The American Right is going through an intellectual renaissance. Although President Trump is a visceral, even anti-intellectual leader, his rise to power shook the foundations of conservative orthodoxy and created the space for new debate.
There are now burgeoning intellectual communities of nationalists, populists, integralists, and other more obscure factions. While the ancien régime of free-market intellectuals has taken refuge in publications such as The Bulwark and The Dispatch, the new vanguard has declared the end of the “dead consensus” of 1980s Reaganism and is quickly working to replace it.
Oren Cass—who has superb establishment credentials as a Harvard-educated lawyer, management consultant, and policy director for Mitt Romney’s 2012 presidential campaign—has stepped into the fray with a forceful challenge to what he calls “free-market fundamentalism.”
Cass’s basic argument is that conservatives blindly have been focused on abstract measures of economic growth and ignored broader social concerns about families, communities, and culture. Over the past 50 years, despite robust economic growth overall, the social fabric of working-class communities has been shredded.
The intellectual Right has documented this brutal sociology in works such as Charles Murray’s Coming Apart, J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy, Chris Arnade’s Dignity, and my own film, America Lost. Cass and other thinkers on the new Right have sought to reason through this experience and develop policies that might reverse it.
Despite this accumulating body of evidence, the advocates of the free-market orthodoxy continue to insist that things are better than ever. Most notably, when Cass sought to quantify some of these dynamics in a “cost of thriving” index, economists at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI) attacked his methodology and the entire premise of working-class decline.
Mark Perry argued that the “average American household is flourishing,” Stan Veuger criticized Cass’s accounting of health cost inflation, and Michael Strain insisted that the prevalence of dual-income households is a sign of women’s progress in the labor market rather than a “two-income trap.”
While there is merit to some of their technical criticisms, the AEI economists have failed to grapple with the psychological reality of working-class stagnation—and have positioned themselves as little more than defenders of the status quo. Strain’s book, The American Dream Is Not Dead, is a compilation of aggregate economic statistics that do not transpose onto the direct social reality of working-class Americans, who find themselves in the midst of massive economic and cultural upheaval. Even the title of Strain’s book implicitly concedes the point: when you have to insist that something is “not dead,” it’s probably not doing very well, either.
Cass’ ultimate contention is that although income, including transfer payments, might have risen technically for the average worker, this alone is a poor measure of national wellbeing. Somewhere along the line, the conservative argument that “free markets enable human flourishing” was reduced to “free markets are a good unto themselves.” Cass simply reminds us that economics is the means, and strong families and communities are the end.
With the launch of his new organization, American Compass, Cass is poised to tap into the large reservoir of economically moderate, socially conservative voters who have mostly been ignored by the traditional left-right institutions. The question for Cass, then, is how to transform this majority sentiment into successful public policy. It’s one thing to lament the decline of working-class American communities; it’s another thing to revive them.
As I learned from spending five years documenting America’s forgotten cities, the problems in declining American communities are not merely economic in nature. They are deeply social, cultural, and familial—and 50 years of American social policy has failed to improve meaningfully their conditions. In bucking the orthodoxies of the Right, Cass must be careful not to simply adapt the orthodoxies of the Left. Social policy is a dangerous tool: it can destroy communities just as easily as it can strengthen them.
Despite these caveats, Cass’s challenge to conventional economic thinking is timely and important. At this moment when the American electorate has been gripped by populist fervor on both the Left and the Right, there is a desperate need for creativity. The socialist economics of Bernie Sanders is a dead end—but so is the libertarian economics of Ron Paul.
It’s too early to tell if Cass’s work will change the direction of national economic policy, but he has already succeeded in raising the fundamental question: what is the purpose of growth? This is the rightful starting point of any debate and, judging by the initial reaction from economists of all stripes, one that will be hotly contested.