Conservatism: A Movement of Determined People

AS WE LOOK TO A NEW YEAR, it is proper to reflect on the state of conservatism. As I look forward, I can only be optimistic about our future. I want to tell you why I am an optimist—and why optimism is the only attitude we conservatives can afford or justify.

Now, to give the pessimists their due, they can marshal plenty of statistics to worry themselves and their friends. They can cite a whole host of negative trends that began in the 1960s and ran into the 1990s: Steady increases in crime, illegitimacy, welfare, juvenile delinquency, academic failure, broken homes and more—all accompanied by a sickening decline in popular culture. They can point out that more recently, what looked like a conservative tidal wave in 1994 appears to be a conservative ebb tide in 1999.

I grant you this is a picture of a troubled past. But a troubled past does not justify pessimism about the future. Unfortunately, that fact has eluded some conservatives. During the past year, we’ve heard a few of them declare our politics has failed; conservatives have lost the culture wars; and we should separate ourselves from the institutions now occupied by the forces of political correctness.

Well, my counsel is precisely the opposite: Instead of becoming cultural isolationists, conservatives need to engage more aggressively—and more intelligently—than ever before with the institutions that have been captured by that ideology of political correctness. I say this for several reasons. I say it, first of all, because the most fundamental grounds for optimism are found not in our institutions but in ourselves—in our very nature as human beings. That theme was persuasively argued by Professor James Q. Wilson in his Heritage 25 lecture in Los Angeles on Human Nature. He said that the impulse of people to adopt moral standards arises “from within their own social nature.”

“People value families acutely [he said]; they dislike unfairness passionately; they seek temperate, prudent friends greatly. People, in short, are naturally revolted by the worst features of our culture and will search for ways to help set matters right. In this century, culture became weaker; in the next, it may become stronger.”

The impulse to reverse cultural decline is a positive inclination that stirs within us and is rooted in our nature. I offer this as the first pillar that supports my optimism. But this is not to say that we may relax and wait for nature to work its magic—because there is no magic. Reversing our cultural decline requires serious thought, rational strategies and deliberate action. People’s ability to devise and carry out such strategies depends critically on the kind of social order they happen to inhabit.

If human nature is the first pillar supporting my optimism, the second is America itself. As Americans, we live in a social order that affords us advantages unparalleled in human political history. In his Heritage 25 lecture on Leadership, George Will observed that “we have been called—rightly, in my judgment—the only country ever founded on a good idea.” Abraham Lincoln articulated that idea at Gettysburg: Our nation was “conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.” Lincoln was speaking at a moment when a great internal war tested whether a nation “so conceived and so dedicated can long endure.” It was a terrible moment in American history, because we faced the very real prospect of seeing the world’s noblest experiment in human freedom demolished by internal conflict.

But we did survive that test and we still endure. The tests we face today seem as minor skirmishes when compared with the life-threatening challenges Americans have met and overcome in the past. And in every case, we overcame them—not in spite of our institutions—but because of them. The Founding Fathers designed our system so that our institutions could survive cultural pathologies of all kinds. Of course we must fight without reserve against the malignancy of moral relativism that besets our institutions today. But I believe it is a mistake of the first order to confuse a malignancy with the body that it threatens. When a person suffers from cancer, we don’t abandon the body; we attack the disease. If we expect to reclaim and restore our cherished institutions, we must do so through engagement, not divorce. To engage effectively, however, we must understand the principles that make America the most resilient system ever devised for human flourishing.

What is it about America that has made us the envy of the civilized world? How is it that our unique way of life has released such torrents of creative energy? These questions have many answers and one of the most fundamental came from Nobel Laureate Gary Becker in his Heritage 25 lecture. America and Americans have thrived on competition. Because our nation was conceived in liberty, we are free—more so than any other people on earth—to choose between competing alternatives in every aspect of our lives. Excepting, of course, the IRS and the undertaker. Competition in this broad sense is not just an economic concept. Gary pointed out and I quote: “Competition is the foundation of the good life and the most precious parts of human existence: educational, civil, religious, and cultural as well as economic. That is the legacy of the intellectual struggles during the past several centuries to understand the scope and effects of competition, the most remarkable social contrivance ‘invented’ during the millennium.”

