Published February 13, 2021
The debate on “What conservatism means after Trump” has begun. Some people want to return to the status quo ante, and others realize that it is dead—but don’t agree on what should replace it.
It’s in this spirit that Avik Roy, president of the Foundation for Research on Equal Opportunity, has published an interesting essay in National Review, outlining what he believes should define conservatism after 2020.
There is much to like in Roy’s essay, but because it embraces too much of the old status quo and tut-tuts overmuch about Trump’s political incorrectness, it remains unsatisfying. Above all, it fails to understand what led to Trump’s election.
But first I want to stress that Roy is one of the good guys. He’s one of the smartest thinkers on the Right when it comes to healthcare, an issue of great importance to so many voters the GOP ought to be courting, and an issue about which the GOP typically has nothing to offer but dumb slogans.
What’s more, Roy understands several crucial things. First, we are never going back to the Reagan consensus. That consensus was the product of specific circumstances—like high inflation leading to bracket creep, and the Cold War—which brought together the “three-legged stool” alliance of social conservatives, business conservatives and libertarians, and foreign policy hawks. But now that the Cold War is over, so is that alliance—just as the alliance between America and Stalin was over when Hitler was defeated.
Another dead end, Roy understands, is a return to some pure libertarian agenda. Roy is absolutely right to debunk the myth that Ronald Reagan won by making Barry Goldwater’s libertarianism more presentable. No, Goldwater’s agenda was fundamentally unpopular, and Reagan won by running as a populist.
The most important true contribution Roy makes is that he understands that conservatives must govern, and must have an agenda—that is to say, they must both propose and implement actual policies that make an actual, tangible difference in the lives of ordinary Americans. This is where both the establishment Right and the MAGA movement fall short; the establishment hasn’t met a problem it doesn’t think will be solved with capital gains tax cuts, but the MAGA movement all too often seems satisfied with slogans and owning the libs on Twitter.
When Roy writes, “imagine . . . a conservative movement in which every promising policy idea is filtered through the lens of its impact on lower- and middle-income Americans,” I pump my fist up and shout “Yes!”
Roy urges us to focus on “kitchen-table issues,” and he’s correct. When Roy points out, for example, that with “Hayekian” principles we can have a healthcare system that is more efficient and covers everyone, and that this is a good thing to propose both substantively and politically, he’s absolutely right, and more Republicans need to hear it. (And 2016 Donald Trump, who criticized Obamacare’s disasters but proposed a system “that covers everyone” would agree, though he probably wouldn’t use the word “Hayekian.” That’s what experts are for! And it turns out we do need them.)
So, what’s missing? Well . . . Roy proposes three guiding principles for the future of conservatism: “equal opportunity,” “personal freedom,” and “patriotism.” Unfortunately, there is much in his discussion of these three supposed guiding principles that leaves me unsatisfied.
“Equal Opportunity” Is Not Winning Rhetoric
When he writes about “personal freedom,” what Roy means is that social conservatives are no longer a majority in America, and they should take a backseat. Would it be churlish to point out that policy experts are an even smaller group of people?
My experience is that social conservatives can be quite realistic about what is and isn’t achievable democratically in contemporary America, but what they don’t want and will not accept, quite understandably so, is to be completely ignored in favor of an unquestioning embrace of social liberalism—in part because they know that Republicans simply cannot win without them.
More deeply, “personal freedom” can mean anything, and Roy isn’t clear about what he means by it. Is it the personal freedom to change your sex? To change your child’s sex? To consume drugs at a time when there’s increasing evidence that one of America’s fundamental problems is that everyone is high on something, whether that’s opioids for the lower class, wine and Xanax for soccer moms, or dopamine hits from addictive digital entertainments for everyone?
Worryingly, Roy mentions John Stuart Mill as an inspiration for conservatives. Mill? Really? The apostle of modern liberalism who spent his entire life in thrall to his radical feminist wife?
If one had removed the references to recent political events and told me that the late Jack Kemp had written Roy’s essay, I would have believed it. There was much to like about Kemp’s vision. (Who can disagree with making programs for the poor more efficient and focused on lifting people up?) But in what sense is this different or new? When have conservatives not recited the catechism of “equal opportunity” and “personal freedom”?
Some conservatives love the phrase “equal opportunity.” I do not. First, it seems to me to conflate two different things: making programs for the poor more efficient, more oriented towards work and upward mobility; and creating an environment for the middle class to thrive. I am in favor of both those things, but I don’t think it’s rhetorically wise to conflate the two. For one thing, it seems to imply that the middle class is a victim class; whether the response is a handout or “lifting barriers to opportunity” we are still talking about an oppressed class whose fetters can only be removed by benevolent technocrats.
