Even as Washington settles into another battle over the budget, an increasing number of conservative writers (and a few elected officials) are becoming aware of the fact that anti-government platitudes are losing their electoral punch and of the need for conservatism to be about more than the budget. Now is probably not the space to give a laundry list of the names of pundits who have considered conservative reform, but it might be worthwhile to turn to a recent online debate between Hot Air’s Ed Morrissey and the Daily Caller’s Matt Lewis as revealing two major trends for the future of conservatism—and to look at what a synthesis of these approaches could mean.
Lewis has suggested the value of a return to a “compassionate conservatism,” one that would go beyond celebrating selfishness to think of our broader commitments to one another. This interest in rehabilitating compassionate conservatism can be seen more widely on certain parts of the right (Peter Wehner’s and Michael Gerson’s recent cover story in Commentary, for instance, seems informed by this impulse). Morrissey has proposed instead the value of a “practical conservatism,” which would focus on reforming rather than blowing up many of the institutions that have become central to American public life since the New Deal (such as Social Security). This theme also percolates throughout various sectors of the reformist wing of the right. Perhaps I might pose a synthesizing variant of these two: “sustainable conservatism.” The goal of such a conservatism would involve nurturing the public and private institutions and tendencies that help sustain a free republic. It seems as though maintaining a free republic demands, among other things, faith in government and the rule of law, a sense of civic participation, a belief in personal freedom, virtue on the part of its citizens (and especially its government officials), and some kind of wisdom or prudence. Sustainable conservatism would seek to foster these tendencies in order to renew the civic compact.