Looking Ahead: Conservative Prospects in 2002

by Edwin J. Feulner Jr.

LAST JANUARY I SAT in a cold rain listening to the warm conservatism in President George W. Bush’s inaugural address. Considering his agenda in light of surrounding events, I wrote that, “All in all, conservatives have an abundance of reasons to be optimistic about our prospects for progress.”

Looking back, I believe our optimism was justified. From the standpoint of policy, look at what conservatives accomplished. We won the first major tax cut since the Reagan administration. The United States renounced the ABM Treaty so we can forge ahead on missile defense. We now face a fighting chance at a national energy policy that puts markets above government and people ahead of caribou.

The list goes on—and, yes, we also had our disappointments. But as Yogi Berra once said, “If the world were perfect, it wouldn’t be.” Rather than grumble about what we didn’t achieve, let’s count our blessings and move ahead with all the insight and determination we can muster. To prepare to do just that, I think it is necessary to take stock of conservative prospects. We aim for policy victories, of course. But to gauge our prospects in the policy arena, we need to look at the underlying public opinions and cultural values that drive policy debates. The opinions and values that matter most are rooted in our most basic social institutions. So I want to look briefly at trends in four of them: religion, education, news media, and family. In each you can see forces that add a rightward momentum to policy issues.

Religion. One way our own times differ dramatically from the Founding Era is in our respective views of religion. The Founders’ genius lay in their understanding of two things: Religion requires for its success a secular state that protects freedom of worship; and the secular state requires for its success the virtues that religion cultivates. The great error of 20th century liberals has been to think we could observe the first insight and ignore the second. The Founders would agree that religion must be protected from government’s influence; but they would be utterly baffled by the modern notion that government must be protected from religion’s influence.

Although the American people are still a ways from clearly seeing that error, they’re in a frame of mind to understand it and correct it. Last November a poll asked, “Do you want religion’s influence on American society to grow, weaken or basically stay the same?” Seventy percent said “grow.” The same poll asked people which of three statements comes closest to expressing their view of religion and morality in America. Here are the statements and the responses:

  1. “More religion is the best way to strengthen family values and moral behavior in America.” 69 percent.
  2. “There are many other effective ways to combat these negative trends; we don’t have to rely on religion.” 25 percent.
  3. “Family values and moral behavior are not in decline in America.” 4 percent.

The trauma of September 11 changed our nation in some fundamental ways, and this is one significant illustration. I don’t think most Americans got religion overnight. Rather, I think the shock of September 11 awakened a religious impulse that has always lived deep in our nation’s character. Most Americans are more inclined today than ever before to make a larger place for religion in their lives and in our nation’s life. And when policy questions concerning religion come up for debate, this impulse will favor an emphasis on traditional American values.

Education. Take a look at these responses from four groups in a recent poll:


This is a massive reality check in which parents, college professors and employers all plainly recognize the inferiority of public schools. Teachers have isolated themselves from the mainstream by blinding themselves to the failures of their own profession. And the public knows it. In 1973, 58 percent of Americans expressed high confidence in the public education system. In 1999, that figure had fallen to an all-time low of 36 percent. During that same period, the percentage who expressed little or no confidence in public schools more than doubled. Those converging trends in public opinion reflect a growing foundation that can—and I think will—support broad acceptance of school choice.

But not quite yet. First, conservatives must seize another opportunity revealed in another poll. When asked how much they know about school vouchers, how vouchers would work, etc., more than 60 percent of the general public say they know “little or nothing”—even in communities where voucher programs are operating. Put these two polls together and you see a telling picture. The first poll shows broad recognition that public schools are deficient—while teachers remain isolated from that reality. Yet the second poll shows that most people know “little or nothing” about the best way to fix that system: market competition through vouchers. There is our opportunity. Conservatives must educate America about the power of markets to improve education, because it’s a cinch that if we don’t do it, no one else will.

News media. Here we’re seeing enormous changes that favor conservative ideas, especially in radio and television. Look first at the revolution in talk radio. Back in 1980, there were just 75 talk radio stations in America. By 1998 (the latest year for which we have numbers) there were 1,300 stations. That’s an increase of more than 1,700 percent in less than two decades! Why did talk radio proliferate? Because Americans were ripe for an alternative to the liberal views that saturated mainstream television news. And the free market supplied it. Who are the top two radio talk show hosts today? Rush Limbaugh and Dr. Laura Schlessinger.

Turn to television news. The big three (liberal) broadcast outlets—ABC, NBC and CBS—have been steadily losing their audience. In 1994, 51 percent of viewers watched the evening news on one of those three networks. By 1997 that had dropped to 49 percent, and in the summer of last year it reached 43 percent. Where are the viewers going? To cable. Inside the cable realm you see another trend that favors conservatism. Over the past year CNN’s audience shrank about 1 percent while Fox News gained 43 percent. While CNN was earning its reputation as the “Clinton News Network,” Fox was earning its reputation for fair and balanced news that doesn’t muffle conservative ideas. The market is speaking very clearly about which one it prefers.

Family. The War on Poverty that began in the 1960s was the first war in history to nourish the enemy instead of defeating it. This ill-conceived war worked its greatest devastation on low-income minority families. In 1996, Congress took a major step toward reversing these disastrous liberal policies by enacting welfare reforms built on conservative principles and architecture. But not without hysterics from liberals, who predicted that welfare reform would push 2.6 million more Americans, including 1.1 million more children, into poverty.

So went the hysterics. But what actually happened? Instead of 2.6 million more Americans in poverty, we have 4.2 million fewer in poverty. Instead of 1.1 million more children in poverty, there are 2.3 million fewer in poverty. And the poverty rate among black children, who were supposed to be the worst victims of welfare reform, is at its lowest point in U.S. history.

While the War on Poverty was spreading poverty by the wholesale lot, it was also creating a massive underclass of children born out of wedlock. The overall rate of illegitimacy rose from 7.7 percent in 1965, to 32.6 percent in 1994. Among blacks, who were disproportionately on welfare, the illegitimacy rate rose from 23 percent in 1960, to almost 70 percent in 1996.

Since then we’ve seen the beginnings of several trends in the right direction. The overall rate of illegitimacy has remained flat for the past several years. And among blacks, the rate has already declined a couple of percentage points. The percentage of black children living with married parents rose from about 35 percent in 1994, to almost 39 percent in 1999. Those are statistical measures of the success of conservative policy reforms.

The left’s hysteria over the proposed reforms was not shared across the nation. In a 1995 poll, 65 percent of Americans criticized welfare because it “encourages the wrong lifestyle and values,” and they wanted it fixed. One year ago, 61 percent of Americans said the reforms are “working well.” Why? Eighty-seven percent said it’s working because “the law requires people to go to work.” Stringent work requirements were at the heart of our recommendations for welfare reform, and most Americans know it was the right way to repair a terrible policy.

It’s been said that policy-makers are corks on a sea of public opinion. Even on this brief review of four basic institutions—religion, news media, education and family—you can see currents that bode well for conservative progress in public policy. I don’t for a moment suggest that we can just catch the waves and ride them to our goals. It’s going to take hard work, brains and perseverance. I believe that we as conservatives are ready for the challenge.

When we look back over the past year, let’s forget the disappointments and continue our resolve based on our successes. And then let’s get on with the business of achieving more successes.

As those courageous Americans on flight 93 said before they overwhelmed the hijackers and saved the White House: “Let’s roll!”

Dr. Feulner is President of The Heritage Foundation.