After a demoralizing defeat in the 2012 elections, Republicans knew they needed to a new vision to help the party survive shifting demographics and a new generation of voters.
Policymakers should look to cities — microcosms of the national political scene — as they decide how to reimagine the party. In particular, Republican leaders could learn a lot by studying the most conservative city in the nation: Provo, Utah.
Provo has a unique brand of socially conscious conservatism: back-to-the-basics values that are practiced with people and practicality in mind.
For the past several years, Provo has succeed by ignoring extremist antics and staying focused on pared-down conservative ideals: practicing fiscal responsibility, focusing on individual freedoms, encouraging the private market and approaching social issues with reasonable solutions. Meanwhile, they're gaining traction with millennials by using social media and encouraging citizen engagement.
Provo, recently recognized as the best place for business and careers in the country, has thrived despite a troubled national economy. They've cut red tape, fees and regulations. Their downtown has seen unprecedented growth and has become a haven for arts, music and culture. During the past four years, sales tax revenue has increased every year, and Provo has seen a 31 percent increase in commercial development.
While other parents around the nation are clearing out their extra bedrooms for post-college "boomerang children" who can't survive with hefty student loans in jobless cities, Provo's young people are making things happen. Provo's embrace of socially conscious conservative values has made the city a playground for young artists, musicians, inventors and innovators.
Reining in the city budget has made it possible for residents to exercise more control over the way their taxes are spent. Tax increases happen rarely, almost always by public vote and for major initiatives that benefit the community as a whole. A temporary increase in taxes, for example, funded the new Provo Recreation Center — now one of the best recreation centers in the West.
One tough call Provo leaders recently made was to offer their struggling fiber network system to the private market. Ultimately, Provo became the third Google Fiber city in the nation, offering residents free basic service for seven years. Meanwhile, surrounding cities that opted to retain control over their own public networks are looking at decades of potential service cutbacks or tax increases to pay for inevitable upgrades.
Distancing themselves from a decade of talk about tough zoning laws and a focus on cookie cutter Stepford-Wives-style suburbanization, Provo has prioritized property rights. A slight loosening of laws has breathed life into downtown neighborhoods and attracted professionals, creatives and families that are raising backyard chickens, fixing up antique cars, making tree houses, planting front yard vegetable gardens, installing solar panels and xeriscaping their parking strips. It's a far cry from neighboring Orem, "Family City, USA," that once arrested a 70-year old after she failed to keep a picture-perfect front lawn.
For the most part, local conservatives are taking a compassionate, practical approach to social issues. Volunteers in Provo offer more of their time than those in any other mid-size city in the nation. Through public and private partnerships, neighborhoods propose needed projects and bring the man hours while the city funds the material costs.
Local residents handle hot national issues with a calm, socially aware attitude. In addressing environmental concerns, Provo has added bike lanes, commuter rail, opt-out recycling and a group purchase of residential solar panels. On their own initiative, city employees plant a rooftop vegetable garden at the city building and donate their annual crop to the needy. Legislation offers solutions through options, not force.
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Provo is proving that "open-minded" and "caring" aren't synonyms for "liberal." They're already showing that socially conscious conservatism can work for government, for business, and — most importantly — for people. Now, they're just waiting for national leaders to pay attention.
Jamie Littlefield, a California native, now lives in downtown Provo where she writes, teaches college English, stays up late discussing legislation with her city councilman husband, rides her blue bicycle around the city and enjoys the good life.