As was widely noted over the past year, what is sometimes called “the conservative movement” was strongly divided about Donald Trump as a prospective president. In the run-up to his election, even before, and especially now, he has been busy trying to heal the wounds of those divisions while being true to his goals for America and those of the people who supported him along the contentious path to the Republican nomination. The president-elect has an immensely difficult task, and his supporters, past and present, if not all Americans, need to understand the importance of his being successful in laying the groundwork for leadership of the conservative coalition and the nation. He has a great opportunity to distinguish himself through such leadership.
There is a lot of diversity within “the conservative movement;” so much so that one would have to say that there are movements within that “movement” that have stronger popular attachments to certain public policies than to anything simply conservative. I refer to the pro-life movement and the school choice and charter school movements. In these cases, the conservative tag has more often than not been put on them by those opposed to their objectives: ensuring legal protection to innocent human life and giving a fairer and enlarged role to parents in the education of their children. The conservative tag is often a way of demonizing and creating a climate where not allowing or not listening to speakers and writers is a style of political action. Each of these movements, however, can be seen as liberalizing if not revolutionary in the light of dominant legally-protected practices. In many communities, persons usually associated with the Democratic Party and various liberal causes have had leadership roles in developing right-to-life organizations and charter schools; such is the case here locally with respect to the influential St. Joseph County Right to Life, and its cause still holds attraction even for some Democratic officeholders despite the Party’s tyrannous opposition to freedom of discussion of this matter.
The Trump victory was over an opponent who promised an enlargement of abortion availability and public funding and who was also locked into opposition to expanded school choice. That victory now provides an opportunity, above all, to check the inclinations of the opposition and thus to give additional time for increased educational efforts on behalf of the objectives of the pro-life and school choice movements. Those objectives have always been more appealing than simply being conservative causes, and the issues related to them call out for fresh examination independent of the lobbies that have dominated the Democratic Party’s stance. I want to return shortly to consider some of the mischaracterizations and misunderstandings of those movements, but first a few words about another potentially significant opportunity that has been provided by the Trump victory.
The Trump victory could well be a victory for the Constitution. It will, of course, depend in large part on his actions, but it has for a time set back the aggressive agenda of an opposition party that welcomes judicial overreach and encourages and practices executive overreach. The cause of the Constitution is an undeniably conservative one; it seeks to preserve and always work from this gift of the Founding generation and this glue of the American nation for two and a quarter centuries. Thoughtful liberals do see the point when they emphasize to all their followers and others that respect for the Constitution and respect for law, which is closely associated with it, is a necessary foundation for the exercise of all of our liberties, for the very lifeblood of civil dialogue embracing both conservatives and liberals. If such respect for the Constitution seems just now to be especially a conservative cause, it is because the Democratic party and its candidate have chosen not to mention the Constitution and contending traditions for interpreting it in responses to questions on potential Supreme Court nominees. Their emphasis is quite invariably on political results congenial to the “progressive agenda” they expect of their legislators.
This presidential campaign, with its attention to the qualities of Supreme Court appointments, to federalism and what might be legally and justly handled in the states, and even to the working of the electoral college in the election’s final phase, has drawn attention to the importance to all citizens of understanding the Constitution, the role of the Declaration of Independence, and the history of fundamental and ordinary law in this nation. There is an alarming deficiency of understanding of all these matters among American citizens as well as their political leaders. Attending to these matters is a necessary task for more than political science majors and those concentrating in constitutional studies. Notre Dame provides rich resources for something more than just information; namely for an informed thinking through of the rationale of the Constitution, its various provisions and many of the important developments that have followed. Here too the Trump victory has provided the time and, let us hope, the impetus for enhanced efforts toward a consensus on fundamental matters.
Education has always been at least one-half of a two-pronged defense of human life in much of the pro-life movement. It has been very successful with the American public and already has contributed greatly to curtailing and reducing the practice of abortion in America. In the light of hostile caricatures and much fog thrown up by its opposition, the pro-life movement and its scholarly wing must make renewed educational efforts that emphasize its support for adoption, its allowance of exceptions for medically necessary abortions on behalf of the life of the mother, its compassion for those who have fallen into abortion and are now needing forgiveness and help, and its assistance for those who have chosen life and have little means of caring for and raising a child. At the same time, the movement needs even more boldness in its educational efforts to show the continuity of fetal life pre- and post-birth, the very emphasis of the American Medical Association that led to nearly all states outlawing medically unnecessary abortion such as those for sex selection and for enjoying greater convenience in life. These are the state laws that were overturned by the overreaching decision in the Roe v. Wade case. Renewed education must lead more to see that abortion is not just another political issue or difference like those involving tax and immigration policies. It is a crime against humanity, both against one’s own human nature and that of the very existence of the victim of abortion. And so it is a grievous sin in the teachings of the Catholic Church as is complicity with such killing and unnecessary tolerance of it.
Much more education is necessary regarding school choice and enhanced parental participation. The education must not only be, as has been the case, about the favorable impact on the quality of education but also on the basic right of parents to choose an education in accord with and infused with their religious convictions. This right is seriously compromised when such parents are financially penalized for exercising it through double taxation. There must always be a public option in education, but it is a falsehood, needing fuller exposure, that vouchers and charter schools take away public school funding, for only that proportion of funding is lost that belongs to the families who choose non-public options. Vouchers are used more widely in other countries, even countries less religious and less religiously pluralistic than the United States. It is in disadvantaged areas and often Afro-American and Hispanic sub-communities that the pressure of double taxation cannot be borne by churches and their schools. Notre Dame’s magnificent ACE Program is one of the most notable national efforts working against the liberal legal tide to bolster education that can be religiously informed and inspired. This is a matter of fairness, religious liberty, and overall justice about which there has been too much silence in the past.
There is much to be grateful for in a political victory that helps secure important freedoms to act. These include the action of revitalizing and extending the education and efforts toward consensus on life issues, school-choice issues, and our very Constitution as a nation.
Walter Nicgorski is Professor Emeritus in the Program of Liberal Studies and Concurrent Professor of Political Science at the University of Notre Dame.