Commentary Magazine


Topic: Conservatism

Conservative Fiction and the Culture Wars

Conservative editor Adam Bellow’s July 7 cover story in National Review is a fascinating call for the conservative movement to produce more written fiction. It is, I think, both learned and yet a bit too pessimistic to my mind. His point is that conservatism has become the counterculture and liberalism, especially social liberalism, the establishment, and that liberals have become so intolerant of dissenting ideas and opinions that they seek to shun and marginalize opposing voices. Here’s Bellow:

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Conservative editor Adam Bellow’s July 7 cover story in National Review is a fascinating call for the conservative movement to produce more written fiction. It is, I think, both learned and yet a bit too pessimistic to my mind. His point is that conservatism has become the counterculture and liberalism, especially social liberalism, the establishment, and that liberals have become so intolerant of dissenting ideas and opinions that they seek to shun and marginalize opposing voices. Here’s Bellow:

I eventually went into publishing to fight back against people like these. I had seen them coming a long way off and I knew they meant business. They wanted power and were eager to use it. Their approach to fiction was two-sided: use their own stories and novels to advance their revolutionary aims, and prevent others from using that same descriptive and imaginative power for counterrevolutionary ends. It was an American version of what used to be called socialist realism.

Conservative nonfiction has flourished. “The real problem,” Bellow asserts, turning to his right, “isn’t the practical challenge of turning serious books into bestsellers. The real problem is that we may have reached the limit of what facts and reasoned arguments can do. The real problem is that the whole conservative nonfiction enterprise has peaked and reached its limit of effectiveness.”

I recommend reading the whole thing. But while I agree with Andrew Breitbart–who Bellow quotes, and who everyone quotes on this subject–that “Politics is downstream from culture,” and that the prevailing popular culture is far more heavily influenced by liberals than by conservatives, I find myself far more optimistic than Bellow. Perhaps that is because I think there’s a difference between the culture being influenced by liberals and it being influenced by liberalism.

Bellow is right that conservatives should be creative and their creativity supported. But I think it’s worth pointing out that often “liberal” or politically neutral novels reinforce conservative ideas. The same is true of movies and television, though Bellow concentrates on the written word. One of the right’s guilty pleasures is to watch a card-carrying liberal writer or a mainstream Hollywood director or showrunner produce a piece of art intended to grapple with complexity and be verbally assaulted as a warmonger or a traitor by his or her liberal audience. When Kathryn Bigelow directed Zero Dark Thirty, for example, about the hunt for Osama bin Laden, she portrayed torture in the movie, and liberals lashed out and branded her an apologist for the methods of interrogation. Bigelow took to the pages of the LA Times to respond, somewhat incredulous:

First of all: I support every American’s 1st Amendment right to create works of art and speak their conscience without government interference or harassment. As a lifelong pacifist, I support all protests against the use of torture, and, quite simply, inhumane treatment of any kind.

But I do wonder if some of the sentiments alternately expressed about the film might be more appropriately directed at those who instituted and ordered these U.S. policies, as opposed to a motion picture that brings the story to the screen.

Bigelow is a “lifelong pacifist” and opponent of anything resembling torture, but she was making a movie about real life, and real life is complex.

But to come back to the written word. This phenomenon is easier to spot in fiction that requires heroism or celebrates law and order. But I think it happens when the subject turns to the culture wars too. In December, Ross Douthat noted a study that found that “having daughters makes parents more likely to be Republican.” In offering his own theory, Douthat referenced the kind of man increasingly enabled by a sexually permissive culture: Nate, the protagonist of Adelle Waldman’s novel The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P. Douthat writes about Nate’s propensity to, as Waldman writes, “provoke” the “unhappiness” of the women in his life:

He provokes it by taking advantage of a social landscape in which sex has been decoupled from marriage but biology hasn’t been abolished, which means women still operate on a shorter time horizon for crucial life choices — marriage, kids — than do men. In this landscape, what Nate wants — sex, and the validation that comes with being wanted — he reliably gets. But what his lovers want, increasingly, as their cohort grows older — a more permanent commitment — he can afford to persistently withhold, feeling guilty but not that guilty about doing so.

His column touched off an interesting back-and-forth with Waldman herself on the topic of whether the situation portrayed in her book’s Brooklyn social circle calls for a more socially conservative ethic, or whether such an ethic would put too much of the responsibility for the personal misery of these women on themselves. But I think it’s worth dwelling for a moment on Nate.

We meet Nate immediately, as the book opens with a scene in which Nate runs into an ex-lover. She is uneasy and hostile to him. We learn that this is because during their brief involvement (this was not a “relationship”–an important point), she became unintentionally pregnant and had an abortion. Nate was emotionally absent, though he paid for the procedure. Nate is a good liberal–we learn early on he’s contemplating an essay on how rich societies even outsource exploitation just to salve their conscience. When he found out this non-girlfriend–Juliet–was pregnant, he:

felt like he had woken up in one of those after-school specials he watched as a kid on Thursday afternoons, whose moral was not to have sex with a girl unless you were ready to raise a child with her. This had always seemed like bullshit. What self-respecting middle-class teenage girl–soon-to-be college student, future affluent young professional, a person who could go on to do anything at all (run a multinational corporation, win a Nobel Prize, get elected first woman president)–what such young woman would decide to have a baby and thus become, in the vacuous, public service announcement jargon of the day, “a statistic”?

Nate realizes this might not be the case now for Juliet though, who is not a teenager but a professional in her thirties. Here is how he rationalizes the possibility she may want a baby:

Maybe she was no longer so optimistic about what fate held in store for her (first woman president, for example, probably seemed unlikely). Maybe she had become pessimistic about men and dating. She might view this as her last chance to become a mother.

Maybe she’s so dejected and desperate that she’ll–gasp!–want a family. You can see how the liberal cultural norms have seeped into Nate. He waits for her to decide: he has accepted the idea of “choice” in full, like a good liberal. This means it’s her choice completely, and he assumes he has no say. “Nate was all for a woman’s right to choose and all the lingo that went with it,” we’re told by way of explanation for why Nate doesn’t feel he can even suggest aborting “the baby or fetus or whatever you wanted to call it.” He doesn’t even know what to call an unborn child! Nate is opinion-less on the matter of human life, and he is so because he thinks this is How To Be A Modern Man.

After the abortion, Nate disappears, because he thinks even having an extended or personal conversation with Juliet–that is, signaling any interest at all–comes with too many strings attached now that they’ve unburdened themselves of the fetusthingamajiggy. But he doesn’t understand what makes him so toxic to these Brooklynite beauties. He’s a good person–he doesn’t even think one should shop at Whole Foods without feeling guilty about capitalist exploitation!

Is Waldman intentionally commenting on the piggish man-child who is the product of a steady cultural liberalism as practiced in the real world? Certainly not. But if you were to write a “conservative” novel, and this novel had a protagonist who was to demonstrate the perpetual adolescent loosed on the world by a yearslong immersion in liberal social values and the unintentional but very real harm he caused, might not that protagonist be Nathaniel P.?

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The Idealism and Realism of the American Founders

During an engaging, wide-ranging interview with Katie Couric at the Aspen Ideas Festival, New York Times columnist David Brooks was asked this: “How do you feel about the Tea Party? The notion of compromise is a dirty word more than ever on Capitol Hill. So how do you see us getting us to a place where there can be a moderate middle? Do you think it’s possible to return to those days?” To which Brooks replied this way:

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During an engaging, wide-ranging interview with Katie Couric at the Aspen Ideas Festival, New York Times columnist David Brooks was asked this: “How do you feel about the Tea Party? The notion of compromise is a dirty word more than ever on Capitol Hill. So how do you see us getting us to a place where there can be a moderate middle? Do you think it’s possible to return to those days?” To which Brooks replied this way:

Let me quibble with one phrase in your question, which would be “moderate middle.” So I’m a moderate but I’m not in the middle. And what I mean by that, I think being moderate is seeing politics as a competition between partial truths. And like in this era we have competition between security and freedom, between achievement and equality, between mobility and cohesion. And both sides have a piece of the truth. And often you want to be radical on both ends and try to balance. So it’s all about balance. So you can really value things that are on each end as long as you try to balance these opposing things and as long as you understand that politics is a messy, slow … boring through hard boards–it’s just messy and slow and you take one step at a time.

