WASHINGTON, June 6, 2013 — Jack Kemp once told the New York Times that “it drives our friends on the left crazy that you can be conservative and idealistic and progressive simultaneously.” Not so long ago, hope and optimism were dominant characteristics on the right, a fact which explains why both Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush (in 1988) won substantial majorities of young voters.
Our values led the West to victory in the long ideological struggle of the 20th century. The world at large is vastly freer, wealthier, and friendlier to capitalism than it has ever been. Dictators everywhere are embattled where they haven’t been toppled. Communist China is our second largest trading partner. Vietnam is a major trade and tourist hub, producing new millionaires and at least one billionaire.
American culture is far more conservative than it was just a generation ago. When Reagan took office, Times Square was a miserable den of crime, drugs and prostitution. Now it’s anchored by a Disney Store.
Thanks in large part to Kemp’s vision, Chicago’s Cabrini Green and Houston’s Allen Parkway Village have been transformed from symbols of misery to exciting places for young professionals to launch a lifetime of home ownership. Divorce is in long-term decline. In 2010 there were fewer teen mothers than at any time since 1946.
Homosexuals are using every ounce of their political power to gain the legal right get married and raise families. Young people are delaying marriage, taking the decision very seriously in growing recognition of the importance of the institution to a happy and successful life.
Obama, the President conservatives so love to hate, has led a significantly more conservative Administration than Nixon. No major national Democratic figure since Mondale has dared to endorse the 20th century leftist vision that once gave America 70 percent top marginal tax rates and ubiquitous union membership.
None of these facts features prominently on Fox News, but they are powerful symbols of conservative success. The values that brought America to this point remain politically dominant, forming a latent center-right majority just waiting for leadership. Much work remains to be done to build the next American Century, but the most intimidating battles have already been fought and won.
By a strange series of ironies, the Republican Party in this moment of triumph finds itself curled into a defensive ball, wracked with paranoia and apocalyptic pessimism. Though the 2012 election was lost by only a modest margin, the party’s trajectory is sobering. Trends point toward a future of steadily diminishing national Republican influence contrasted against intensifying regional and racial segmentation. This fate, if realized, would have dangerous consequences beyond mere partisan concerns.
Restoring the optimism and energy that once defined the Republican brand will not be easy, but it can be done. It will require some clear-eyed thinking and a willingness to confront uncomfortable truths, but it all starts with a vision.
Vision is where imagination meets reality. Republicans right now are rich in imagination, yet starved of realism. The right-wing media is a machine that transforms fear into cash. It hasn’t merely expanded the Overton Window; it has blown out the walls around it, indulging every idea no matter how loony so long as it scares viewers into watching.
There is no route back to relevance that allows us to drive around the challenges the party and the country face. For the Republican Party to heal itself, someone will have to say things about the current state of the party that will make them politically toxic. They are unlikely to ever reap any reward for the effort, but it must be done nonetheless.
The 20th century conflict between liberal democracy and socialism is over. We won. Success means graduating up to better and better problems. Cold War habits will not help us solve 21st century problems. With the exciting global battle over ideology behind us an intense, high-stakes global competition to determine who can most successfully administer a market economy has begun.
The world has changed, mostly for the better. Republicans can claim much credit for that accomplishment. Now we need to greet this changing world with a sense of optimism. We have made the world better in the past. With the courage to re-examine our place in it, we can make it better yet.
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