Over the next four years, conservatives risk well and truly losing the culture wars.
Think Locally, Act Locally
Let Washington bury its dead.
Less than a week before the damnable monotony of Campaign 2020 turns into the damnable monotony of Campaign 2024, Americans are as divided as ever on social media and in battleground states where the candidates must win. As someone who rejected President Trump in 2016, said I would vote for him in 2020, and daily waffle between the states of “he must win,” “I don’t care who wins,” and “rooting for injuries,” I have come to one inescapable truth.
Washington matters more in our heads than in our reality. Whether or not Biden wins, the American Right must focus on state and local government. Conservatives would do best to engage more at the local level than on the hill. The real truth of our times is that Washington is hopelessly gridlocked to the effect that one president can erase his predecessor by rolling back executive orders and regulations. Barack Obama managed to get a healthcare reform package passed that Republicans have campaigned on repealing and never repealed, in large part because most of them are actually okay with that. They just cannot be honest with their voters.
Donald Trump passed a tax reform package that actually benefits most Americans and, while progressives hate it, a lot of Democrats in Congress privately concede it spurred economic growth they do not want to reverse. Beyond those major initiatives, not a whole lot in Washington has changed that cannot swing back and forth between executive orders.
What is left untouched and ignored by too many is local government. The farm team for future presidents and congresses is assembling right now in local school boards, city councils, county commissions, and state legislatures. Americans, however, are so fixated on Washington that they ignore both their local elected officials and their local issues.
When the election is settled on November 3, 2020, or some weeks thereafter, the homeless in our communities will still exist. Childhood illiteracy will still exist, and potentially be worse because education access for the poor remains deficient thanks to public school policies and efforts to block school choice. The local food bank will still see families coming for food who in normal times would pridefully go without. The battered women’s shelter will still see the bruises and tears of those whose husbands’ souls have collapsed. Conservatives and progressives alike will ignore all these things to focus on Washington.
Regardless of who wins the presidency, Amy Coney Barrett will be on the United States Supreme Court and the Senate Democrats more likely than not will not have the votes to pack the Court. Conservatives who are squabbling over national imposition of their values as progressives have done have an opportunity to re-litigate federalism with a Supreme Court predisposed to support state and local differences.
Progressives have largely failed to impose their version of morality on the nation as a whole, and conservatives will fail likewise. But conservatives, through local engagement, have the ability to advance sound public policy that respects individuals’ differences. There is nothing preventing the Right, particularly in red states, from promoting a positive political agenda. School choice, for example, done at the state and local level creates an entitlement that, once given, would be hard to roll back. Black men in Florida sided with Ron DeSantis and Rick Scott in 2018 in large part because of Democrat Andrew Gillum’s plan to roll back education choice initiatives started by former Governor Jeb Bush. Even now, Hispanic voters are drifting towards the GOP because of Republican support for small business owners, endorsement of school choice, and rejection of the socialism from which so many immigrant families fled.
An organized conservatism that seeks to help people align their lives and prepare for the future regardless of who wins the presidency should consider the words of Yahweh conveyed by the prophet Jeremiah.
Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat their produce. Take wives and have sons and daughters; take wives for your sons, and give your daughters in marriage, that they may bear sons and daughters; multiply there, and do not decrease. But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare. (Jer. 29:5-7)
Conservatives should incentivize children, ownership, and local engagement. A movement so focused on Washington is less able to do these things. Pouring our time, talent, and resources into local communities to improve the lives of those in our community provides both a level of civic engagement and civic respect that mean tweeting about Washington does not. Engaging in education, producing children who equally engage in our communities, and showing up and being seen as part of our communities will help conservatism advance far more than showing up at the ballot box in November.
Over the past several years, conservatives have embraced the same mistake progressives have made. They concluded Washington mattered most when, in reality, our daily lives are far more measurably impacted at the local level. Our future politicians come from there. Our roads are paved there. Our children are educated there. Our futures are formed there. As we head ever closer to the November election, remember the races at the bottom of the ballot, not just the top. More importantly, remember to seek the welfare of the city in which you live and, unless that place is Washington, D.C., perhaps spend less time worrying about Washington and more time engaged in your own community.
The American Mind presents a range of perspectives. Views are writers’ own and do not necessarily represent those of The Claremont Institute.