Brooks went on to say this:

My problem with the Tea Party is partly what they believe, but partly it’s just their [methods]–they’re anti-political. I believe in politics, that you pass a piece of legislation and you get half a loaf and you make a slow step and you make a compromise and you try to go a little forward every day. Politics is not, it’s not show business. It’s just messy compromises because you’re always caught in contradictions and filled with paradoxes. And my problem with the Tea Party is they don’t like politics. They want it to be pure, and they often punish people who they call RINOs–who are Republican in Name Only–because they’re not pure. But I think impurity is what leaders do. They take impurity upon themselves. They take the sins of the situation on themselves. They take the complexity of the situation on themselves and they try to muddle through. And so I think people who are unwilling to muddle through are not being political; they’re being self-indulgent. And so I have a problem with that style of politics.

I would add some elaborations to what David says, ones I think he might agree with, such as: No one in politics sees the truth in full, but some people are within much closer striking distance than others. And the Tea Party movement has produced some of the most impressive politicians now on the right, including Marco Rubio (who defeated Charlie Crist in their primary) and Mike Lee (who defeated Bob Bennett in their primary).

With that said, Brooks is zeroing in on something quite important, which is that politics is an inherently messy business. Moreover, the American founders–who developed the concepts of checks and balances, separation of powers, and all the rest–wanted politics to be messy. That is, our constitutional order requires give and take, adaptation and collaboration, the balancing of competing interests, and compromise itself. As Jonathan Rauch has written in National Affairs, “In our constitutional system, compromise is not merely a necessary evil but a positive good: an indispensable source of political discipline, competition, and stability — which are all conservative values.”

Too often these days, zealous people who are in a hurry don’t appreciate that the process and methods of politics–the “messy,” muddling through side of politics–is a moral achievement of sorts. But this, too, is only part of the story.

The other part of the story is that justice is often advanced by people who are seized with a moral vision. They don’t much care about the prosaic side of governing; they simply want society to be better, more decent, and more respectful of human dignity. So yes, it’s important not to make the perfect the enemy of the good. But it’s also the case that politics requires us to strive for certain (unattainable) ideals.

There’s a distinction, then, between motivating ideals and the methods and processes of politics. Think of Martin Luther King’s dream and Lyndon Johnson’s civil-rights legislation. Or think of Lincoln, who was both the greatest exponent of principles of the Declaration of Independence in American history and a supremely great politician.

What happens all too often in our politics is that people who are drawn to one tend to look with disdain on those who are drawn to the other. What we need, I think, is greater recognition that both are necessary, that each one alone is insufficient. Visionaries have to find a way to give their vision concrete expression, which requires deal-making, compromise, and accepting something less than the ideal. Legislators need to govern with some commitment to philosophical and moral ideals; otherwise, they’re just passing laws and cutting deals for their own sake.

What David Brooks is saying, I think–and where I agree with him–is that some recalibration needs to occur in some quarters on the right, away from those seeking purification and excommunication (RINO-hunters) and toward a fuller, more authentic conservatism. Call it the conservatism of the founders.

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Hobby Lobby, Religious Liberty, and the Dangers of Complacence

It’s tempting, and easy, to dismiss Democrats’ legislative response to the Supreme Court’s Hobby Lobby decision. Senate Democrats say as soon as today they could bring up a bill that would, as Politico terms it, “override” the high court’s ruling, which followed the course set out in the Religious Freedom Restoration Act. Democrats want to push this as part of the “war on women” by making shameless false claims about the court’s ruling and trashing both RFRA and the First Amendment.

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It’s tempting, and easy, to dismiss Democrats’ legislative response to the Supreme Court’s Hobby Lobby decision. Senate Democrats say as soon as today they could bring up a bill that would, as Politico terms it, “override” the high court’s ruling, which followed the course set out in the Religious Freedom Restoration Act. Democrats want to push this as part of the “war on women” by making shameless false claims about the court’s ruling and trashing both RFRA and the First Amendment.

Conservatives have been generally dismissive of the White House’s “war on women,” and for good reason. Additionally, they may be further tempted to deride the left’s response now that they’ve won a limited victory at the Supreme Court. It also requires a heroic effort to take seriously any policymaking that begins with Harry Reid including Clarence Thomas in his category of “white men” who should be ignored. Reid is railing against the Supreme Court, but he does not appear to be terribly familiar with it. (As an aside, why mention the race of the justices at all if this is an issue about gender? Because leftists can’t speak, apparently, without accusing someone of being racist.)

But this attitude would be a mistake, with regard to the Hobby Lobby pushback. To be sure, conservatives should avoid getting drawn into a fictitious debate on birth control based on completely false premises and designed not to advance policy solutions but to give Democrats yet another chance to insult the intelligence of the nation’s women and to put Christianity–and by extension, religious belief in general–on trial. After all, it’s unlikely that yet another Reid-led Democratic effort to undo basic American rights will pass the House.

And getting drawn into this debate risks giving the Democrats what they actually want: a change of subject. As the Obama presidency plummets in popularity and the corruption and abuse of power scandals keep multiplying, the Democrats want to talk about anything but the issues dragging them down.

Nonetheless, conservatives should think twice about taking the debate over this bill–not the president’s executive action, but the Senate bill on which there would presumably be debate and a vote–too lightly. What the Democrats are trying to do is build a public-policy consensus that would erode religious liberty by holding a referendum on whether America’s first freedom, and the basis for the American project, should be undone in the service of left-wing culture-war extremism.

Is it worth undermining religious freedom just so Democrats can distract the electorate from their inability to govern with a public discussion about the economics of sex? For Democrats like Harry Reid, the answer is an unequivocal yes. Basic freedoms are fine in the abstract, according to Democratic policymakers, but they often infringe on Democrats’ quest for power. So they must be subverted.

Conservatives must understand that the risk here is not actual policy, since the bill won’t pass the House. The risk is that by ceding space in the public sphere to liberal demagogues, they won’t engage the important part of this debate. Since, as I’ve written previously, opposition to religious freedom is now a partisan Democratic position, conservatives are the last line of defense. What they don’t want is for the left to own a debate that could build a public consensus against those freedoms. If conservatives won’t speak up for religious freedom, nobody will, and it will be ignored and trampled.

It’s also important because none of this takes place in a vacuum. In a very smart piece for BuzzFeed, Chris Geidner tracks the evolving fight over religious exemptions in employee non-discrimination legislation. He notes that LGBT groups and their supporters are backing away from anti-discrimination legislation they were initially inclined to support because of the religious exemptions being added. The bill will probably not be advanced in the House this year, Geidner notes, and explains why these groups are fighting about it anyway.

He gives three reasons: to shape the next version of this legislation that comes through Congress in the next session; because the groups are unnerved by the Supreme Court’s upholding of religious freedom protections in the Hobby Lobby case; and to influence President Obama’s forthcoming executive order on the issue. In other words, these groups recognize that although the Democrats’ demand for employee-sponsored drugs that may act as abortifacients has nothing to do with gay rights, in some way it has everything to do with it.

Settling law and winning public debates over religious freedom affects other laws and other debates that follow it. Just as the Supreme Court sets precedent in legal rulings, so too the passage of laws and other actions set precedent in how the public understands the issues at play and how politicians can attract support for their own legislative projects. The left has always operated with the knowledge that there’s no off-season here. They are counting on conservative exhaustion, complacence, or both. Conservatives must demonstrate neither.

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Rubio’s Effort to Modernize the GOP

In an earlier post I asked who on the right, in the wake of the ruins of the Obama presidency, will step up and seize the opportunity. Among those who are is Florida Senator Marco Rubio.

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In an earlier post I asked who on the right, in the wake of the ruins of the Obama presidency, will step up and seize the opportunity. Among those who are is Florida Senator Marco Rubio.

Last week Senator Rubio gave a policy address, which elicited favorable comments from Ross Douthat, Ramesh Ponnuru, Jim Pethokoukis, and Reihan Salam. Like these four, I found Senator Rubio’s speech, co-hosted by Hillsdale College and the YG Network, to be quite impressive. The Florida senator offered ideas on how to reform our entitlement programs, tax code, higher education, health care, and our social safety net. In doing so, he spoke about single mothers and working class families, wage stagnation, student debt and retirement security, and the effects of globalization and automation. And like Representative Paul Ryan, Rubio understands the need for structural changes in programs, which is quite different, and rather more important than, simply reducing spending.

