Politics & Policy

Conservatives in Crisis — American 2016 Edition

Trump supporters at a rally in Fort Wayne, Ind., May 1, 2016. (Kamil Krzaczynski/Reuters)
Working-class Trump supporters school the policy wonks.

I seem to have been writing articles about conservatism all my life. Not quite, but almost. The first such article for which I was paid appeared in print in 1969 in the Swinton Journal (which, not at all coincidentally, was the first magazine I ever edited.) The article had the uninviting title “The Direction of Conservatism,” and in it I advocated educational vouchers, road pricing, flexible exchange rates, and many other good things from the handbook of classical liberalism. It had quite an impact too. When a second article on flexible exchange rates appeared (“Set the Pound Free” — I had a gift for headlines), Edward Heath, then Tory leader, forbade all the MPs in the parliamentary party from even discussing the topic in the future. Poor Ted. After that it was almost inevitable that as prime minister he would himself introduce floating rates, as he did in an early Euro-currency crisis.

From the Swinton Journal I jumped onto the Daily Telegraph as a parliamentary sketch-writer, producing four comic weekday columns on the previous day’s proceedings in the House of Commons, from 1972 to 1979. In that capacity and later ones, I lived through the Heath revolution (followed swiftly by the Heath counter-revolution), the (Enoch) Powellite revolution (aborted), the Thatcherite revolution (blocked and delayed by “the Wets” in numerous petty rebellions), the eventual establishment of the Thatcher Terror, its overthrow after a decade by notables from the Wet-Europhile leadership class, then the slow, grey disintegration of the party during the John Major interregnum, the long years of exile under the Blair-Brown usurpation, and, finally, Restoration! under the triumphant Tory banner of Modernization. And all that was before I arrived in America and National Review to encounter Buckleyites, Birchers, neos, paleos, tea-partiers, RINOs, and now Monty Trump’s Flying Circus.

So I’ve seen all the heterogeneous groups, hyphenated and unhyphenated, of the vast right-wing conspiracy (Anglosphere, Eastern division) – Heathites, Powellites, Thatcherites, Wets, Dries, permanent revolutionaries, consolidators, Majorettes and modernizers, and the pipes and drums of the Royal Cameronian Trimmers. Most of these people hated each other in relays, and they held wildly differing views on most important subjects. But they all managed to stay with relative cordiality in the same political party for all their political lives. Despite their bitter internecine quarrels, they kept buggering on (in the grand old phrase), and as a result the Tory party survived intact through it all, recovering from its disasters, rising to new successes under Thatcher, and falling to new disappointments under all the other leaders.

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It is possible, as some predict, that its present civil war over the Brexit referendum will finally break the Tory party’s tensile unity. The history of Toryism is full of party splits, realignments, breakaways, and mergers. If the Tories split on this occasion, they will likely pause, regroup, and reunify (perhaps joining with UKIP), as they have done in the past, and as the Canadian Conservatives did under the redoubtable Stephen Harper. Great political parties and great movements of ideas sometimes die, but they rarely fade away. They are tough old beasts that fight from the stomach as much as from the head. And they certainly never die of anything as ephemeral as shame.

So give me a break! Stop yattering on about th­­­­e death of Republicanism or the terminal crisis of conservatism. They’re not even in the intensive-care unit. This is not their finest hour, perhaps, but they will survive.

RELATED: No, Conservatism Isn’t Dying Out

But what will they survive as? Both Trump admirers (broadly defined) and Trump detractors (ditto) see Republican and conservative establishments reeling before a hostile takeover by an invasion of populist Vikings and Visigoths who have come from nowhere under the banners of “No Entitlement Reform” and “America First” nationalism. Peggy Noonan celebrates this; Jonah Goldberg will resist it just short of in perpetuity.

But the main truth here is that this invasion doesn’t come from outside. It is an invasion mainly of people who have been in the ranks of conservatism all along. It is understandable if most commentators haven’t fully grasped this, because the invasion is led by Donald Trump, who does come from outside both movement and party and who, as Camille Paglia noted in a very different context, makes a very fetching Viking (“bedecked with the phallic tongue of a violet Celtic floral tie . . . looking like a triumphant dragon on the thrusting prow of a long boat” — wow!). But the more we look at who votes for The Donald, the more they look like people who have voted Republican in the past. As Michael Brendan Dougherty, echoed by Ross Douthat, points out, they may belong disproportionately to the working and lower-middle classes, but they also belong to the Republican-voting sectors of those classes. (They were voting in GOP primaries, after all.) And if common observation counts for anything, it is the lower social end of the Republican electorate where conservative views are most often to be found (though less on finance, say, than on crime.)

