Ethics & Public Policy Center

The Right, the Left, and Reform Conservatism

Published in National Review Online on June 4, 2014



Last month, the YG Network published a book of conservative policy proposals called Room to Grow, which sought to put in one place some of the key elements of a conservative middle-class agenda. (I was one of the book’s editors and wrote an introductory chapter, and many of the proposals it collected have been previously laid out in the magazine I run, National Affairs.) The book has drawn a fair amount of interest, and the criticisms offered from the left have been particularly interesting.

One line of criticism, which basically asserts that advancing a reform agenda of the sort the book envisions won’t be easy, certainly seems reasonable and right. But another, and more common, liberal take strikes me as confused in some revealing ways about both the right and the left. That view is summarized today by Thomas Edsall in this New York Times op-ed.

Edsall suggests (and points to others suggesting) that the effort to advance a reform agenda on the right is a response to the Tea Party, and that its seriousness should be measured by the degree to which it seeks to close the distance between left and right. That seems to me thoroughly off the mark, in both cases.

From my point of view (and I can speak only for myself of course), the key point to understand about what people are calling “reform conservatism” is that it is an effort to move the Republican party to the right. And in particular, it is an effort to move from arguing about how much we should be willing to spend on the liberal welfare state to arguing about how to replace it with a conservative approach to government that advances our vision of a free society.

It is not in this sense a response to the Tea Party movement (and of course it predates that movement by some years) but rather a response to the fat and happy, big-business-oriented, go along to get along, aimless centrism of too much of the Republican party over the past decade, which has been perfectly happy to argue about the cost (if that!) of our government, rather than about its purpose and structure, provided its own friends got a piece of the action. The people who have come to be called “reform conservatives” have been arguing for some time that a party defined by this kind of attitude has too little to offer voters, does too little to advance conservative priorities, and contributes too little to the country’s efforts to adjust to the risks and the opportunities of 21st-century life. Conservatives should instead look squarely at those 21st-century realities and show the country what an application of conservative principles to the challenges we face would amount to in practice. Laying out the agenda for doing that, issue by issue, is what efforts likeRoom to Grow are about. Making concrete proposals obviously involves offering incremental steps, which begin from where we are today and move toward a conservative approach to government. But that concreteness, and that vision — which would build decentralized, bottom-up, market-oriented approaches to problem solving upon (and in the service of) a firm foundation of social conservatism — puts this effort well to the right of where Republicans are. Advancing toward this kind of approach would mean a smaller government, to be sure, but it would also mean a more effective government far better aligned with the realities of American life and the principles of America’s political tradition.

I think the Tea Party developed in large part in response to the same revolting dynamic of centrist, aimless drift on the right over the past decade, and the same concern about Republicans’ failure to counteract the damage the left is doing to the country. The core emphasis of some of the tea-party critique of the right, though, was on what Republicans were acquiescing to, rather than what they were failing to champion, and so tea-party activism has focused primarily on rolling back the government’s fiscal commitments and its excessive reach, and has therefore enabled Republicans to avoid offering a real direction of their own. This is understandable, given the appalling excesses of the last few years. But it is also problematic, because it has meant that tea-party activism has sometimes allowed itself (and the Republican party) to fall into the very debate that the left wants to have: a debate about how much we’re willing to pay for the left’s vision of government.

Many liberals seem genuinely to believe that this is the question around which our politics revolves. Witness, for instance, Paul Krugman describing our politics:

Start with the proposition that there is a legitimate left-right divide in U.S. politics, built around a real issue—how extensive should we make our social safety net, and (hence) how much do we need to raise in taxes? This is ultimately a values issue, with no right answer.

Conservatives don’t generally believe that is the key issue at all, but by emphasizing only that we want less of what liberals are doing rather than showing the country what our way would look like, we have fallen into that groove.

Of course, tea-party activists haven’t all, or always, done that, but because that element of their complaints has been the one that more traditional Republicans have (oddly) been most comfortable with, that has been the core of what the Republican party has championed lately: less of the same. What the reformers are pushing for is an emphasis on the right’s better way. It seems to me that’s very much in line with what a lot of tea-party activists want too, and it’s not a coincidence that it is a response to the same frustration with Republicans that brought on the Tea Party. And in fact, various people and organizations associated with Tea Party Republicanism have been at the forefront of advancing the kind of approach (and some elements of the particular agenda) articulated in Room to Grow.

This is something that some observers on the left (including Edsall) haven’t quite been able to wrap their minds around. There’s no room in his portrait of developments on the right for the fact that the foremost architect and champion of this agenda among elected Republicans has been Utah senator Mike Lee. And Lee didn’t start down this road just recently. He’s been articulating this vision and advancing a recognizably reformist agenda since he started running, because it is a natural extension of the sorts of concerns and priorities that rightly cause him to be thought of as a leader of the Tea Party wing of conservatism in the Senate. And there’s no room in Edsall’s portrait for the fact that one of the organizations doing the most serious and important work in driving Republicans back toward a policy orientation lately has been Heritage Action. Again, I think it’s perfectly natural.

Edsall and others don’t see it because they’re walking around with a warped old sense of where things stand in our politics. They imagine that there is some kind of coherent liberal agenda that speaks to middle-class concerns and that conservatives who want to help Republicans regain their balance with middle-class voters should look to it for guidance. That’s why they analogize the Republicans’ situation now to where the Democrats were before the rise of Bill Clinton. But where is that agenda? What does it consist of? What did President Obama run on in 2012? What is the next Democratic candidate supposed to run on? Doubling down on head start and the minimum wage plus a carbon tax? To me, one of the most extraordinary features of this moment in our politics is that many serious liberals seem genuinely not to grasp the intellectual exhaustion of the left.

The right has had its own exhaustion problem, to be sure, and “reform conservatism” seeks to be a remedy for that. But the remedy is not to somehow emulate the flailing left. In principle and in practice alike, that would be a huge mistake — in fact I think it’s fair to say that that’s a key part of what the reformers are working to resist. The remedy is to offer Americans a vision of conservative governance and its approach to solving problems and a clear sense, issue by issue, of how that approach would help the country and improve people’s lives.

Particularly in a moment when both parties are out of steam, and voters know it, such a remedy stands to open up huge opportunities for Republicans. That prospect stands to unify rather than divide conservatives. And it might stand to teach liberals something too, when they wake up to the depth of the crisis they’re in.

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