In making his case, Senator Rubio presented himself as an advocate for modernization rather than moderation (in this instance meaning nudging the GOP in a more liberal direction). He spoke about the need for a policy agenda designed for the 21st century and adjusting to the realities of this new era. Mr. Rubio clearly wants the GOP to be both conservative and constructive, opposing the president’s agenda but also willing to offer alternatives to it. The left, he says, is offering ideas that are old, tired and stale; a conservative agenda, as Rubio has laid it out, is innovative, responsive, and “applies the principles of our founding to the challenges and the opportunities facing Americans in their daily lives.” That strikes me as a pretty intelligent way to frame things, particularly given that Hillary Clinton and Joe Biden are thought to be the two leading figures for the Democratic Party in a post-Obama world.

What also strikes me about Senator Rubio is that unlike some others, whose main ability is to bring hard-core supporters to their feet, he seems eager and capable of persuading those who are not on his side yet who may be amenable to his point of view. A friend of mine says he gets the sense from Rubio that he hasn’t spent his life in a political echo chamber, only hanging around like-minded individuals. He has the capacity, I think, to reach people who aren’t members of the NRA or the Federalist Society, the Tea Party or the American Conservative Union. The ability to find connection with people who aren’t already supporters is a fairly valuable skill in politics–and for a party that is regularly losing presidential elections, a necessary one.

The governing agenda Marco Rubio sketched out last week will hardly be the final word, but it is a very good starting point for discussion. Its aim is to broaden the appeal of the GOP without violating the party’s core principles. Other Republicans, particularly those thinking about running for president in 2016, will attempt to occupy this space as well. That’s all to the good, since the GOP has a formidable task: to reconnect with a middle America that looks different than it once did.

I’ve pointed out before that during the GOP nomination contest in 2012—involving dozens of state Republican primaries, more than 20 debates, and tens of millions of dollars in ads—issues such as upward mobility, education, middle-class concerns, poverty, strong communities and safe streets, corporate welfare, cultural renewal, and immigration either were hardly mentioned or were discussed in the most disaffecting way possible. There was more talk about electrified fences and self-deportation than there was about higher education reform, social and economic opportunity, or the modernization of our governing institutions.

Marco Rubio wants to change that. So do other talented and ambitious Republicans. More power to them.

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The GOP and America’s Changing Demographics

The Wall Street Journal reports on new data released earlier today by the Census Bureau. The bottom line is that the demographic divide between older white Americans and younger minorities grew wider last year, “highlighting a long-term shift that might alter the interplay between generations.”

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The Wall Street Journal reports on new data released earlier today by the Census Bureau. The bottom line is that the demographic divide between older white Americans and younger minorities grew wider last year, “highlighting a long-term shift that might alter the interplay between generations.”

Among the data points (most of which come courtesy of the Journal story):

  • In 2013, nearly 79 percent of people 65 and older were white, but for those younger than 15, the share of whites was just over half. In 2000, those proportions were nearly 84 percent and almost 61 percent, respectively.
  • Non-Hispanic whites made up 62.6 percent of the country last year, down from 63 percent in 2012, continuing their long-term decline as the dominant American group. More whites died than were born last year, while the share of both Asian-Americans and Hispanics grew.
  • Hispanic population growth was fueled by an increase in births, as the number immigrating continued to fall. Just over half of all babies born in the U.S. were white.
  • Whites account for less than half the population in four states: California, New Mexico, Texas, and Hawaii, plus the District of Columbia. But among children under age 5, whites are now below 50 percent in 15 states—with Alaska joining 14 others in 2013.
  • In some states, the generational gap was quite large. In Arizona, for example, 82 percent of people 65 and over were white, while just 41 percent of those under 15 were white, a 41-point gap.
  • National Journal‘s Ron Brownstein has pointed out that from 1996 to 2012, the white share of the eligible voting population has dropped about 2 percentage points every four years, from 79.2 percent to 71.1 percent; over that same period, whites have declined as a share of actual voters from 83 percent to 74 percent (according to census figures) or even 72 percent (according to the exit polls). ” With minorities expected to make up a majority of America’s 18 and younger population in this decade, all signs point toward a continued decline in the white share of the eligible voter population—which suggests the GOP would have to marshal heroic turnout efforts to avoid further decline in the white vote-share,” according to Brownstein. “If the electorate’s composition follows the trend over the past two decades, minorities would likely constitute 30 percent of the vote in 2016.”

In light of these facts and tends, Republicans and conservatives have two choices: They can bemoan what’s happening, since non-white voters are less reliably Republican and conservative, offering up a lament for a lost America. They can focus their energy at getting a larger and larger share of a shrinking demographic group. Or they can offer a conservative governing vision and governing agenda that’s principled, reform-minded, and forward-looking, and that appeals to groups that have not traditionally been supportive of them. This is a challenging task but hardly an impossible one.

America is changing–it’s always changing–and successful political parties change with it, showing new voters how the party’s vision can speak to their concerns. In the case of the GOP, this doesn’t mean it needs to parrot the Democratic Party, which is itself intellectually exhausted and increasingly reactionary. But political parties that win accommodate themselves to certain realities and find ways to succeed within them. At a minimum, it would help if Republicans not make non-white voters feel like they’re unwelcome, a grave and growing threat to the social order. But more is required than simply that. We need leaders who can explain why 21st-century conservatism will make their lives better when it comes to issues like jobs, education, health care, energy, immigration, and strengthening families. Who can position the GOP as the party of growth, opportunity, and social mobility. And who can make this case in a winsome and persuasive manner rather than an angry and hectoring one.

This is certainly something that should be within reach for the party of Lincoln and Reagan.

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Conservatism Means Adjusting to Shifting Circumstances

The American Enterprise Institute’s James Pethokoukis has written a post with a provocative headline: “Have Reagan-style tax cuts lost their political power?”

The answer, he says, is yes. “It shouldn’t be surprising that the tax issue doesn’t have the old oomph that it used to with voters,” according to Pethokoukis. And he highlights these poll results:

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The American Enterprise Institute’s James Pethokoukis has written a post with a provocative headline: “Have Reagan-style tax cuts lost their political power?”

The answer, he says, is yes. “It shouldn’t be surprising that the tax issue doesn’t have the old oomph that it used to with voters,” according to Pethokoukis. And he highlights these poll results:

1. In the early 1980s, close to 70 percent of Americans thought their taxes were too high. Today, that number is 50 percent.

2. Middle-class Americans, by 53 percent to 42 percent, think they’re paying their fair share in taxes.

3. Americans rank taxes low on their list of concerns—even below climate change.

4. In the age of online tax preparation, Americans don’t think their tax returns are hard to fill out.

5. Americans think raising the minimum wage and business deregulation are better ways to boost economic growth than cutting tax rates on businesses and the wealthy.

Now, these findings don’t tell us which tax plans might be economically best for this particular moment in time. But I do think this has some bearing on a point I’ve made before and will undoubtedly make in the future: Ronald Reagan’s policies worked fabulously well in the 1980s. But the problems we face are different now than they were then. Conditions have changed, and the task for conservatives is to change–in a responsible, principled way–with them. That is in important respects what it means to be a conservative.

This point should be so obvious that it shouldn’t need to be made, except that for some on the right, to say that what Reagan did nearly 35 years ago may not be what is required today borders on heresy. For others, I suspect what is at play here are certain habits of thought. The tax issue has worked so well for so long for Republicans, they have developed well-worn mental and public policy grooves. And those are difficult to escape from.

It’s isn’t always easy, but it is necessary, to pull back from time to time to re-examine the intellectual and political landscape, to see problems in a somewhat different light, and to periodically think anew and act anew. Reagan himself did precisely that. The Reagan who ran in 1980, embracing supply-side economics, is not identical to the Reagan who ran in 1976, when he focused less on sweeping tax cuts.

Conservatives need to learn from the past but not simply try to replicate it; to understand that our principles applied to new problems will sometimes yield new solutions. To do anything else would not be conservatism but dogmatism.

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Is Gladstone a Model for the GOP?

In the Saturday Wall Street Journal, John Micklethwaite and Adrian Wooldridge of the Economist had an article, based on their new book The Fourth Revolution, putting forward William Ewart Gladstone–the Grand Old Man of Victorian politics–as a role model for 21st century Republicans.