Reihan Salam and Ross Douthat have proposed a frame I really like, of “respect conservatism” (their article includes a great anecdote from Rudy Giuliani’s heyday). I think middle- and working-class Americans don’t want to be condescended to, they want to be acknowledged. They want to feel, not that the system is “helping them” in some paternalistic way, but that it is set up so that it will fairly reward them for their contributions to the community.
More philosophically, “equal opportunity” (especially when paired with “personal freedom”) also seems to suggest that the end of life is simply to grab as much of the economic pie as one can; it implies that the answer to the “How, then, shall we live?” question is to be found in purely materialist and acquisitive terms. The kitchen table is important, necessary even, but life is about more than the kitchen table.
Finally, historically, conservatives have glommed on to the “equal opportunity” slogan in order to counteract rhetoric from the elite Left: conservatives are mean, they want to cut government programs because they just hate the poor (and we all know “poor” is code for “nonwhite people”). Hence, “equal opportunity” becomes our womanly whine: we are nice people with bleeding hearts who want the same things as you! We just want people to have opportunity, and we want it to be equal, meaning, we’re not racist, we swear, so please stop being mean to us.
The problem with this sort of rhetoric is psychological. Subliminally, by accepting the Left’s framing, we validate it. We signal, firstly, that it is very very bad to be mean and that if the Left calls us mean we will bend over backward to show that we’re not mean (quick: find me a historical example of a great statesman who wasn’t mean, brutal even, on occasion), and secondly, that the minute the Left even hints at flashing the race card, we will fall on our knees and beg for our lives—which of course only encourages the Left to flash it at every opportunity, since they are fundamentally bullies. Subliminally, it makes us seem weak and unsure of ourselves, which causes normal people with a healthy sense of self-respect to lose respect for us.
Again, a lot of the programs and ideas that conservatives advance under the slogan “equal opportunity” are great; but these are my reservations about the slogan.
A Racial Reality Check
But there are more problems with Roy’s essay. Take, for example, the several paragraphs of moralizing about the civil rights era and two (!) references to Michael Anton, author of the infamously viral “Flight 93 Election” essay that has maintained a grip on its critics’ imaginations more than four years after its publication.
By now conservatives should be unashamed to say openly that civil rights-era legislation and the Supreme Court’s civil rights decisions have been, to say the least, a mixed blessing. As Christopher Caldwell has very convincingly argued in The Age of Entitlement, that legislation went well beyond stopping things all can agree were bad, and created, essentially, a new and parallel Constitution which is violently opposed to the actual, American Constitution. (Helen Andrews’s excellent new book Boomers also includes a terrific discussion of this issue.)
Secondly, given the amount of space devoted to the 1960s, it’s strange that searches for the following words come up empty: “family,” “fertility,” “jobs” (which seems like a kitchen-table issue to me), “Bible” (an authority that conservatives would consult before Mill, I imagine), “trade,” “manufacturing,” “church,” “Wall Street,” “rule of law,” “illegitimacy,” and so on.
To be sure, one can’t hope to address every issue in a short essay, but if school desegregation, an issue that has been solved since before most of us were born, makes the cut, I will notice what doesn’t.
Roy would like conservatives to apologize for the 1960s and embrace liberal pieties on race. But when it comes to the question of race, I would only point to two recent items of news from the Biden Administration: an announcement that pandemic small-business relief would focus on businesses owned by every identity group you can name except white men, and the Biden Justice Department quietly dropping the Trump Administration’s lawsuit against Yale for discriminating against Asian-American and white applicants. When I use words like racism and discrimination, Humpty Dumpty said, it means precisely what I want it to mean, nothing more, and nothing less.
When it comes to race in America—both discourse and reality—it doesn’t seem to me that the most urgent problem is relitigating the Goldwater era. Now, who knows? It didn’t work the last million times, but maybe the millionth-and-first time conservatives apologize for something William F. Buckley wrote in 1963 will cause discourse gatekeepers who plainly hate us to stop weaponizing the charge of racism against us. Somehow I have my doubts.
