The Federalist Fix: How an Old Idea Can Cure the Republican Party
Reducing the size of the federal government is the most fundamental principle of conservatism from which all other elements of our ideology originate. For instance, conservatives support lower tax rates as a method of limiting the government’s ability to grow further through extorting additional revenue from its constituents. We support traditional values to protect familial institutions so that individuals do not have to rely on a larger federal establishment instead. Every aspect of truly conservative thought derives from the desire to shrink the federal bureaucracy and its impact in the daily lives of American citizens.
One might assume that proponents of a smaller federal government would vote overwhelmingly for more conservative candidates. The most recent Presidential election, however, tells a different story. Indeed, an electorate that favored reducing the size of the federal government by a 12-point margin, according to exit polling (53%-41%), gave President Obama 51% of the popular vote and over 300 electoral votes.
Considering that President Obama and Governor Romney were only separated by 3% nationwide, failing to secure more votes from this reliably conservative bloc of voters no doubt cost the Republican Party the presidency and probably control of the United States Senate as well. If our party is to once again become competitive in federal elections, we must discover what about our message is repelling those would-be conservative voters.
I believe the answer is two-fold. First, although voters generally agreed with our conservative principles, they resented the lack of inclusiveness that supposedly characterized the Republican Party. “Small government” can mean many things to different people, and the party was not viewed as accepting that variety of opinion. Instead, right or wrong, to many voters the Republican Party resembled an elite club where only citizens who fit numerous prerequisites were allowed to join or even considered welcome.
This stereotype of our party was most explicitly communicated through the debate on social issues. Knowing that an electorate favoring smaller government would never endorse this administration’s regulations on private business or expansion of federal authority, President Obama’s campaign intelligently refocused the crux of the campaign toward the one area where Republicans were perceived to be more authoritarian.
They effectively branded Republican rhetoric on social issues as evidence that the party did not tolerate values separate from their own. In an ironic twist of fate, the President used such issues to cast himself as a champion of individual freedoms and label conservatives as proponents of more intrusive government. For example, his radio and television advertisements continually repeated the phrase “keep government out of the bedroom,” the first three words of which sound like a call for limited bureaucracy.
Social conservatives and the Religious Right are often criticized for attempting to apply our own moral standards to the general public, a practice considered antithetical to this country’s separation of church and state. While social conservatives certainly do not deserve such a characterization when compared to our liberal counterparts, we have honestly brought it upon ourselves.
For some reason, Republican candidates for federal office today often believe that being pro-life requires them to convert their constituents to that same line of thought. Thus, they often engage in a passionate defense of their own position on abortion that often risks some offensive remark. Such comments by candidates Todd Akin and Richard Mourdock cost the party two Senate seats, and gave the Obama campaign extra ammunition to continue fighting a conjured-up “war against women.”
Second, while most voters endorse the general principle of smaller government and balanced budgets, those same individuals might reject efforts to curb specific elements of federal spending that affect them personally.
Farmers want to preserve agricultural subsidies. Seniors want to preserve Medicare and Social Security benefits. Autoworkers want to procure more federal bailout funds for their businesses. By singling out certain federal expenditures to be cut, conservative candidates open themselves up to criticism from Democrats that they do not care about certain groups or their interests.
In the swing state of Ohio, for instance, President Obama repeatedly tied Governor Romney to comments he made attacking the auto bailouts. Although most Ohio voters probably supported reducing federal spending overall, Romney’s criticism of the auto bailouts was perceived as hostile towards Ohioans and their livelihoods and probably cost him that critical battleground.
Thus, the challenge that the Republican Party faces moving forward is being able to accommodate people of diverse opinions and backgrounds while not sacrificing our principles to do so. Luckily, one doctrine fits both criteria. By justifying all our policy positions through an advocacy of federalism and states’ rights, the Republican Party can continue to advance the conservative concepts of limited government and traditional values while simultaneously attracting a larger base of voters.
Federalism is the practice of respecting the separate authority of local governments or private citizens, limiting the scope of the federal bureaucracy. Our candidates for national office should begin using that doctrine to justify every policy position they present to the electorate. Advocating this philosophy more vocally would not force the Republican Party to change any of its convictions but rather the way it relates those convictions to the general public.