Their effort to revive Gladstone’s reputation can only be cheered by anyone interested in 19th century British politics (which I confess is one of my quirkier interests) and the proposals they put forward for improving the effectiveness of government while reducing its cost appear laudable. But I was struck by the complete absence of a discussion of foreign policy where Gladstone left a large imprint with his once-famous Midlothian campaign of 1880. As a parliamentary candidate and leader of the Liberal Party, he campaigned against what he saw as the imperialist excesses of the Tories in places such as southern Africa and Afghanistan where, in the First Boer War and the Second Afghan War, respectively, Britain was then suffering embarrassing reverses.

In his campaign Gladstone laid out the principles of what was then known as a Little England policy and today would be called non-interventionism. Among his principles: “1. The first thing is to foster the strength of the Empire by just legislation and economy at home. 2. My second principle of foreign policy is this: peace. 3. In my opinion the third sound principle is this to strive to cultivate and maintain, ay, to the very uttermost, what is called the concert of Europe; to keep the Powers of Europe in union together. 4. My fourth principle is that you should avoid needless and entangling engagements. 5. My fifth principle is this, gentlemen, to acknowledge the equal rights of all nations. 6. And that sixth (principle) is, that in my opinion foreign policy, subject to all the limitations that I have described, the foreign policy of England should always be inspired by the love of freedom.”

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In the Saturday Wall Street Journal, John Micklethwaite and Adrian Wooldridge of the Economist had an article, based on their new book The Fourth Revolution, putting forward William Ewart Gladstone–the Grand Old Man of Victorian politics–as a role model for 21st century Republicans.

Their effort to revive Gladstone’s reputation can only be cheered by anyone interested in 19th century British politics (which I confess is one of my quirkier interests) and the proposals they put forward for improving the effectiveness of government while reducing its cost appear laudable. But I was struck by the complete absence of a discussion of foreign policy where Gladstone left a large imprint with his once-famous Midlothian campaign of 1880. As a parliamentary candidate and leader of the Liberal Party, he campaigned against what he saw as the imperialist excesses of the Tories in places such as southern Africa and Afghanistan where, in the First Boer War and the Second Afghan War, respectively, Britain was then suffering embarrassing reverses.

In his campaign Gladstone laid out the principles of what was then known as a Little England policy and today would be called non-interventionism. Among his principles: “1. The first thing is to foster the strength of the Empire by just legislation and economy at home. 2. My second principle of foreign policy is this: peace. 3. In my opinion the third sound principle is this to strive to cultivate and maintain, ay, to the very uttermost, what is called the concert of Europe; to keep the Powers of Europe in union together. 4. My fourth principle is that you should avoid needless and entangling engagements. 5. My fifth principle is this, gentlemen, to acknowledge the equal rights of all nations. 6. And that sixth (principle) is, that in my opinion foreign policy, subject to all the limitations that I have described, the foreign policy of England should always be inspired by the love of freedom.”

Gladstone was certainly no isolationist. He criticized the Tories for not doing more about the Ottoman Empire’s slaughter of Christians in Bulgaria, and as prime minister he oversaw the virtual annexation of Egypt in 1882. But, contradictory as his thinking often appears, he was less imperialist than his Conservative rivals such as Disraeli and Salisbury.

No matter how much Disraeli and Gladstone, in particular, were often ranged against each other on matters of policy both domestic and foreign, they shared in the Victorian consensus that Britain needed to keep defense spending low so as not to be a burden on the people’s purses or liberties. Britain spent enough to maintain the world’s largest navy but even its naval hegemony was increasingly challenged by a German naval buildup in the early 20th century. Meanwhile the British army remained tiny, fit only for imperial campaigning.

This was all part of a strategy that today is called “offshore balancing”: British policymakers vowed they could safeguard their interests by controlling the seas without having to intervene in a major land war in Europe. This is the same strategy that many urge on the U.S. today–in fact a strategy that the Obama administration seems to be implementing as we downsize our army to the lowest level since 1940. Yet all it takes is a passing familiarity with British history to see how delusional and self-destructive this policy can be.

The very fact that Britain lacked an army capable of fighting the armies of Europe meant that Britain was unable to deter German aggression in either 1914 or 1939. Indeed the British aversion to land warfare called into doubt its commitments to allies such as Belgium and France and led German militarists to gamble they could overrun Europe without major hindrance from London. In the event, the German calculation was wrong–Britain’s entry into both World War I and World War II was a key obstacle to German designs. But Britain paid a huge price for not being able to deter German aggression in the first place.

Worried about spending too much on defense, the Victorians and their successors spent too little, and wound up having their country and their empire bled dry in conflagrations that might have been avoided if Britain had done more to defend itself and its allies. There is an important lesson here for present-day Republicans who focus only on reducing the size of government. They should not forget that government’s first duty is to defend the country and if it is unable to do that–or even if it is able to do so but only after a long, costly struggle that might have been avoided–then short-term cost savings on defense will prove ephemeral. In the end military weakness is far more costly than military strength. That was a lesson that Gladstone and other Victorian titans ignored and that their would-be successors should heed.

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A More Modest and Effective Approach to Governing

The Washington Post’s Jennifer Rubin, a Contentions alumna, did a three-part interview with Yuval Levin, Ramesh Ponnuru, and me on a new publication, Room To Grow, and our thoughts on a conservative reform agenda for the 21st century. (The links can be found herehere, and here.)

Yuval, Ramesh, and I discuss how the right looks (and should look) at government, how to apply conservative principles to the challenges facing this generation, why reconceiving the role of government (and not just cutting spending) is urgent, how humility and moderation can co-exist with a fairly bold set of policy proposals, and how to think about immigration, marriage, and federalism.

Among the arguments I put forward is this one:

there’s a tendency among some on the right to simply disparage government rather than to put forward ideas to improve (and responsibly re-limit) it; to speak only about its size and to ignore its purposes; to talk about abstract theories at the expense of practical solutions to problems facing middle-class Americans. We’re offering a conservative alternative to the failures of liberalism and doing so in a way that’s both principled and potentially popular, that’s consistent with our tradition and relevant to the challenges of our times.

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The Washington Post’s Jennifer Rubin, a Contentions alumna, did a three-part interview with Yuval Levin, Ramesh Ponnuru, and me on a new publication, Room To Grow, and our thoughts on a conservative reform agenda for the 21st century. (The links can be found herehere, and here.)

Yuval, Ramesh, and I discuss how the right looks (and should look) at government, how to apply conservative principles to the challenges facing this generation, why reconceiving the role of government (and not just cutting spending) is urgent, how humility and moderation can co-exist with a fairly bold set of policy proposals, and how to think about immigration, marriage, and federalism.

Among the arguments I put forward is this one:

there’s a tendency among some on the right to simply disparage government rather than to put forward ideas to improve (and responsibly re-limit) it; to speak only about its size and to ignore its purposes; to talk about abstract theories at the expense of practical solutions to problems facing middle-class Americans. We’re offering a conservative alternative to the failures of liberalism and doing so in a way that’s both principled and potentially popular, that’s consistent with our tradition and relevant to the challenges of our times.

And, on federalism, this: 

When I worked for Bill Bennett when he was Secretary of Education, we put out a series of booklets on What Works in American education. As a general matter that is, I think, a very good way to approach governing, with emphasis on experience, on empirical evidence, on real-world successes. And we can certainly learn a great deal from the states. The argument for federalism, then, is practical, not just theoretical, and we should do more to publicize what works in the states. I’d only add one other thought: federalism is consistent with conservatism in that it assumes a certain degree of modesty and humility. We don’t pretend politicians in Washington, D.C. know all the answers, that one size fits all, and programs that work in some states might work less well in other states. After the arrogance of the Obama years — when the president and those in his administration have acted as if they are all-knowing, all-seeing, all-wise – there is something refreshing about a more modest approach to governing.

The whole interview will, I think, interest COMMENTARY readers.

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Solving the GOP’s Middle Class Problem

Yesterday the YGNetwork released a new book, Room To Grow: Conservative Reforms for Limited Government and a Thriving Middle Class. It includes essays by some of the top thinkers and policy experts in the conservative world, offering reforms in the areas of health care, K-12 and higher education, energy, taxes, job creation, the social safety net, regulations and finances, and the family. Yuval Levin articulated a conservative governing vision while Ramesh Ponnuru wrote a chapter on recovering the wisdom of the Constitution.  

