Politics & Policy

Big-Government Conservatism Has Hurt the Cause

(Larry Downing/Reuters)
In this current era, too many on the right have fallen prey to the lures of a bellicose, centralizing populism.

Over the last number of years, parts of America’s political Right seem to have forgotten, pushed aside, or just given up on many of the governing principles that defined American conservatism for generations. Though the political circles backing nationalism, populism, industrial planning, Trumpism, or common goodism aren’t coterminous, there is one significant area of overlap: Compared to those on the right a decade ago, they are more open to a more managerial, muscular, free-spending Uncle Sam and less energized about distributing authority to states, localities, and nongovernmental bodies.

Now that the progressives controlling Washington are pushing a New Deal–Great Society–style agenda centralizing power and sporting a jaw-dropping price tag, conservatism finds itself in a bind. It’s hard to be taken seriously as anti-statist after you’ve been flirting with statism. One type of response you might hear is along the lines of, “But our expensive, centralizing, managerial proposals are better than their expensive, centralizing, managerial proposals.” But American conservatism has not been and should not become a different flavor of power consolidation. The key to defeating progressives’ hyper-ambitious plans and crafting an inspiring, politically successful agenda of our own is picking up and dusting off the governing principles we’ve recently neglected.

Conservatism always begins with the beliefs, institutions, and policies that have worked for a particular people in a particular place. So American conservatism is not contemporary Hungarian conservatism or 1979 Iranian conservatism or 17th-century English conservatism or twelfth-century French conservatism. America was founded on concepts such as religious freedom, ordered liberty, egalitarianism, democratic-republicanism, and enumerated governmental powers. Its character was shaped by immigrant courage, the pioneer spirit, the promise of endless opportunity, and a vibrant civil society. It grew to be a continental nation with more diversity than any other on the globe.

This is a unique, complicated combination of factors. A super-computer couldn’t devise the right habits, norms, and organizations to make it function well. Only experience could do that. American conservatives’ commitment to personal virtue, voluntary associations, self-government, localism, federalism, capitalism, and textualism is the consequence not merely of an understanding of human nature. That is, American conservatism doesn’t flow solely from appreciating human fallibility, understanding natural law, and valuing prudence. It results from centuries of trial and error in the real world — understanding the American experience and the American people in America.

American conservatives don’t protect individual liberty, foster civic organizations, and distribute government power just because. We don’t oppose technocracy, socialism, and adventuring judges just because. We aim to conserve such beliefs and practices because they are essential here. American success requires nurturing personal responsibility and civic virtue; fidelity to nonstate action, positive law, and close-to-home governing; and respect for an array of cultures and traditions.

Consolidated power, centralized tinkering, and a bulky, bossy Washington are incompatible with American conservatism because the American character and the American experience teach us that they are incompatible with American success.

About a decade ago, something healthy, even exciting, started percolating on the right. No longer satisfied with the policy agenda that had become popular in the 1980s, some started floating new proposals. “Reform conservatives” were an important part of this movement. This renewal project was important because, as I’ve written before, too many on the right had confused policy and principles. That is, tax cuts and deregulation are certainly one manifestation of American-conservative thinking; in fact, these were policy ideas consistent with our governing principles and perfectly suited to the post–Great Society era.

But tax cuts and deregulation are just one manifestation of American-conservative governing principles. By continuously pushing these policies regardless of the circumstances, our agenda grew stale and our policy-development muscles atrophied. We needed ideas both consistent with our intellectual tradition and responsive to the times. The Tea Party, at its best, seemed to herald this very thing. It was a timely reaction to the swelling federal spending and power concentration of the early Obama era, and it advocated less spending and distributed power.

Similarly, re-reading “reformocon” documents, I was struck by that group’s desire to address contemporary problems in new ways while remaining faithful to concepts such as personal responsibility, limited government, and a thriving civil society. Indeed, as Peter Wehner wrote at the time, “Conservatives today need to show Americans how the principles that led to successful solutions when applied to the problems of that era can do the same when applied to the rather different problems of this one. The same principles applied to new problems will yield new solutions.”

But things took an unfortunate turn. Rather than saying, “We need to derive fresh policy ideas from American-conservative governing principles,” some on the right just abandoned conservative governing principles. Yes, we needed to stop pushing worn-out proposals; no, that doesn’t mean we needed to give up on virtue, originalism, and liberalism and start supporting I-alone-ism, giant federal budgets, tariffs, industrial policy, federal child allowances, and so on.

There is nothing wrong with criticizing “zombie Reaganism” or the “dead consensus” if the goal is clearing away decades of exhausted thinking and reasoning anew from American-conservative governing principles. There is, however, something wrong with ignoring those principles and reasoning from vague sentiments such as “help the family,” “support workers,” or “strengthen America.” That can, as we’ve seen, lead to an agenda that neglects states, localities, civil society, and pluralism; super-charges Washington; expands government spending; and elevates technocrats.

The greatest challenges of our time can be addressed by an energetic American conservatism. Legitimate concerns about the disproportionate power of out-of-touch, condescending elites can be solved by distributing authority, opposing technocracy, and trusting practical wisdom. Frustration over our loss of community and solidarity can be solved by catalyzing local mediating bodies, respecting traditional ways of life, and preserving pluralism. Dealing with our international competitors and addressing our border problems comes from focusing Uncle Sam’s attention on the narrow set of issues only he can manage.

This era could have and should have led to a bounty of creative, practical solutions consistent with our time-tested principles. Instead, too many on the right fell prey to the lures of a bellicose, centralizing populism; followed the decidedly unconservative whims of Donald Trump; and engaged in hot-headed, unproductive Twitter, cable-news, and Substack wars. So now, when progressives are offering up bank-breaking, cradle-to-grave federal initiatives, the right can look flat-footed when asked why consolidating money and power in Washington is suddenly a bad thing. Worse, we have too few sensible, practical proposals on hand that would address today’s family, community, and cultural problems through decentralization and civil society. And we have too few public leaders with a track record of successfully governing consistent with the principles of American conservatism.

It is fashionable in some right-of-center circles nowadays to denigrate the “establishment” and “proceduralism.” It is true that old networks can get chummy, self-serving, and sclerotic and that focusing too much on process can distract us from our desired ends. But every conservative should know that radicalism and amateurism are waiting in the wings when we fire time-tested institutions, norms, and rules of thumb. The governing principles of American conservatism reflect the American character and have evolved based on the American experience. They contain the accumulated wisdom of those who’ve come before and governed before us. They should not be discarded blithely. They can tell us why and how to resist this period of progressive strength in Washington, and they can tell us how best to address America’s current problems once this period concludes.

Andy SmarickMr. Smarick is a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, where his work focuses on education, civil society, and the principles of American conservatism.

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