At least we should be clear that this is what we are talking about. Actual voters, including minority voters, do not care about this symbolic 60s stuff (except for the ones who are determined to hate us and can’t be won over). Many surveys have shown that the prevailing “race discourse” in the United States is really the exclusive discourse of highly-educated white liberals and that the views of ordinary minority citizens are much more moderate. This suggests, surprise surprise, that minorities are normal human beings who care more about the kitchen table issues Roy mentions than about being props in the eternal struggle of the Yankee Puritan to keep the Baptist and the Catholic in his place (as Michael Brendan Dougherty has trenchantly described our culture war).
So this sort of racial self-flagellating is a play for the approval of discourse-gatekeeper elites, not of actual voter groups. I don’t think that’s smart politics, but if I’m wrong, I will want to see a political case for it, not a pseudo-moralizing one.
Certainly on substantive grounds, and arguably on political grounds, denouncing the fraudulent racial narrative pushed by woke elites rather than acquiescing to it should be a higher priority.
Of course, it’s possible to overstate the importance of Trump’s gains among minorities, but they are real. Most likely, they are just an avatar of the broader partisan realignment along educational lines—but that is my point: whatever else we might make of Trumpian political incorrectness, the evidence suggests that at the very least it doesn’t hurt us with minorities.
My sense is that most minority voters just shrug their shoulders at the alleged racism and vote based on substantive issues they care about, like law and order. It’s noteworthy, for example, that some of Trump’s biggest gains among Hispanics in 2020 were in Texas border counties, i.e. the places that suffer most acutely the consequences of unchecked illegal immigration and cartel activity.
Patriotism Is Not an Idea
Finally, there is Roy’s discussion of “patriotism.” Roy feels it very important to distinguish “patriotism” from “nationalism” (a word which was famously taken up as a banner by Teddy Roosevelt and has a perfectly respectable pedigree in American politics), and his discussion of the issue mentions YouTube broadcaster Steve Bannon and Hillsdale lecturer Michael Anton, but makes no mention of, say, Pulitzer Prize-winner Nikole Hannah-Jones, or pop culture icon Robin DiAngelo.
The problem is that there is no way to know what Roy believes “patriotism” is or should be. Does he mean to suggest, as many people (including, unfortunately, many Republican officeholders) like to say that “America is just an idea”? There are several problems with this.
The first, most obvious, and most practical one, is that there is no present consensus on what the “American idea” is. The republic of flinty yeoman farmers envisaged at the founding? Who, in 2020 American society, believes in that idea? Not a majority of Americans. Not even, I would wager, a majority of Republican voters, most of whom don’t spend their lives immersed in books about the 18th century. Even some of the founding fathers didn’t believe in that idea!
And clearly, our elites believe that the “American idea”—if they believe in an “American idea”—includes the entire post-1960s rigmarole of group and identity rights (but doesn’t include the Second Amendment; or, for that matter, the First), and because they have been in charge of public school curricula, so do countless millions of Americans, who have been taught from childhood that until circa 1968 America was little more than a dystopian hellhole of racist and sexist oppression.
Is it possible to imagine America without those powerful ideas of the founding, properly understood, and enshrined in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution? Of course not. But, at the risk of “knocking down an open door,” as the French proverb goes, I would add some things.
For example, America is also a place. You know, a physical location—one of astonishing natural beauty and richness, which only a depraved soul could behold and not love.
It is also a people. A specific set of human beings, who have lived in that physical location for centuries, and made sacrifices for it and for their children, and whose future children will continue to endure in that same physical location, and pass on their heritage even as they build on it—or so, anyway, a patriot would want it. A people whose incredible, admirable decency and warmth, love of community, and spirit of daring, has awed foreign visitors for centuries—take it from a Frenchman, someone whose culture has developed haughtiness into an art form. Actual physical people, who live in houses, drive cars—pickup trucks and SUVs even, for some of them—take their kids to ball games, celebrate Thanksgiving, don’t spend much time thinking about the Bill of Rights (but, for many of them, spend some time thinking about Jesus) and are, in their overwhelming majority (especially between the coasts) astonishingly kind and decent.
A people whose original citizens were men of English stock who founded America with, not just distinctly English ideas about government and Enlightenment philosophy, but also distinctly English language, English laws, English mores, English culture, and English religion. To be sure, people from many different origins came to America; they made their own special contributions, and how fortunate America is for it, but they did so by joining into a specific people that had a unique history and legacy. And I see no coherent case for “patriotism” that doesn’t see these historical roots as a noble part of America, equally worthy of respect and defense as “ideas.”
Since we care so much about ideas, I would note that the United States Constitution begins with the proclamation that American citizens are a people, and that, among other things, their government’s job is to promote the general welfare of that people. Not of “ideas” but of citizens—that is to say, actual living and breathing human beings, who (or so it is to be hoped) are grateful for the legacy of their ancestors and want to pass it on to their children, and their children’s children.
