Postmortem for the Conservative Movement, Part 2: A Deficit of Ideas

This is a multi-part series of how the conservative movement failed to stop Donald Trump and exposed itself as weak and ineffectual to face the problems of today. Part 1 of this series may be found here.

One of the great conceits of liberalism – and of Barack Obama in particular – is the notion that everyone would love their ideas if only they were presented properly. Never do they consider that their ideas are bad, or at the very least unpopular on their own merits. Well guess what? The conservative movement suffers from many of the same deficits and delusions, which is a major reason why Donald Trump came to run roughshod over the entire Republican field.

A huge, enormous portion of the voting pitch for all the Republican candidates – including Cruz and Rubio – was the repeal of Obamacare. On the one hand, that would seem to make a lot of tactical sense. Obamacare remains unpopular with the public at large and it is especially unpopular among Republican voters. On the other hand, while Obamacare is unpopular, and repealing Obamacare probably tests relatively well, it’s a drum that’s been beaten relentlessly for over six years now, and people are tired of the beat, even if they agree with it.

Moreover, most of the domestic policy ideas – including the flat tax and virtually every candidate’s immigration platform, as well as the vast majority of foreign policy rhetoric found on the campaign trail – have been around and recycled for years. Meritorious or not, they were easily tuned out as background noise – especially when Trump came along saying new and exciting things. Granted none of those things made sense or have a chance in hell of working in the real world, but when the only retort the Republican candidates could muster was “No, go back to thinking about it the same way we’ve always thought about it!” they were effectively doomed.

Also, let’s face facts: many of the policies conservatives have been selling for years are wholly inadequate to confront the challenges of the real world. Conservatives have long criticized waste, fraud and abuse in the Federal government, and for good reason. Conservatives have also criticized the budgetary effects of Obamacare, and for good reason. But we’ve never come around and squarely acknowledged to the American people that in the absence of meaningful entitlement reform, we’re tinkering around the edges of a system that is doomed for total and utter failure.

Social Security and Medicare were passed at a time when average American life expectancy was less than 60 years. Get that? The average American was supposed to never need either program. Now average American life expectancy is well over 70 years, which means that the average American will be entitled to both programs for a full decade. It’s not a sustainable path and it’s crippling the Federal budget. Here is the reality: either the retirement age or each person’s FICA contributions are going to have to be raised drastically, or these two programs alone will swallow our fiscal house whole.

Our failure to meaningfully confront this reality is what led to the debacle wherein Donald Trump said with a straight face that he could balance the budget by eliminating waste, fraud and abuse, and he wasn’t laughed off the stage by his own voters. It’s also why he said he could fix the budget deficit by negotiating better trade agreements and huge numbers of people bought it. As a movement, we have allowed our politicians to get away with not being honest about the size and scope of the problem we face, and what the major cause of it is. We have allowed them to do this for years in order to save their political hides.

As a movement, we have not adapted to the change in economic realities that confront many American families, especially the blue collar families with whom Trump had his biggest success. Free Trade is not the reason many of these people have been negatively impacted; in fact, U.S. manufacturing output is up – way up – over years past. But by failing to offer these people an actual, fact based answer to their problems, the idea that jobs are leaving because China and Mexico are screwing us was allowed to take hold.

Over and over again, conservatives have found their ideas stuck in the 1980s, in a world that doesn’t look very much like 1980 anymore. Even if the tried and true principles of capitalism, free markets and lower taxes still work as broad-brush philosophies, we haven’t really learned how to adapt them efficiently to a language that the modern American citizen can relate to.

As a movement, we have to abandon the belief that all the ideas necessary for a changing world and economy were long ago handed down from on high, like the Ten Commandments on tablets of stone. Trump spoke to areas of need that were not being met by the conservative movement, and even though his ideas were nonsense, they at least had the virtue of being new, which made them attractive.