Magazine March 23, 2020, Issue

The Next Coalition of the Right

A supporter of President Donald Trump holds a flag with an image of Trump in West Palm Beach, Fla., March 3, 2020. (Maria Alejandra Cardona/Reuters)
Some lessons of reform conservatism

The Trump era has been a period of intellectual ferment on the right. New ideas are being proposed and old debates renewed. Conservatives are arguing with one another about capitalism, nationalism, the Founding, classical liberalism, the Enlightenment, and the proper relationship of church and state. We’re debating whether to increase antitrust enforcement, regulate social media, adopt policies to expand domestic manufacturing, and rethink some civil-rights laws.

The same period, however, has been marked by policy paralysis. And while intra-Republican debate has often centered on degrees of support for and opposition to Trump, that paralysis has been a party-wide phenomenon transcending the Trump divide. When Republicans controlled the Congress and the White House in 2017 and 2018—the first time they had wielded so much power since 2006—they passed only one major piece of legislation, a tax-reform bill. They tried but failed to replace Obamacare. After those two efforts, they ran out the clock, attempting no major legislation for much of 2018 and running in the midterm elections without a legislative agenda. 

Since the Democrats took control of the House of Representatives in that year’s election, there has been even less legislative action. The House has passed symbolic liberal measures that had no prospects of passage in the Senate, and the Senate barely even tried its hand at any meaningful bills, focusing instead on confirming conservative judges. A measure approving minor changes to the North American Free Trade Agreement has been about the only bipartisan legislation to pass. There has been no action in Congress on health care, infrastructure, immigration, higher education, religious liberty, or any of the other policy priorities Republicans have highlighted over the past decade. The GOP now talks about trying to retake control of the House but offers no sense of what it would want to do if it managed it. 

The Trump administration has sought to partially fill this vacuum with regulatory measures. Some of these have been valuable: reversing some of the most egregious abuses of the Obama administration’s final two years, reinstating pro-life rules enacted by past Republican administrations, and relieving some of Obamacare’s upward pressure on insurance costs. But few have broken new policy ground or changed the character of the administrative state, and essentially none would survive the next Democratic president.

It may seem counterintuitive, given how intense and action-packed the last few years have felt to political junkies, but if the Trump era ends next year, it will have changed next to nothing in domestic policy. Its lasting accomplishments would then mainly be the indirect consequences of Trump’s judicial appointments—important, to be sure, but hardly on the scale of what a party in power in both elected branches might expect. 

This inaction on policy may actually help explain some of the intellectual ferment. In some respects, the Right’s internal debates have felt like those that might happen when Republicans are out of power: Nothing seems plausibly achievable in the near term, so policy entrepreneurs try to formulate what they would do in the future if they could. Yet these scenarios are getting debated without the living specter of a Democratic president exercising the powers of the executive, so the Right’s arguments lack the humility that comes with losing and the caution that comes with a vivid sense of the harm that government power can do in the wrong hands. 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, and the relationship between theory and practice has become confused. 

This lack of disciplining pressures has been particularly evident as a loss of interest in coalition-building among conservatives. The Right’s internal arguments have naturally come to be focused, as they often have been over the past half century, on a conflict between libertarian economic thought and conservative social thought. Recurring (and unavoidable) tensions between the two have shaped the story of American conservatism since the middle of the last century. But the Right has tended to succeed when it has treated those tensions as an impetus for balance and for concrete policy innovation and has tended to fail when it has let them become a source of polarizing discord and blinding abstraction.

To close the gap between conservative policymaking and theorizing, it might be helpful to revisit a previous attempt to think through what a contemporary conservative agenda should look like. That attempt (in which we were both involved) took a variety of allied if loosely affiliated forms that came to be known as “reform conservatism.”

While reform conservatism was influenced by earlier conservative intellectual efforts, notably the domestic neoconservatism of the 1970s, it began during George W. Bush’s second term and then developed further during Barack Obama’s presidency. As such it had elements of the attitudes of both a governing-majority conservatism and a defensive-minority conservatism, but it also arose out of a critique of what the Right had become since the latter years of the Reagan era. 

The central contention of the “reformocons” was that the Right needed to update its policy agenda, which had been formulated to address the circumstances of the late 1970s and had gradually hardened into a set of dogmatic slogans. In part because of the success of the conservatives of the Reagan era and in part because of new challenges that called for new applications of enduring principles, the Right’s agenda was no longer suited to advancing conservative ideals and solving public problems. Republicans were left repeating the ends of Ronald Reagan’s sentences long after they forgot how those sentences had started, and conservative politics was losing touch with the concerns of voters.

This problem grew worse in the early Obama years, as conservatives were driven by concerns about the Democrats’ agenda into rhetoric that quickly became too Randian and individualistic—culminating, in the 2012 presidential campaign, in the language of “makers and takers” that sought to answer Obama’s “you didn’t build that” and “life of Julia” progressivism. 

