The Way Forward from the Midterms

(James Lawler Duggan/Reuters)
Conservatives’ fundamental challenge is to convince Americans to re-engage with family and civic institutions outside of government.

With the 2018 midterm elections now in the rearview mirror, Republicans have been awakened to a simple fact: The laws of political gravity apply to President Trump. Democrats won sweeping victories in the House, kept their Senate losses to a near-minimum despite a brutal map, and took down-ballot races with alacrity. Republicans won heavily Republican districts, but they lost competitive districts. Their historical advantage among suburban voters flatlined. They lost ground in Michigan, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, and Arizona; they nearly lost ground in Georgia and Florida, too. Down-ballot Republicans even felt the heat in Texas.

All of which suggests that many Republican pundits’ seeming optimism in the election’s aftermath is wishful thinking. As the reality of the new landscape sets in, certain Republicans seem determined to come up with a new, policy-based form of Trumpism. This Trumpism is based on a recognition of two forces tearing apart the working class: the bifurcation of opportunity based on education and the breakdown of the nuclear family. In 2008, Ross Douthat, now of the New York Times, and Reihan Salam, now of National Review, wrote:

Safe streets, successful marriages, cultural solidarity, and vibrant religious and civic institutions make working-class Americans more likely to be wealthy, healthy, and upwardly mobile. Public disorder, family disintegration, cultural fragmentation, and civic and religious disaffection, on the other hand, breed downward mobility and financial strain —which in turn breeds further social dislocation, in a vicious cycle that threatens to transform a working class into an underclass.

Today, this banner has been picked up by Oren Cass of the Manhattan Institute, author of the new bestseller The Once and Future Worker. Cass makes a similar case, arguing for a “working hypothesis . . . that a labor market in which workers can support strong families and communities is the central determinant of long-term prosperity and should be the central focus of public policy.”

These thinkers argue in favor of a certain political pragmatism: Cut regulations here, increase regulations there; push wage subsidies here, remove minimum-wage laws there. All of this does raise one fundamental question, however: Is government intervention truly likely to lead to the revitalization of family and community? Do families and communities rebuild themselves on the basis of economic policy, or must the preconditions for economic thriving be in place first? When those preconditions are undermined, does prosperity naturally fade away?

These questions go to the heart of our politics and raise another serious question: Can political conservatism survive the growth of government-led intervention designed to shore up fundamental institutions? When it comes to government intervention, what’s the limiting principle? If we believe government can rebuild the labor market according to Cass’s prescriptions, or rebuild families according to Douthat’s and Salam’s, where is the line drawn? Tucker Carlson recently suggested on my show that he’d ban automatic driving because of the danger of job loss among blue-collar workers, for example. Would that be a bridge too far? If so, why?

Constitutional philosophy suggests that Douthat, Salam, and Cass are completely right when it comes to the world they seek to build: safe, stable, culturally solid, community-oriented. But constitutional philosophy also suggests that the institutions that hold up such a world cannot be created by government. Churches do not thrive because government subsidizes them; families do not thrive because government subsidizes them. Nobody goes to church for the tax write-off, and nobody gets married and has children for the earned-income tax credit. Tax write-offs and tax credits are at best slight incentives not to abandon plans already made. They are not incentives to build societally important institutions.

This means that conservatism’s fundamental challenge these days is extra-governmental: convincing Americans to re-engage with family and civic associations outside of government, which cannot effectuate such re-engagement itself.

By the same token, conservatives can focus on removing governmental disincentives toward family and community and work. This is where Douthat, Salam, and Cass are most valuable: They all discuss, at length, ways to remove government barriers to institution-building, from regulatory reform to rethinking the educational system. That’s something Republicans can talk about successfully all day long. Conservatives can also focus on removing cultural disincentives toward institution-building. This is where the culture war matters: fighting the Left’s constant focus on breaking down family structure, disdain for stay-at-home mothers, disparagement of religious Americans, and distaste for American cultural solidarity.

But the moment conservatives try to build Trumpism around a policy of government do-gooderism, they run into the problem they seek to alleviate. Americans value family and community because they have values, not because family and community must be made more economically valuable. If we rely on material incentives to prop up our most vital social institutions, those institutions are likely to continue disintegrating — and to take the economic freedom we hope to promote in the end with them.

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