Learning the Wrong Lessons from Reform Conservatism

A Trump supporter holds an American flag at a rally in Madison, Ala., February 2016. (Marvin Gentry/Reuters)
The reform conservatives’ diagnosis of American society has aged well, but they overlook the cultural stakes of our contemporary political divide.

NRPLUS MEMBER ARTICLE D espite titling their recent essay for National ReviewThe Next Coalition of the Right,” Yuval Levin and Ramesh Ponnuru are less focused on the future than on the past. Levin and Ponnuru were leading lights of “reform conservatism,” an intellectual and political movement now deceased. Their essay is a postmortem of sorts: It sets forth an explanation for why the reformocon attempts to redefine the conservative agenda failed, and seeks to draw lessons from this failure for the future. The trouble: Levin and Ponnuru have learned the wrong lessons from the fall of their movement. At the zenith of the reformocon moment, reformocons were fiercely critical of the Republican establishment for mistaking the problems of the present with the problems of the past. Now the mandala has turned: Today it is the reformocons themselves who are trapped in the lens of a generation out of date.

The phrase “reform conservatives” is most closely associated with the people who staffed or wrote for the Conservative Reform Network (also called the YG Network) in the early 2010s, which includes both Ponnuru and Levin. In this piece I will also lump outsiders who shared the general vision of this Beltway clique but had no formal ties to it (for example, Michael Lotus and James Bennett’s America 3.0 remains the most compelling statement of the basic reformocon vision I have read, though neither author ever adopted the title “reformocon”) in with them. The movement was first and foremost a response to the victories of Barack Obama and the failures of the Bush presidency. The central tenet of the reformocons was that the then-existing conservative consensus was three decades behind the times. A conservatism fit to 21st-century conditions demanded more than rewarmed platitudes from the Reagan era. There was an implicit generational lens to this critique: Almost all of the reformocons hailed from Generation X, and many explicitly portrayed their ideas an attempt to seize intellectual terrain from fogey old Boomers frozen in a past forever gone. Their job was to take the energy that Republican defeats and the Tea Party revolt had poured into conservative politics and channel it into a more coherent, practical, and forward-looking framework of ideas and policies.

This framework began with the recognition that American political elites generally, and Republican elites in particular, had become economically and socially isolated from the mass of the American people. This isolation caused the GOP’s governing class to miss the obvious: Married couples, not corporate suits and financiers, are the natural constituency of any conservative movement, and the actual backbone of Republican electoral success. Policy should strengthen families and encourage family formation. The disintegration of family life among the working classes was the greatest disaster to befall post-war America. This disaster was matched in scale by two other challenges, each of which threatened to unwind the fabric of American society. The first was the deteriorating economic security of middle-class families, who were forced to take on enormous debt and then defer marriage, children, and other joyous things to have any hope of holding place in America’s meritocratic hunger games. The second was the slow death of American civic society. This collapse in social capital left the American people isolated, atomized, and lonely. Such a people lack resilience. As the reaching social and economic policies of the Obama presidency vividly demonstrated, such a people will also inevitably turn to the federal government as the first solution to their ills.

To renew American society, then, Republicans needed to empower normal Americans to solve their own problems without interference from or reliance on federal power. The reformocons favored what some of them called “decentralization” and others termed “subsidiarity”: Whenever possible, problems that the federal government managed should be handled instead by state governments (or in Lotus and Bennet’s more interesting formulation, compacts of states). Many things that state governments do would in turn be handed over to cities or to civic organizations and private enterprise. This would effectively end many national culture-war controversies. Tribe blue would be free do its thing in blue territory, and tribe red the same in its. Items of concern that could not be pushed downward would be evaluated according to two standards: Will this help or will this hinder middle- and working-class families? Will this help or will this hinder a renaissance in American civic life?

This last question is important. In the reformocon worldview, decentralizing meant not just devolving the federal government downward but building local communities upward. As Levin wrote for National Review in 2014:

The premise of conservatism has always been . . . that what matters most about society happens in the space between the individual and the state — the space occupied by families, communities, civic and religious institutions, and the private economy. . . . Creating, sustaining, and protecting that space and helping all Americans take part in what happens there are among the foremost purposes of government.

That was the reformocon vision for making America good again. It was a glorious vision — a glorious vision rendered inert.

In the year 2020, debates over ideas matter more to the Right than they have for decades. At first glance this seems a silly thing to say. The sitting president has all the intellectual coherence of a rock. But that rock crashed through Washington, opening up holes in the conservative coalition that conservatives long pretended did not exist. Now a half-dozen factions war among the ruins, desperately trying to stake their claim to define the ways and means of the future American Right.

