Where are the American Conservatives headed?
Nowadays, when Conservatives look to the future from outside the White House, I often hear terms like “new rights” or “Republicans of realignment”. I hinted at or used the terms myself while writing The American Conservative and The Daily Caller. President Trump’s angry capture of the GOP presidential nomination five years ago disrupted the Republican establishment. The American right has and is undergoing a transformation. But what kind of transformation? Where does it come from? What does it stand for?
Terms and labels like these are up for grabs. Conservative intellectuals and experts of all stripes, from academics to experts and journalists, are aware that the party is in the process of renaming itself. But as far as I know, no one has confidently adopted the label “new law”. No doubt a lot more ink is spilled on the subject. But I would like to sketch the situation on the right hand side by first anticipating the contours of a new law as it has been articulated so far; and then propose – knowing the conversation is ongoing – what this realigned movement is should look, because I believe there might be a thing or two worth saving from Conservatism, Inc.
The common good against the world
The “Against the Dead Consensus” manifesto, which was co-signed by 15 mostly Catholic intellectuals, professors and journalists, did not usher in a new era for the GOP. But the essay in the ecumenical publication First things gave voice and cohesion to the ideas that enlivened the new Trump coalition. By and large, the dead consensus relates to the Reagan-era commitment to rampant free trade and tax cuts, tax cuts, and more tax cuts – the so-called “supply-side” economy. The same consensus assumed a collaboration between social conservatism and a libertarian view of the role of government. But this assumption was no longer tenable, argued the signatories at a time when the culture wars had clearly been lost by the right and the federal government had been turned into weapons to enforce obedience to a progressive cultural policy. In addition, as Rod Dreher and others have pointed out on these pages, big corporations, like big governments, are increasingly awakened. This criticism of Reagan-era thinking assumes that social conservatism must become an activist policy determined to challenge the cultural power of the left. To quote Professor Gladden Pappin:
Modern American Conservatives … by making it their business to defend liberalism in its market and social aspects, have made it impossible for themselves to articulate the purpose of power … Liberalism was a theory used to explain the state; and conservatism was a theory used to explain freedoms, not the state.
The reasoning here is simple. The American right was so preoccupied with the dangers of government power that the conservatives could no longer understand or articulate what the government should achieve if the right won elections. And so the New Right tries (again) to understand the positive goals of political power and formulates an extremely conservative theory of the state. The rhetoric of “common good” conservatism advocated by Marco Rubio, Sohrab Ahmari and others who are often committed to Catholic social doctrine represents an attempt to articulate a conservative theory of state power. They aim to go beyond the “kick on me” thoughts of the Reagan-defined GOP.
The term “dead consensus” is so widespread in such political circles that prominent conservative intellectuals – although their prominence is threatened by Trumpism – like Bill Kristol and Charles C. W. Cooke have had to acknowledge the term in debates. Kristol admitted that his position is the “dead or not so dead” consensus in a recent round table discussion sponsored by the Intercollegiate Studies Institute. He recognized the plight of Reagan style neoconservatism in our time and his hopes to restore its meaning.
Six months after the publication of the article “Dead Consensus” in late 2018, Sohrab Ahmari published another one First things Play “Against David Frenchism”. He developed his vision of a socially conservative, economically populist government ready to abandon laissez-faire as a solution forever and everywhere, and stressed the need for conservatives to use government levers to promote the common good. Ahmari’s essay was read as a rejection of classically liberal conservatism by David French, Bret Stephens and other “never trumpers” and, even more obscurely, as a turn to the illiberal, authoritarian right with overtones of Franco’s Spain. Stephens claims:
What is needed, [Ahmari] writes, is “to wage the culture war with the aim of defeating the enemy and enjoying the spoils in the form of a public place that is rearranged for the common good and ultimately for the highest good.” That is the voice of a budding theocrat, even if he has not yet found the courage to recognize the conviction.
David French also rejected Ahmari’s adoption of the language of “common good” and “supreme good”. The French described this as an obvious violation of the secularly sacred religious neutrality of the public. The government, the French claimed, could not claim to be acting in the name of the Christian faith – with the possible exception of abortion or euthanasia. Its main role is to act as a neutral arbiter between the ideas of the greatest good, to protect freedom of expression and the ability of all to enforce their particular visions of it.
