Can Conservatives find the Way?

July 10, 2017

by Tevi Troy*

IT is increasingly obvious these days that many of the people who call themselves conservative can’t even agree on what the term means. Despite simultaneous Republican control of the White House and both houses of Congress, the conservative movement seems endlessly at odds.

Senator Mitch McConnell’s recent troubles with the Republican health care bill have presented a window into these continuing disagreements for the world at large to peek through. But health care is hardly the only issue on which the movement is divided: looming debates on tax reform, trade, foreign policy and immigration imperil conservative progress.

Conservatives speak wistfully of an era of conservative unity that brought about policy transformations, especially under President Ronald Reagan in the 1980s. Both the animating ideas and the corresponding policies were in harmony because Reagan believed in a conservative philosophy and used that philosophy to carry out actionable policy.

Crucially, this period was also characterized by a belief that there was a unifying strand to conservatism, and that the Republican Party was the political home for this movement. Even if conservatives disagreed on the details of a specific policy, they agreed on a general direction and on supporting political leaders who would get them there. As for the Republican Party, it was a vehicle for debating policy and ideology, serving as a party of ideas, in contrast to the Democrats’ warring coalition of needy interest groups.

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Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R)

Conservative reveling in this bygone past is a phenomenon that predates the most recent presidential election. As Jonah Goldberg, a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, told me: “G.O.P. primaries for the last few cycles have been like the nerdiest possible re-creation of the end of ‘Spartacus’: ‘I am Ronald Reagan.’ ‘No, I am Ronald Reagan.’ ”

The halcyon period of the 1980s did not develop out of nowhere. Reaching this degree of unity was hard, with the Reaganite consensus emerging over a lengthy period of debate dating back to conservatism’s modern revival in the 1950s.

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Yale- Educated William F. Buckley Jr. of The National Review

Whenever conservatives talk about unity, the unifying figure in this regard is William F. Buckley Jr. Shortly after starting National Review in 1955, Mr. Buckley and his colleagues sought to join together the various elements of the respectable right. Mr. Buckley’s associate, Frank Meyer, an ex-Marxist of libertarian inclinations, found the key to uniting disparate elements under a common rubric. Mr. Meyer called for a defense of both Western civilization and personal freedom that came to be known as “fusionism.”

Fusionism was an explicit recognition of certain shared concerns — about the existential threat of Communism abroad and the growth of government at home. It managed to bring together both government-skeptical libertarians and religiously minded traditionalists by emphasizing the importance of the individual and Western civilization, as well as the Communist threat to both.

When it came to governing, though, fusionism provided somewhat less guidance. Think tanks like the Heritage Foundation and the Hoover Institution stepped in to fill the void, producing policy books called “Mandate for Leadership” and “The United States in the 1980s.” The Reagan administration then carried out their policy recommendations, or at least many of them. Mr. Buckley himself recognized but also gently mocked the importance of the Heritage Foundation’s work, saying, “Sixty percent of the suggestions enjoined on the new president were acted upon (which is why Mr. Reagan’s tenure was 60 percent successful).”

Within these policy manifestoes and Mr. Reagan’s rhetoric, certain overarching ideas emerged to guide politicians: aggressive prosecution of the Cold War against the Soviet Union, lower taxes and a tough stance on crime.

Today, with a larger conservative movement, it’s harder to find areas of agreement. The policies pursued under the fusionist umbrella now have less sway. The cold warriors’ tough stance on Russia is no longer unifying in a post-Soviet era, to say the least. A more contemporary, and more elusive, idea is the concept of a clash of civilizations that President Trump alluded to in his speech in Poland last week: “The fundamental question of our time is whether the West has the will to survive.”

Crime remains an issue, but less so than in the 1980s or the 1990s, in part because many urban politicians, including liberal ones, adopted conservative recommendations on how to combat crime, like the broken windows theory of policing. As for marginal tax rates, conservative policies reduced them, and took so many people off the income tax rolls that 44 percent of Americans pay no federal income taxes. The hidden lesson here is that conservative policy successes had the effect of making core conservative ideas less politically resonant among voters and thus making them ineffective for unity as well.

At a surface level, some issues do appear to unite current conservatives: disdain for anti-conservative and anti-Republican bias in the mainstream media; support for conservative judges like Neil Gorsuch, who joined the Supreme Court in April; and support for Israel. But these issues themselves are insufficient, as well as more limiting.

As Lanhee Chen, a Research Fellow at Hoover, told me, “those three things alone don’t make a governing agenda.” When I asked Sally Satel, a resident scholar at A.E.I., about whether these areas of agreement could form the basis of a real consensus, she said sarcastically, “Talk about a big tent. …”

Another problem is that these issues unify mainly in opposition to forces conservatives dislike: liberal journalists, judicial activists and Israel bashers. Vin Weber, a former Republican Representative, summed it up this way: “We sort of know who we are against.” Mr. Weber believes that conservatives “need to refocus on why we have a G.O.P.”

