The Most Inane Criticism That Reform Conservatives Hear

Published March 31, 2015

The Week

A group of intellectuals known as reform conservatives or “reformocons” (in which I count myself) has pointed to the breakdown of the working class family as one of the most significant socioeconomic problems in America. It’s a largely unseen but highly potent contributor to social stratification, growing inequality, social anomie, and just generally immense suffering for countless people riven by divorce or cohabitation, especially children who have to grow up without a mother and a father in the home.

Reformocons get a bad rap from both sides of the aisle. Many proponents of a more individualistic brand of conservatism are wary of the idea of a more pro-family agenda and believe everything will be cured by more supply-side tax cuts and deregulation. (Reformocons agree that these things are good — they just think they’re not the answer to every problem in the world.)

But the oddest criticism of the reform conservative tendency comes from the left. The critique boils down to this: Yes, liberals grudgingly grant, the evidence that family breakdown has disastrous consequences is overwhelming, but reform conservatives should shut up because they don’t have a policy agenda and instead offer nothing but “preaching” to working-class families to get their houses in order. If reform conservatives really cared about the family, these critics hint, they would opt for the kind of redistributive programs of the post-War era and European social democracies that give people the financial resources necessary to build strong and stable families.

(It’s worth noting the parallels between the criticism from the left and from the right: In both cases, there’s nothing that won’t be fixed with a little cash. The two sides just disagree with how to get the cash into the working class’s hands, whether through trickle-down economics or trickle-down government. In a better world, everyone would understand human nature enough to know how self-refuting this is.)

The progressive critique is doubly wrong.

First, the idea that reform conservatives don’t have an agenda (beyond expanding the child tax credit, they sometimes grant) is, frankly, disconnected from reality. It should be remembered that the reform conservative movement got started, before it was known as such, by the 2008 book Grand New Party by Reihan Salam and Ross Douthat, a policy-heavy tome with literally hundreds of pages of policy ideas focused on the working class in general and the working class family in particular, down to infrastructure policy (shortening that two-hour commute so parents can spend more time with their kids is a family value!). National Affairs, the dense policy journal of reform conservative ideas, is not exactly full of vacuous moral preaching. We live in a shallow world and so the zeitgeist has latched on to the child tax credit as “the” reformocon idea. While it’s certainly a great idea, it is merely the most visible part of an agenda that, frankly, is deeper and better thought through than the platform of either major party.

But, secondly, the progressive idea that the only alternative to passing bills is “preaching” is wrong. The critics are right that reformocons don’t believe that policy alone will fix things. That’s because reformocons live in the real world, not the world of Vulgar Marxism.

It shouldn’t have to be stated, but here we go: Cultural movements exist.

History is full of examples of society being changed not by passing bills, but by cultural movements and shifts in outlook. And in many cases, the passings of bills by legislatures were a consequence, not a result, of cultural change.

The paradox is that so many of these recent cultural movements have benefited the left. The same-sex marriage movement is a paradigmatic example of how it was a change in culture that wrought major policy and lifestyle changes. But there’s also temperance; the societal turn against smoking (and towards pot); the rise of eugenics (a progressive victory) and its fall (a conservative victory); the rise of racism and its decline; and, of course, the Sexual Revolution itself.

These are just a few examples of movements that changed how people view the world and how people think and act and live (and, therefore, changed policy), that were and are fundamentally cultural in nature.

Cultural movements — how they arise, what causes them, how they work — are mysterious, but it does not mean they’re impotent. In fact they might ultimately be the most powerful social force there is.

Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry is a fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center.

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