Mike Lee on What Happened between 1976 and 1980 in the Conservative Movement

October 30th, 2013

In a speech at Heritage, Senator Mike Lee laid out his vision of conservatism. He offered an interesting account of the factors that led to Reagan in 1980, including (why not) Bork and Scalia!

Much of the difference can be found in what happened between 1976 and 1980 — the hard, heroic work of translating conservatism’s bedrock principles into new and innovative policy reforms.

In The Conservative Mind, Russell Kirk observed that “conservatives inherit from [Edmund] Burke a talent for re-expressing their convictions to fit the time.”

That is precisely what the conservatives of the late 1970s did. The ideas that defined and propelled the Reagan Revolution did not come down from a mountain etched in stone tablets.

They were forged in an open, roiling, diverse debate about how conservatism could truly meet the challenges of that day. That debate invited all conservatives and, as we know, elevated the best.

There was Jack Kemp, advancing supply-side economics to combat economic stagnancy.

There were James Buckley and Henry Hyde, taking up the cause of the unborn after Roe v. Wade.

There was Milton Friedman, promoting the practical and moral superiority of free enterprise.

There were Cold Warriors like Irving Kristol and Jeane Kirkpatrick, challenging the premise of peaceful coexistence and moral equivalence with the Soviets.

There were Peter Berger and Richard John Neuhaus, arguing that the “mediating institutions” of civil society protected and promoted human happiness more effectively than big-government programs.

There were Professors Robert Bork and Antonin Scalia, challenging the received wisdom of constitutional interpretation laid down by the Warren Court.

There were think tanks like the American Enterprise Institute and the new Cato Institute, and a flowering of grassroots organizations around the country.

And of course, in the middle of it all, there were Paul Weyrich, Ed Feulner, Joseph Coors, and the Heritage Foundation, specifically founded to chart a new, conservative direction for public policy in America.

Together, that generation of conservatives transformed a movement that was anti-statist, anti-Communist, and anti-establishment, and made it pro-reform.

Lee also pitches a huge tent with conservatives, moderates, and libertarians.

It’s time for another Great Debate, and we should welcome all input.

Grassroots and establishment. Conservatives and moderates. Libertarians and traditionalists. Interventionists and non-interventionists. Economic conservatives and social conservatives. All are part of our movement, and all are vital to our success — so all should be welcome in this debate.

There are still nearly three years before Republicans will have a chance to select a new, unifying conservative leader. But together we can start debating and developing a new, unifying conservative agenda right now.