Finding our Inner optimism: Conservatives offer better solutions
Today the most compelling fact in American political life is that the overwhelming majority of Americans believe that their children will be less well off than themselves. They are not wrong to believe this.
That pessimistic estimate of the prospects of the next generation is at odds with the great majority of the American experience, which is a story of individuals working together to build a dynamic, open society—a society that promised greater opportunities to their children than they ever had. Yet it rings familiar to me.
As a child, my America was one with a stagnant economy, great power challenges abroad, and rampant political dysfunction at home. Yet as a young adult, my generation witnessed even greater opportunities than our parents’ generation ever saw. During that period of crisis, conservatives and our ideas were instrumental in building a political coalition that was able to undertake the structural reforms we needed in order to prosper.
Today, conservatives are in a similar moment.
In the aftermath of the election, there has been a great deal of discussion about the Republican Party’s problems with various demographic groups. That’s an important conversation to have, but even more pressing is another conversation about what needs to be done. Ultimately our foremost problem is one of anemic growth and decreased competiveness. Growth gives us the political latitude to put our social welfare programs on a sustainable path and stabilize our exploding debt before markets lose faith in our government’s ability to do so. Just as vitally, growth gives us the strength we need to confront our challenges abroad.
Building a more competitive economic environment that can better generate growth is not difficult. There is a lot of low-hanging fruit: real education, immigration, tax and energy reform, opening foreign markets, and creating financial stability. And that’s just the beginning.
In order to build the broad-based coalition we need to undertake these structural reforms we cannot just make this case to our fellow travelers. We need to appeal to those who are conservative by temperament but not necessarily by ideology, everyone from Reagan Democrats to young Hispanic families and independent young voters.
These middle class Americans are getting hit both by downward pressure on their income due to global competition and inflationary pressure from soaring health care and education costs. The result is a significant number of Americans are now living with a greater degree of financial risk than we have seen previously in the post-war period.
Conservatives need to explain how structural reform can create growth and slow the escalation in education and health care costs that erode the heart of the American dream, social mobility.
It is difficult to be confident and optimistic about the future if you think the deck is stacked against you behind closed doors. It is difficult to reward hard work and success if the well connected are protected from failure.
Excising crony capitalism
Conservatives have no greater enemy than crony capitalism in all of its forms; from the rigged game that characterizes our banking and financial systems to tax writing and defense appropriations committees that are but stepping stones to lucrative lobbying positions.
Given economic stagnation and the loss of trust in our institutions, it is easy to understand why many of our fellow citizens find liberal rhetoric appealing. Worried about maintaining their living standards, they are susceptible to notions such as higher taxes on the rich and more government spending being a viable path forward. Merely opposing such “solutions” without communicating an optimistic and compelling vision of our nation’s future has proven a failed strategy for Republicans. We need to speak to the concerns of those who aspire to the middle class more effectively, with growth-oriented policies that demonstrably benefit them in their daily lives.
At the end of the day, our current tack of just adding to our rapidly burgeoning debt is simply not sustainable. It’s merely whistling past the graveyard. Thus it’s up to conservatives to lead the charge to roll back the political clout of powerful business and political interests in order to protect the social dynamism that has always been the cornerstone of America’s success.
Our decline, if it is to happen, will be a function of choices we make or fail to make. It is an uphill slog to be sure, but every journey begins with a single step. Once we start to implement real reform, we will regain and build public trust in a virtuous cycle that will enable us to tackle even more difficult problems. Conservatives can offer better solutions than those heralded by both parties during the last election.
It’s time to give the American people a new political philosophy that reflects the practical optimism that characterized the “can do” America of old.
Jon Huntsman was a candidate for the 2012 Republican presidential nomination and is a former governor of Utah and U.S. ambassador to China.