Guest Editorial


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For half of America, big government sounds really good

Among the reactions to the November 6 elections, the most common among conservatives might be shock. That very fact might indicate too many of us have been living in an echo chamber, reassuring each other about our mutually-held convictions without listening to those who are, at best, ambivalent about conservativism.

For example, Mitt Romney's message of economic freedom, utterly persuasive to the conservative ear, was unconvincing to members of a powerful new demographic who cast their votes overwhelming for Barack Obama: single women. For the first time in our nation's history there are more unmarried than married women, a demographic change with potentially profound political consequences. Whether never married, divorced or widowed, whether childless or single moms, what the new majority of American women face is the prospect of an uncertain future, alone. Do they long for the security Big Government promises?

Recall "The Life of Julia," the politi-cartoon created by the Obama campaign depicting a woman dependent on government programs at every stage of her life, from womb to tomb. How offensive to women, conservatives thought; what a turn-off!

We could not have been more wrong. It did not offend the millions of single women who voted for Obama. In fact, it may have been actually appealing. A 71-year-old single woman interviewed on NPR said she voted for Obama because his policies made her feel more secure.
In exit polls, Obama won the "cares about us" contest hands down. It is time to face the possibility that we are surrounded by Julias who regard a life of federal intervention as a pretty good deal.

Government programs and institutions are inefficient at best, dangerously intrusive and soul-killing at worst (with some exceptions, of course). This is the perspective of the conservative. Yet those who have relied extensively on these programs will naturally be more sympathetic. If your family received food stamps, if you went to college on a Pell Grant or ROTC scholarship, obtained career training while serving in the military, went to work in any kind of government office (local, state or federal), saw your parents getting Medicare and Social Security, it will be difficult to make you a Big Government skeptic.

Tens of millions of Americans have this perspective, as do more every day. Conservatives know this is part of the strategy of the political Left: get people dependent on government and you will get their votes. But did we know how well it was working? Mitt Romney vowed to "reduce the size of government" and our conservative hearts were cheered, but were even those anodyne words heard as an attack on the government programs embraced by many?
Conservatives can't become bitter toward those Americans who don't agree with us. In this time of growing economic and international peril, people gravitated toward that which made them feel safer. President Obama made the stronger case (with the free and energetic help of the Fourth Estate) for a large, embracing, "compassionate" government. He persuaded enough people and won the office, but no one should think he has united America around his troubling vision.

In his provocative pre-election column, Michael Barone spoke of "Two Americas" who no longer share a culture. One America is appreciative of entrepreneurs and skeptical of government; the other, skeptical of business and supportive of government. Through the television and radio we consume (Rush Limbaugh vs. NPR), the cities in which we choose to live (Dallas vs. San Francisco), "we seal ourselves off in the America of our choosing while trying to ignore the other America."

Ronald Reagan could appeal to both Americas by "speaking the language of the old universal popular culture," Barone wrote. "Barack Obama ... has failed to do so."

And that is the glass-half-full perspective on the election. Barack Obama did not appeal to our, conservative America. He has done no better than we have to convince a majority of his fellow citizens of a broad agenda resting on shared beliefs and hopes.

One thing is certain: the conservative movement cannot afford to be surprised by exit polls again. We must fight every impulse to be insular. We must learn the hearts and minds and language of the other America, so that we can make the case for conservatism in every corner, winsomely, winningly. The future of our beloved nation depends on it.

Rob Schwarzwalder, Senior Vice-President of the Family Research Council, served in the G.W. Bush Administration and has been chief of staff to two Members of Congress. Cathy Ruse, a graduate of Georgetown Law Center, is Senior Fellow for Legal Studies at FRC and previously was Chief Counsel to the Constitution Subcommittee in the House of Representatives.