The reformocons are not among the warring tribes. This is odd. This should be the reformocon moment. Their diagnosis of American society has aged well. Their warnings that a society of distrustful, atomized individuals would lead either to political radicalism or to dangerous nihilism has proven entirely correct. GOP voters have proven less attached to Reaganite ideology than even they imagined; Their argument for reorienting the GOP around working-class interests is now the starting point for every one of the factions grasping for the crown. In “The Next Coalition of the Right,” Levin and Ponnuru lay out their preferred explanation for why the reformocons are not among these factions: the presidency of Donald Trump.

As Levin and Ponnuru see it, the Trump presidency has posed two problems for the wonks and intellectuals of the Right. The first is practical and personal: The thinkers of the Right, including the reformocons themselves, are divided between those inexorably opposed to cooperating with the president and those who view Trump’s term as an opportunity that must be seized. This divide has fractured movements and friendships. But Levin and Ponnuru’s second point is more subtle. “Because Trumpism has for the most part not been embodied in particular policy proposals,” they write, “different factions on the right have tried to claim its power for their own and to insist that Trump’s success in 2016 is proof of principle for a new direction.” But the Trump’s administration’s inability to enact or even endorse a coherent policy platform means that these debates over the “new direction” of conservatism can never end. “Lacking both the responsibility to enact and implement policy and the burden of resisting an assertive progressivism in Washington, the Right’s policy thinking has been short on discipline and mooring.” Policymaking has been replaced by posturing. This is a death knell for a movement as wonkish and policy-focused as reform conservatism. Implied here is that if a more competent, policy-savvy administration had been elected or a Democratic administration threatened the nation with policies of their own, then the reformocons would still be around and the intellectual civil war that now pits one bitter conservative against another would have ceased long ago.

Here I must tip my hand and move from the third person to the first. I am 28. That puts me at the tail end of the Millennial bulge. Since returning to my homeland this January after several years abroad, I have traveled from one side of America to the other, curious to understand the current war of ideas dividing the American Right. Over the last few months I have had conversations with dozens of Millennial and Zoomer conservatives of an intellectual bent. I have delved into the writings they say inspire them most. My interactions with the youngest generations of our movement — I use the word “young” generously here, America’s oldest Millennial is now 39 — have convinced me that many older conservatives misunderstand both the actual significance of the moment we live in and the nature of the challenges this moment poses to conservatism. Its nuance and good sense withstanding, Levin and Ponnuru’s essay typifies this problem. Their perception of the problems facing conservatism is diametrically opposed to how these same divides are perceived and debated by the rising generation.

From the perspective of the young conservative, the defining event of the last decade was not the election of Donald Trump but the revolution in morals and manners now dubbed the “Great Awokening.” This secular revival has blessed its adherents with a scheme of ethics, aesthetics, eschatology, and soteriology all their own. Essayist Wesley Yang’s thumbnail sketch describes the new dogmas well: The awokened “metastasize a complex and rebarbative set of critiques of power into an active parapolitical program seeking to transform the world along a sweepingly utopian line” that overthrows all orders, hierarchies, laws, and norms that stand between the privileged and the justice the awokened believe they deserve. The zeal of the converted has carried these notions far; the system of ritualized language and punitive surveillance pioneered by young leftists has carried it even further. Its reach now extends well past the realm of the fervent faithful. Few in young America are untouched. Even those who have never formally studied the doctrines of the Great Awokening echo its view of truth, virtue, and evil. It is the default ethos of America’s future — and for the young, America’s present.

It is worth emphasizing that the stunning advance of the woke had very little to do with the federal government. Barack Obama was not the author of the Great Awokening; the former president was a liberal of the old sort, a man who believed himself the living incarnation of the American creed. He was left frustrated and mystified by a generation of young progressives who had left behind their — and his — ancestral faith. No government forced them to leave. The agents of the Awokening made their case the old-fashioned way: In lectures, essays, and op-eds, they convinced; in newspaper headlines, music videos, and YouTube montages, they suggested; in campus protests and corporate HR codes, they coerced. But only rarely was this a matter of state coercion. Social pressure, not federal tyranny, keeps the young woke.

