Beyond the Beltway, conservatives have much to applaud  
© Greg Nash

Many pundits and political elites have lamented the state of conservatism. The movement is fractured they say, its compass is lost. Dysfunction reigns in Washington, along with a general sense of distrust. They’re not alone in their disenchantment. Recently, a Gallup poll found that overall satisfaction with the federal government fell to 34 percent, down six percentage points from last year.

But beyond the Beltway, there is much for conservatives to be optimistic about. People haven’t given up on the American experiment.

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In townships and villages, in big cities and those like my hometown of Milwaukee, innovators are still taking risks with the same perseverance and courage as Harry and Lynde Bradley, the successful industrialists whose eponymous foundation I now lead. According to an annual report by the World Economic Forum, the U.S. ranks second in global competitiveness in part due to our “vibrant innovation ecosystem.” Encouragingly, the innovators are no longer coming just from the coasts. A recent Kauffman Foundation analysis found that an increasing number of start-ups are geographically diverse, springing up in places like Austin, Texas; Columbus, Ohio and Nashville, Tenn. Thanks to a robust economy, the recently passed federal tax reform and the current administration’s regulatory reforms, entrepreneurship should continue to thrive.

With jobless claims bottoming at levels not seen in decades, now has never been a better time to enact welfare policies that promote long-term employment. On this count too, conservatives should have hope. Recently, the president signed an executive order laying the groundwork for real welfare reform, which includes giving states more flexibility to change their welfare programs. That very same day in Wisconsin, Gov. Scott Walker signed a package of welfare reform bills that move more residents back to productive work. Other states, such as Kentucky, Tennessee, and Missouri, have been taking a hard look at how they can do the same.

Yet putting people back to work, where they can gain a deeper sense of dignity and self-reliance, isn’t simply a matter of signing an executive order or passing new laws. Men and women need to be equipped with a useful education and marketable skills in order to compete. Here too, Wisconsin has led the way with its school choice program, which has become a roadmap for other states.

More than 200 schools statewide in 2018-19 are planning to participate in the Wisconsin Parental Choice Program, which offers private school vouchers for more than 4,500 students. According to a study just out from the Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty, students in the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program were about 4 percentage points more likely to score at the “proficient or above” level in mathematics and 5 percentage points higher in reading than students enrolled in the public schools. This is consistent with a MacIver Institute analysis last year which found that on a statewide performance exam, “students enrolled in Wisconsin’s parental choice programs outperformed their public school peers in every category.”

Increasingly, states are also making real progress in putting policies in place that help Americans flourish economically and offer greater individual freedom. Right to work laws, now on the books in more than two dozen states, continue to gain support. Polls show that Americans, even those who are union members, overwhelmingly support laws that make union membership and dues paying voluntary. And contrary to what detractors have claimed, research shows that right to work laws have not led to either worker abuses or economic stagnation. 

The hard-fought policy wins cited here are the yield of robust ideas in this country, and on that score, conservatives have much to be thankful for. On May 15 in Washington, three outstanding individuals will be honored with the Bradley Prize, given annually to those who seek to restore, strengthen and protect the principles and institutions of American exceptionalism. They are: Allen Guelzo, a leading historian of the Civil War and a champion of free speech; Charles Kesler, a scholar of American constitutionalism at Claremont McKenna College; and Jason Riley, columnist and a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute.

Our country continues to stand as a beacon of freedom and hope for the whole world. And in the cities and towns and rural crossroads, free enterprise continues to flourish, while communities cooperatively craft new initiatives that make life better for us all. That’s the true source of American greatness.

Richard W. Graber is president and chief executive officer of The Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation in Milwaukee.