Postmodern Conservative

Redefining Conservatism

The search for a sustainable Republican brand

First off, I completely agree with Pete’s comments below. The Never Trumpers were lacking in courage and astuteness in all kinds of ways. The most important is in thinking it would be in any way legitimate to nominate some unnamed conventional conservative in view of that position’s huge repudiation at the polls. 

Well, at the last minute, Tom Coburn has expressed his willingness to be drafted. Had he announced his candidacy a month ago — and actually campaigned — then he might have generated popular support even in the post-primary environment. Many he could have proven that, in the right hands, conventional conservatism isn’t irrelevant now. We will never know.

I, too, am pleased to announce my willingness to be drafted. I will have to skype in my acceptance speech, though. I don’t think I can make it to Cleveland this week.

So one thing among many I’m working on is reworking conservatism as a sustainable Republican brand, learning, of course, from Trump’s success. Let me begin by sharing with you part of my summary of what conservatism has been lately, in the minds of Republican leaders and public intellectuals.

Some Republicans are already preparing for the world after Trump. The dominant mode means pretending as if his insurgency never happened. That’s true of most of the Never Trumpers. They absolutely refuse to support Trump as a matter of both conscience and conviction. He’s incompetent, psychologically unstable, invincibly ignorant, and wrong — not a conservative — on almost all the issues. He will go down in flames in November, and then Republicans can go back to being Republicans.

That view is shared by some of those who support Trump, without being able to explain why (such as Paul Ryan), to minimize the damage his candidacy can do on Republicans up and down the ballot. They hope to retain control of both or at least one of the houses of Congress. They even plan to work with President Clinton on issues they both believe in, like immigration reform. A chastened Republican congressional leadership will be inclined to deliberate and compromise with the president this time, admitting that’s the cost of failure of their party to present a credible candidate for chief executive.

The Republican party, the hope is, can go back to being our conservative party again. Yet nothing was less effective than various Republicans and public intellectuals criticizing Trump for not being a conservative. The failure of such criticism often morphed into their angry denunciation of voters for being seduced by a demagogue, and for articles reminding us all that America, after all, is not a democracy but a republic, with various checks on majority rule. George Will seemed to hope that a properly engaged judiciary could declare Trump’s nomination unconstitutional.

One check on the will of the majority brought back from the dead, for example, is the ability of the delegates at the national convention to ignore the results of the primaries, if required by either conscience or conviction. The party, in this view, is an organized body of thought and action with a responsible — if informal — constitutional role and principled continuity over time. But the party leaders, we just saw, were completely unable to stand up to the will of the people — which is Trump. And so, for now, the leader of the party is Trump, even if the party platform is in many respects more conservative — and so hostile to Trumpism — than ever. For now, we can say, the Republicans haven’t taken either their candidate-selection process or their platform seriously as real sources of change conservatives can believe in. But the hope is that, this year having been ruined by the alien interloper Trump, the people will realize their error and return to their senses.

For many consultants, big donors, and public intellectuals, to be a conservative Republican is to be for a pro-growth tax cut (which is mainly a cut for “job creators”), deregulation almost everywhere, entitlement reform (which means entitlement pruning and the move from defined benefits to defined contributions), taking out public-employee unions and collective bargaining generally, being for right-to-work (right-to-fire) laws, being against academic tenure (especially “tenured radicals”), reform of public education around choice, efficiency, and productivity, removing “Green” barriers to technological innovation, and market-based truncations and reconfigurations of as many functions as possible that are performed by government. They applaud the reconfiguration of the work force into independent operators honing their flexible skills to the demands of those who can deploy them, and they have little to no nostalgia for the erosion of employer and employee loyalty, job security, and all that.

The conservative view is that we are on the road to serfdom, surrendering liberty and personal responsibility to dependency, and that our task is to restore the constitutional intention to make government as small as possible, against progressive social engineering, through the vehicle of bigger and better government. So the Republicans tend to support judicial “engagement” (which they can distinguish from activism) against the unaccountable administrative case, Obamacare, meddlesome regulations, and other majoritarian and bureaucratic offenses against individual liberty.

Well, it’s not so clear that the cutting-edge conservatives actually buy that road-to-serfdom narrative anymore. The dominant conservative view has, in fact, become more libertarian. That means, for one thing, having a certain faith that “the right side of history” is theirs. The dynamic of the 21st-century global competitive marketplace is an arc of liberty obliterating political resistance. The world, as Tyler Cowen puts it, is becoming more cosmopolitan, and so nicer and less brutal. The Republican reforms described above are a new birth of freedom driven by the imperatives of the marketplace.

These are, because of progress in technology and the global division of labor, the best times ever to be alive. In this respect, the Republicans are the true progressives. And the party of that true progressivism is choosing the market over every form of protectionism. That means rejecting the claims of citizenship when they morph into a form of “rent-seeking.” Immigration policy, for example, should be about admitting the “guest workers” our “job creators” need to maximize their productivity; American citizens have no right to be exempt from competition for the scarce resource of a job.

What too many Republicans have missed, in fact, is that lots of Americans have experienced this “progress” as loss of the secure safety nets that have cushioned them from being merely part of a meritocracy based on productivity.  On the Republican side, the name given to these Americans is “Reagan Democrats.” That means those who vote Republican but aren’t particularly libertarian or all that defined by “religious identity politics.” For them, being conservative means conserving what they now have and maybe regaining what they’ve lost. That means being for unions, the existing entitlements, the bonds of citizenship (that have been eroded by “the coming apart” of middle-class America into two classes isolated in every way from each other), and the dignity of worthwhile work well done. There’s no doubt that there’s more than a touch of race-based resentment and nativism among Reagan Democrats these days, and it sure is troubling to see our country characterized by more racial hostility than anyone would have expected.  But let’s face it: Republicans are terrible in acknowledging, much less addressing effectively, the one form of identity politics that was for so long sanctioned by our law.

There’s a lot more to say, but not today.

Peter Augustine Lawler — Peter Augustine Lawler is Dana Professor of Government at Berry College. He is executive editor of the acclaimed scholarly quarterly Perspectives on Political Science and served on President George ...

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