Many individuals currently feel that they must pass a litmus test on a variety of specific issues to be part of the Republican Party. However, through federalism, the Republican Party should be able to win votes from individuals of diverse opinions provided those voters favor a smaller federal government and are willing to enact their priorities at a local rather than federal level. Considering that a majority of Americans have consistently shared those sentiments, this strategy should yield consistent success in future national elections.
Voters want to feel that a political party understands and values their concerns. In the last election, more than 53% of voters thought that President Obama was more in touch with their situation. The Republican Party in the future can use federalism to convey empathy and care for the concerns of ordinary voters. Localizing policy decisions amplifies the voice of individual Americans since their votes are not diluted by citizens in other states who do probably do not share their same cultural background or political priorities. Local government especially increases representation for younger voters who have neither the time nor resources to travel into Washington, DC every time they want to make their grievances known. Through giving individual voters more control over how they are governed, the Republican Party can demonstrate that we value and trust their input in the democratic process, thereby appearing more “in touch” during future election cycles.
Federalism is uniquely suited to solve both problems the Republican Party faced in the last election. On social issues, our federal candidates should no longer discus the merits of one specific policy position but instead debate whether such topics belong at a national or state level. For instance, regarding abortion, rather than endorsing the pro-life position in federal elections, the Republican Party should encourage local or state politicians to advocate for that cause and meanwhile work to give those local politicians more control over the issue. Although the Republican Party adopted a platform at its national convention favoring a national marriage amendment, that should also be an issue for local candidates alone to promote. Discussing these topics according to the principles of federalism allows the Republican Party to defend its socially conservative convictions without engaging in a destructive culture war. By allowing local communities to live according to their values, the Republican Party can refute Democratic claims that we are trying to impose our own moral standards on everyone nationwide.
Our party cannot win national elections by relying only on the votes of pro-life or traditional marriage advocates. This new approach allows voters on either side of a particular social issue to feel safe electing Republican politicians at a federal level provided they trust their own state legislature to handle that issue at home (indeed, most voters trust their state legislatures more than Congress to represent their views).
Democrats have succeeded in branding the abortion issue as a “struggle against reproductive rights.” We must rebrand it as a “struggle for local representation.” After all, why should New York and California dictate the abortion laws in Mississippi and Virginia when the statutes in those latter states really do not affect citizens from the former?
Conversely, if the abortion debate was made about states’ rights, the Democratic Party would be forced to defend a national, pro-choice standard, thereby giving them the same “intolerant” label that they have applied to Republicans so often. Liberals continually try to lure conservatives into taking a particular side on a given social issue because it perpetuates the stereotype of social conservatives trying to foist their beliefs on everyone else.
For instance, when conservatives cite their opposition to abortion as justification for repealing Roe v. Wade, they enable liberals to perpetuate the myth that if Roe v. Wade were repealed, abortion would become illegal nationwide. In reality, if Roe v. Wade were repealed, state governments would gain the right to dictate abortion policy, allowing local communities to craft laws that fit the cultural values of their respective populations. By communicating our opposition to Roe v. Wade according to the principles of federalism, we will no longer enable liberals to hide behind their scare tactics and force them to argue against giving local citizens more power, a truly unpopular proposition.
Finally, state governments are much better climates to achieve fiscal responsibility. While the federal government has still failed to pass a balanced budget amendment, 49 states have already done so. Unlike the federal government, which can incur continuous deficits annually to pay for frivolous programs, state governments must prioritize and only spend money on items that truly matter to their citizens. They also cannot print money to cover their expenses, thereby saving our monetary system from danger.
Despite disappointing results in federal elections, the Republican Party has remained extremely successful in statewide and local races. After the 2012 elections, the party now controls over 30 governorships and 28 state legislatures nationwide (Democrats control 19 and 15, respectively). Because conservatives have more authority at the state level, shifting power in that direction would enable us to more easily achieve significant spending cuts. Our success at the state rather than federal level also demonstrates that citizens are more likely to accept conservative proposals when presented locally.
2012 was a wake-up call, and we would be foolish not to learn from it. Conservatives will not be able to enact our principles in the future unless we can win elections, and we cannot win elections unless we stand on principle. Luckily, communicating the principle of federalism enables us to accomplish both those goals.