Stop yattering on about th­­­­e death of Republicanism or the terminal crisis of conservatism. They’re not even in the intensive-care unit.

Rod Dreher made exactly this point as early as January when, disagreeing with NR’s “Against Trump” special issue, he noticed that on visits to his family and in talks with neighbors, they agreed with statements by Trump that he felt were not only absurd but also plainly anti-conservative. Yet they believed themselves to be conservatives in good standing and regarded their own views (and Trump’s) as well within the canon. Moreover, they were conservatives in good standing — just not conservatives who met the particular criteria of conservatism required by, well, by people like me who think, argue, and write about these things all the time. And until “policy wonks” were suddenly confronted with the fact that street conservatives differed from them quite seriously on entitlements, immigration, and much else, we were perfectly happy to assume their support or, if we noticed these differences, to believe that they would come around when we explained things carefully. It turns out, however, that they not only had different views but that they rooted these views in a different set of moral values that were both morally decent and broadly conservative. They were astonished to find themselves denounced by us as betraying or abandoning conservatism.

RELATED: What Now, Conservatives?

Take entitlements. Conservative writers have long pointed out that the present structure of such payments is fiscally unsustainable, destructive of self-reliance, unrelated to the contributions beneficiaries have paid in over years, likely to undermine the dependent–worker ratio on which the entitlements depend, and much else. All that is true, and as Jonah rightly points out, people like us are paid to tell the truth, the most relevant truth here being that if something can’t go on, it won’t go on.

Most suburban conservatives don’t see it that way, however, and in particular they distinguish morally between different kinds of transfer payments. As Rod Dreher found when talking to his father, they think that welfare payments going to idlers are quite different from Social Security payments going to retirees. In the first case, they reward vice and/or encourage dependency; in the second, they are the return on their investment in America as hard workers, good providers, helpful neighbors, potential draftees, and patriotic citizens.

RELATED: The GOP’s Ideological Earthquake and the Aftermath

Admittedly, retirees receive far more in Social Security payments than their accumulated contributions could justify in purely investment terms. Often they know that, but they believe on moral grounds that those Americans who built the country, played by the rules, and defended it in war should be last in the line for making sacrifices. In addition, they have been officially told for three-quarters of a century that they will be secure in old age, and so they have legitimate expectations as a result. What prevents these facts from amounting to a knock-down argument is mathematics: The cost of entitlements enjoyed by millions is higher than most other sorts of federal spending. So the wonks-versus-suburbanites battle, refracted through political principles, becomes a clash between two conservative values: honest accounting and moral desert. There can’t be a knockout victory for either principle in a decent stable society. So if legitimate expectations have to be disappointed, that can only be as part of something like what James C. Bennett and Michael J. Lotus in America 3.0 call the “Big Haircut,” in which all social groups sacrifice something in a grand fiscal compromise.

Nothing like that will occur until a great deal of persuasion (from, among others, conservative wonks) has occurred, until well-informed bargaining has taken place among all social groups and their political representatives, and until the sense of crisis is much more acute, spreading even to Democratic politicians. Those things will not happen for at least a decade. Many of today’s retirees will then be dead. So the slogan “protect entitlements” is a reasonable one both before and during any “Big Haircut” negotiations; and any compromise outcome should and will reflect the conservative moral distinctions that at present underpin popular support for entitlements. Finally, most conservative intellectuals — excluding hard-core libertarians — will probably accept such a measured approach as the best practical solution in an imperfect political economy. In other words, we Big Think merchants will end up not very far from these dangerous intruders who are stealing our party.

#share#Another group of alleged invaders are so-called nationalists. It’s been a surprise to me to discover that nationalists are not conservatives in good standing, since they used to be the third leg of the conservative tripod, alongside social and economic conservatives. Some years ago when no one was looking, however, this tripod underwent a transplant, and national conservatives were quietly replaced by “defense conservatives.” That is an absurdly thin and tepid concept (unless you happen to be a defense contractor, in which case the concept becomes a fat and passionate one). It probably reflects the nervousness of mainstream parties and moderate politicians about the full range of national conservative issues that include, as well as foreign policy and defense, crime, multiculturalism, Ferguson-like social disorder, and immigration.

RELATED: After the GOP Darkness, the Dawn of Conservative Opportunity

National conservatism has a domestic concern for the social fabric as well as an outward-looking one for the national interest. (Indeed, I once suggested “social-fabric conservatives” as an alternative to national conservatives.) But because it takes a critical or skeptical view of leftist positions on crime, multiculturalism, etc., it is likely to invite accusations of racism, xenophobia, and much else from the very same leftists. These accusations apparently paralyze thought. For very few conservative politicians have shown enough savvy to reply that an accusation of white racism requires more evidence than that the person accused is white. Instead they remain more or less quiescent, avoiding controversy, in the face of mob violence to shut down political opponents and openly racist campaigns to delegitimize the police.