Amid the turmoil surrounding Ahmari’s column, there was a debate between Ahmari and the French, moderated by New York Times Columnist Ross Douthat and moderated by a subsidiary of Claremont book review—Another important institutional actor in these talks. The encounter was informative, necessary and sometimes ugly. We can discuss who “won”, but for my purposes it doesn’t matter. The dialectic between Ahmari’s and French’s visions for the GOP continues. It is usually referred to as Reagan-era small-state libertarianism against a new conservative populism; The latter is embodied in the trust-destroying anti-big-tech crusaderism of Josh Hawley and President Trump’s confrontational approach to the culture wars, whom his fans revered and insulted opponents.
A renewed American nationalism
After the Franco-Ahmari debate, I was also convinced that the struggle to define a new right was essentially about libertarian business-as-usual for the group-friendly GOP in opposition to the party’s populist wing. But Daniel McCarthy, editor of Modern age and a participant in these debates takes a different perspective. In an interview he stated:
The split in the GOP is not between libertarians and populists, but between highly educated Republicans in the suburbs and the groups among which Trump grew in 2016 (less educated voters in developed countries) and 2020 (Hispans and blacks, especially in economically growing countries) like Florida and Texas).
Suburban centrists, and women in particular, have been turned off by Trump’s style and demeanor. Ironically, it was likely what made Trump so inedible to the highly educated that made him popular with Rust Belt voters in 2016 and increased his minority percentage in 2020. His support base celebrates his willingness to participate in the culture wars, in which the country’s club-republicans would rather dodge or strategically withdraw. There is an inherent danger in McCarthy’s narrative in using the dichotomy of large and small government as hermeneutics to interpret the GOP’s struggles. “I think both libertarian and socialist Republicans, like Mitt Romney, misunderstand what’s happening,” McCarthy explains. The GOP libertarian wing misunderstands the upper Midwest and Northeast voters who tipped the scales for Trump in 2016:
The industrialized region’s voters … don’t want generosity, they just want an end to the rip-off – both from China and other foreign competitors, as well as America’s own leadership class. Tariffs are not generous for Americans; they are a punishment for the Chinese and predators.
McCarthy is also cautious about right-wing attempts to create a social market economy based on the European model, which is being transformed into a socially conservative social market economy. (This trend is manifested in calls for “family policy,” including expanded tax credits for families with children, advocated by Oren Cass and Senators Rubio, Hawley, Romney, and others). As McCarthy puts it:
I think the GOP has to be very careful trying to outperform the Democrats on government generosity, and simply offering different kinds of generosity won’t necessarily work – especially if the Democrats can always say, “I am for all of your suggestions and more.”
McCarthy sees Americans – even, and perhaps especially, the working class of all races – as unwavering in their allegiance to the notion of the American dream as self-enabling prosperity, not dependence on government. McCarthy warns against the excesses of the statist right as well as the idleness of the libertarian wing of the GOP. He calls for a party that is “tough on crime, trade with China and on the border, but confident of the ingenuity of the American people if only our government stops subsidizing radicals, criminals and crooks and we leave our workers are not defenseless against foreign fraud. ”What then should the new law look like? The answer for McCarthy is simple: “The 21st century Democratic Party is at its core welfare addict and anti-national. The GOP should be essentially anti-welfarist and nationalist. “
A republican party for the working class
R. R. Reno, editor of First things and a proponent of the paradigm shift towards a GOP of workers is more willing to embrace the libertarian-populist dichotomy as a useful framework. In response to Daniel McCarthy’s comment that the GOP’s greatest tension is between well-educated suburban residents and non-college graduates, RR Reno politely replied, “Daniel changes the subject. … You asked him an idea question and he responded with a demographic answer. But this demographic divide also follows an ideological divide. ”Since the 1950s and until the Goldwater nomination in 1964, the post-war GOP has been“ libertarian….[Now] we are getting a more solidarity-based conservatism that is on the rise. “As Reno sees it,
Over the decades, the Reagan Consensus evolved [to the point that it] now serves the interests of the highly educated … the highly educated are the winners of the post-industrial globalized economy … Daniel is right that the new GOP coalition does not want welfare. They say, “The free market system worked for you, the highly educated, and now it is time for you, the politicians, to make it work for us.”