It should be obvious that conceiving of patriotism as fidelity to a set abstract ideas can lead to policies that rebound against the interests of the actual human beings living within a country’s borders. (Why not have an open-door immigration policy? Do we not believe in freedom? And if that hurts the living standards of the current citizens, or if they just don’t want their culture to change, as is their perfect right in an allegedly self-governing republic, well, they should suck it up, because freedom.)
I also say this because it just seems more humane to me. We all know the type: the person who believes in extremely nice ideas and fails to love any actual physical people. After World War I, Europeans decided love of country led to too much unnecessary death, and should be replaced by love of abstract ideas, which only led to orders of magnitude more death. Meeting people who believe only in ideas makes my right hand feel insensibly restless, as if it would be reassured by grasping the nearest weapon.
It is also, fittingly for America, Biblical. Is the Biblical Israel an idea? In some sense, sure, you might say—it wouldn’t be Israel without its specific beliefs and laws. But the Bible insists that Israel is also a physical place, lovable as such, a land flowing with milk and honey, and a physical people, bound to their God and to each other by a covenant, that is to say, a blood-pact. “If I forget thee, O Jerusalem, let my right hand forget her cunning. / If I do not remember thee, let my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth; if I prefer not Jerusalem above my chief joy.”
The scholar Yoram Hazony has shown that one of the differences between the Biblical worldview and the worldview of Greek philosophy is the former’s attachment to, indeed revelment in, the goodness of Creation, the physical world of things and people, of beauty and taste and smell and sweat and blood. As the late Rabbi Jonathan Sacks put it so beautifully, the Biblical worldview marries “the universality of justice and the particularity of love.”
We only love the particular, the unique; for the cynic, every human being is interchangeable, but for the lover, the one he loves is absolutely unique and irreplaceable. For Christians, the Incarnation takes this mandate to the next level, since our supreme love must go to Christ, who is God, and also became flesh in time and history as a specific human being, which means that for the Christian, authentic love is always incarnate; love of country is love for a specific place and its people.
Finally, it’s more unifying. As I said, for good or ill, there is at present no consensus on what is the “idea” of America. I would wager most Americans don’t even think in those terms. But defending the interests of—and loving—the actual physical citizens of the United States of America, and their children? That is a principle I believe most Americans can embrace.
Except, of course, for American elites who, in the final analysis, like to talk about ideas because—is it not obvious?—they hate the physical people of America.
Roy’s discussion of immigration also leaves much to be desired. Roy holds up Cuban-Americans as an example of an immigrant group who are exemplary in their embrace of American values, but he certainly knows that Cuban refugees, who benefit from a special program and have specific circumstances, cannot be taken as representative of the people who would get citizenship if say the Biden Administration or the GOP establishment had their way.
Roy is especially exercised by Michael Anton’s description of American immigration policy as the “importation of Third World foreigners.” But is that phrase not, as a purely factual matter, correct? Where do the large majority of the actually-existing illegal immigrants, would-be refugees and migrants, and chain-migration beneficiaries, who constitute the bulk of immigration today, come from?
(Incidentally, during a U.S. trip, I had a fascinating encounter with a Russian, a person who had to flee for the United States because of his journalistic work criticizing Putin—in other words, an actual political refugee—who was a Trump fan because the swamping of refugee courts by bogus claims from, well, Third World foreigners, very much encouraged by the U.S. immigration bureaucrats, left him in neverending legal limbo.)
As a Frenchman, I know what it’s like to import millions of third world foreigners from a truly different civilization, so I am not overly terrified by the potential impact of the culture of Latin Catholics on an Anglo-Protestant-founded nation. But I certainly believe it’s a legitimate debate. Ideas Have Consequences, and that includes the ideas that people from other countries import with them. A (Hispanic, if it matters) friend of mine semi-jokingly pointed out that the (very real) phenomenon of Latinos for Trump (and even alt-right Latinos) suggests that Hispanics really are “natural conservatives,” as Bush-era conservatives would condescendingly claim, but in this way: they like macho caudilloism. Somehow, I don’t think that’s the political future Roy wants.
Roy is clear that it is legal immigration he supports. Very good! But reading his essay still leaves one uncertain where he stands on what should be legal. Where does he stand on issues such as amnesty, or border security, or high-skill vs. low skill immigration (whose impact on wages seems like a kitchen-table issue to me)? If nothing else, I think many millions of actual voters, for whom immigration is a make-or-break issue and without whom it is inconceivable for Republicans to be nationally competitive, will like some specificity on these issues before they embrace Roy’s blueprint.