(The New York Times story on the release of the book can be found here, a related event held at the American Enterprise Institute can be viewed here, and the book itself and chapter summaries can be found here.) 

For my part, I contributed an opening chapter to Room To Grow, the purpose of which is to define the middle class and summarize the attitudes of those who comprise it. Here’s what I found. 

When speaking of the middle class, there’s both a technical and a practical definition. The technical definition is households with annual incomes ranging from roughly $39,400 to $118,200. The practical definition is the broad base of Americans. Fully 85 percent of Americans consider themselves as part of an expanded definition of middle class (lower, upper, and simply middle class). It’s people who don’t consider themselves rich or poor and who can imagine their fortunes going either way. 

Any successful political movement and party need to be seen as addressing their concerns.

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Yesterday the YGNetwork released a new book, Room To Grow: Conservative Reforms for Limited Government and a Thriving Middle Class. It includes essays by some of the top thinkers and policy experts in the conservative world, offering reforms in the areas of health care, K-12 and higher education, energy, taxes, job creation, the social safety net, regulations and finances, and the family. Yuval Levin articulated a conservative governing vision while Ramesh Ponnuru wrote a chapter on recovering the wisdom of the Constitution.  

(The New York Times story on the release of the book can be found here, a related event held at the American Enterprise Institute can be viewed here, and the book itself and chapter summaries can be found here.) 

For my part, I contributed an opening chapter to Room To Grow, the purpose of which is to define the middle class and summarize the attitudes of those who comprise it. Here’s what I found. 

When speaking of the middle class, there’s both a technical and a practical definition. The technical definition is households with annual incomes ranging from roughly $39,400 to $118,200. The practical definition is the broad base of Americans. Fully 85 percent of Americans consider themselves as part of an expanded definition of middle class (lower, upper, and simply middle class). It’s people who don’t consider themselves rich or poor and who can imagine their fortunes going either way. 

Any successful political movement and party need to be seen as addressing their concerns.

As for what I discovered in my analysis of the middle class, let me start with their mood, which is anxious, insecure, and uneasy. National Journal‘s Ronald Brownstein, in analyzing the data from an April 2013 Heartland Monitor Poll, said, “The overall message is of pervasive, entrenched vulnerability–a sense that many financial milestones once assumed as cornerstones of middle-class life are now beyond reach for all but the rich.” 

These concerns are largely justified. Since the turn of the century, middle class Americans have been working harder yet losing ground. Wages are stagnant. (The typical household is making roughly the same as the typical household made a quarter of a century ago.) Meanwhile, the cost of living–especially health-care and higher education costs–has gone way up. For example, health-care spending per person, adjusted for inflation, has roughly doubled since 1988, to about $8,500. The average student debt in 2011 was $23,300. (For middle class families, the cost of one year of tuition equals about half of household income.)   

The middle class is also increasingly pessimistic, with two-thirds of Americans thinking it’s harder to reach the American Dream today than it was for their parents and three-quarters believing it will be harder for their children and grandchildren to succeed.

The middle class holds the political class largely responsible for the problems they face. Sixty-two percent place “a lot” of blame on Congress, followed by banks/financial institutions and corporations. 

If Congress in general is held in low esteem, the situation facing the GOP is particularly problematic. Middle class Americans are more likely to say that Democrats rather than the Republicans favor their interests. Polls indicate 62 percent of those in the middle class say the Republican Party favors the rich while 16 percent say the Democratic Party favors the rich; 37 percent of those in the middle class say the Democratic Party favors the middle class while only 26 percent say the GOP does. When asked which groups are helping the middle class, 17 percent had a positive response to Republican elected officials; 46 percent were negative. (For Democrats, the numbers were 28 percent positive v. 40 percent negative.) 

The challenge of the GOP, then, is to explain how a conservative vision of government can speak to today’s public concerns; and to explain how such a vision should translate into concrete policy reforms in important areas of our national life. 

“Policy is problem solving,” I wrote in the introduction:

It answers to principles and ideals, to a vision of the human good and the nature of society, to priorities and preferences; but at the end of the day it must also answer to real needs and concerns. And public policy today is clearly failing to address the problems that most trouble the American people.

Room To Grow suggests some ways forward, with special emphasis on what can be done to assist and empower those who are, and those who want to be, in the middle class.

Reactionary liberalism is intellectually exhausted and politically vulnerable. There is therefore an opening for conservatism to offer a different way of thinking about government, to move from administering large systems of service provision to empowering people to address the problems they confront on their own terms; to provide people with the resources and skills they need to address the challenges they face rather than to try to manage their decisions from on high. The task of the right isn’t simply to offer new policies, as vital as they are, but to explain the approach, the organizing principle, behind them. It is, as my Ethics and Public Policy Center colleague Yuval Levin puts it, replacing a failing liberal welfare state with a lean and responsive 21st century government worthy of a free, diverse and innovative society. It’s time we get on with it.

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Reclaiming Our Love for America

My post on when the right turns on America provoked some reactions, most of them favorable but a few of them critical. I want to deal with two of the disapproving ones–the first a brief criticism on Twitter by National Review’s Kevin D. Williamson and the second a longer, private criticism written to me by a friend.

Let me deal with them in order, beginning with this tweet by Mr. Williamson:

We aren’t turning on America, ‪@Peter_Wehner. We’re turning on the federal government, as we should be.

Mr. Williamson is confusing a few things. My argument isn’t that there aren’t reasons to be critical of the federal government or the Obama administration. I’ve made those criticisms repeatedly, as well as offering up my thoughts for how we can re-limit and reform the federal government. So if Williamson is simply saying there are reasons to denigrate the federal government, count me in.

But of course my post didn’t have to do with criticisms of the federal government per se; it had to do with the rhetoric some on the right now employ. I quoted, for example, Dr. Ben Carson, who said, America is “very much like Nazi Germany.”

That is not simply “turning on the federal government”; that is a statement that is unmoored from reality and a slander against America. If Mr. Williamson agrees that the United States today is, with a quibble here and there, Nazi Germany all over again, he should make that argument in a comprehensive manner. It would be revealing to hear him make the case for why the United States is similar to one of the most malevolent regimes in history. Hopefully Williamson doesn’t agree with Dr. Carson, in which case I believe he agrees with me.

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My post on when the right turns on America provoked some reactions, most of them favorable but a few of them critical. I want to deal with two of the disapproving ones–the first a brief criticism on Twitter by National Review’s Kevin D. Williamson and the second a longer, private criticism written to me by a friend.

Let me deal with them in order, beginning with this tweet by Mr. Williamson:

We aren’t turning on America, ‪@Peter_Wehner. We’re turning on the federal government, as we should be.

Mr. Williamson is confusing a few things. My argument isn’t that there aren’t reasons to be critical of the federal government or the Obama administration. I’ve made those criticisms repeatedly, as well as offering up my thoughts for how we can re-limit and reform the federal government. So if Williamson is simply saying there are reasons to denigrate the federal government, count me in.

But of course my post didn’t have to do with criticisms of the federal government per se; it had to do with the rhetoric some on the right now employ. I quoted, for example, Dr. Ben Carson, who said, America is “very much like Nazi Germany.”

That is not simply “turning on the federal government”; that is a statement that is unmoored from reality and a slander against America. If Mr. Williamson agrees that the United States today is, with a quibble here and there, Nazi Germany all over again, he should make that argument in a comprehensive manner. It would be revealing to hear him make the case for why the United States is similar to one of the most malevolent regimes in history. Hopefully Williamson doesn’t agree with Dr. Carson, in which case I believe he agrees with me.

Now let me turn to a more substantial note I received from a friend, who wrote this:

Are you sure about this? I remember the attacks of the Left; they were that the very idea of America, its own ideals, were corrupt and irredeemable. This critique, perhaps lacking in sophistication, seems to derive from their perception that we are, transiently, failing our ideals. One attack was on fundamental principle, the other seems more situational, calling us back. Perhaps ham-handedly. But do you see no difference?

This statement is a fair one, at least up to a point. Over the years some on the left have vilified the founders, while those on the right (myself included) have tended to lionize them. So to be precise: some on the right are saying we used be good but now we’re evil. That is different than saying we have been evil from the start. But it is not much less divorced from reality or hardly less pernicious. It looks for the impossible ideal in the past rather than in the future, but it still disparages the actual living, breathing America.

