The Agenda

Mood Affiliation and Conservative Reformism

While reading a recent post by Ramesh Ponnuru on the Supreme Court’s PPACA decision, it occurred to me that one of his chief virtues as a political commentator is that he is not susceptible to what Tyler Cowen has called “the fallacy of mood affiliation.” As a general rule, the conservative-identified thinkers who’ve been most critical of Chief Justice John Roberts are those who are also critical of what we might call “conservative reformism,” i.e., the (extremely) broad view that a post-Bush conservatism needs to rethink its approach to taxes and public services. This is despite the fact that Ramesh’s view is perfectly consistent, as is the view that the right should never stray from its agenda circa 1982 and that Roberts exercised admirable judicial restraint. 

Ramesh is both one of the leading thinkers in the reform constellation, e.g., he and Robert Stein has changed the conversation about tax policy on the right in a meaningful and constructive way, and the most effective and consistent critic of its excesses and its political naiveté. For example, he was an early critic of Wyden-Bennett when a number of reform-minded conservatives had embraced it (on policy grounds), yet he was also critical of Chairman Paul Ryan’s first Path to Prosperity budget (on political grounds). I agreed with him on the former and disagreed with him on the latter, but in both cases he made stimulating and important arguments. 

This led me to think more broadly about the reform constellation. One of the reasons mood affiliation is so pervasive, I suspect, is that our political positions are powerfully shaped by the social networks in which we are embedded. Consider the divide among reform-minded conservatives over partisanship, or “team loyalty.” Those who believe that the GOP is the best vehicle for achieving conservative goals are more inclined to embrace a policy of constructive engagement or, a critic might say, wishful thinking and outright delusion. Others, who are in the minority and who can be found mainly to the left but also to the right of the conservative mainstream, believe that Republicans need to suffer a few more defeats before the party will be worth defending and embracing. Critics might describe these thinkers as narcissistic insofar as they fail to recognize that coalition politics is about compromise and the hard work of persuasion.

But a more sympathetic, or rather more neutral view, could be that the partisan reformers are more likely to be invested in the success of the right as a social group and as a social movement while the anti-partisan reformers find their affiliation with the political right costly and increasingly so in their networks. To put this crudely, partisan reformers might tend to live in the suburbs of Dallas, where a Republican affiliation has very little cost and might even be socially profitable, while anti-partisan reformers might tend to live in monolithically left-of-center communities in which a Republican affiliation is socially costly and the appearance of “independence,” i.e., conformity with your group on high-salience, high-stakes issues, is profitable. This isn’t to say that the partisans and anti-partisans haven’t thought deeply about their political views, etc. But it does seem pretty likely that the larger social playing field plays a role in subtly shaping them. 


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