Is there a way forward for American conservatism? Is there even such a thing anymore as a coherent entity called conservatism in America? The answer to both questions is yes, and the point of departure is to shape the energies of our surging populism with a robust practice of self-government. Those who have read Tim Alberta’s brilliant profile of John Boehner in Politico, however, could easily conclude that the answer on both counts is no.
The piece recounts with the hilarity of hindsight the mounting challenges former speaker Boehner faced from the Republican Study Committee, the House Freedom Caucus, and a host of inside-the-Beltway groups such as Heritage Action and Freedom Works. The perception by Representative Jim Jordan (R., Ohio), Senator Ted Cruz (R., Texas), and their acolytes of Boehner as unwilling to contest President Obama for every inch of ground exasperated him as speaker. The result was a weak and divided GOP unable to contest a unified Obama-Pelosi-Reid front. “It’s hard to negotiate when you’re standing there naked,” Boehner told Alberta. Frustrated and facing rising challenges on his right flank, Boehner finally retired.
Boehner is equally dismissive of the Trump-led Republicans in Washington. Anyone paying cursory attention knows that in Trump’s Washington the conservative divisions have metastasized. Boehner squared off against an unreasonable and aggressive small-government wing. But now the establishment center, which features its own immoderate tendencies, must also contest a strident populist element that is likely to grow even stronger.
What does it mean to have a governing conservative majority these days in Washington, D.C.? One substantive answer is that for the moment progressive policies are shelved. There have also been a slew of federal judges with impeccable Federalist Society credentials confirmed. And the GOP’s regulatory rollback via the authority of the Congressional Review Act continues apace. That’s not nothing, and the newly appointed originalist conservative judges will pay dividends for years. But it’s also underwhelming from the standpoint of major legislation passed, portending heavy Republican losses in 2018.
Boehner errs, though, by refusing to acknowledge that there might be actual political legitimacy to the discontents in the GOP and in the country at large. Populism continues to surge on both the right and the left. On this disruption the late Peter Lawler, in his National Affairs essay “Our Country Split Apart,” one of his last interventions, said it well:
The party with a future, we should hope, is the one that best builds a coalition that preserves its principled devotion to liberty while acknowledging and accommodating the reasonable claims — both for economic security and personal dignity — of the populists.
Both parties are destined to suffer defeat if they slight our new populism or have nothing but contempt for it. There’s a lot to be learned from Trump’s success about the true relationship between liberty and equality in our country, and about the threats to both that come from our complacency in the face of the coming apart of our middle-class country, as it diverges into two increasingly distant classes.
That is to say, the conservatism that wins or, at this point, that can even govern and abstain from strangling itself will incorporate the energies of a conservative populism into its framework. This judgment seems so obvious, and yet an agreement on how it could be done is not evident.
During the failed attempt to reform health care, President Trump did not attempt to articulate policies that might actually speak to working-class and middle-class restlessness on this subject. The mantra of “Repeal and Replace” played into the standard Democratic charge that ending Obamacare would mean that every family — man, woman, and child — would have to fend for itself.
Tax reform is somewhat different. As James Wallner notes, the Republican party is split between a pro-growth approach and one that aims to relieve the particular tax burdens faced by working- and middle-class families while leaving untouched the highest marginal income-tax rate. Ramesh Ponnuru critiques the current tax proposal’s problems as resting on its ambiguity for middle-class families:
It commits to a big expansion of the standard deduction, which would be $12,000 for singles and $24,000 for families. It endorses a “significant” increase in the child credit. But it also abolishes the personal exemptions and raises the tax on the first $9,300 of taxable income from 10 to 12 percent.
Many working- and middle-class Americans pay little or even no federal taxes on their incomes. Their biggest tax hit is their contributions to Social Security and Medicare. Why not lessen this burden on young families with children? If the chief contribution of those in the highest tax bracket is their ideas and capital, the contribution of middle-class families to the country and to civil society is the children they are raising. So make it easier on them. Doing so not only would be populist but would incentivize family formation, the fertile field of continued conservative Republican government.
But these particular conservative measures lack, Daniel McCarthy tells us, the vision thing. Such reforms always tinker with the incentives and the fine grains of policy, but never employ a root-and-branch analysis that could lay the groundwork for the next conservative majority.
How should conservatism do the vision thing? The new statement “A Way Forward,” coming out of the American Project at the Pepperdine School of Public Policy, speaks to an attempt to restore American constitutionalism by showing how certain populist insights connect with our Constitution. This statement, signed by Avik Roy, Elizabeth Spalding, Ted McAllister, Bruce Frohnen, and others, does not root our shared citizenship in abstractions or theory. The statement successfully navigates the shoals of a hollowed-out individualism and the collective progressivism best seen in Obama’s “Life of Julia” campaign cartoon.
“A Way Forward” is built on understanding people as both citizens and creatures. The statement curiously does not build its positions on the language of the Declaration of Independence but relies on “the idea grounded in our Constitution.” The signatories note that what is, ultimately, exceptional about America is our Constitution, which provides the basis for “the energetic social and political institutions — from schools and houses of worship to workplaces and political parties — to supply moral order and speak to our deep human needs for virtue and belonging.”
A robust republicanism informs “A Way Forward.” The statement observes that conservatism lost itself in its successes after the 1980s, where “the simple equation of economic policies meant to produce growth became a simplistic mantra for winning elections.” The fallout from globalism and the incessant wars of our ruling class were ignored by conservatives for too long. Thus conservative calls for limited government, free markets, and the rule of law eventually proved to be meaningless abstractions in the eyes of many Americans, remote from their actual experiences as workers, family members, citizens, and worshipers.
The statement evinces that we are relational persons who must understand ourselves in connection to our past and in our responsibilities to one another in order to govern ourselves as republican citizens. If this is secured, then we can build a future with reforms and innovations rooted in who we are as a constitutional people.
If the American motto — E Pluribus Unum (“Out of many, one”) — is to be restored, then a politics of active citizenship that aims for a robust civic identity must be rooted in constitutional principles that support competitive markets, education as a citizen-shaping institution, faith as an institution that calls us out of ourselves, and an America-centric foreign policy. This is the politics that recognizes the differentiated dimensions of the human person that find expression in and are mediated by self-government, work, family, and religion. The interpersonal institutions that articulate these deep longings of the human heart must be rebuilt, and it is conservatism’s unique role to see that they are. Now that’s a vision, but one that’s rooted in our Constitution and the social and political order it is designed to guarantee. The rest is just policy details.
— Richard Reinsch is the editor of the Law and Liberty website and the host of LibertyLawTalk. He is also the editor of Seeking the Truth: An Orestes Brownson Anthology (CUA Press, 2016). You can follow him on Twitter @Reinsch84.