The American conservative movement — of which I am a card-carrying member — has two major problems.
First, too many voters don't understand what we're about. Second, even when voters do understand what we're about, many just don't like us.
Fortunately, conservatives are beginning to wake up to this reality. That's a start. But it's not a solution. To right our ship — to seriously put ourselves in contention with new voters and on course for future presidential victories — our introspection must be intellectually and physically borderless. And so, let's look across the sea and consider the experience of foreign conservative movements.
Befitting the special relationship, it seems only proper that our first stop on the global learning tour be Britain.
As Matt Lewis and I have argued, American conservatism is disconnected from modern social discourse. That was long true in the U.K., too. Until 2010, Britain's Labour Party had held power for 13 years, and conservatives seemed trapped in a void of irrelevance. What changed? Ideas. In 2004, former conservative leader Iain Duncan Smith established the Center for Social Justice. The intention? To find modern conservative solutions towards tackling social despair. But what the CSJ also achieved was a major conservative brand recovery — conservatives were seen by voters as caring; compassionate conservatism was real. Framed alongside David Cameron's energetic re-boot of his party's image, this social evolution helped the conservatives secure their return to power.
Another lesson from the U.K.: The importance of building coalitions. The GOP isn't an open tent party. And unless we're able to find common ground with more Americans, four years from today, Hillary Clinton will be president of the United States.
It doesn't have to bee this way. By focusing on the economic recovery while fostering a foundation of respect for each other and for others, British conservatives and Liberal Democrats have successfully bridged ideological divides to form a coalition government. For American conservatives, the example is clear. We must open the door to all conservative-minded Americans — regardless of their race, gender, or sexual orientation. Unfortunately, as CPAC illustrates, we have a lot of work to do before 2016.
Now let's have a look at Canada. Stephen Harper, the conservative prime minister, is taking bold action on the physical lifeblood of society — energy. American conservatives should follow Harper's example. We should offer a compelling plan for America's energy future. A plan that offers a striking contrast to the confused, regulation-heavy, and economically deluded energy policies of President Obama. Proposals that offer a boom in investment, a jobs windfall, and the realization of lasting energy security.
Of course, we can't allow our foreign gaze to be absorbed solely by positives. We must also take note of what we should not do.
In Italy, abetted by conservative leaders like Silvio Berlusconi, political corruption has rendered the country's political system a sad joke. We need to avoid that path. Here at home, while the Democrats have the unions, Republicans have our own dark side of cronyism and patronage. These traditions are the enemies of capitalism and of democracy. We must evade their polluting grasp.
Contrary to the delusional dreams of the left, conservatism is not a dying ideology. The values of small government, personal responsibility, and freedom are ones with firm roots in our culture. But until the conservative brand is seen as the honest purveyor of these values and a reliable friend to modern society, our political fortunes will remain lost in a sea of political obfuscation and mistrust. Astute to this reality, as we seek re-shape our fortunes at home, we must first be ready to look abroad.