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Matthew Stokes: What is Conservatism?

By MATTHEW STOKES, Alabama Daily News Contributing Writer

Ronald Reagan remains the standard bearer for American conservatism, and with good reason.  

Though we’re almost forty years past his first election, Reagan encapsulated so much of what American conservatives and Republicans hope to emulate.  He was in command of his office, spoke plainly to all Americans, and, in sharp contrast with the occupant of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, cheerful and optimistic.  

I do worry at times about Republicans who too easily invoke Reagan’s memory without a full picture of the Gipper’s best qualities. Nostalgia is a cruel mistress and the outlook of conservatism and, by extension, the Republican Party, risks being stunted.

The thing that is most often missing in modern attempts to emulate Reagan is that he was very well-versed in conservative ideas. During all of those years of traveling around as a spokesman for General Electric, he wasn’t snoozing on the train or plane.  He was devouring books and magazines dedicated to conservative ideas and legislation.

Current leaders in the GOP should do the same, and I’m grateful that our state has a congressional delegation that is, broadly speaking, well informed about conservative policy and philosophy.  I would implore state-level leaders to do likewise.

I realize that state legislators have a heavy load pulling double-duty as an elected official often with a full-time job back home. Nevertheless it’s important that leaders understand that words and ideas matter.  Conservatism encompasses a handful of ideas with a broad range of application, chief among them: smaller government, strong American leadership in the world, a rather strict adherence to the Constitution, and support for a robust and free market where the government does not pick winners and losers.  

The problem right now is that too often politicians demonstrate their bonafides with symbolism: trucks, Bibles, fried chicken, guns.  I’ve said that before so this time let me expand on this a little. The problem here isn’t just that one defines politics in a symbolic manner divorced from actual legislation.  

The bigger issue is that those images and symbols also define who doesn’t belong in the conservative and Republican world. Don’t hunt? Not your candidate. Don’t drive a truck and spend weekends in the country?  Not your guy. Not a particular kind of Christian? Sorry, wrong number. The thing about Reagan is that, while he never altered who he was and he was comfortable both in black tie and in cowboy boots, his messaging was directed at all Americans.  His vision of conservative governance was never so tightly connected to cultural symbols that it excluded other folks. His Democratic antagonists might claim otherwise, but the record is clear. He did not define the Republican Party on the basis of “God, guns, grits, and gravy,” but instead by optimism and opportunity.  

As parents we implore our children not to bully.  Part of the reason that we fight against intense teasing is that we recognize if we call a person something often enough, they’ll start to internalize it and believe it to be true. “Everyone always calls me a loser, so I guess I am…”

This is not limited to locker rooms and school hallways. Voters recognize it, too. It’s helped the GOP for many years as old-style Democrats have drifted to a more rugged GOP, but the opposite trend can happen, as well.  If Republicans keep telling voters that the party is marked by cultural boundaries, why should those voters join them?

So what if a voter doesn’t hunt? Explain to them how school choice and occupational licensing reform helps them. Why should one’s choice in diet, beer, neighborhood or even religion place them outside the reach of conservative ideas?  Young conservatives and Republicans in our state already understand this, and while I’ve never been a fan of youth politics, I would implore their elders to follow their lead. Quit defining political ideas and legislative goals on the basis of cultural symbolism. Follow the lead of Ronald Reagan and Jack Kemp – to go voters who are not like you, and explain why your ideas are better for them and their families.

I realize there is one major hurdle to this strategy, and that is cultural battles like guns, abortion, and issues of human sexaulity that intersect with law and civil rights.  That’s a tough hurdle for both sides to overcome. I might suggest that at the state and local level we recognize that most of our legislative work doesn’t involve those issues, and when our leaders do take on those issues, they are possibly dropping the ball on matters that only they can address.  Imagine a state where GOP leaders went into communities they typically ignore – minorities, urban voters, young people – and worked hard to explain how conservative policies would benefits those communities. It’s not an easy task, and I understand that some GOP leaders are reluctant.

Yet, if the GOP is going to expand its reach beyond its current borders, its leaders need to get out of their comfort zone and visit a housing project or a naturalization ceremony, a craft brewery or a gentrified hipster neighborhood.  Step up to the plate, Alabama conservatives and Republicans. You have nothing more to lose, and everything to gain.

Matthew Stokes is a writer living in Birmingham. Follow him on Twitter @yellingstopAL or email him at [email protected].

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