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The Future of American Conservatism and the Role of School Choice

There’s a reason Barack Obama won re-election with ease in November 2012. There were, in fact, a plethora of reasons the Democrats held onto the White House, but they all flow into the same watershed: the death of modern conservatism.

The Republican Party is admittedly in shambles. Their candidate in 2008 didn’t stand a chance against the onslaught of hope, change, and a portfolio of other emotional weaponry that engineered one of the most historic elections in American history. Of course, the dominoes had already been falling. After having lost their 55-to-44 majority in the 2006 Senate (and 30 seats in the House), the Republicans lost five incumbencies and a few open seat opportunities in the 2008 Senate race (and 21 seats in the House), yielding a 57-to-41 advantage for the Democrats once the dust settled. It took only two years for the Democrats to sweep the House, the Senate, and the Presidency.

As many had hoped, change began immediately. Healthcare became “affordable.” Wall Street was vilified for the worst financial disaster since the 1920s. Even college football drew the ire of an ambitious President. By February of 2009, some left-wingers had begun the funeral rites for Conservatism altogether…

But then something happened to the American Right. A little revolution, of sorts. In early 2009, pockets of conservative unrest developed and spread quickly across the blogosphere. By the end of the year, hundreds of events per month were drawing thousands of protesters all across America. A huge section of the once powerful GOP had broken away and was beginning to make waves.

By the time the mid-term elections rolled around again in 2010, the pockets of unrest had discovered national cohesion in the form of the Tea Party. The GOP won 6 seats in the Senate and 63 in the House, all thanks to an invigorated electorate looking for new leadership.

Then the story gets hazy. As America neared a fiscal cliff, backed away, and then neared it again, the Republicans were relegated to a collection of Republi-can’ts. The GOP started playing defense in the Senate, and the S&P credit rating service didn’t hesitate in making its worries known with regard to our nation’s ailing balance sheet. Europe sank deeper and deeper into debt, and America began preparing itself for the Republican Primaries.

In the end, it didn’t matter who won the primaries. The Republicans should have realized that from the beginning. The problem, of course, is that you can’t go into battle when your best units aren’t even on board with the strategy. Without the Tea Party, the Republicans would have to rely on their traditional base of businessmen and straight-ticket voters in the South and Midwest, and money and evangelism can only get you so far. Despite a much improved candidate from the last attempt, the GOP couldn’t pull off the upset, despite all their “unbiased” pre-election polling.

This brings us up to the present day, where the American Right is licking its wounds and trying to figure out what the hell happened. The Democrats will have no shortage of contestants in 2016, and the pieces are already falling into place for another intriguing election. Obama has secured his place in history…again, and he will make millions on the speaking circuit when he leaves office.

But what of the Tea Party, which is being shunned by its political mother, the GOP? This marginalized collective of the American Right is proof that modern American conservatism is dead, primarily because modern American conservatives can’t live without the Tea Party. So are we embarking on a period of post-modern American conservatism? Will they all become Neo-Neo-Cons now?

All joking (and term coining) aside, the American Right has a lot of work to do, but it can overcome the failures of the past 6 years and sweep the Congress and the White House in 2016 by reminding Americans who the American Right really is.

Jim DeMint, former Senator from South Carolina, has been on a nationwide tour to promote his succession as President of the Heritage Foundation (first changing of the guard in 37 years!), and he has a view of the future of the American Right. We here at American School Choice use The Foundation’s research sometimes, particularly their school choice map, which allows you to hover over a state and get a snapshot of the strength of their school choice laws. The Heritage Foundation has the reputation as the central research hub for conservative thought, and one of our representatives went to hear him speak when he visited Palm Beach County, FL last week.

School choice was mentioned more times than any other issue besides the economy, which makes us very happy since we consider the two concepts interchangeable given enough time. DeMint is a calm and collected speaker. He’s not one to flail his arms or work a crowd into a frenzy, but what he avoids in volume he more than makes up for in content.

DeMint’s background is in marketing, and as a former politician he understands the relation between culling customers and votes. At the Heritage Foundation, he is hoping to collect minds as well.

