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Mitt Romney was 'a good man with good ideas', writes John McGuirk - who says conservatives cannot win without moving forward to shake off their public perception. Charles Dharapak/AP

Column 'The culture war is over, and conservatives have lost'

Conservatives will win again, writes John McGuirk – but first they must stop allowing themselves to be seen as anti-women, anti-science and anti-rights.

THE MOMENT THAT I, and many others, formed our belief that Mitt Romney would defeat Barack Obama and become the 45th President of the United States was not, as some might believe, after the debate in Denver, Colorado on October 3rd.

Yes, Mitt Romney won the debate, we thought – but surely Obama would refocus onto the economy and make it a race again?

No. When we became convinced was when Obama did something entirely different. Rather than make the case on the economy, he opened and closed his stump speeches in the weeks after with a new line: “There’s only one candidate in this race who will stand up for Big Bird!

The crowds cheered, and the conservatives in my Twitter feed, Gchat, on Facebook and in the real world smiled knowingly and became convinced: this guy is losing. How could he not be? In a race about the economy, with a one trillion dollar deficit and a national debt so large that if piled on top of itself in dollar coins it would stretch to Saturn, the President of the United States was making his stand on defending millions of dollars in unnecessary subsidies to one of the world’s richest and most profitable cartoon characters. He was for the 1 per cent, we thought – but only if they had feathers.

Then it was all about the binders full of women. Sure, we thought. Make our day. Make this race about a not-particularly-awful verbal slip, when household income is down $4,500 and unemployment up since you took office. Our guy will talk about the economy, and it’ll be a contrast between a vision for jobs and recovery and a vision based on new, tiresome, Twitter memes for the lolcatz generation.

We were wrong – boy, were we wrong – and it’s time to face up to why.

‘On the socio-cultural issues of the day, conservatism has resisted reality for too long’

Conservatives have lost the culture war, and right now, despite this economic climate, the culture war is all that matters. There is a generation of voters who will discard economic concerns to vote against a set of social values that they perceive, rightly or wrongly, as bigoted, backward, and wrong.

Gay marriage is no longer a debate about issues; it is a litmus test for political acceptability to an entire generation, moreso even than apartheid was twenty years ago. If we continue to be on the wrong side of that issue, millions will simply refuse to listen to another word we say.

We have lost single women. Conservatives can say that their case on contraception is not about denying it to anybody, but asking people to pay for it themselves – but in a cultural environment where we are already seen (unfairly, certainly, but fairness is irrelevant) as anti-woman, that message doesn’t break through. On the socio-cultural issues of the day, conservatism has resisted reality for too long.

We have lost too, on the environment. We are seen as sceptics of climate change, when in reality we are sceptics of the policies that liberals want us to adopt to tackle it. What is a healthy scepticism of the idea that Government programmes, higher taxes, and malthusian misery can change the climate has been allowed to fester into an idea that as a group, we hate science.

We don’t. We love science – science has brought the world wealth and prosperity, and reduced hunger and famine. In fact, science has shown us how much we can adapt and overcome climate change, but we have refused to sell that message.

‘Conservatism has never been about resisting change’

We cannot continue to be seen as the anti-gay, anti-women, anti-environment, anti-children, pro-bombing-the-hell-out-of-everything people, if for no other reason that we’re really not those people. Conservatism has never been about resisting change, but perfecting and institutionalising change.

For all that that is the image of modern conservatism, the reality is that Governor Romney and Paul Ryan ran on a radical plan to reform and change entitlement spending. In exit polls, people did not fear it. The economic radicalism – the willingness to tackle a state that is too big, too intrusive, takes too much of our money, bonds the next generation to debts we’re unwilling to pay ourselves, and wastes the very money it borrows – was not what hurt him. What hurt him was the hypocrisy charge: the idea that conservatives want Government out of everything but your bedroom.

In the West we live in – and are entering further into – an era of exultant liberalism. Religion is in decline, tolerance for difference has never been higher, our willingness to judge others has never been lower, and we are choosing to bind ourselves further and further to the idea that every problem can be solved by electing a politician to take our money and spend it more wisely than we can ourselves.

In an era of bank bailouts and historic borrowing, a time of debt crises and high unemployment, a decade of stagnation, decline, and depression, liberalism has placed its faith in Government and the state, and not the individual, or the family, or the community.

‘A good man with great ideas paid the price’

If conservatism wants to win again – and win again we will – our message must be consistent.

We trust you to love the right person, regardless of gender, race or creed.

We trust you to cherish the environment in your daily lives and work to leave a better world than the one you entered.

We trust women to thrive and succeed and rise to the top because in our view of the world, nothing is a barrier to brilliance.

We trust people to spend the euro or the dollar or the dinar in their pocket better than a government official who didn’t earn that euro and can never value it as much as the person who did.

We trust science and innovation and the freedom of free people to try new things to create the jobs, ideas, and companies that will power us to the next level.

To be conservative is to be optimistic – to believe that the arc of human history bends ever upwards towards more freedom and prosperity if we trust people and give them all the freedom we can. We won’t win again until we are true to that message. Conservatives have always been about liberating the individual. For two decades we have become the people who want to deny freedom and rights to whole groups of people.

Last night, a good man with great ideas paid the price of that failure – and we will continue to pay it until we realise that the culture war is over, and we lost.

John McGuirk is a conservative commentator and political communications consultant. He ran in the 2011 general election in Cavan-Monaghan. @john_mcguirk

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