2013 and Beyond
What is the future of conservatism in the wake of the 2012 election?

Commentary, January 2013

It's a postelection commonplace that demographics imperil the Republican Party. Barack Obama won a narrow victory thanks to huge majorities among fast-growing segments of the electorate: Hispanics, Asian Americans, single women. It seems irrefutable that unless the GOP expands its appeal to minorities, within decades it will be unable ever to assemble a majority.

Before that happens, though, demographics are likely to doom liberalism as we have known it since the 1930s. The core of contemporary liberalism is the old-age entitlements, Social Security and Medicare, which have grown progressively more generous--and expensive--since their establishment in 1935 and 1965, respectively. That trend was sustainable only as long as the payroll-tax base kept expanding, which it did thanks to the postwar population boom and the mass entry of women into the workforce in the 1970s and 80s.

"The Ponzi game will soon be over, thanks to changing demographics," Paul Krugman observed in an article on Social Security in 1996. With the baby boomers beginning to retire, that day draws near. Since the 1960s, fertility has declined while illegitimate births have multiplied. Female labor-force participation can't go much higher, and male participation has actually gone down as increasing numbers of working-age men go on disability. At some point soon, there won't be enough workers to pay promised benefits unless payroll taxes rise to confiscatory levels.

Obama's political success demonstrates that the public is not yet ready to confront the crisis. But when the crisis confronts the public, conservatives will have the advantage of having thought about the problem and put forward possible solutions. George W. Bush's ill-fated 2005 proposal for Social Security reform made him look foolhardy. By 2015 or 2025, he may look prescient.

Because the roots of the problem are social as well as financial, social conservatism, currently in such disfavor, may make a comeback as well. During the 2012 campaign, President Obama mocked Mitt Romney for wanting to return to "the social policies of the 1950s." But it was the subsequent decades' decline in marriage and fertility that made the welfare state unsustainable in the long run. The challenge for conservatives in the decades ahead will be to advance family-friendly policies without being unpleasantly moralistic or sectarian about it.

It's not impossible that the left will do so first. In his 2004 book, The Empty Cradle: How Falling Birthrates Threaten World Prosperity and What to Do About It, Phillip Longman offers a clear-eyed view of the problem and some intriguing left-liberal policy proposals.

But Obama's approach has been notably hidebound. Rather than work to forestall an entirely predictable crisis, he hastened it by pushing Congress to enact a massive new health-care entitlement. Then he made the provision of free birth control a signature ObamaCare initiative, as if America were suffering from excessive fertility. Obama-era liberalism reflects a view of "progress" that is at least a half-century out of date. That's why the coming crisis of the welfare state will be an opportunity for conservatism.

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