A Better Way Forward?
If I wanted to engage in the same exercise as Roy, I think I would start from: “What are our most important problems?” and “What do we seek to conserve?” (If it’s Millian utilitarianism, count me out.)
And when I look at the landscape of America today, and look at the problems that conceivably could be addressed by policy, here is what I see:
- A blood-sucking, parasitic elite that despises its fellow countrymen, despises its nation, despises itself, and is either passively destroying America by sucking the economic life out of it, or actively destroying it by undermining every single value that once made America great. This elite includes an oligarchic class, in which I would include our actual oligarchs, our Wall Street and Big Tech billionaires who make their money, not in any “free market” but by working the system to their advantage, and the professional-managerial class who serve them and run our government as well as corporate bureaucracies. The elite also includes a priestly class—academics and journalists—who are paid by the oligarchs to accuse any opponent of the system of witchcraft (“racism!”). At least, it is all still very New England Puritan.
- The inverse of that problem is what is happening to the bottom 50 percent (60 percent? 70 percent?) of America. Many writers, from Charles Murray and Tim Carney to Robert Putnam and David Autor, have pointed out how standards of living are declining, jobs have been outsourced to China, community life and institutions are collapsing, families are breaking apart, health is getting worse, drug abuse is rampant, and people are no longer having children because the horizon seems so dark as their prospects are increasingly tied to where they were born. This problem is massively important and deserves its own response, a response that would include many of Roy’s policy ideas (as well as those of groups like American Compass). But it’s also important to keep in mind that it is caused by sociopathic elite predation and the effect cannot stop if the cause is not removed.
- What should be done in a rules-based democratic order when one side refuses to play by the rules? The way constitutional democracy works, we are told, is that both sides agree to play by the same set of rules. But this is an unstable equilibrium, since there’s a great incentive to cheat, and it’s all on the honor system. The elite Left has clearly decided that the rules no longer apply to them. If you are outlining a strategy for Team Red to win a game of football against Team Blue, you should discuss the fact that Team Blue players are holding boards with rusty nails through them, and that the referee, who happens to be Team Blue’s owner’s idiot son, is wearing a Team Blue jersey.
- How should “ordered liberty” work, or even be thinkable, as a goal for politics when everything I know says that a necessary precondition of it is widespread virtue of the people, and everything I see tells me that virtue has collapsed for the vast majority of Americans along any metric one cares to name. There may be a “good” solution to this problem. But it’s a problem.
- The fact that, apart from the internet, there hasn’t been any real progress in technology since the early 1970s and everything that implies—starting with stagnating productivity and wages for most Americans, meaning that for the vast majority of people a middle-class family can no longer be supported on one income. The utter collapse of the family, with everything that implies for community, gender roles, and mental health—but with a particular focus on what declines in birth rates mean for the vitality and future of America.
- The decadence of American culture. We would first have to find some antidote to the elite’s unremitting hostility to American values. And secondly, we would have to address somehow the general (and ever-worsening) coarseness of the culture. But more profoundly, we would have to confront its implicit and explicit embrace of the liberal creed of the autonomous, rootless, self-creating individual, a creed which is intrinsically corrosive to everything that conservatives ought to want to conserve: legacy, community, religion, creativity, public service, vitality, self-transcendence.
It wouldn’t be fair to say that Roy’s agenda doesn’t address any of these issues, problems, and concerns. But when it does, it is only incidentally (yes, Roy’s ideas about healthcare would help a lot). But it seems to me that Roy is missing the forest for the trees. And politically, apart from slight alterations, I don’t see how it is meaningfully different from the Romney-Ryan agenda, and how therefore Roy believes it could produce better electoral results.
Again, Roy makes some important points that conservatives should take to heart. But it’s still disheartening that so much of it is dedicated to moralizing about alleged Trumpian depravities.
In the 1980s, French establishment politician Laurent Fabius got in trouble with his own side for a semi-sympathetic appreciation of populist insurgent Jean-Marie Le Pen, saying “Le Pen asks the right questions, but he gives the wrong answers.” I have complete respect for my friends in the conservative establishment who don’t like Trump’s answers. But I think they need to recognize the very real reasons why Donald Trump became a political phenomenon, and start from there.
Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry is a fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center. His writing has appeared in numerous publications. He is based in Paris.