One of the biggest takeaways from the 2016 election was the unmistakable political and intellectual malaise that had gripped movement conservatism. Reagan-era policies, which had been enacted to counter the Soviets abroad and confront 70 percent income tax rates at home, no longer appealed to voters. Paeans to the “free market” and “limited government” rang hollow in light of the economic (and moral) strip mining of the U.S. heartland and the establishment of an unaccountable fourth branch of government over the span of decades, all while conservatives yelled “Stop!” to no avail.
The epitome of Reagan conservatism himself, U.S. Senator Ted Cruz (R-Texas), lost in the Republican primaries to Donald Trump, a political outsider who bucked the most sacrosanct tenants of conservative orthodoxy. The constant refrain from conservative elites that Trump was “not conservative” fell flat since, for most Americans, movement conservatism either was irrelevant to their lives or held to be worthless due to its impotence against the Left’s decades-long onslaught on civil society. And conservatives who began warming up to Trump did not miss the fact that, despite its manifest failures, the strongest NeverTrump voices tended to be vaunted figures in the conservative movement.
The crucial question for movement conservatism now is: Where does it go from here? Will it simply wither away, or will it make a resurgence by focusing on the problems that affect voters today?
In a new essay at First Things, Daniel McCarthy sketches out “a conservative agenda fit for the twenty-first century” that, if adopted, could make the conservative movement politically viable. The editor of Modern Age and one the best political commentators on Right, McCarthy condemns the “global liberalism” peddled by our bipartisan ruling class elites over the last few decades. In opposition to that, McCarthy argues for a policy of economic nationalism, which has an “honorable tradition whose roots in the Republican party run all the way back to Abraham Lincoln.” And, I would add, a tradition that extends back to the American founders—the first law Congress passed under the Constitution was the Tariff of 1789.
Rightly understood, economic nationalism means securing the interests of the diverse array of citizens of this country, from blue-collar laborers to coders. This is far removed from the pre-Trump economy preferred by our so-called elites, which heavily favored those in the so-called “knowledge economy” but had little but contempt for working stiffs who failed to “adapt.” But as James Madison wrote in Federalist 10, practical politics is about securing the “permanent and aggregate interests of the community”—meaning those of “We the People” on whom the Constitution’s authority is grounded.
The goal of economic policy, writes McCarthy, should be to establish a “national economy that provides the basis for a healthy culture in which citizens and their families can flourish.” In other words, politics and economics are inextricably intertwined. A “political program,” says McCarthy, not only should ”be an economic program,” but it must relate “the nation’s economic way of life to its cultural fabric and the very conditions of its existence.”
Economic growth for its own sake is fruitless and, left unchecked, can easily dissolve the relational ties that are necessary to bind nations together. The commodification of marriage—the truth that success in getting and staying married is increasingly dependent upon one’s economic station—is just one of the baleful consequences of the marketization of American life.
Contrary to many a conservative think-tank white paper, a plethora of material goods cannot make up for a loss of meaning through the lack of stable and healthy communities. Maintaining a four percent GDP is less important than having a culture that respects the lives of the unborn and works to stop the devastating effects of fentanyl nationwide.
McCarthy’s advice cuts against some of the loudest voices of the conservative movement, who are comfortable with ignoring (or even deporting!) pockets of citizens due to their seeming lack of virtue or usefulness to the “knowledge economy.” As The American Mind editor Matthew Peterson has argued, “This anti-politics of principled loserdom is a secular form of homiletics, preaching unheard to the unwashed. The pure must wring their hands and ritualistically lament at cocktail parties…that there’s nothing that can actually be done.”
The proliferation of such stale and harmful arguments from conservatives and liberals, Democrats and Republicans, stems from the abandonment of political prudence in favor of pat and formulaic ideology.
McCarthy argues that “both major parties continued to campaign as if the class compact of the twentieth century still held sway.” That compact “came out of the Great Depression and World War II stabilized many of the social tensions dating back to the very beginnings of industrialization.” In light of vast economic changes, looming debt problems caused in large part by the unsustainability of social security, and the overall cultural and market deregulation First Things editor R.R. Reno has documented, a new compact needs to be forged.
We must reject “palliative liberalism,” which McCarthy defines as a smorgasbord of wage subsidies and tax credits that have euthanized “millions of economically unneeded and politically retrograde Americans.” We need to reject heartless rhetoric about “creative destruction” and stop catering our politics solely to the whims of hedge fund managers, business owners, and the Chamber of Commerce crowd.
Instead, the conservative movement—or another political movement if conservatives aren’t up to the challenge—should offer ways to kickstart our largely immobile economy, which McCarthy divides into three classes: the highly-credentialed, the service-based, and the ignored. Three ways we could do this are 1) taking domestic manufacturing seriously again, 2) providing higher wages for U.S. workers, and 3) shifting our focus from low-skill to high-skill immigration thus cancelling the enormously flawed H-1B visa system. All told, “The way forward requires refocusing on the American citizen as the basic unit of the economy.”
If the conservative movement wants to have any hope of influencing more than 10 percent of the U.S. population, it should go about trying to conserve the actual flesh and blood people of this nation—not abstractions unconnected to present political and economic realities. And to those who insist that America is a “Proposition Nation,” they should remember that even the best ideas can only be conserved by conserving the people who actually hold them. Self-evident truths are never obvious and even they require defenders.
The Right should no longer be content with trotting out a cardboard cutout Reagan concerned only with tax cuts and maximizing individual freedom or acceding to libertarian dreams of a Lennon-esque world without borders. Instead, for a movement looking to build upon Trump’s successes, adopting the program McCarthy lays out would be a good start.
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