Published March 29, 2021
The Princeton Alumni Weekly asked two writers with different views to consider the future of our major political parties. Read Julian E. Zelizer’s take on the Democrats here.
There is an American elite, and if you’re reading this magazine, you are very likely part of it. In terms of educational attainment, social status, income, and net worth, most Princeton alumni are at the most privileged end of the spectrum.
Elites seem to have benefited massively from the policies accepted or championed for decades by both major parties’ establishments. On paper, we have flourished under globalism and “you-do-you” social liberalism. International trade and relaxed borders haven’t put us out of jobs; our salaries haven’t been stagnating for 50 years; and with the luxuries of wealth and practical cunning, our peers have embraced the “liberties” of the sexual revolution without bearing many of its most visible costs: Most of us still get and stay married and rear children in stable homes.
That’s on paper. At a deeper level, our material privileges haven’t made us — or our kids — all that happy. The constant demand to strive and produce — to win in a meritocracy — undermines joy. No wonder mental-health care is now the main function of our university’s health services. Still, we aren’t dying the deaths of despair highlighted by Princeton professors Anne Case *88 and Angus Deaton: suicides, drug overdoses, and liver disease. Many of our compatriots are. We seem to have mastered the art of overlooking these forgotten Americans.
The future belongs to whichever party does for them what the establishments of both parties have done for us: prioritize their needs and interests. That means building an economy that works for everyone. It means rebuilding the cultural and moral order that gives more people the central blessing of a stable, two-parent family. It means prioritizing policies that serve the non-elite.
Many Beltway pundits spent January and February analyzing the internecine battle within the GOP as between QAnon forces (embodied in Marjorie Taylor Green) and establishment forces (embodied in Liz Cheney). This isn’t where the real debate is. After all, everyone smart on the right knows that just as William F. Buckley had to run the Birchers out of the conservative movement two generations ago, so too today the Republican Party will have no future if it provides safe haven to the alt-right, QAnon, racism, anti-Semitism, or xenophobia.
The real intra-GOP struggle to watch is the one between what we might call the Mitt Romney of 2012 and the Mitt Romney of 2021: It is about whether Republicans will advance a policy agenda that promotes the flourishing and core values of the “forgotten Americans” (which would also, incidentally, prevent them from being coopted by conspiracy theorists and bigots). Pundits will analyze day-to-day political weather; PAW readers should consider the underlying climate changes.
Why did those “forgotten Americans” turn to Donald Trump to begin with? They thought he cared more than the establishment did. What with language from Romney in 2012 on “makers and takers” and the “47 percent,” and from Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama of a “basket of deplorables” and people who “get bitter” and “cling to guns and religion,” many of our neighbors thought their lives, families, values, and jobs didn’t matter to elites.
Fast forward to today, and Romney introduces the most generous federal child-assistance program to ever come from a Republican. No longer does he refer to himself as a “severe conservative.” Meanwhile, the Marco Rubio who focused on freedom when he ran for president in 2016 gave an address in late 2019 titled “Common Good Capitalism and the Dignity of Work,” backed by policy initiatives such as expanding the child tax credit and paid family leave. These aren’t Chamber of Commerce priorities.
If the Republican Party of the past two generations was marked by the fusionism that came out of Buckley’s National Review, the question now is what a 21st-century fusion looks like. The old fusionism combined the religious right with anti-communists and libertarian economists, with an eye to protecting the American way of life from its enemies at home (including, in this view, Big Government) and abroad (the USSR).
But the American family and American worker weren’t saved. And the GOP fell into the rut of assuming particular policy applications were its lodestar principles. Today, a new fusionism is forming that evaluates social, economic, and foreign policies by asking how effectively they defend core American values like life, marriage, work, and religion.
After all, the way of life that the Founders sought to protect was a blend of the Declaration of Independence and the Bible. Where people are made in the image and likeness of God, subjects of inalienable dignity. Where people are created male and female, to unite in marriage and raise children together in a family. Where people assemble in a variety of houses of worship to give thanks to the Creator so central to the Declaration. And where they spend their labors in service of others — and in keeping with their obligations to God — to support their families.
Now this way of life isn’t just for Americans — it’s based on human nature. Most people want to form families, worship God, and find dignified work. A political movement dedicated to this vision would be broadly attractive.
On social issues, Americans don’t want to be judged by their race, sex, class, or religion. A smart GOP would reject identity politics, critical race theory, and gender ideology. A commitment to human dignity and equality would demand not only protection of the unborn, but also rejection of racial identity politics (both left-wing and right-wing) and assaults on religious liberty. As the left has set its face against faith traditions that uphold historically normative understandings of marriage and family, Republicans must step up to defend these basic values.
On economic issues, Americans don’t want to maximize GDP, property rights, or economic freedoms at all costs. They want to find decent jobs, support their families, meet their needs, especially on health care, and not worry that they’re one pink slip away from eviction. Rights and liberties matter. But as fellow alum George Will *68 once wrote, “the most important four words in politics are: ‘up to a point.’” The GOP is the party of economic freedom, up to the point where it ceases to serve human flourishing. All liberties have limits. So do markets, for all the blessings they’ve brought.
This doesn’t mean that conservatives should embrace the left’s class-warfare rhetoric or aggressive taxation, redistribution, and regulatory expansion. The goal is to craft policies that serve the flourishing of human beings and their communities. Not government-run institutions replacing the authority of families, religious communities, business, and other institutions of civil society, but policies that, to quote the theologian Richard John Neuhaus and sociologist Peter Berger, “empower people” and the free institutions that mediate between individuals and the state. It’s already happening, as Romney, Rubio, and Mike Lee, for example, have all introduced the pro-family federal policies mentioned.
When it comes to jobs, we need policies reflecting the fact that a job is more than a paycheck. It provides meaning and community, purpose and direction. And along with religion and other elements of civil society, it contributes to what Harvard’s Robert Putnam calls social capital. Government transfer payments, including a universal basic income, won’t do much to stop the decimation of the economies of small towns or the breakdown in marriage and family.
Republicans must also creatively apply timeless principles to Big Tech, woke capitalism, and cancel culture. A GOP of the future will learn from the GOP of the past that Big Government can threaten human freedom and flourishing, but it will also understand that Big Business can too — especially when oligarchic global corporations attack basic American values. We need a culture, not just a legal system, that fosters the free exchange of ideas.
We also need a foreign policy no longer focused exclusively on free trade and democracy-building, but concerned with the rise of China, the creation of a class of “global citizens” with no particular loyalty to their homelands, and the impact of immigration and trade on American workers.
The question for the GOP, then, is whether this new fusionism achieves policy prominence in the party. Watch to see whether the GOP speaks not just about fair procedures and rights and liberties (essential as these are), but also about the way of life they would promote. Doing so would force it to put its money where its mouth is, championing policies to make this way of life possible. Because it belongs to no single race, or class, or religious tradition, this way of life — and related political agenda — would enable the GOP to be multiethnic and interfaith. Any viable Republican Party must seek out working-class voters from all ethnic and religious backgrounds and represent their interests.
As the privileged keep doubling down on neoliberal economics and identity and gender politics, the Democrats will undoubtedly become even more the party of the elites. So the Republicans must become a working-class party, championing the values and policies that make for the real happiness we’re all after. Some Princeton elites might want to join the cause.
Ryan T. Anderson ’04 is the president of the Ethics and Public Policy Center, which describes itself as Washington’s “premier institute dedicated to applying the Judeo-Christian moral tradition to critical issues of public policy.”