All of these are matters of acute personal concern to ordinary Americans of all races, since they will be the ones who suffer if the social fabric shreds. In the aftermath of the Ferguson riots, there are signs that the police are holding back from proactively enforcing the law (that, is from taking the “broken windows” approach), thereby enabling a serious rise in urban crime. Regular Americans, especially ordinary conservatives, are increasingly anxious as the crime and disorder spread and as the Democrats almost flagrantly refuse to confront either the evils themselves or their political allies who are pushing them.

National conservatism has a domestic concern for the social fabric as well as an outward-looking one for the national interest

Not only, therefore, is the salience of domestic “nationalist” and/or social-fabric issues rising with everyday conservatives; it is also forging a link between them and conservative intellectuals. Heather Mac Donald, one of the most effective national conservatives writing today, was almost alone for some time in reporting and analyzing the post-Ferguson campaign against the police. Others, at NR and elsewhere, have come to follow her lead. Michael Barone noticed an eerie similarity between the 1960s and ’70s and today: In both periods, liberals discussed crime and other social evils almost wholly in terms of white racism, and partly as a result they lost every election from 1968 to 1992 (with the exception of 1976.) The political impact he highlighted is prompting others to look again at these issues as potential election-winners. And immigration, the issue that Trump exploited as the booster-rocket of his campaign, demonstrates that these national issues are reshaping conservative and Republican politics in an unexpected way.

Until recently there have been two political platitudes on this topic: that immigration divided the conservative grassroots from the GOP donor class and national leadership, and that this division was mimicked by a lesser split, within the conservative intelligentsia, between those who were more and those were less in favor of “open borders.” In fact, the split in the conservative intelligentsia has been gradually resolving itself in favor of those who favor a smaller intake of more-skilled migrants. That position, adopted by NR in 1991 and held by us ever since, is now the dominant position on the intellectual right. It unites the national voters in the wider electorate with most writing conservatives.

RELATED: Does a Conservative Reformation Loom on the Horizon?

What the primary campaign did was to isolate in public view those who were committed to oppose any serious control of open-borders immigration (and, by extension, to oppose the conservative position on other social-fabric issues) — namely, the donor class, the party leadership, the Chamber of Commerce conservatives, and, for months of the campaign, all the candidates except Trump who were unbelievably slow in responding to electoral incentives (i.e., votes) rather than financial ones (i.e., donations.) They are exposed as representing a narrow set of economic interests — essentially corporate America in libertarian camouflage — and offering social and national conservatives rhetorical slogans rather than practical reforms. In effect, they wanted a tripod resting on one leg. And they fell.

What made their fall all but inevitable was that they were selfish, narrow, and unimaginative in their policy thinking — fighting for low-wage immigration and repeating outdated slogans (‘the party of Jack Kemp”) rather than thinking about how to redesign opportunities for the new world of automation, family enterprises, independent contracting, and desktop industrialization. (See Bennett and Lotus again, and, in the Australian journal I edit, “Populism Rising,” by Peter Murphy.)

RELATED: What Has Conservatism Ever Done for Us? A Great Deal, Actually

And it wasn’t a true fall, either, but a temporary loss. They have lost a nearly monopoly control of the GOP (and to a lesser extent, control of the definition of conservatism) not to invaders from outside but to conservative Republicans who suddenly started voting for their opinions rather than for their incumbents. In fact there are far fewer “invaders” (from the Democrat-voting segments of the working class) than I and most other commentators believed at the start of his campaign. That may change, but what we are currently seeing is less a takeover by outsiders than a “reunification” of the party as its disillusioned supporters were suddenly given hope that they might be heard once again. That’s not the best news for the GOP electorally, but it offers the prospect that a post-election GOP will find it easier either to govern or to rethink.

#related#All of these reflections are prompted not by Trump but by those who voted for him — and no less by those who voted for Cruz. Both men led revolutions and both attracted significant levels of support. Between them, they won three-quarters of the votes on the right. Both will influence the GOP in the next decade or two. Those who despair of the effect that Trump’s nomination will have on the GOP should consider a few simple points.

A presidential nominee only borrows his party until the election. If he loses the election, he loses the party, too. If he wins the election but is a failure — and the odds are stacked against the possibility that a candidate such as Trump, without the full support of his party, could succeed as president — he loses the party a little later. If he wins the election and has a successful presidency, he probably reshapes the party in his own image.

But as Captain Renault might reply to #NeverTrumpers: “Surely the Reich doesn’t admit of that possibility.”

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