Cathy Young is a contributing editor to Reason magazine.
There's no question that this past election has been a major defeat for Republicans. Not only did the Democrats keep the White House, but more Americans voted Democratic than Republican in congressional elections, with the Republicans keeping control of the House only thanks to post-2010 redistricting tilted in their favor.
But is this, as many conservatives lament, a crushing defeat for the principles of liberty and small government?
No. Those ideas have widespread currency, and their proponents have a vital role to play in the political process if they heed a few dos and don'ts.
Don't use the election results to caricature millions of Americans as "moochers" and parasites who want "free stuff." Very few people who voted for Barack Obama fit into that category. (Incidentally, Obama got the votes of 44 percent of people with annual incomes exceeding $200,000 a year.) Most Obama voters want jobs, as well as a basic safety net that can help them through difficult times and provide necessities that the market, at present, often cannot provide for the middle class on its own -- above all, health care.
Proponents of small government need to make a convincing case that their ideas can accomplish this goal.
Don't believe the hype about Americans turning to socialism. Small-government ideas may have actually gotten more popular during the Obama years: According to CNN polls, the share of Americans who agree that the government does too many things that should be left to businesses and individuals went up from 51 percent in 2008 to nearly 63 percent last year.
In exit polls this year, 53 percent of voters agreed with this view, while only 41 percent thought government should do more. Yet nearly one-fifth of those who took the small-government view voted for Obama, which clearly made a difference in this election.
Don't underestimate the importance of social issues to pro-liberty voters. To many men and women who cherish individual freedom, the Republicans were not the party of small government but the party of intrusive government that would ban abortions, discriminate against gays and deport illegal immigrants who have spent most of their lives in this country as productive citizens.
The immigration issue, in particular, is one on which free-market proponents have long dissented from the Conservative Party line, and which has now become a recognized liability for Republicans.
Don't dwell on laissez-faire utopias, and do focus on realistic goals. Some form of the welfare state is all but universally accepted by Americans today -- including tea party members who support Social Security and Medicare. Only 25 percent of voters backed full repeal of Obama's health care law.
Yet it's also clear that the scope of welfare and entitlement programs will have to be reconsidered, for both pragmatic and principled reasons. The health care law, too, may be open to revisions, including those that pare its more bureaucracy-heavy features. But reform initiatives will be much more palatable if they aren't accompanied by every-man-for-himself rhetoric.
Do build bridges to liberals who claim to share some small-government ideas. Elizabeth Warren, the Massachusetts senator-elect whom many conservatives see as a hard-left ideologue, has spoken of championing small business over large Wall Street corporations (which have often been beneficiaries of corporate welfare). Pro-liberty conservatives should seek to enlist her aid in easing the regulatory burden on small business -- a good test of her sincerity on the issue.
Don't demonize the other side. People with different views of the role of government are fellow Americans with different ideas, not the enemy.