candidates for the Republican nomination were Pat Buchannan and Ron Paul, and neither of them came close to winning their party’s nominations, to say nothing of the presidency.
Buchannan was a target of criticism in Postrel’s first book, The Future and Its Enemies, which is in some ways an intellectual forerunner of this blog. Her vision for what she calls a “dynamist” political movement overlaps in important ways with the bottom-up perspective I’ve been trying to articulate her. In her talk here, she argued that the Republican Party’s decline is linked to its failure to appeal to voters with the dynamist, bottom-up worldview she has championed in her writing. But she expressed doubt that the political coalition she envisions can emerge from a Republican Party that is wedded to the demagoguery of Rush Limbaugh and Glen Beck.
Although I’m always wary of the pundit’s fallacy, I do think one of the keys to Obama’s success in 2008 was his ability connect with voters who have a dynamist, bottom-up worldview. These more educated and affluent voters are a growing share of the electorate, and the GOP would be well advised to take their concerns more seriously. Certainly not all affluent, educated voters share her views, but I think many of them will find her arguments resonate more than those of the other panelists.