I’d add that my friend–intelligent, well-educated, and a person of good will–could only say that the rhetoric I cited in my post was “perhaps” lacking in sophistication and “perhaps” ham-handed. 

“Perhaps”?

It is more than unsophisticated and ham-handed; it is a grotesque libel. Yet it happens frequently enough that it hardly elicits a critical reaction. Are we now to the point where conservatives who depict America as a replica of Hitler’s Germany, a police state, a borderline tyranny, and a dystopian society are viewed as having made slight if understandable overstatements? I for one hope not.

In this context it’s worth people reading, or re-reading, Norman Podhoretz’s My Love Affair With America, a book that expresses his deep affection for his native land. In it he urges his fellow conservatives to rediscover their faith in America. It is, among other things, an act of gratitude, one of the most important if overlooked human qualities.  

Near the end of his elegant and touching book Podhoretz writes that the United States is entitled to 

a place among the very greatest of human societies. And even more surely, it entitles this country to the love and gratitude of all whom a benevolent providence has deposited on the shores of – yes, a thousand times yes – “the land of the free and the home of the brave” to live their lives and make their livings under the sublime beauty of its “spacious skies” and “from sea to shining sea.”

This spirit of love and gratitude for America, even (and sometimes especially) in difficult times, is worth reclaiming. Because America, whatever its shortcomings, surely deserves it. 

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When the Right Turns on America

Speaking to the National Rifle Association’s recent annual conference, NRA executive vice president and CEO Wayne LaPierre, in describing America, said, “Almost everywhere you look, something has gone wrong. You feel it in your heart, you know it in your gut. Something has gone wrong. The core values we believe in, the things we care about most, are changing. Eroding. Our right to speak. Our right to gather. Our right to privacy. The freedom to work, and practice our religion, and raise and protect our families the way we see fit.”

He went on to say this:

There are terrorists and home invaders and drug cartels and carjackers and knockout gamers and rapers, haters, campus killers, airport killers, shopping mall killers, road-rage killers, and killers who scheme to destroy our country with massive storms of violence against our power grids, or vicious waves of chemicals or disease that could collapse the society that sustains us all. I ask you. Do you trust this government to protect you? We are on our own.

Mr. LaPierre is not the only one who describes America in dystopian terms these days. Earlier this year Dr. Ben Carson, a Tea Party favorite who is considering a run for the presidency in 2016, said America is “very much like Nazi Germany.” Michele Bachmann, a 2012 GOP presidential candidate, has said the Affordable Care Act is evidence of a “police state.” This kind of language–America is bordering on or has basically become a tyranny–is common currency within some quarters of conservatism.

Now it is one thing to believe, as I do, that in some important respects America is in decline and that President Obama is in part responsible for that decline. I agree, too, that there are some alarming problems and trends facing the United States just now, which many conservatives are attempting to address in a responsible fashion.  

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Speaking to the National Rifle Association’s recent annual conference, NRA executive vice president and CEO Wayne LaPierre, in describing America, said, “Almost everywhere you look, something has gone wrong. You feel it in your heart, you know it in your gut. Something has gone wrong. The core values we believe in, the things we care about most, are changing. Eroding. Our right to speak. Our right to gather. Our right to privacy. The freedom to work, and practice our religion, and raise and protect our families the way we see fit.”

He went on to say this:

There are terrorists and home invaders and drug cartels and carjackers and knockout gamers and rapers, haters, campus killers, airport killers, shopping mall killers, road-rage killers, and killers who scheme to destroy our country with massive storms of violence against our power grids, or vicious waves of chemicals or disease that could collapse the society that sustains us all. I ask you. Do you trust this government to protect you? We are on our own.

Mr. LaPierre is not the only one who describes America in dystopian terms these days. Earlier this year Dr. Ben Carson, a Tea Party favorite who is considering a run for the presidency in 2016, said America is “very much like Nazi Germany.” Michele Bachmann, a 2012 GOP presidential candidate, has said the Affordable Care Act is evidence of a “police state.” This kind of language–America is bordering on or has basically become a tyranny–is common currency within some quarters of conservatism.

Now it is one thing to believe, as I do, that in some important respects America is in decline and that President Obama is in part responsible for that decline. I agree, too, that there are some alarming problems and trends facing the United States just now, which many conservatives are attempting to address in a responsible fashion.  

But it is quite another thing to describe America as the New Left did in the late 1960s, when America itself was spelled with a “k” (“Amerika”) in an effort to identify it with Nazi Germany. Among the young and left-wing academics there was talk about the need for revolution. The United States was viewed as fundamentally corrupt. Once upon a time conservatives fought against this. Today, however, some on the right are turning on America. They employ language you would associate with Noam Chomsky.

Now to be sure, the reasons the left and right are unhappy with America are quite different. But the indictment is still searing and often reckless. It describes an unrecognizable country. Whatever problems America has, we are light years away from Nazi Germany; and to argue that the United States is on the edge of tyranny can only come from those who don’t understand what life in a tyranny is really and truly and hellishly like.

This kind of rhetoric, which can only incite and never persuade, is alienating to everyone who is not part of the Apocalypse Now crowd. It is also, in deep ways, profoundly unconservative, in good part because it is overwrought and detached from reality. It is also evidence of a backward-looking conservatism that sees how America has changed and laments it rather than a forward-looking conservatism that sees the great promise and opportunities that still exist in America and seeks to take advantage of them.

“Am I embarrassed to speak for a less than perfect democracy?” the late, great United States Senator (and United Nations Ambassador) Daniel Patrick Moynihan once asked. “Not one bit. Find me a better one. Do I suppose there are societies which are free of sin? No, I don’t. Do I think ours is, on balance, incomparably the most hopeful set of human relations the world has? Yes, I do.”

That is still the case, even today, even in Barack Obama’s America. Conservatives should continue to oppose his agenda with all their might. But they will do serious and lasting damage to themselves and their cause if in the process they are seen as turning on their country. And I worry that in some quarters, from some voices, that is precisely what is happening.

Amor Patriae is still a virtue in America, and conservatives should both claim it and cherish the deeper meaning of it.

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Why Bigger Government Does Not Equal More Services

The Democratic group Third Way is releasing the results of a survey on political “moderates,” which deviates from, and is more informative than, surveys on supposed “independents.” The Atlantic’s Molly Ball has piece discussing the survey as well as a memo Third Way officials gave Ball ahead of time to frame the results. It’s an interesting survey, especially with the parties gearing up for midterm elections. But the survey is undermined by a flaw that pervades such polls with regard to voters’ attitudes toward the size and scope of government.

That particular recurring survey question is rarely if ever challenged, but those who want an honest rendering of Americans’ political and policy preferences shouldn’t let it slide. Or, rather, conservatives shouldn’t let it slide, because the question is dishonestly designed to elicit a more favorable answer for supporters of expanding government. Here’s Ball:

Moderates’ perspective on the role of government has elements in common with both liberals and conservatives. Only 23 percent of moderates favor a larger government that provides more services (compared to 54 percent of liberals and 13 percent of conservatives); 37 percent favor a smaller government with fewer services (compared to 12 percent of liberals and 62 percent of conservatives).

As anyone who knows anything about the government can tell you, this is what our president might call a false choice. The simple fact is that the growth of the modern bureaucratic state is such that the larger government/more services vs. leaner government/fewer services framing is outdated and irrelevant. This type of poll question is trumpeted often by liberals who either don’t fully understand how the government works or who do understand but prefer not to clue their readers in on the con.

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The Democratic group Third Way is releasing the results of a survey on political “moderates,” which deviates from, and is more informative than, surveys on supposed “independents.” The Atlantic’s Molly Ball has piece discussing the survey as well as a memo Third Way officials gave Ball ahead of time to frame the results. It’s an interesting survey, especially with the parties gearing up for midterm elections. But the survey is undermined by a flaw that pervades such polls with regard to voters’ attitudes toward the size and scope of government.

That particular recurring survey question is rarely if ever challenged, but those who want an honest rendering of Americans’ political and policy preferences shouldn’t let it slide. Or, rather, conservatives shouldn’t let it slide, because the question is dishonestly designed to elicit a more favorable answer for supporters of expanding government. Here’s Ball:

Moderates’ perspective on the role of government has elements in common with both liberals and conservatives. Only 23 percent of moderates favor a larger government that provides more services (compared to 54 percent of liberals and 13 percent of conservatives); 37 percent favor a smaller government with fewer services (compared to 12 percent of liberals and 62 percent of conservatives).

