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Daniel McCarthy’s essay, “The New Conservative Agenda” which appears in the March issue of First Things, deserves serious attention. McCarthy correctly finds that “conservatism” has waned and stagnated since Ronald Reagan left office. What is worse, it was our own conservative elites who allowed this to happen. To remedy this atrophy, he argues, we need a “conservative agenda for the twenty-first century.” McCarthy’s prescription? Economic nationalism, coupled by a revival in cultural and religious mores.
The problems now afflicting the country have been a long time in coming, and indeed they may even be baked into the cake of the post World War II era. That era was not a time for a strong economic nationalism, but internationalism, the likes of which we had never seen before but also did not run contrary to our interests because we were the strongest nation standing after the close of the war. But carrying on with that policy for as long as we did after the war, as if it is applicable to all times and places, has resulted in consequences we are only now beginning to feel.
As we awaken to the changing circumstances of our political age, it is time for a new agenda, but not a new conservative agenda—that word has long outlived its usefulness and was never clearly defined, anyway. What we should aspire to instead is a new American agenda. It’s time to abandon attachment to to the label “conservative” in America and instead try to come to terms with what it really means to be American. If the word conservative is to be retained, it has to be meaningful, that is it should be attached to the idea of conserving what is decidedly American.
What Happened to the Free Market?
The new agenda has plenty standing in its way. McCarthy notes a few of these things: the welfare state, a immobile techno class, a credentialed elite who know more than anyone else—at least they think so and they’ll be happy to tell you so if you doubt them. McCarthy claims that a “palliative liberalism” robbed us of the “dignity and power of work.” He is exactly right about the intent of modern liberalism, but the spark or desire to do, to create, to be free, the Founders thought existed in all of us even as we may tolerate a “long train of abuses.” We have to recover that spirit because the result of the existing system has produced a new slave power oligarchy where the haves dictate to an ever increasing number of have nots. And this system has sapped that spirit from many of our citizens.
The reaction against this “liberalism” is, in part, why Trump was elected. People do not want to feel hopeless and they grew weary of watching as their lives and livelihoods were slipping away. They understand that there is added value to their lives to leave something behind that they create, whether that be a strong family or something they have built with their own hands. Preferably, they want the pride of having done both. These realities are sown in the nature of man. As Horace might have written, no technological means to attempt to bypass such constraints of nature will succeed.
This is why Free Market, Inc., failed: Its proponents did not understand the nature of man or their real desires, wants, and needs, nor did they found an actual free-market system. There was never really such a thing. The entire American Founding up to the modern day used tariffs not only to raise revenue for the treasury, but also to grow a nascent domestic economy. Case in point was Albert Gallatin. He was the longest serving treasury secretary, and the most ardent free marketer in the country. However, even he believed that tariffs were important and necessary. Yet Gallatin knew tariffs by themselves do not work. Paying off the debt, clearing away regulations, and making internal taxes as low as they can possibly be would contribute to the sum of human happiness. He believed that every dollar the country is in debt was a dollar not available to the domestic economy.
McCarthy is right that tariffs are a useful tool, but tariffs alone are not enough. When it comes to the debt, more needs to be done. While regulations have decreased, the debt soars, and this is entirely because spending soars.
The post-World War II economy was really meant as a prop to support the new peaceful unification of nations. The lesson we drew from World War II, if I read Churchill correctly, was the failure of nations to stave off an “unnecessary war.” The economic interests of all nations were thus tied together, slowly, in order to make sure nations had a stake in peace. Free trade was the selling slogan, but it wasn’t really free trade. We did not want any more Germanys, and the perverse economic incentives that led to the rise of Hitler. With all economies tied together, the thought was that there would be less incentive for war. But this world order has played itself out. We have new circumstances and different threats today.
In a sense, McCarthy is right that we need something new, but let’s drop the pretense that America, in the name of “progress” and following the “arc of history,” has not already planned our own demise. Progressivism, an idea Churchill knew enough to call “fantastical” has contributed to the problems that threaten to tear us apart today.
Those who supported Trump are not “nostalgic” for the best of the past. We are beyond that now. The old tropes post World War II era were faulty to begin with and served to create a new elite class spread out over the globe. But after 1945 we were tired as a people, and an economic boom was soon to come. Folks wanted to find some personal happiness from the desperate times that had gone before. Over time, a new class of elites emerged, and they are desperate to keep what they have. It took us all this time to understand that progressivism was just creating a new form of oligarchy not a natural aristoi. Their aim was not to unleash the market, but to control its creative destruction. That control solidified their positions in the world and assured their elite status. Trump, who is nouveau riche as much as Cicero was, was elected to cut through the entire damn mess. The oligarchy has always resented a challenge to its wealth and position. What McCarthy calls a “palliative liberalism” was, if not a purposeful consequence, then at least an unintended consequence of the post World War II order.
Trump looked back only in a narrow sense to “Make America Great Again.” It was national because he believed in this country but it was not meant to restore the old guard. His real aim was to create a “new order for the ages”—these ages based on American freedoms. The reason the entire progressive elite class opposes him is because they have the most to lose. This is why any attempt to resurrect the Idea of America, needs to be something more than merely nostalgic.
I wrote before the 2016 election that Trump did not represent a return to the past; Trump was not a choice between progress or return, he was return and progress. Modern-day “progressives” are not really progressives about the deepest need in man. Everything about them oozes a return to a political paganism. The human soul and what drives us is meaningless to them, especially in light of their proclivity for infanticide. The Left has become the party of Nabatea.
Real progress affirms the nature of man and adapts the economy and culture to the times we are in. This suggests that a politics without the guidance of natural right—doing that is right in the here and now in light of what is true everywhere and always—is doomed. We have all the evidence we need to be persuaded that progress as “progressive” has been a miserable failure. This leaves us the opening for progress in light of the immutable nature of man. There are certain timeless principles to which that new agenda should appeal.
While economic nationalism is a great place to start, economic incentives, or protection, will not be enough. There are a few other areas that need our healthy attention. Our education system churns out pseudo-intellectuals who know little more than that they are sure of their knowledge. It is as if they have accomplished something Socrates never did. Our freedoms are under attack, especially freedom of speech. The American renaissance will be increasingly difficult since we, with the influence of technology, have become post-literate, tribal, and identitarian. Any revival of America requires the ability to persuade and deliberate with these realities in mind. Economic nationalism solves none of this, and hence prudence dictates we cannot wait for time to effect what needs to be a cultural pincer move.
A new American agenda would prudently appeal to the rustic sensibilities of the whole man. A due respect for the consent of the governed—who are needed to make actual the political—will assist in this grand deliberation about the fundamentals of our existence. That would be a new political compact rightly understood. Such an agenda would surpass the commanding heights of conservatism. It would be quintessentially American.
Photo Credit: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg