Have you used Uber, Lyft, or Airbnb lately?
Been to a farmers market or a farm-to-table restaurant?
Do you like buying local at small businesses owned by people that live, work, and serve in your community?
Do you believe in tolerance and a free marketplace of ideas where all ideas should be expressed even if they offend some people?
Are you skeptical of big entities with their headquarters far away, operated by men and women in suits who don’t have any investment in your community and neighbors?
Then welcome to the conservative movement. It’s great to have you.
Conservatism has been miscast, misrepresented, and misunderstood by far too many for far too long. Opponents use logical fallacies ranging from straw man arguments to anecdotes to turn conservatism into something it isn’t. But, in fairness, the 2016 Presidential election has revealed crises within the conservative movement itself.
So what is conservatism, and why are you already a conservative even if that word makes you cringe?
For the best answer, I’d like to go to the little-known junior Senator from Nebraska, Ben Sasse, who is the 99th ranking member of the U.S. Senate.
Senator Ben Sasse has made some national headlines in the past few months for straight talk, intellectual engagement, social media prowess, and vowing never to support Donald Trump. And one brief video went viral when he answered this very question, articulating a brief and succinct description of conservatism.
“America is the most exceptional nation in the history of the world because the U.S. Constitution is the best political document that’s ever been written, because it says something different than almost any people or any government has believed in human history. Most governments in the past said might makes right, and the king has all the power, and the people are dependent subjects. And the American founders said no. God gives us rights by nature, and government is just our shared project to secure those rights.
Government is not the author or source of our rights, and you don’t make America great again by giving more power to one guy in Washington, D.C. You make America great again by recovering a constitutional republic where Washington is populated by people who are servant leaders, who want to return power to the people and the communities. Because what’s great in America is the Rotary Club, it’s small businesses, it’s churches, it’s schools, it’s fire departments, and it’s little leagues across this country. What makes America great is not some guy in Washington who says if he had more power, he could fix it all unilaterally. That’s not the American tradition.”
Life is more disconnected and our society more fragmented than ever before. Social media allows us to curate our own cultural experience. The news we absorb confirms what we already believe about those like us, and those not like us.
It’s why increasing numbers of young people are understandably skeptical of conglomerates that control things from far away with no investment or understanding of local communities.
This is why the sharing economy has been so disruptive. This is why young people in urban centers love Lyft, Airbnb, and Uber while unions and big businesses try to work with big government to shut these innovations down.
This is why people love to “Shop Local” and love getting their produce at farmers markets and farm-to-table restaurants.
But something interesting has also happened. Many people obsessed with “buying local” are equally obsessed with giving more power and influence to big government. They don’t realize that the bigger government gets at the federal level far removed from the people, the more it’s able to be bought off, manipulated, and controlled by big business and other people with no roots in the communities they care so much about.
Most Americans want to solve our society’s hardest and most pressing problems. We want our nation and neighborhoods to be safe. We want our justice system to be fair. We want the poor and vulnerable to be cared for and empowered. We want bigotry and hatred to end. We want to be a part of sacrificing and serving to make these things happen.
Yet, many well-meaning people defer the problem solving to the federal government. They trust these systemic problems to a large bureaucracy far from the day-to-day struggles of Americans.
As conservatives, we believe that our nation’s best hope of tackling these deeply rooted issues is by joining hands with our neighbors to creatively and innovatively make our communities a better place. We believe it is proximity to the problem that leads to the most effective and efficient solutions. Systemic problems like poverty and the education gap are best solved when we each choose to put skin in the game in our own communities rather than pawning this priority off on a distant bureaucracy.
We believe that the poor and disenfranchised in our country each have a unique journey that requires a unique solution. Wouldn’t it be better for local non-profits, strong community centers, and strong families to find what each person needs, and walk alongside them? We believe that when people in communities across this nation come face-to-face with the plight of their fellow Americans, they will rise to the occasion and personally sacrifice to help their fellow man. If they’re not able to assume the federal government will solve everything for them, they’ll step up to the plate. In fact, in the face of failed federal programs, many people already are.
In his speech declaring once and for all that he will not accept the GOP nomination for President in 2016, speaker Paul Ryan eloquently laid out his vision for the Republican Party and the conservative movement, concluding:
I believe we can once again be that optimistic party that is defined by a belief in the limitless possibility of our people. We want to be a party defined by solutions… by being on the side of the people. We want to take our principles and apply them to the problems of the day.
Embrace free enterprise and reject cronyism… Promote upward mobility… Provide solutions for those stuck in poverty… Offer a tax code that rewards hard work, not the well connected… A strong and focused military… A health care system that promotes choice and flexibility… A secure border… A government that allows people to fulfill the American idea – that the condition of your birth does not determine the outcome of your life.
Whether you consider yourself a Republican or a Democrat, a conservative or a progressive, you probably find yourself nodding along with a lot of that.
Welcome to the conservative movement. Looking forward to rolling up my sleeves alongside you and serving together.
(The views reflected here to not necessarily reflect those of Gradient, but they do reflect our mission: to present nuanced perspectives on issues that all too often fall into broad strokes and narrow thinking. If you’d like to write a counterpoint, you can pitch to us at email@example.com.)