As anyone who knows anything about the government can tell you, this is what our president might call a false choice. The simple fact is that the growth of the modern bureaucratic state is such that the larger government/more services vs. leaner government/fewer services framing is outdated and irrelevant. This type of poll question is trumpeted often by liberals who either don’t fully understand how the government works or who do understand but prefer not to clue their readers in on the con.

For example, during the controversy over Cliven Bundy, the New York Times’s Josh Barro was one of the commentators who sought to use the issue to make the point that limited-government conservatism, and especially libertarianism, can be explained by race. Here’s Barro:

A 2011 National Journal poll found that 42 percent of white respondents agreed with the statement, “Government is not the solution to our problems; government is the problem.” Just 17 percent of blacks, 16 percent of Asians and 25 percent of Hispanics agreed. In 2011 and 2012, the Pew Research Center found that 55 percent of Asian-Americans and fully 75 percent of Hispanic-Americans say they prefer a bigger government providing more services over a smaller one providing fewer services, compared with just 41 percent of the general population.

An obvious problem is the wording of each question. The first question he uses offers two choices: government is either the problem or the solution. The lack of nuance–and, plainly, honesty–helps Barro’s argument but does a great disservice to his readers (though in fairness it’s not as though Barro himself wrote the survey question). The second question is the one that reappears in the Third Way survey.

The truth of the matter is that government has become unmanageably large in many ways, undermining the idea that a larger government necessarily results in more services.

A good resource for those who want the more accurate picture is Philip K. Howard’s The Rule of Nobody, which takes aim at the reasons government has, on important issues, ground to a halt. Howard opens with the story of the Bayonne Bridge, which spans the channel that connects New York Harbor to the port of Newark, the largest on the East Coast. The bridge, however, isn’t high enough to accommodate ships built to use the widened Panama Canal, set to be completed next year.

So what’s the solution? Howard notes that the government agency in charge decided the choices were either build a new bridge or dig a tunnel, each costing more than $4 billion. Then a new idea presented itself: raise the existing bridge roadway, at a cost of $1 billion, saving $3 billion. The resolution was “like a miracle.” And it went nowhere. The full story is worth reading and incredibly convoluted (which is Howard’s point), but here’s the gist:

Building anything important in America requires layers of approvals from multiple levels of government—in this project, forty-seven permits from nineteen different governmental entities. Environmental review has evolved into an academic exercise, like a game of who can find the most complications. Balkanization of authority among different agencies and levels of government creates a dynamic of buck-passing. “The process is aimed not at trying to solve problems,” Ms. Papageorgis observed, “but trying to find problems. You can’t get in trouble by saying no.” With any large project, something might go wrong. More studies are done.

The story of the Bayonne Bridge, and others like it–Howard’s book makes for sobering but important reading–is that the larger government got the more it cost while providing fewer services. Howard writes about school systems paralyzed by regulations, the culture of corruption fostered by the inability to navigate all the red tape, the resulting “involuntary noncompliance,” and the government’s erosion of civil society while then failing to provide the services whose responsibility was transferred from the private sphere to the public sector.

Larger government doesn’t just erode freedom. At a certain point, it begins providing fewer services than it did before it ballooned beyond manageability. Howard shows that often the only way around the most absurd bureaucratic extremism is public shaming. That should be applied to the survey questions designed to enable such bad governance as well.

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Rubio and the Modernization of the GOP

For the last several years the right has been very clear about what government should not be doing, or should be doing much less of. But it has not had nearly enough to say about just what government should do: what intellectually serious reforms it needs to make to improve the lives of (in particular) middle-class Americans.

That’s changing, thanks in good measure to people like Marco Rubio.

I’ve had some differences with Senator Rubio in the past. (For example, I strongly opposed the legislative tactic that led to the shutdown of the federal government last October.) But Senator Rubio–along with Senators Mike Lee and Rob Portman, Representative Paul Ryan, and Governors Bobby Jindal, Mike Pence, and Scott Walker, among others–is making an important contribution to the Republican Party by offering ideas on how to reform government to meet 21st century challenges.

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For the last several years the right has been very clear about what government should not be doing, or should be doing much less of. But it has not had nearly enough to say about just what government should do: what intellectually serious reforms it needs to make to improve the lives of (in particular) middle-class Americans.

That’s changing, thanks in good measure to people like Marco Rubio.

I’ve had some differences with Senator Rubio in the past. (For example, I strongly opposed the legislative tactic that led to the shutdown of the federal government last October.) But Senator Rubio–along with Senators Mike Lee and Rob Portman, Representative Paul Ryan, and Governors Bobby Jindal, Mike Pence, and Scott Walker, among others–is making an important contribution to the Republican Party by offering ideas on how to reform government to meet 21st century challenges.

On Tuesday the junior senator from Florida focused his attention on retirement security. In a speech at the National Press Club, Rubio offered a plan to open up to more Americans the Thrift Savings Plan (TSP) offered to every member of Congress and federal employee. The TSP allows federal employees to save pre-tax money for their retirement with fees lower than most private defined-contribution plans. Senator Rubio proposed that all Americans who do not have access to employer-sponsored plan be given the option of enrolling, which would boost Americans’ savings and help to supplement Social Security income.

“The twisted irony is that members of Congress – who are employees of the citizens of the United States – have access to a superior savings plan, while many of their employers – the American people – are often left with access to no plan at all,” Rubio said during his speech.

Other proposals include eliminating the 12.4 percent Social Security payroll tax for all individuals who have reached retirement age; eliminating the Retirement Earnings Test that can take away some Social Security benefits for recipients who continue to work (eliminating the RET would raise employment among early retirees); reducing the growth of benefits for upper income seniors; raising the retirement age for younger workers; and transitioning Medicare to a premium support system, which would give seniors a fixed amount of money to use for purchasing health insurance from either Medicare or a private provider.

There are several notable things about Senator Rubio’s speech. (I should say that in my position as a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center I met with Senator Rubio and several policy experts prior to the speech and reacted favorably to an early draft of it.) The first is the educative quality of the address, laying out the case for reform in a calm, reasonable, and empirical way. The second is an admirable candor, with Rubio saying, “While [economic] growth is essential, growth alone will not be enough.” A third thing to note about the speech is that Senator Rubio spoke about wanting to strengthen and save, not uproot and eliminate, programs like Social Security and Medicare. He spoke in personal terms about the role those programs have played in the lives of his parents. Fourth, he attempted to put opponents of reform on the defensive, saying, “Anyone who is in favor of doing nothing about Social Security and Medicare is in favor of bankrupting Social Security and Medicare.”

Fifth and finally, Senator Rubio put a frame around this issue that is quite important. He explained that the retirement system we have in place does not line up with the needs and realities of our post-industrial economy. 

“In this new century, most people will live longer and voluntarily work longer,” Rubio said. “And many people will change jobs countless times, often in business for themselves or working for companies that do not offer retirement savings plans or pensions. Therefore, our retirement programs must be modernized and restructured to address the new economy that is here to stay.”

What Senator Rubio is doing, then, is putting the Republican Party on the side of modernization and reform in contrast to reactionary liberalism, which is sclerotic and brittle, out of ideas and out of energy. This is precisely what needs to happen if the GOP hopes to become the majority party in America. Senator Rubio–energetic, engaging, interested in ideas, and cheerful rather than resentful–is among the most persuasive advocates for his party.

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A Cheerful Conservative

Building on Tom Wilson’s fine post on the creation of the Foundation for Constitutional Government’s new website devoted to the writings of Irving Kristol (irvingkristol.org), I thought it worthwhile to recall some of the contributions made by Kristol to conservatism.

One of them was a humane political realism, including helping conservatives make their own inner peace with the New Deal. In 1976 Kristol wrote:

Neo-conservatism is not at all hostile to the idea of a welfare state, but it is critical of the Great Society version of this welfare state.  In general, it approves of those social reforms that, while providing needed security and comfort to the individual in our dynamic, urbanized society, do so with a minimum of bureaucratic intrusion in the individual’s affairs… while being for the welfare state, it is opposed to the paternalistic state.  It also believes that this welfare state will best promote the common good if it is conceived in such a way, as not to go bankrupt.