Even our spiritual needs are best met through competition. It is no coincidence, as Professor Becker noted, that America is among the most religious of Western nations and also enjoys the most competitive religious environment. As we work to restore our cultural institutions, competition is one of our most potent allies, and it is the third pillar that supports my optimism. We can see the power of competition all around us. One of the core differences between liberals and conservatives is that we are committed on principle to free, competitive markets.

  • Faced with failing public schools, the left says: Give them more tax money. We say: Expose them to competition, and give parents a choice.
  • Faced with a failing Social Security system, the left says: Give the system more tax money. We say: Open that system to competition, and give workers a choice.

On one issue after another, this is both the great irony and the tragic flaw of modern liberalism. Rather than compete with our ideas, it offers an ideology that disdains competition. It is that flaw which has allowed conservatives to make enormous gains, and we have succeeded at this not least of all by building institutions like The Heritage Foundation and hundreds of other research and advocacy organizations.

Today the left is painfully aware of our success. Writing in an academic journal about the success of thinks tanks, Professor Kristin Luker of University of California, Berkeley, said:

The most effective in terms of shaping public discourse are the right-wing think tanks that are part of an increasingly self-confident and intellectually vigorous conservative movement. … [These institutions] can avail themselves of the benefits of shared passion, energy, commitment, and an overarching vision of society….The future may be bleak [she concluded]. Academics cannot compete with conservative think tanks on their own terms.

And so the chickens come home to roost: Liberals who have treated conservatives as unfit for academia must now admit that they cannot compete with us on our terms. That is a pessimism grounded in reality.

I believe our optimism is also grounded in reality. But the roots of my optimism run beyond reason and are nourished from a deeper place within our souls. This is our legacy, and our most valuable lesson from Ronald Reagan. He showed us the nature and power of optimism. Nowadays when we remember his leadership with appreciation, liberals tell us we are living in the past. They remind us that the Cold War is over—and that’s true. They remind us that the economy is strong—and that’s true. They note that the center of political debate has shifted dramatically to the right—and believe me, that’s also true. But they claim that because of these circumstances, the ideals that Ronald Reagan stood for are relics of the past and have no value in today’s world. And that is dead wrong, because his legacy to us transcends time, place and circumstance. His radiant example taught us what Kipling meant in the poetic lines:

“If you can fill the unforgiving minute
“With sixty seconds’ worth of distance run;
“Yours is the earth and everything that’s in it.
“And—which is more—you’ll be a Man, my son!”

Ronald Reagan was our man. He was the Gipper—the coach who came in when conservatives felt dispirited—he made us believe in ourselves. He told us to envision a shining city on a hill—and then inspired us to get on with the job of building it. Too many conservatives today are wavering in their inspiration. Too many are complaining that we cannot succeed until another Reagan comes along to lead us. I have no doubt that Ronald Reagan himself would say that this is wrong. The will to succeed cannot come from another: It must come from within each of us; it must come from our own hearts. Reagan once remarked that “the history of our civilization, the great advances that made it possible, is not a story of cynics or doom-criers. It is a gallant chronicle of the optimists—the determined people … who dreamed great dreams and dared to try whatever it took to make them come true.” I am an optimist because the alternative is unthinkable. It is my great privilege to head an institution and be part of a movement that is filled with optimists—the determined people.

That is why we at Heritage adopted a vision for America that is audacious in scope: “The Heritage Foundation is committed to rolling back the liberal welfare state and building an America where freedom, opportunity, prosperity and civil society flourish.” A vision of that scope challenges us to dream great dreams—to look beyond tomorrow, beyond next year, beyond the next election, and beyond the horizon.

It has been said that the future is not something we enter, but something we create. Let us not enter a future that none of us would choose. Rather, let us create a future that all of us deserve. Don’t wait for another Ronald Reagan—but do keep his legacy of optimism alive in your heart. Dream great dreams. And dare to try to make those dreams come true.

Dr. Feulner is President of The Heritage Foundation. This article is excerpted his speech at the Heritage 25 Leadership for America closing dinner.