Earley Jr.: Reframing the Conservative Argument

By Mark L. Earley Jr.

“Democracy is government by persuasion.”

George Will made this simple, yet profound remark when discussing the character of our nation, and timely enough, the character of baseball.

We often forget that persuasion is the only currency of effective and lasting change. Without persuasion, you can win an election now and again, based on ebb and flow of public opinion.  But there is no sustainable path to a culture that reflects our beliefs and values except for the path of persuasion.

Conservatism in America suffers from its inability to persuade.

Conservatives are not well-known for their concern for other people, and particularly not for their care towards the vulnerable. The public by and large believes that conservatism is obsessed with the individual and thereby is a selfish philosophy. They see calls for low taxes and regulations as a self-serving and greedy plea. They see advocacy for school choice as an attack on public schools and poor families.  They see suggestions on social policy as cruel and imposing.

While much of this reputation is unfair, much of it is more than fair, it is well-deserved. We, as conservatives, have been losing, or giving away, the narrative surrounding our ideas.  If we care not just about winning an election from time to time, but actually changing hearts and minds over the long term, to eventually build a better Commonwealth and nation, I humbly offer that we need to recover the arts of dialogue and persuasion, and in doing so, rediscover the reality and reframe the language of our political ideas.

We should seize the opportunity, particularly with the upcoming 2017 elections here in Virginia, to reframe the conservative argument.  This is not only for the practical purpose of persuading others, it’s also necessary to clarify our own thoughts and motives.

As citizens, neighbors, family-members, and especially those conservatives seeking office in Virginia in 2017, we must reach out and frame our conservative ideas as ideas being for the sake of others, not for our own personal benefit.  They are for the individual and collective good. They are for the common good.  They are for the flourishing of all people, always with a particular eye toward the most vulnerable among us.

How might we do this?  I’d offer a few examples as to how we should frame important issues.

Economic Issues. We don’t advocate for low taxes and minimal regulations just because we want to keep more of the money we earn. The primary reason is that we believe conservative economics is the best way to create opportunity and jobs for our neighbors. Welfare programs are fine in moderation and we support a basic social safety net. But these will never give the lasting, life-changing power to the economically vulnerable that work will. It is because we know that thriving small businesses are the best hope for employing those struggling and giving them a permanent path out of poverty — both the urban poor and rural blue collar worker. It is for others.

Education. We don’t seek choice and innovation in education because we dislike public schools or teachers unions.  We advocate for choice and innovation because there are generations of poor, vulnerable kids that the education system is not working for.  The best possible societal lever for children in tough spots is an educational setting in which they can thrive – and that requires options, parental involvement, and local agility. It is for others.

Rule of Law. We advocate for judges who abide by the law and the Constitution not because we think nothing should ever change.  We advocate for such because we believe that people have the right to govern themselves through their elected representatives. Holding such a position is to honor the agency and dignity of every citizen. It is for others.

Criminal Justice. We seek a balanced system. One that absolutely protects public safety; but we also recognize that the world is complicated and every offender should not be forever defined by his or her mistake. So while we demand public safety, we also know that it is too often the poor, those who lack a family, or those who struggle with mental illness that end up in our prisons.  We seek redemption for these, the vulnerable, through reasonable sentences, reentry programs, job training, and community support. It is for others.

Families and Kids in the Womb. Contrary to many signs and slogans, conservatives do not advocate for policies that encourage marriage stability and protect kids in the womb because we hate people. In fact, it is the opposite; it is because we care about people.  We know that stable marriages incubate stable families.  We know that there is no replacement, and never will be any replacement, for parents and families. Communities, churches, and friendships are all critical institutions, but none can take the place of the daily household.  Further, there is no more vulnerable person than the child in the womb.  We seek their good and protection. And at the same time, we seek the good of vulnerable single mothers and fathers on the outskirts. They also need compassion, resources, and economic opportunity. It is for others.

This is, of course, not a comprehensive list of issues, nor a comprehensive explanation. But it is a start to reframing our argument to the public.

How we dialogue with others is an accurate measure of our true motives. Do we actually care about persuasion? Do we actually believe our ideas will encourage human flourishing? Or do we just care about arguing and insulting?

We must decide what we want. I hope we want to engage in true dialogue, for persuasion is the only real hope for lasting effect over the long term. To achieve this, we must rededicate ourselves to building strong institutions and seeing people as people, not as one-dimensional labels.

Let us seize control of our narrative and reframe the conservative argument as one focused on the common good, on facilitating human flourishing, always with a particular eye toward the vulnerable.

Mark Earley, Jr. is an attorney in Richmond and a long-time Republican activist.