In response to these excesses, reform conservatism asserted the centrality of social conservatism (broadly understood) against a lowest-common-denominator agenda of economic libertarianism. Family, community, traditional religion, civil society, and civic republicanism needed protection and support. But taking these social concerns seriously did not mean abandoning the Right’s affinity for market economics; it meant putting that affinity to use in the service of empowering working families and renewing society’s wellsprings. Roughly speaking, social conservatism (with its emphasis on family, faith, community, and country) would clarify the ends of politics and help articulate some crucial problems to be solved, while the logic of the market could point toward some plausible means of addressing these problems and remind conservatives of some inherent limits of centralized knowledge and action. 

This approach sought to take account of the familiar tensions between libertarians and traditionalists on the right, but to drive the two toward a coalition that could work to resist progressive incursions when Democrats were in power and to advance a concrete agenda that could appeal to broad swaths of the public when Republicans had the opportunity. 

 The prescription, in essence, was to apply conservative insights to the challenges of our own time, rooted in a more realistic appraisal of the American situation. Most Americans were neither swaggering job creators (as Republicans sometimes cast them) nor hapless victims of fate (as Democrats did): They were mothers and fathers, workers and citizens who were both concerned and hopeful for the future of their families, the character of their communities, their economic prospects, and the state of their country’s culture. What they wanted from politics was a sense that government could be on their side, helping them live well and relieving some of the burdens they face rather than adding to them. 

The reformocons argued that there is a role for better public policy in addressing problems created by bad public policy—such as cost inflation in health care, housing, and higher education; unfair burdens placed on parents and workers by the structure of federal payroll taxes; and oppressive, illiberal mandates imposed by overreaching bureaucracies in the service of progressive social policy. And they argued there is a role for better public policy in empowering Americans to build stronger families and communities: by supporting child-rearing, providing some security against the risks of the modern economy, and protecting the most vulnerable. Conservatives had, for various reasons, paid too little attention to these concerns, and the costs to the country—and the political costs to themselves—were mounting. 

Redirecting conservative energies accordingly would have to mean explicitly prioritizing America’s working and middle-class families. Republicans would have to return to thinking of those Americans, rather than only of the small-business owner and the corporate titan, as their core constituencies. Republican politicians were slow to listen, and the dynamics of the Obama era made it harder for them to do so. They faced powerful incentives to run a purely oppositional campaign in 2012 and 2014, and then fell into the comfortable posture of leaving their eventual 2016 nominee to set the agenda, so most could never see the case for change. And there was pushback. Before 2016, the populist energy on the right (channeled through the filter of the tea-party movement) was understood to demand libertarian purism, and many self-appointed guardians of conservative dogma (from the Wall Street Journal editorial board to leading talk-radio figures) complained that any hyphenated conservatism was a betrayal of principle, not a modernization of practice.

Reform conservatives believed that rank-and-file Republican voters were open to a different agenda and that the electorate as a whole would reward it. The political case rested on the notion that Republicans couldn’t hope to win majorities in the long run if they did not change course along these lines. The 2016 primary campaign delivered a mixed verdict on these premises. On the one hand, it showed that reform conservatives had, if anything, underestimated the political weakness of the old Republican agenda: Republican voters were not just open to something different; some of them were hostile to the old agenda, and many more were uninterested in it. But on the other hand, it showed that what could fill the void effectively within the party was not so much an alternative agenda—something Trump did not really supply—as an alternative tone: an aggressive populism disdainful of elites and mistrustful of institutions but not especially concerned with changing what government does. 

Because policy has not been at the center of the political movement that now dominates Republican politics, the modest amount of policymaking that has happened in the Trump era has been a mix of the traditional Republican agenda (picking constitutionalist judges, pursuing some deregulation, reducing corporate taxes), modest versions of some reform-conservative ideas (expanding the child tax credit, paid-leave proposals), and populist priorities (especially on trade and immigration).

Above all, however, the policy agenda in this era has been largely stalled, and the Right has been focused on more-theoretical debates. Because Trumpism has for the most part not been embodied in particular policy proposals, 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. 

This has meant that the reform-conservative effort itself has fractured a bit. Some politicians, analysts, and young activists or staffers who had been part of the reform effort have come to advocate a more market-skeptical, government-centric approach or to declare libertarianism the Right’s biggest problem. They believe the crisis of American life (or at least of the American working class) was deeper, and the sclerosis of the Republican coalition more severe, than the earlier reformist diagnosis allowed. They tend not to worry about how government power developed with one party in mind might be used or abused by the other. And while many reformocons (including both of us) were moderate restrictionists on immigration, and many were China hawks of various sorts, this group has argued that those issues deserve much greater emphasis, seeing them as central to the social crisis reshaping our politics.

For some others once identified as reformists, concerns about President Trump and the direction in which he has pushed Republican politics (when it comes to trade or immigration, the integrity of our system of government, or other issues) have overwhelmed concerns about the rigidity and inadequacy of the pre-Trump Republican agenda, and they have been driven back toward a more libertarian conservatism. 