In the great sorting that is to come, some conservatives who divided over this most recent election will find themselves permanently ensconced in different camps. But there is still hope for a semblance of unity if conservatives build out from the admittedly narrow list of areas of common agreement in the development of a new conservative agenda. If this difficult yet important work of creating a new conservative agenda at all three levels — philosophy, policy and politics — does not happen, then the conservative movement will lose much of its ability to shape the Republican Party going forward.

Getting this recalibration right is not a short-term commitment. The period from the creation of National Review to the election of Ronald Reagan was 25 years. This upcoming period of conservative re-examination will take some time — although hopefully not as much — as well.

To complicate matters, intense disagreement about the sitting president could make it harder to accomplish this work during Mr. Trump’s tenure. As Jonah Goldberg put it to me, “Trump is like a magnet next to a compass,” making it harder for conservatives to find true north as they argue over whether it is the duty of conservatives to support him or the duty of conservatives to oppose him. These arguments divert attention from the question of what a 21st century conservative policy agenda should be, and they are likely do so for the rest of his presidency.

At the same time, some conservatives think Mr. Trump has performed a necessary service in highlighting the existing fault lines. Seth Leibsohn, a pro-Trump radio host who wrote the new book “American Greatness: How Conservatism Inc. Missed the 2016 Election and What the D.C. Establishment Needs to Learn” with his co-host, Chris Buskirk, told me that “it’s even healthier to have these debates as we win elections — for that we owe a lot to the Trump candidacy, presidency and movement.”

Regardless of where one stands on Mr. Trump, conservatives need to identify a new, modern fusionism, with both a unifying concept as well as a corresponding set of shared policy ideas tailored to our current era. This is not the work of politicians, be they Reagans or Trumps. It is the work of conservative thinkers at magazines and think tanks, who need to debate, argue and ultimately agree or disagree on whether it is possible once again to develop a conservative vision for the future and what that vision might look like.

7 thoughts on “Can Conservatives find the Way?

  1. Mitch McConnell,sometimes people think that he is some sort of a crazy.Talks,does and says things that makes no sense.Some Washington insiders says he is acting the way he is,is because his wife,Elaine Chow is Donald’s cabinet member.That is the reason he is carrying the ‘Groper in Chief’s ” marbles.

    The reason his senate healthcare plan is so bad is because he wants it to fail.After 8 years of Republican planning of repealing and replace Obama care,all they could come up with is a plan far worse than Obama care.So if Donald care passes,Mc Connelll’s Republicans will be swept out in the midterm’s.And he has to make sure it doesn’t pass.So McConnell added some extra heavy stuff for the last call before the bar closes.Maybe he is not as stupid as some people think after all.

  2. I don’t think there is only one way to be a conservative. There is not conservatism; there are conservatisms, and they draw from each other. The best general definition of “conservative” that I know is Russell Kirk’s essay on “Ten Conservative Principles”:

    I cannot improve on Kirk’s list, but I would say that for me, the first of his Ten Conservative Principles speaks deepest to why I am a conservative: “First, the conservative believes that there exists an enduring moral order. That order is made for man, and man is made for it: human nature is a constant, and moral truths are permanent….” My conservatism is primarily social and cultural, not religious for I don’t believe in any god. I’m not as keenly concerned with the things most important to others who consider themselves conservative in our time and place, namely libertarians, foreign-policy realists, and free marketers. This is not to say that I disagree with them (though at times I do), but only that the things most important to me as a conservative are social and cultural. In that regard, I sometimes find myself opposing particular policies and principles advocated by others within the broader conservative party.

    And that’s fine. I’ve no interest in denouncing them as traitors, turncoats, or heretics. If you read George H. Nash’s canonical history of “The Conservative Intellectual Movement in America Since 1945” you will learn that what we call conservatism draws on both traditional conservatism (that is, generally, social and cultural conservatism), and libertarian anti-statism (which entails strong free-market principles). Conservatism – American conservatism, that is – is the result of the blending of these two schools of thought, which cannot be completely reconciled, but rather exist, or should exist, in creative tension. I, for example, don’t see how anyone can call himself a conservative in a meaningful sense and be in favor of the unrestrained free market. But that’s an argument worth having. I don’t think it’s prudent or wise to declare that anyone who disagrees with me is therefore not a conservative. I believe I understand economics better than many people, but I don’t understand economics as well as I ought to, so perhaps I’ve something to learn from them. And, many free-market fundamentalists on the libertarian side don’t understand culture and society as well as they might, and have something to learn from people like me.

