Conservatism is in dire straits. Yet don't tell that to the foot soldiers, who just finished attending the Conservative Political Action Conference. They don't grasp the magnitude of their current political, economic, cultural and ideological defeat.
CPAC is the largest annual gathering of conservative activists. Many of them come from Middle America - intelligent, decent and crackling with enthusiasm, they are the very opposite of the effete Washington conservative establishment. They believe principles trump power. For all their energy and intensity, however, conservatives are living in a fantasy.
Led by Newt Gingrich and Rush Limbaugh, many on the right are calling for the restoration of the Reaganite agenda. Tax cuts, limited government, family values and winning the war on terror - these are the slogans conservatives believe will catapult Republicans back to political dominance.
Yet the once-successful Reagan coalition is now in disarray. White males and evangelical Christians form an increasingly smaller proportion of the electorate. Blue-collar ethnics - the so-called "Reagan Democrats" - have abandoned the party. They may be culturally conservative, but they are also in love with big-government programs and are skeptical of free trade. Women and independents largely oppose the war in Iraq - and in growing numbers, also object to the troop surge in Afghanistan as well.
Moreover, massive immigration, especially from Latin America, has transformed the political landscape. Hispanics now outnumber African-Americans. They are the second-largest racial group (after whites). And they vote overwhelmingly Democratic. During the 2008 election, 67 percent of Hispanics voted for Barack Obama - even though Sen. John McCain championed comprehensive immigration reform and cultivated the Hispanic vote for years.
The disastrous open borders policy has resulted in an influx not only of low-wage, low-skilled workers, criminals and drug traffickers, but creation of a powerful leftist ethnic constituency that demands more activist government policies. This has shifted American society to the center-left.
It is not just that conservatives are becoming a narrower slice of the electorate. The right has lost the most important battle of all: the culture war. Liberals control nearly every institution of cultural power - the universities, Hollywood, the arts, the media, television and the public schools.
Since the 1960s, the radical left has sought to transform America by its "long march through the institutions." It has succeeded.
In fact, antiwar liberals simply followed the program outlined by Italian Leninist Antonio Gramsci, who advocated the theory of "cultural hegemony." Gramsci argued for an incremental socialism. He stressed that the key to winning political power lay not in seizing the economic means of production, but in capturing society's commanding cultural organs. This way the left could relentlessly mold public opinion and indoctrinate the youth. He predicted that, once the left attained cultural hegemony, the state would fall into its hands - like a ripe fruit.
President Obama's electoral victory represents the culmination of the left's march to power. Mr. Obama deftly exploited numerous advantages - a weak opponent, a fawning media, a financial crisis and a demoralized, fractured Republican Party. But the cultural groundwork had been laid for decades.
Mr. Obama is an anti-capitalist, anti-family and anti-American leftist. And here is what most conservatives do not understand: Large swathes of the American electorate don't care. Mr. Obama's approval ratings remain above 80 percent. The recent $787 billion stimulus package has broad public support, even though it signifies the largest government intervention in the economy during peacetime.
Polls show voters are receptive to even more spending and targeted tax increases - provided they work (which they won't). Small-government conservatism is out; big government liberalism is in.
Conservatives must wake up to this fundamental fact: The country has changed since Ronald Reagan. We are no longer a center-right nation. This doesn't mean the right - as is being demanded by some neoconservatives, such as David Frum and David Brooks - should jettison its principles. But it does mean conservatives must face the depths of their predicament. We are now a dwindling minority. And unless we reverse America's economic and cultural decay, our numbers will continue to drop.
Many conservatives are convinced that the Democrats' overreach will cost them control of Congress and maybe the White House in 2012. Mr. Obama's policies are a recipe for disaster: anemic economic growth, permanent high unemployment, crippling debt, disaster abroad and national decline.
Yet, the very same thing happened during the 1930s. The New Deal failed to end the Great Depression. The policy of appeasement embraced by Franklin Roosevelt emboldened Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan - paving the way to World War II.
This dismal record didn't prevent Roosevelt from winning three successive re-election victories. Mr. Obama and the congressional Democrats may remain in power despite a tanking economy and defeat in the Middle East. There are no guarantees in politics.
Even if Republicans do manage to come back in 2010 or 2012, riding a wave of voter disgust at Democratic incompetence, it won't solve the underlying problem: The demographics and trends are against conservatives.
To win, the GOP will be forced to become more like Democrats; George W. Bush's call for a "compassionate conservatism," with its stress on major spending on education, prescription-drug coverage for seniors and amnesty for illegals was an example of the erosion of the Republican identity.
This is why, if the right truly seeks to capture national power, it must abandon its politics-only strategy. That is a road to defeat, decline and eventually, oblivion. It must engage the left on the cultural front, and seek to take back key institutions conservatives have surrendered - often without a fight. Liberals have been on offense for too long, setting the terms of debate. Conservatives must stop playing defense. They must be proactive, bold and courageous in crafting a long-term revolution.
Conservatives didn't lose overnight. And they won't win overnight. The path to power lies not in Washington, but in New York and Los Angeles - and everywhere in between. It's the culture, stupid.
Jeffrey T. Kuhner is a columnist at The Washington Times and president of the Edmund Burke Institute, a Washington policy institute.
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