These differences, however, are largely about Trump and Trumpism—and therefore aren’t exactly ways of thinking about the future of American politics. Notwithstanding the best efforts of many on the right, Trumpism has not taken shape as a coherent political outlook, and it is possible to imagine its moving sharply in any direction at any time as the president reacts to the events of the day and Fox News programming priorities. So thinking through these differences may not be as significant for the future of the Right as it now appears.

This is not to deny that the last few years have offered many crucial lessons for students of our politics who wish to help our country find its way. If some future version of reform conservatism aims to apply conservative principles to contemporary circumstances, then it must learn the lessons of the Trump era. These include lessons about the Left and the Right, the country and its culture, and the priorities of the electorate. They are lessons about the significance of immigration politics, about the degree of the public’s loss of trust in American elites and institutions, and about much else besides. But lessons like these will still need ultimately to inform a governing agenda and a political disposition, in the fullest sense. And the general disposition of reform conservatism likely does remain a plausible fit for what appears to be the character of the American electorate and a better way to think about what seem to be our country’s foremost challenges and the weaknesses of the Right’s pre-Trump agenda, even in light of the last several years.

A conservative governing agenda needs to be rooted in what voters want and in what the core ideals of the American republic demand of both the public and its government. Americans today are, on the whole, prosperous and hopeful but frustrated and skeptical. And conservatives still struggle to speak to this combination of attitudes.

At this point, the disposition of reform conservatism would demand a much more profound transformation of conservative politics than populism or national conservatism or an integralist social conservatism would, even as it would demand a less profound transformation of American society than any of those would. But more important, it demands some realism about the nature of political victory and defeat—and about the limited application of the example of 2016 and the importance of learning but not overlearning its lessons. The grievance and anger of some of Trump’s supporters during the 2016 primaries should not, for example, be taken as representative of all Trump supporters, let alone of the electorate as a whole. Nor should Bernie Sanders’s fan base in the Democratic Party, as consequential as its dedication may turn out to be, delude us into thinking that much of the country is in a genuinely revolutionary frame of mind.

For a political movement, and a political party, most elections are followed either by wielding power (and the constraints that involves) or by having one’s opponents wield it (and the dangers that carries). The Trump era has not quite meant either one for Republicans, so its lessons are more complex than usual, and its by-products may be less useful. 

The next effective Republican governing philosophy likely won’t be called reform conservatism. But whatever name it goes by, it will need to be serious about both using the power of government and restraining it. It will need to apply enduring American principles to a new American reality. It will need to make the most of the strengths of the market economy while acting to address its costs, risks, and dark sides. It will need to put family, community, and country first, to consider where solidarity comes from, and to recognize how freedom can serve it up to a point. And it will need to unite the partisans of markets with the partisans of tradition into a functional coalition—practically at least, if not philosophically. 

Whatever name it goes by, it will have to do these things—if, that is, its goal is to see conservative reforms to the way our country is governed.

In This Issue

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World

How to Make China Pay

One of the big questions facing the international community today is how to hold China legally and politically accountable for all its dishonesty and harm to people around the world. According to reports, U.S. intelligence agencies have confirmed to the White House that China has deliberately understated the ... Read More
World

How to Make China Pay

One of the big questions facing the international community today is how to hold China legally and politically accountable for all its dishonesty and harm to people around the world. According to reports, U.S. intelligence agencies have confirmed to the White House that China has deliberately understated the ... Read More

The Trail Leading Back to the Wuhan Labs

It is understandable that many would be wary of the notion that the origin of the coronavirus could be discovered by some documentary filmmaker who used to live in China. Matthew Tye, who creates YouTube videos, contends he has identified the source of the coronavirus — and a great deal of the information that ... Read More

The Trail Leading Back to the Wuhan Labs

It is understandable that many would be wary of the notion that the origin of the coronavirus could be discovered by some documentary filmmaker who used to live in China. Matthew Tye, who creates YouTube videos, contends he has identified the source of the coronavirus — and a great deal of the information that ... Read More

The Eeyore Syndrome

In A. A. Milne's classic Winne-the-Pooh children’s tales, Eeyore, the old gray donkey, is perennially pessimistic and gloomy. He always expects the worst to happen. Milne understood that Eeyore’s outbursts of depression could at first be salutatory but then become monotonous. The outlook of the pessimist ... Read More

The Eeyore Syndrome

In A. A. Milne's classic Winne-the-Pooh children’s tales, Eeyore, the old gray donkey, is perennially pessimistic and gloomy. He always expects the worst to happen. Milne understood that Eeyore’s outbursts of depression could at first be salutatory but then become monotonous. The outlook of the pessimist ... Read More
World

All Signs Point to China

Just one big story today: collecting and sorting through what we know about the coronavirus's origins, and what makes sense and what doesn’t in the theory that it originated from someone eating bats or pangolins from the Huanan Seafood Market. What We Know and What We Don’t Know about the Source of ... Read More
World

All Signs Point to China

Just one big story today: collecting and sorting through what we know about the coronavirus's origins, and what makes sense and what doesn’t in the theory that it originated from someone eating bats or pangolins from the Huanan Seafood Market. What We Know and What We Don’t Know about the Source of ... Read More