    Anyway, as Kirk said, conservatism is an attitude toward the world, not a dogmatic religion. It irritates me to no end that the American conservative mind today is so closed, even to thinkers and resources in its own tradition. As Kirk’s tenth canon says, “The thinking conservative understands that permanence and change must be recognized and reconciled in a vigorous society.” That means that we have to be willing and able to think creatively about conservative principles, and apply them to new facts and circumstances. I suppose one way to think about conservatism – sorry, conservatisms – is by asking the question: “What do you want to conserve?” Kirk said that the traditional family was the institution most important to conserve. I agree with that, and most of my conservatism comes from that conviction. For being born of Chinese heritage, the Chinese language, idioms and proverbs we use daily are inevitably influenced by Confucianism, Taoism, and Buddhism whether we are conscious of it or not. And family is of most important in Confucianism. That’s why, for example, I don’t place as much value on economic liberty as many conservatives do. If an economic practice undermines the integrity of the family and the familist order, then I’m likely to oppose it. One of the reasons I’ve come to be much more skeptical of the aggressively militaristic and nationalistic foreign policy many conservatives advocate is the effect of war on family life (that is, of soldiers deployed and returned), and of what the acceptance of torture does to our moral sensibility. Similarly, I’m in principle willing to accept more involvement of the state for the sake of shoring up the family and the moral order than libertarians are.

    What I hate is the intra-conservative mob shutting up dissenters by calling them RINOs (Republican in name only), heretics, “unpatriotic,” “leftist” or what have you. And yes, I also mean those who would deny pro-choice and pro-gay rights religious Republicans – whose views I oppose – a voice in the debate. If age and empirical experience taught us anything, it ought to have been to listen to dissenters, and to approach the big questions of politics and statecraft with a certain intellectual humility. That, it seems to me, is a truly conservative disposition.

    • //“What do you want to conserve?”
      @LaMoy, Thank you for a thoughtful response.
      In many ways, we cannot avoid talking about American Christian sensibility when we talk about American conservatism.

      Hence, my response. In the past years, I have switched churches 4 times on the ‘pro-gay’ rights issue, with much heavy heartedness, and guilt each time. My own brother is a gay. I am of one who transitioned from one who dislike the smugness of American Calvinism during the days of my college life in Columbia, to one who sees the beauty of the ‘grace’ in Calvin’s ‘TULIP’ predestination.

      I just hope to share with you what I have learned about the transition of American Christian sensibility based on Kirk’s principle, especially on this.
      — Ninth, the conservative perceives the need for prudent restraints upon power and upon human passions.

      If I wasn’t wrong about recent Christian politics in America, it came from a reactionary movement against the flower movement of the 60s, against the pro-choice ideal from the activism work done by Francis Schaeffer.

      When one examines Schaeffer’s ideal, his approach would carries the same sentiment and train of thoughts of what you have suggested.

      What was unfortunate about Francis’s activism is that it has resulted the blossoming of Rushdoony’s “Dominion Theology”. I have strong suspicion that my own CAL-Berkeley freshman niece has just gotten herself involved in such a church, without her knowing it. I have yet to figure out how best to relate so much info to her and a good way to tell her all of the subtle differences, and major impact/frissure caused in society due to those differences.

      To myself, it seems that American Christian sensibility have swang wildly on this ninth principle, without its’ adherents’ notice.
      // Ninth, the conservative perceives the need for prudent restraints upon power and upon human passions.

      For myself, just like when you would not call some others as non-conservative, I find difficulty in finding others being un-Christian. It is with this thought in mind that some in Malaysia would me defending Muslims in Malaysia more than I should as a pendatang Cina.

    • katasayang:
      I hope you love your brother just like any other members of your family, for he is family. As far as I know, there are many churches in the Bay Area that are not anti-gay. Any church that claim the Bible is clear “that homosexuality is forbidden by God” is poor biblical scholarship and a cultural bias read into the Bible. The Bible says nothing about “homosexuality” as an innate dimension of personality. Many times I’ve challenged those bigoted church members to produce me any passages from the Bible which show “homosexuality is forbidden by God,” none was able to do it. Sexual orientation was not understood in biblical times. In fact, there was no word in Hebrew, Aramaic or Greek for “homosexual” or “homosexuality.” These words were invented near the end of the 19th century when psychoanalysts began to discover and understand sexuality as an essential part of the human personality in all of its diversity.

    • @LaMoy: Thanks, especially on the reminder of the relationship with own brother, which is getting harder to sustain, mostly due to our physical distance. I would agree with you. For the very least, I learn to remember this quote from a ‘centrist’ pastor, Tim Keller: “one does not go to heaven, based on the sex one sleeps with”.

      To me, it is this obsession within the church culture, especially the Chinese churches in the Bay Area, that has resulted a lot of pain. I guess it aches me, as I do genuinely appreciate friendship with many of them.

      IMHO, this Kirkian principle shines light to the spirit of what these churches attempt to do. Perhaps, it highlights the situation in Malaysia also.
      — Ninth, the conservative perceives the need for prudent restraints upon power and upon human passions.

      For the Berkeley experience my niece is going through, it came from a newest form of the conservatism, which she has yet to figure it out.
      I should learn to trust that she would soon be able to figure that out herself.

  3. Trump is not a conservative. There are very few conservatives in the GOP. There are probably more conservatives in the DNC. I think people confuse core “conservative” values as monolithic when they are in reality a spectrum.

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