Even in the refined world of the free market, politics play a role, argues Reno. “If Facebook hires a software engineer with a doctorate,” they benefit from a “$ 500,000 investment in their training that Facebook didn’t have to pay for … these machine parts they have to pay to train their workers.” The federal government is writing a vocational training procedure for university graduates, but not for university graduates.
Reno points out that while Wall Street hit 80-20 for Biden, midsize and regional corporations were strong for Trump. The Democrats and the “liberal establishment” (represented in both parties until the last few decades) won the Cold War. They used the authority gained by this victory to pursue a globalist agenda. But it has led to overfunding and the resulting deindustrialization of the American economy. This reorientation of economic policy (often in conjunction with foreign policy) has worked extremely well for the highly educated. But it left the working class – white and non-white – behind.
The Democrats and the nationalist-populist Republicans offer different answers to the now obvious “negative externalities” of the neoliberal order. And here Reno’s position is almost exactly in line with McCarthy’s statement that the new GOP, while perhaps “nationalist”, is “anti-welfarist”: “The Democrats’ response is UBI – we’re making you a first world consumer. The Republicans’ answer: We guarantee you a productive role [meaningful work] in a First World Economy. One is a wage and job promise, the other is an income and consumption promise. ”Republicans’ emphasis on work and workers attracts the working class, including a growing proportion of Hispanic and black voters.
The anti-China party
The subject of work inevitably brings us to the subject of China. The left has become a globalist prejudice, as demonstrated by Biden’s strong support from Wall Street and Big Tech. American workers are beginning to understand that the Democrats – in Reno’s words – are “rhetorically disarmed” when it comes to the rise of China and its predatory trade practices. The same liberal establishment that won the Cold War and pursued free trade and de facto open borders are now being discredited by their continued adherence to these principles in times of new thinking. When it comes to confronting China and international affairs in general, Reno posits that America must continue to promote a “stable global system” even as it reassesses our country’s borders in the face of Afghanistan, Iraq, and other foreign misfortunes:
I am a revisionist, not a revolutionary. It is naive to think the US would [not] be or not militarily the most powerful nation in the world … [but] I am [also] in favor of a sober assessment of the limits. After the end of the Cold War, we lost the limits of our power.
Working for the future
When I ask Reno whether he uses the term “new right” or “republican realignment” to describe what’s happening now, he’s cautious. “New Right sounds like an echo of the term ‘New Left’ from the 1960s…. I think William F. Buckley probably also thought that he was creating a “new right”. As a term, it means change, doesn’t it? It’s a completely innocent term. ”As a representative of this change, Reno seems cautious about accepting a certain label on our phone conversation. I remember Russell Kirk’s admonition that conservatism should be inherently pragmatic and anti-ideological. In Reno’s view, politics relies on the virtue of prudence. At this critical point in history, Republicans are correcting – not unanimously, and at least not yet with a single vote – the excesses of the Reagan era:
And if I succeed [in changing the direction of the party]… my grandchildren will be annoyed with me because they have to repair all excesses that come out of this political moment … In my opinion, politics needs the right theory at the right time. There is neither a theory nor an algorithm.
He says these last words while giggling, revealing a trace of the Gipper that hasn’t gone – that of the optimist and the merry warrior whose principles don’t give him the opportunity to make fun of himself.
Daniel McCarthy, R.R. Reno, prominent figures in the national GOP, and times themselves show that the GOP is changing. The party appears to be on the way to expanding its appeal as a party of labor and a party of national sovereignty. Ironically, the change in direction of the new law works in the service of preservation. The Democrats insist on a world of constant change and treat “change” as a virtue in itself: everything needs to be changed, from energy consumption to definitions of man and woman to the grammar of the English language itself.
The new right, on the other hand, works to prop up the permanent things. It aims to restore the guard rails of economic policy and counteract the economic deregulation of the neoliberal consensus. The same applies to culture and the growing consensus in favor of family-friendly politics. To be able to fill up your car and work in a factory that actually makes things, to be able to discuss national identity and the common good without fear of quotation marks – these seem to be relatively obvious goods. Obviously maybe, but controversial in the 21st century. They are the axiomatic things that Republican realignment is fighting for.
Kurt Hofer is a native Californian with a Ph.D. in Spanish literature. He teaches high school history at an independent school in Los Angeles.