American history is filled with examples of political parties rising and falling, reaching the pinnacles of success just years before ultimate extinction and rising reborn from the ashes of political movements and principles of the past.
It is quite clear that the modern Republican Party is in a state of flux.
The national party has taken a consistent drubbing for the last decade and seems unable to surmount the organizational machine of the Democratic Party at the highest levels.
Although many on the Right lament a country lost to Progressivism and a republic gasping for breath in its final darkest days, there is hope for a turnaround outside of the realm of high politics and presidential elections.
Although I have written about the similarities between the modern GOP and failed political parties of the past, such as the Whigs, it is now more important to look at how failed parties and political movements rebuilt themselves and became the dominant political, cultural and intellectual forces in America.
The strategy of former followers of the broken Federalist Party, which succumbed to the political genius of Thomas Jefferson and his followers in the early nineteenth century, is perhaps the most useful example for conservatives today.
Conservatives need to change their strategy from top-down to bottom up. Since the Reagan Revolution came to political dominance in 1980, the Left has focused on changing American culture rather than winning political fights at the highest level.
During the Reagan Era, the only time Democrats rose to power is when they supported a “third way” candidate, Bill Clinton, who was from a traditionally conservative region and acquiesced to the idea that “the era of big government is over.”
But even when occasionally defeated politically, conservatives racked up victory after victory because Reagan and a generation of conservatives made “liberal” a bad word and tapped into the deepest impulses of American culture at that time.
Reagan and George H.W. Bush even won the youth vote, which is hard to imagine given the dramatically leftward trend of the so-called “Millennials” in the last few presidential election.
Democrats, even with occasional setbacks, are going to keep winning victory after easy victory if conservatives don’t focus on changing the direction of American culture. The so-called “low information voters” that Rush Limbaugh frequently refers on his radio show, swung the national elections to Democrats in 2012. These voters may know little about politics and critical issues, but they breathe liberal culture every day. It is no wonder that victory remains so elusive to Republicans – they aren’t even competing on the right playing field.
Conservatives can reverse this trend if they focus on breaking up the liberal lock on cultural institutions instead of the lock on the presidency.
After a major defeat in the election of 1800, in which John Adams was defeated by Thomas Jefferson and his Republican followers (no relation to the modern GOP), the Federalists never again took the presidency. Internal divisions and a lack of connection to rapid cultural changes left Federalists entirely uncompetitive except in a few pockets of New England and South Carolina. The Federalist Party was not only split, it was almost entirely atomized.
Jeffersonians electorally outmaneuvered Federalists in almost every dimension. They capitalized on recent immigration by publishing political tracts in German to appeal to German immigrants in Western Pennsylvania, turning a traditionally Federalist stronghold into a state divided and trending Republican.
The Jeffersonians tapped into traditional American fear of aristocracy and British and monarchy by connecting Federalists to aristocracy and odious pro-British Toryism, and they mopped up the floor with the Federalists when it came to dominating the press. The Jeffersonians were winning the culture war.
Most journalists at the time were active and fervent Jeffersonian Republicans even though, according to historian David Hackett Fischer in The Revolution of American Conservatism: The Federalist Party in the Age of Jefferson, “many printers were Federalists—perhaps as many as two-thirds of them. But they were printers first and political writers second.”
Old school Federalist Fischer Ames of Massachusetts recognized why Federalists had been so badly defeated and exclaimed, “Fas est et ab hoste doceri,” which means, “It is perfectly proper to be taught by one’s enemy.” Ames then founded his own paper, which became the New England Palladium, one of the most influential pro-Federalist publications in the country. Federalists in New York one-upped their New England cousins, founding the New York Evening Post in 1801. It became one of America’s truly great, long-lasting publications and survives today as the New York Post.
Even when their party completely died, Federalists retreated to the courts and academic institutions, where they influenced American policy without having direct control during elections. Even as the Federalist Party scattered and died, their policies lived on and continually frustrated Jeffersonian Republicans.
To return America to its traditional values, conservatives must pivot their focus to media, popular culture, education and kitchen table issues. As Gov. Bobby Jindal said in a recent speech, we must “recalibrate the compass of conservatism,” and stop focusing on Washington politics.
Conservatives have already started to create a fairly large and growing alternative political media, which is vital, but they also need to start focusing on other aspects of media like sports and cultural commentary.
Glenn Reynolds was spot on when he suggested after the 2012 presidential election that wealthy Republicans stop wasting their money on Republican politicians and buy women’s magazines, which virtually operate as a “propaganda arm of the Democratic party.”
As important as changing popular culture is, the most critical cultural institution that conservatives need to enter and change is education and academia.
But conservatives cannot succeed in changing the cultural influence of the education establishment without breaking the monopoly that currently controls it.
State-level education policy is one of those increasingly rare areas conservatives can still look to for encouraging trends. The good news is that school choice works, and it’s broadly popular.
46 states and the District of Columbia provide some kind of school choice for at least some parents in their state, a remarkable achievement for a movement that has only been active for a couple decades. The first charter school opened 21 years ago, but 42 states and DC now sport some kind of charter school law, and two million students now attend the nation’s 6000-plus charter schools.
Disadvantaged DC students are graduating at almost double the rates of their public school peers thanks to the survival of the DC Opportunity Scholarship Program.
This is not to say that America’s schools are not in dire need of further improvement, but that the trends in school choice are encouraging.
And school choice is popular. A 2003 Zogby poll found that 69 percent of Americans supported vouchers even if they meant public schools saw a reduction in funds. Despite misleading phrasing, a Phi Delta Kappa/Gallup poll found that 66 percent of Americans support charter schools.
Unsurprisingly, Black and Hispanic voters register even higher levels of support for school choice programs. Two-thirds of African-Americans supported school vouchers in a 2008 poll, while a 2012 poll of Hispanic voters in a few key states (Arizona, Florida, New Mexico, New Jersey and Nevada) found that an astounding 91 percent support vouchers and tax credit programs. Schools, teachers, students, parents, and advocates around the country will show their support of school choice this week, celebrating what is shaping up to be the largest National School Choice Week ever.
The possibility of national standards poses a worrying obstacle to the positive trends in education, and unfortunately, the proposal is backed almost as strongly by many of those on the right as it is on the left. Proponents believe standards will ensure a basic standard of adequacy for American students, but in reality national standards would standardize mediocrity and deprive states of their Constitutionally-delegated powers to outline what their students should be learning – exactly the place conservatives should be looking to begin an American civics revival.
In 2010, Texas provided a pathway for other revivalist states on social studies standards, revising its curriculum to include more focus on the Founding Fathers and founding documents of the country, naturally prompting an outcry from The New York Times. The Texas standards also highlight the role the free-market system has played in America’s economic success. Texas students will now graduate with an improved understanding of American civic principles – an understanding that will better prepare them for the rigors of citizenship and self-government.
School choice policies are a win-win for conservatives. They provide a popular and improved alternative to the woeful state of the liberal education system, and their local-power focus and natural innovativeness provides the ideal soil for the regeneration of civic education, perhaps at the behest of Tea Party parents.
While conservatives should not abandon efforts to win elections, it is vastly more important that they turn the tide in the culture war. There need to be more journalists and educators who believe in traditional American values, free market economics and American exceptionalism. This will not only give conservatives a better chance at winning political battles, but could return the luster to an America that looks less and less like a shining city upon a hill.
Inez Feltscher contributed to this article. She has a BA in Philosophy with a minor in History from University of California and is currently attending the University of Virginia School of Law. She has been involved with education issues for more than two years, and her work has been published by organizations such as The Heritage Foundation, Center for Education Reform and National School Choice Week.