Older conservatives are well placed to understand why this has happened. For decades they have been predicting that a people unmoored from tradition and community will throw themselves at the first totalizing ideology to come along that promises to give their lives a shred of purpose and meaning. For decades they have warned that the gradual secularization of American society, slow collapse in American social capital, and incessant attacks on America’s heritage would produce such a people. As they foresaw, so it has been. What these older conservatives struggle to understand is that the future they imagined does not just describe the world the young conservative has inherited — it describes the young conservatives themselves. The young conservative knows enough to reject the woke vision of the common good. But for what? The young conservative has no answer to this question. Indeed, he is not really a “conservative” at all, if by that we mean someone intent on conserving inherited values, traditions, or culture. None of those things are part of his inheritance. He feels their loss. He too is desperate for something that promises to imbue his life with a shred of purpose or meaning.

What could the reformocon platform ever offer such a person?

In the face of Barack Obama’s political program, conservative debates revolved around an urgent, yet very specific, question: “What must be done to keep the federal government from interfering with our way of life?” The reformocon platform was a laudable attempt to answer this question. It provided tools to keep the federal government at bay in a form that a wide swath of Americans — including those who did not consider themselves conservatives — could endorse. But the problem posed by the Great Awokening to the American Right is more urgent and more fundamental. The central question that absorbs the young conservative is not “How do I stop the government from interfering with my way of life?” but “What should my way of life be in the first place?”

Consider in this light the bizarre popularity of Catholic integralism among younger conservative intellectuals. A vanguard integralist intellectual recently described his political ideals in a way that speaks directly to this question:

The integralist view is that human happiness involves achieving common goods. So we need a common understanding of what the good is, and it’s possible to reach such an understanding because there really is an objective good for human beings.

That objective good being, of course, whatever was Catholic doctrine before Vatican II. Through the wonkish lens that Levin and Ponnuru wished more conservatives would adopt, Catholic integralism is pure fancy, a flight through fairyland. Catholic traditionalists are a minority of a minority: They represent only a tiny sliver of American Catholics (who are in turn only a fraction of the American populace writ large). Their vision of the common good cannot be reconciled even with the hopes and desires of Protestant conservatives. There is no constituency for their project, no possible way to marry it to American tradition or current American political practice. American society simply will never be remade along the lines of 19th-century Catholic theology. This is an eschatological fantasy masquerading as a political program — or in Levin and Ponnuru’s politer, more measured terms: “policy thinking short on discipline and mooring.”

But why, then, it is having a moment with the young thinkers of the Right?

Because government policy is not really what they care about. The young conservative is attracted to integralism not because they think its vision of the good is attainable, but because the integralists unapologetically advance a vision of the good. The integralists can tell them why the doctrines of the Great Awokening are malevolent falsehoods. The integralists provide a reason to stand strong against the social pressures of the woke. The integralists know what kind of man men should strive to be, what kind of woman women deserve to be, what purpose their life should be devoted to, and what rules and emotions should govern the relations of one human with another. They do not just endorse a stronger civic society — they have a gloriously specific vision of what worthy civic society actually looks like. They have a vision of human flourishing all their own, equal to and as compelling as the ethics and aesthetics fostered on them by the leftist over-culture.

This is true for all of the various poles of thought that those repelled by the Great Awokening have turned to. Be it the evo-pysch-infused “classical liberalism” of Jordan Peterson and the Intellectual Dark Web, the meme-based machismo of the Internet alt-right, Thiel-inspired techno-futurism, or the integralist’s Benedict Optioning cousins, these movements all share a key feature. They are oriented toward resisting not leftist politics but leftist culture. The story of next-generation conservatism, in other words, will be the story of a counterculture. Debates over what shape that counterculture should take cannot be resolved by a more “disciplined” policy environment.

Little wonder then that the reformocon vision of the future struggled to take hold! Reformocons argued for the centrality of community without endorsing any concrete vision of communal life. They described the need to build new institutions without committing themselves to any specific institutions. They authored wonkish proposals to strengthen family formation but painted no picture of families worth forming. The visions of the reformocons were colorless and empty. This was by design: Like a coloring book, every community and family could fill out the pre-printed designs with whatever color palette they treasured most. That worked when conservatives had an organic set of treasured traditions, values, and relationships to fill the blanks in with. Now they do not, and the reformocon platform is found wanting.

It is the unfortunate fate of Generation X to be sandwiched between two generations much larger and louder than their own. For the first decades of their life they were forced to live and relive the political struggles of the Boomers, as the leftist counterculture of the 1960s attacked the existing, conservative over-culture on one front after another. The Boomer’s fight is now over.  Today, the Left owns the over-culture. The cultural insurgency that will define the politics of their remaining years will come from the right. I suspect that in the decade to come, Generation X conservatives who cannot speak directly to the challenges of that fight will find their programs dead on arrival, obsolescent as the once-shining ideas of the reformocons.

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