I gave a brief talk at AEI on Friday and it read roughly as follows — I intend to follow up on several of these themes, particularly on the political implications of the intersection of density and diversity, which will be the subject of my forthcoming column:
(1) We are going to hear roughly two different stories about where the conservative coalition goes next:
The upper-middle-reformism story is that the Republican economic message is basically sound, but social conservatism and cultural populism are proving toxic with the college-educated upper-middle-class. And the loss of these voters has had a deleterious political impact, as evidenced by the deterioration of the party’s position in suburban Philadelphia and southwestern Connecticut and Orange County and other affluent suburban regions. This has both a direct impact on GOP electoral fortunes while also having an impact on how the party is perceived in the news media and academia, in the technology sector, and in wide sections of the donor class.
The lower-middle-reformism story, in contrast, is roughly that the 1980s-era Republican economic message is no longer salient to middle-income voters, for whom the federal income tax is less burdensome than the payroll tax, the direct and indirect costs of medical insurance and access to education are more of a constraint on living standards than taxes as such, and pervasive family disruption, i.e., nonmarital child-bearing and divorce among the non-college-educated, has greatly weakened the material and spiritual capacity for self-help. And so conservatives should speak to this changing landscape by offering policies and narratives that are responsive to it.
My thesis is that lower-middle-reformism ought to be the dominant strategy, for several reasons:
The first is that it doesn’t entail jettisoning social conservatism and cultural populism, but rather reframing them in the interests of making them relevant to the lived experience of middle America. One of the most frustrating aspects of the same-sex marriage debate, for example, is that it has made it impossible to have a larger conversation about the evaporation of marriage as a stabilizing force in the lives of working and lower-middle-class Americans, and this is true across ethnocultural groups. Social conservatism can be modern and inclusive if it engages with America as it is, not solely with cosmic questions of principle.
The second is that a more substantive agenda focused on tackling the public and private cartels that effectively limit access to the basics of a dignified middle-class life — high-quality medical care and education foremost among them — will likely do the job of upper-middle-reformism without any sharp turn on social issues. That is, a kitchen-table conservatism that sounds and actually is more in tune with the country will have wide appeal among the affluent as well as among the aspirational.
(2) There is, however, a deeper issue which is not very well understood, and it lies beneath the surface of the Democrats lopsided majorities among minority voters.
There is this passage by Marx and Engels:
The antagonism between town and country begins with the transition from barbarism to civilization, from tribe to state, from locality to nation, and runs through the whole history of civilization to the present day.
As many of us have come to understand, regions that are dense and diverse — and virtually all dense regions in America are diverse — tend to skew to the left.
One of the reasons, I suspect, is that to the extent a high level of diversity tends to undermine social trust and social capital — a thesis advanced by the political scientist Robert Putnam, among others — strong-statism will tend to prevail, as strong-statism represents the promise of order.
The rise of the New Right was closely associated historically with the post-1960s explosion in violent crime, a seemingly inexorable trend that was reversed almost twenty years ago. Crime remains a serious social problem — more serious than is commonly understood, I would say — yet it appears to be less salient for suburban and urban voters largely untouched by the downsides of mass incarceration. So while the New Right was once the party of order, or rather of law and order, that now matters a lot less.
Rather, other forms of social disorder are front of mind. Some of us see family disruption as the central issue facing the country — as the fundamental wellspring of our human capital challenge and much else. But to those on left who are more inclined to celebrate what scholars call household diversity, the disorder question is this: as families become fragile, how quickly and how deeply can we get the state to step in to shape our characters, keep us on the straight-and-narrow, and prevent those at the bottom of society from becoming a source of chaos and disorder. This is obviously not the self-perception of the left, and perhaps it is an unfair characterization. But I see this as the deeper logic behind technocratic left governance.
Consider New York city, one of our most left-leaning cities and also one of our most unequal. New York city works because of inequality — because affluent professionals can outsource much of the business of life to immigrant strivers, and everyone more or less wins. But the fact that such different communities live cheek-by-jowl generates an enormous appetite for social control — to keep the streets safe, to contain contagions.
And so we have Mayor Bloomberg’s distinctive brand of public paternalism — some would say benevolent authoritarianism — shrouded in a sometimes sanctimonious, sometimes strident social liberalism.
As Americans come to live in denser and more diverse places, and as trust and social capital continue to decay, my guess is that Bloomberg’s technocratic politics of order will be the real challenge for conservatives.
The right needs to demonstrate that it can deliver a well-ordered society under conditions of diversity and distrust — and that its policies can help build trust and social capital over time. That is far more difficult than is commonly understood.