Because I think an intelligent conservatism is a good thing to have in government, I've been thinking a bit about the future of conservatism in America. It's interesting to ponder whether the forces holding the Republican Party together are stronger than the ones that want to tear it apart.
First off, there's the problem of Social Conservatism. If we define conservatism as the desire to resist change, social conservatism is that force applied to American culture. The problem is that American culture is the result of millions of individual choices, so the Social Conservative approach is, essentially, anti-choice. Abortion is a classic example, where the "conservative" stance is to advocate for government interference in the most private decisions of families.
That'd be fine, if it weren't for the Classic Conservatives, who define conservatism as being in favor of less government interference across the board (but particularly when it comes to business), and fiscal responsibility (no/low deficits, low taxes, good value for public funds). This is the wing of the party that has found common cause with Libertarians.
And then there are the xenophobes, who are a particular subset of the Social Conservatives that are particularly cheesed-off that the social change in society has resulted in diminishment of white male privilege, accompanied by an increase in rights and opportunities for women, blacks, hispanics, immigrants, gays, etc. They're a dying breed, but they're vocal as hell, and still have a lot of power in the party (see Tom Delay, for one). The problem is that they're so foul that they drive a lot of people out of the party who might otherwise participate. As Ta-Nehisi Coates points out, African-Americans are, as a group, mostly socially conservative. So are Hispanics.
Blacks don't vote Republican because cross-burners do. Hispanics voted for Bush because he reached out to them, but the immigration debate drove them away because the xenophobes took it over, and nobody really stood up to them. McCain sort of did, but then he sold Hispanics out when the primary season started, and they noticed.
There are a lot of conservative, religious gays out there, but the Republicans have, again, doubled-down on xenophobia with their fight against gay marriage. Let's face it, if any group of gays were likely to vote Republican, it was the ones wanting to get married. Now? Not so much.
These are the same forces that are costing them young people, who are becoming less xenophobic with each generation.
What's the solution? In the short term, I think they can hold it together and muster together the occasional majority if they kick the xenophobes to the curb in some spectacular fashion (like nominating Bobby Jindal for President), but they've enshrined homophobia as a core value, which is a long-term losing issue. Ultimately, though, they've got to deal with the fact that they're using two incompatible definitions of "conservative". Ultimately, they'll have to pick one and stick with it.
The question is: will either definition attract a majority of voters?