Among some of the things he spoke on, this was the material we found most indicative of a sea change in American conservatism.

“The Republican Party has been the sole proprietor of conservative thought and opinion for a long time, and they aren’t doing a very good job of it…we need to reach the people directly…we need to take control of our ideas and our message and take it directly to the people.”

Sound familiar? It sounds like something “a democrat” would say, doesn’t it?

Modern American conservatism is dead (or at least dying) because it’s completely disconnected from the people. Just as the Democrats didn’t understand the significance of the perception of terrorist threats in the mid-2000s, Republicans don’t understand the importance of the perception of things like healthcare, welfare, and the general economy today. George Bush didn’t singlehandedly defend American soil from terrorists, but he at least conveyed to Americans that he cared about their safety. Whether or not that threat was real is beside the point, it’s the perception that mattered and it was the American response to that sense of security that easily won him reelection in 2004.

Conservatives today have all the numbers in their favor. America is deep in debt, but the federal system only wants to spend its way out of it. American education has been in decline for decades, but centralized school districts want to throw more money onto the public school funeral pyre to appease the union gods. Conservative economists have mounds of data showing that federal monetary practices lead to a larger and more inefficient government, but for some reason people are more inclined to feast on Paul Krugman’s entreaties for a European-style socialist program that he says can work in America.

Are Americans just that terrified of trusting data? No, they aren’t, in fact Americans love statistics. They just aren’t swayed by data as much as economists would like them to be.

We’d like to bring your attention to a lecture given at Princeton by the President of the American Enterprise Institute, Arthur Brooks.

In it, Brooks points out that all this data is meaningless to Americans who have a hard time quantifying “need” and “fairness.” Those words are vague and meaningless to economists, but who said that economists cared about appealing to human nature? Of course, Krugman himself has made a living of it, but that’s another story.

Brooks says that the only way for conservatives to win the battle for constituents is to appeal to their caring and empathetic nature. He uses the example of a dinner table conversation between a conservative and his liberal sister, a debate that the conservative always loses because he is constrained by his own data, which, although accurate in his eyes, flies right over the head of the audience. Who cares about the inefficiencies of welfare when the liberal sister can provide a real-life example of a mother and daughter she knows who live in their car?

So, here we have DeMint, an ex-marketing professional who did politics for a while and now manages a thinktank, and Brooks, an economist whose sole responsibility is to focus on numbers, both of whom are advocating that the GOP should come up with a platform of issues that includes more talk about social programs in the right context.

Well, we here at American School Choice have just the issue. You can probably guess what it is.

School choice is one of the easiest political bandwagons to jump on. Both Presidential candidates supported it in the latest election, and only one real enemy, the intransigent teacher unions, stand in the way now.

Think about it. If you went in front of a group of people and asked them who agreed that parents should be able to choose which schools their children attended, without being restricted by tuition and geographic boundaries, how many do you think would stand up and say that that was totally unfair? Whoever did would be, and let’s be frank here, un-American. It’s written in our genetic code as Americans to demand freedoms such as these, but for some reason the nation can’t get behind it because some people don’t even know what school choice is yet.

We need a party to throw their weight behind the issue, and if American conservatives can get their act together they could be just that vehicle.

The merger of DeMint’s forthcoming research at the Heritage Foundation and Brooks’s work on the economics of “fairness” should be the first step in bridging the gaps that have divided American conservatives for the better part of a decade. If the Republican Party can’t work together with the Tea Party, American conservatism will lack the solidarity it needs to defend our inalienable rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Interestingly enough, happiness is not tied to income, but you have to watch the Brooks lecture to understand why.

School choice is the issue that can bond them. School choice is the right choice, and we would go as far as to say that it is the only choice legislatures can make to overhaul a system that is grossly underperforming and still asking for more money.

Modern American conservatism may already have its tombstone picked out, but school choice can allow for the continuation of an American conservative legacy that not only represents the people, but educates them as to just how moral, fair, and caring the American blueprint can be. If the GOP and the Tea Party need an agenda item to jump start their cooperation, we feel that school choice is just the thing.

We are a nation founded on choice, and our students deserve nothing less.

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