Just when Republicans were feeling a little better about themselves after their gubernatorial victories in New Jersey and Virginia, along comes an incendiary rant from Michael Steele, Republican National Committee chairman. Steele, the first African American to head the RNC, claimed in a recent interview that white Republicans were “afraid” to be in the same room with him — a bizarre nod to the race-baiting tactics of the Left. Steele’s rise within the Republican party suggests just how intellectually and spiritually flaccid modern conservatism has become. It is time to seek guidance outside of its callow and cranky echo chambers.
Conservative and Republican leaders might begin by looking to their counterparts in Great Britain. David Cameron, the leader of the Conservative party, has recast British Tories as a more competent, hopeful, and humane political party. At October’s party conference in Manchester, for example, Cameron electrified Conservatives by excoriating the excesses of big government — “the state is your servant, never your master” — and its assault on personal responsibility. He drew his biggest applause line, though, when he scolded the Labour party for its inability to help Britain’s most marginalized and at-risk groups. “Don’t you lecture us about poverty,” he said. “You have failed, and it falls to us, the modern Conservative party, to fight for the poorest who you have let down.”
The left-leaning Guardian newspaper recently released the results of an opinion poll showing that more people — 42 percent to 41 percent — now trust the Tories to help the poor than trust Labour. The significance of the symbolic one-point lead should not be underestimated. Cameron not only rejects the anti-government ideology that many voters have associated with his party. He speaks movingly of the plight of the underclass. He calls on families, communities, and charitable groups to help mend Britain’s “broken society.” His message is uniting economic and social conservatives in ways the Republican party still cannot imagine.
Polls suggest that the Tories will win next year’s election and Cameron will become prime minister. If that happens, Cameron will owe a great debt to the tough-minded policy work of faith-based conservatives — a reality largely ignored on both sides of the Atlantic. In secular Britain, Christian activists lack organizational heft or vast financial resources. Unlike their American counterparts, they do not underwrite media empires led by televangelists or issue jeremiads to wayward politicians. This, on balance, has been a good thing for British politics. It has prodded evangelicals, Catholics, and other traditionalists to retool their cultural agenda: to go beyond opposition to abortion, for example, and develop broad-based policies to help individuals and families living on the margins.
Conservatives love to talk tough on crime, for example. It is another thing for Tory leaders to join with evangelicals to devise outreach programs for ex-offenders. It is Conservative boilerplate to lambaste big government. But it’s paradigm-busting to announce a Tory campaign that enlists faith communities to fight poverty, drug addiction, and failing schools. Social conservatives, such as former party leader Iain Duncan Smith (a Catholic) and former cabinet minister Jonathan Aitken (an evangelical), have reclaimed for Cameron the mantle of social justice — but shorn of its left-wing politics and loopy theology.
After stepping down from the party leadership in 2003, Smith founded the London-based Centre for Social Justice (CSJ) to offer new approaches to poverty alleviation. At Cameron’s request, the Centre led a major research and policy effort for the Conservative party, culminating in a 2007 report titled “Breakthrough Britain: Ending the Costs of Social Breakdown.” The report’s singular insight — loudly endorsed by Team Cameron — is that no amount of government spending can replace the social capital provided by families, churches, charities, and community organizations. Government policy, therefore, must tilt heavily in their direction. “There is an aspiration among the poor for strong family ties and a community that is cohesive and respectful of their values,” Smith told me not long after launching the project. “They haven’t got any of that. So where should the Conservative party be? Right there, that’s the territory, that’s social justice.”
Cameron’s strategy will be a hard sell to American conservatives who think George W. Bush’s “compassionate conservatism” quickly morphed into another federal boondoggle. It becomes more plausible, though, when combined with a robust reform agenda that insists upon local government and private-sector initiatives over distant, bloated bureaucracies.
Take the issue of incarceration, a growing problem in Great Britain. Cameron named Aitken, who converted to Christianity after serving jail time for committing perjury, to chair his Prison Reform Working Group. The group’s meticulously researched report, released earlier this year, assails a criminal-justice system that makes punishment its sole objective. “Prison regimes should work towards a personal change in offenders’ lives,” the report says. “The present policies of containment or warehousing have failed.” Its recommendations reflect the insights of ministries such as Prison Fellowship, which offer mentoring and practical help from religious communities to keep ex-offenders on the straight and narrow.
Unlike in the United States, there’s very little God talk in Britain’s public square, even from Christian activists. Yet the recommendations being adopted by the Conservative party — from welfare reform to “pioneer schools” run by parents and charities — are predicated on the engagement of families and faith communities. Cameron understands how important their role is: At the party conference in Manchester, he promised to appoint Iain Duncan Smith to oversee his social-justice agenda if elected. “I know there are children growing up in Britain today who will never know the love of a father,” Cameron said. “Who are born in homes that hold them back. Who go to schools that keep them back. . . . Children who live the life they’re given, not the life they want. That is what I want to change.”
Cameron’s approach is leading the Tories out of political exile. With a steady lead in the polls, he is attracting disenchanted Labour party voters in large numbers. Tim Montgomerie, editor of the influential website ConservativeHome.com, believes that Cameron has shed his party’s image of “small-government fundamentalism,” thanks largely to his outreach to social conservatives. “A commitment to the poor,” Montgomerie writes, “now runs deep throughout the grassroots.”
No equivalent commitment can be found in the Republican party or among the leading conservative think tanks. (The Democratic party’s “war on poverty,” it must be noted, has done more to reinforce the cycle of poverty than to break it.) Nevertheless, conservative pundits have hailed Republican victories in New Jersey and Virginia as signs of a resurgence of their principles and political savvy. Nonsense. It is simply self-delusional to believe that a conservatism which has nothing to say to America’s most vulnerable — to its African-American and growing immigrant populations — can avoid cultural and political marginalization. Conservative happy talk might fuel fundraising campaigns, but it won’t help conservatism to reform itself, morally and intellectually.
British Conservatives seem engaged in exactly this kind of renewal effort. We cannot know how they will actually govern once in power. We do know that under David Cameron they are offering a conservatism that does not despise government, yet refuses to exalt government’s capacity for solving complex social problems. It is a conservatism that spends less time scolding others for bad behavior and more time speaking to their deepest aspirations — and helping them to overcome the obstacles in their way. American conservatives, in their ache for political power, have lost sight of these objectives. They have lost much of their soul in the bargain.
– Joseph Loconte is a lecturer in politics at the King’s College in New York City.