WITH THE new
political season underway, Republicans are scrambling to prepare for the next round. The RNC has chosen a new figurehead. Congressional representatives are picking their battles on the stimulus package. But generally speaking, the party is still wandering in the November wilderness. America may be bluer than it’s ever been. So it’s time to ask the question conservatives aren’t sure they can answer: will there be a resurrection of the Republican Party? And if so, how will it happen?

Analysts of previous Republican surges argue the 2008 election cycle has created a crisis similar to 1992, when conservatives lurked the dark before the dawn of the 1994 “Contract with America.” But the G.O.P. chairman from that period, current Mississippi governor Haley Barbour, suggests the current “brand damage” is much worse than it was in ’92. Not only have Republicans made some ghastly mistakes, but “[r]ight now a lot of people that have voted for us repeatedly are not so sure about free-market capitalism. They’re scared … right now the only answer they know is government. The only place they know to turn that can help them is government.”

Whatever ideology or party fits the bill, America needs a moderating response to the current environment of economic hyperventilation. The government is poised to spend nearly $900 billion dollars on economic stimulus, even as both parties caution its high pork content and as the initial bailout money remains largely untraceable. Without a cautious check on the panic, Americans will lose even more of their money with potentially little to show for it. A strong opposition party could provide a heavy dose of accountability for these shaky times.

If Republicans want to be that contra vox, they’ll need to do more than reminisce about historic comebacks. In an era where national megapolitics overshadow the lower rungs of the federal system, they’ll have to challenge their current conceptions of political participation. Barbour suggests that the rebuilding of a conservative party will stem from an inclusive, dynamic development of state and local chapters. A “bottom-up” approach to platform development builds a hearty base of supporters who feel they have a real stake in the direction of the party. That eventually means dollars and manpower for rising candidates.

Over the past decade, liberals have shown how technological connections breed fervent participation and ultimately bring national political relevance. “Netroots” has emerged as the catchword to describe the liberal blogosphere’s rallying impact on the Democratic political movement since the mid 1990s. The ideological unity for which liberals once envied conservatives became suddenly attainable through a fractal web of digital commentary and organization. MoveOn.org is just one example of a behemoth liberal political action committee driven almost entirely by a voter email list. No comparable conservative counterpart exists. Massive physical and technological rallies have confirmed Barbour’s observation that “if you give people a chance to participate in politics they’ll knock your door down.”

This recent crescendo of participation was a masterstroke of mobilization but perhaps only a small dent in our country’s practical political apathy. In 2000, sociologist Robert Putnam published Bowling Alone on the premise that our general enthusiasm for political life has been waning since WWII. We run for local offices less. We join fewer community organizations. In the political game, Putnam says, “we kibitz, but we don’t play.” Rather than a manifestation of increasing introversion, Putnam’s statistics may indicate something different: a trend towards a digital rather than physical political life.

If the Democratic Party has already figured it out, then conservatives face a two-fold challenge. First, to focus the energies of pundits and politicians alike, the ideological roots of conservatism should be better defined and made fit for digital dispersion. Second, to facilitate a bottom-up resurgence, the Republican Party should use local organizations and offices to galvanize support and move toward a unified national message. That’s not quite the impossible task it might seem; though things look bad right now, conservative ideas are uniquely suited to mobilizing participation at all levels of government.

Political theorist George Nash writes: “It is easy for conservatives to overlook and undervalue one of their most impressive achievements… the creation of a veritable conservative counterculture, a burgeoning infrastructure of alternative media, foundations, research centers, think tanks, publishing houses, law firms, homeschooling networks, and more.” Although the conservative counterculture is still strong, Nash also recognizes that it has grown from a mixed bag of libertarians, evangelicals, neoconservatives, anti-communists, and traditionalists, all of whom claim shares without much compromise. 

After the November rout, Republicans don’t lack for motivation to consolidate their message. But as the Weekly Standard’s Matthew Continetti suggests, they’re in danger of learning the wrong lessons from their ousting. Returning to conservative roots shouldn’t trigger the tired mantras—No more spending! No more big government!—that some will predictably offer as panacea for the past few years. The better direction will approach problems with policy solutions unified by a fresh and realistic message. The Department of Education isn’t going away, but our schools thrive with more local and less federal input. The energy crisis won’t abate with more foreign oil, but competitive innovation will be far more effective than just pork tinted green. Republicans have been most successful—led by Reagan, Gingrich, and even an early Bush—when they have proffered a brand of intelligent, efficient governance. That is the heart of the conservative connection to voters. 

Fortunately for the G.O.P., this theme fits well with political “netroots” found in both the physical and digital community. Some will wonder whether a conservative understanding of government even has an existence in the Obama era, where interventionist attempts to “make government work” are seen as the only way forward. But conservatism’s focus on institutional preservation defines the state differently and for the individualist, more effectively. Liberalism endows higher decision-makers with the power to interpret the “general welfare,” a shiny idea with practical difficulties and constitutionally alarming results. Conservatism values the United States’ original multi-strata approach, a layered mix of local, state, and federal oversight to encourage more efficient and participatory governance. These institutions bring community together, give structure to the progress of society, and ultimately provide outlets for erudite political participation. They also go hand-in-hand with a mobilized citizenry passionate about taking politics into their own hands—an irony apparently lost on the army of Democratic recruits championing government’s capabilities.

The G.O.P. need not move mountains to “bring the message home.” The grassroots network is already in place via local and regional priorities. Far from Sarah Palin’s horrifically stereotypic “Joe Six-Packs,” the truth remains that the average citizen identifies first with local issues. The concerns of the Nebraska farmer are not the same as the needs of the New York schoolteacher. As the federal government looks to expand in size under the Democratic rule, Republicans can use a built-in base of volunteers and donors looking to be met with specific solutions rather than blanket promises.

The abstract ideas that energize conservatives are often big-picture concepts resistant to sympathetic storytelling. But those same concepts fit well in the new netroots culture, and they can and should translate into substantive policy ideas. Sure, herald bipartisanship. Yes, decry Obama’s sweeping movements on social policy as they emerge. But ultimately, articulate an attractive alternative. Give us something that’s worth knocking down a few doors.

 
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