To be a Gen X conservative is to have lived a life of dispiriting ennui. I was born slightly too late (1967) to have voted for Ronald Reagan in his quest for a second term, and was left with the George Bushes pere et fils, Bob Dole, John McCain, Mitt Romney and Donald Trump as my standard-bearers at the presidential level — none of whom could be fairly characterized as exemplars of a cohesive, coherent body of conservative principles. Unlike Reagan, whose long shadow over the Republican Party and conservative intelligentsia persists, neither these nor other significant contemporary political figures have offered an inspirational, affirmative conservative platform around which voters can heartily rally.
Accordingly, I suspect I am hardly alone in assessing the votes I’ve cast at the presidential and other levels over the past few decades as comprising a mostly negative program. By “negative,” I mean the desire to annul, frustrate or at least delay increasingly strident and frightening progressive policy initiatives.
While difficult to credit the Democrats’ policies as particularly cohesive (much less coherent) in contrast with recent Republican heterodoxy, over the past two decades they nevertheless have constituted a veritable dealer’s choice of bad ideas, which have evolved from merely misguided (if well-intended) to direct evidence that our permanent ruling class dislikes America and its people. While a proper explication of such policies is beyond the scope of this essay, it seems clear that to follow them can only lead down a lonely road to Manzanar, Xinjiang and the gulag.
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A committed conservative may be able to resign oneself to negative votes against collectivism and the tyranny with which it typically rides shotgun. Unfortunately, in modern America’s low-information plebiscitary, in which the mediators of information and culture — mass and social media, educational institutions, large corporations and other institutions — are aligned with the new corporatism, moderate, independent and undecided voters may fail to see the progressive left’s agenda for what it is and miss the opportunity to cast a nullifying vote.
Why is this? Much of it is down to messaging and transparency — one is more likely to “take a chance” on ambitious, progressive initiatives (think of the mythical “energy transition”) when they are mischaracterized by purveyors of information and unexamined by a mainstream press with atrophied journalistic instincts. Moreover, right-of-center challenges to prevailing narratives are typically ignored and slandered by these same intermediaries, with shading and slant — willful mischaracterizations of both commission and omission in their reporting — designed to inhibit citizens’ ability to gain conviction about issues against which they might stand if reasonably informed, and making it virtually impossible for the political right to break through with accurately reported explanations of its positions.
If what I’ve just described sounds like a rigged game, it’s because it is. And yet, President Reagan — the “Great Communicator” — was successful in overcoming these obstacles in advancing an optimistic, positive conservative agenda for America. In an era preceding smartphones and social media, and in which new and alternative media outlets barely existed, he was still able to connect with voters over the heads of cultural intermediaries and informational gatekeepers. His genius lay in his ability to articulate a conservative platform clearly, packaged in an appealing, positive way.
Might such an approach still work today? The period leading up to the 2024 primary season has yet to see a well-ordered, positive conservative vision emerge. And conservatives would be grossly negligent to not acknowledge they face fearsomely long odds at the presidential level. A Republican presidential candidate has won the popular vote once in the last 35 years. To succeed in 2024, a winning candidate will need “yes” votes from conservatives and from a shrinking middle; in polarized times, simply saying “the other side” is (or will be) far worse is no longer a sufficiently compelling call to action for centrist voters. What the Republicans need in 2024 is a “Yes” platform.
What might such a platform look like, or say “yes” to?
It would say “yes” to national sovereignty, including strict border enforcement and prioritizing citizens’ and legal immigrants’ needs over those of non-citizens and supranational bodies, while ending the easily avoidable and escalating humanitarian crisis at our southern border.
It would say “yes” to funding the police and to the essentiality of public order, while downgrading the weaponization and militarization of public safety resources. To do so would return the FBI to its proper role, and it would restore community policing to troubled urban areas to protect those most vulnerable from the predations of those unpunished because of “bail reform” and other failed, ideologically-informed but empirically bereft policies.
It would say “yes” to equal justice under the law, without two sets of rules designed to favor the privileged, ideologically fashionable or politically right-thinking over the common citizen.
It would say “yes” to personal responsibility over the soft authoritarianism of a caretaker state offering the servility of transfer payments in place of dignity and meaningful work.
It would say “yes” to the U.S. standing with its allies and all freedom-loving peoples defending themselves against foreign aggression.
It would say “yes” to free enterprise and expanding economic opportunity for all citizens, without favor, not to a redistributionist ethos that suppresses innovation and commerce and merely reallocates a shrinking pie.
It would say “yes” to the intrinsic, God-given value of all people as individuals, and reject high-tech tribalism and crackpot theories emanating from an ossified educational and cultural establishment in desperate need of rejuvenation and reform.
It would say “yes” to prioritizing students, superseding selfish sectarian interests and agendas — with the rent extraction practiced by teachers’ unions ranking lowest of all.
It would say “yes” to free speech for all, with consequences but without cancellation.
It would say “yes” to a full-throated commitment to objective truth, high standards, the scientific method over “Science,” as defined by former infectious disease guru Anthony Fauci, rational empiricism and progress over “progressivism.”
It would say “yes” to the principles of America’s Founding, and to not cashiering Western civilization simply because it’s out of current academic fashion.
It would say “yes” to standing up to the mob and its spineless enablers among our elites and institutions.
The political left will continue to run candidates on a platform of false promises, but the good news is that in 2024, they’ll have a record to defend. While the electorate customarily has a short memory, when failure is in immediate view, accurately detailed and deconstructed by an opposition with a positive agenda, voters can and will make the right choice.
What America needs is something to vote for, not just against. A “Yes” candidacy and platform is a banner that, in theory, anyone can carry, and there are voices in the emerging primary field — a certain young businessman and a senator with an inspiring life story come to mind — advancing pieces of just such an agenda. Republicans cannot count on the “inside straights” it drew in 2000 and 2016 to carry them to victory and will need to make a clear, positive case to win affirmative voter support, not just desultory “lesser-of-two-evils” negative votes.
Richard J. Shinder is the founder and managing partner of Theatine Partners, a financial consultancy.
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