Second, Kristol was a man whose philosophical commitments were always accompanied by what he said was “a degree of detachment.” He was wise enough to know that no movement, even one he was a part of, was without flaws. He knew every political philosophy has inherent limitations and therefore he had the (rare) ability to be both a part of a movement and to see it from a distance, to believe in a cause even while being alert to its weaknesses.

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Building on Tom Wilson’s fine post on the creation of the Foundation for Constitutional Government’s new website devoted to the writings of Irving Kristol (irvingkristol.org), I thought it worthwhile to recall some of the contributions made by Kristol to conservatism.

One of them was a humane political realism, including helping conservatives make their own inner peace with the New Deal. In 1976 Kristol wrote:

Neo-conservatism is not at all hostile to the idea of a welfare state, but it is critical of the Great Society version of this welfare state.  In general, it approves of those social reforms that, while providing needed security and comfort to the individual in our dynamic, urbanized society, do so with a minimum of bureaucratic intrusion in the individual’s affairs… while being for the welfare state, it is opposed to the paternalistic state.  It also believes that this welfare state will best promote the common good if it is conceived in such a way, as not to go bankrupt.

Second, Kristol was a man whose philosophical commitments were always accompanied by what he said was “a degree of detachment.” He was wise enough to know that no movement, even one he was a part of, was without flaws. He knew every political philosophy has inherent limitations and therefore he had the (rare) ability to be both a part of a movement and to see it from a distance, to believe in a cause even while being alert to its weaknesses.

Third, Kristol warned the right against “equat[ing] conservatism with a desperate, defensive commitment to the status quo.” The danger facing conservatism was risk-averseness and a “feebleness of the imagination,” with conservatism being seen as “a tedious if necessary interregnum during which the excesses of the Left are tidied up.”

“Unless conservatives can legitimate their claim to office with a persuasive assertion of the claim to be the future, theirs is a lost cause,” Kristol wrote in 1982. “As between no claim to the future and a fraudulent claim, the latter will always prevail in an ideological age.” 

Fourth, Kristol offered a corrective to the conservative temptation to embrace, enthusiastically and without qualification, populism. He had faith in common people, just not that much faith in them. He understood, as the Founders did, the danger of a citizenry corrupting itself.

A fifth quality of Irving Kristol’s that conservatism today would be wise to replicate is what his friend Charles Krauthammer called “his extraordinary equanimity.”

His temperament was marked by a total lack of rancor. Angst, bitterness and anguish were alien to him. That, of course, made him unusual among the fraternity of conservatives because we believe that the world is going to hell in a handbasket. That makes us cranky. But not Irving. Never Irving. He retained steadiness, serenity and grace that expressed themselves in a courtliness couched in a calm quiet humor.

When you think about some of the leading figures on the right today, words like “steadiness” and “serenity,” “grace” and “calm quiet humor” are not ones that immediately come to mind. Instead the tone and approach we often hear can best be described as apocalyptic, brittle, angry, and embittered. This approach to politics, by the way, was not simply stylistic; it was rooted in a deep understanding of conservatism itself. Kristol believed conservatism was “antiromantic in substance and temperament.” It’s approach to the world, he wrote, “is more ‘rabbinic’ than ‘prophetic.’”

It also would help for conservatism to embody a kind of cheerfulness that was a hallmark of Kristol. As his writings show, he was deeply realistic. He certainly didn’t sugarcoat things. In fact, he described himself as “cheerfully pessimistic.” But one sensed that deep down, the needle leaned a bit more in the direction of cheerfulness than pessimism.

In any event, as long as I’ve been alive (and well before I was born) there have been people on the right issuing dark warnings of the decomposition and dissolution of the West; people who worn about impending tyranny and America’s march toward Gomorrah. I’m all for cursing the darkness when necessary, and have done a bit of it myself now and then. But that cast of mind, without any leavening agent, can lead to despair and radicalism. Those attitudes were unknown to Irving Kristol. He seemed very much at home in the world in the best sense and nudged it along in the right direction when he could. And my how he did.  

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GOP Task: From Oppositional to Governing Conservatism

“Of a sudden,” the late Daniel Patrick Moynihan wrote in 1981, “the GOP has become a party of ideas.” 

Senator Moynihan’s statement suggested two things: liberalism was exhausted and conservatives took advantage of the opening by offering an agenda that matched the challenges of that moment: high inflation and interest rates, a top marginal tax rate of 70 percent, “stagflation,” a hollowed out military and Soviet advances all over the world.

Today, once again, liberalism is out of steam. As they watch their unwieldy health-care law sputter and disappoint, liberals don’t have much else to turn to. Their own top priorities tend to be unpopular, and both their ideology and their political coalition constrain them from speaking to the public’s main concerns—economic stagnation and the middle-class squeeze. The president ran for re-election on remarkably little policy substance, and now offers even less. Who could say what his governing vision consists of? 

Not surprisingly, he has witnessed a major collapse in his public support, especially among independents, which in most polls now disapprove of the president’s handling of the economy by a two-to-one margin. About two-thirds of Americans say the country is on the wrong track. Even more are angry about the way things are going in Washington. And public confidence in government is near historic lows. So the moment is ripe for the GOP, at the national level, to offer the public a real alternative.

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“Of a sudden,” the late Daniel Patrick Moynihan wrote in 1981, “the GOP has become a party of ideas.” 

Senator Moynihan’s statement suggested two things: liberalism was exhausted and conservatives took advantage of the opening by offering an agenda that matched the challenges of that moment: high inflation and interest rates, a top marginal tax rate of 70 percent, “stagflation,” a hollowed out military and Soviet advances all over the world.

Today, once again, liberalism is out of steam. As they watch their unwieldy health-care law sputter and disappoint, liberals don’t have much else to turn to. Their own top priorities tend to be unpopular, and both their ideology and their political coalition constrain them from speaking to the public’s main concerns—economic stagnation and the middle-class squeeze. The president ran for re-election on remarkably little policy substance, and now offers even less. Who could say what his governing vision consists of? 

Not surprisingly, he has witnessed a major collapse in his public support, especially among independents, which in most polls now disapprove of the president’s handling of the economy by a two-to-one margin. About two-thirds of Americans say the country is on the wrong track. Even more are angry about the way things are going in Washington. And public confidence in government is near historic lows. So the moment is ripe for the GOP, at the national level, to offer the public a real alternative.

Whether it will, of course, remains an open question. But recent months have offered some encouraging signs. Republicans already showed some real leadership in the president’s first term by offering a serious, market-oriented Medicare-reform proposal—produced by House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan and backed by essentially every Republican in Congress.

Earlier this year, Senators Tom Coburn, Richard Burr, and Orrin Hatch followed up with a health-care proposal that would cover as many people as the Affordable Care Act without the taxes, mandates, and burdensome regulations and at a far lower cost by empowering consumers. Another ambitious health-reform bill is now co-sponsored by a majority of House Republicans.

Mr. Ryan and Senator Marco Rubio (among others) have proposed serious reforms to help sustain the safety net for the poor by re-orienting it toward work and opportunity. House Ways and Means Chairman Dave Camp and Senator Mike Lee have each proposed a major tax reform plan—and a combination of the two could well make for a winning Republican tax agenda. Other prominent proposals have included reforms of higher-education policy to increase options and lower costs, and reforms of transportation policy, the criminal-justice system, unemployment assistance, and more.

It is still fashionable in some circles to call Republicans the “Party of No,” but when has there been such a flurry of concrete policy proposals from an opposition party in Congress?

Even these proposals, of course, are only a start. They have yet to gain broad support, or to be brought together into a coherent conservative agenda. But they are suitable for such an effort, and they offer plausible, targeted, market-friendly approaches in precisely the areas that most trouble voters, and where Democrats have been failing most decisively.

A party that controls one-half of one-third of the federal government can’t hope to see its agenda become law at this point, and high profile confrontations with the Obama administration – such as the government shutdown last October – have mostly ended disastrously. But what the Republican Party can do is gradually build a new internal consensus around a policy agenda of conservative reforms that appeal to a broad base of voters, and which Republican candidates and the party’s next presidential nominee can then run on.

To approach the success of Republicans of past eras, those of this generation must again show how their ideas will improve the lives of American families in concrete ways by applying timeless American principles to a new set of American challenges. Today’s GOP has not done nearly enough of that.

The Republican Party can be the party of the 21st century by showing itself able and willing to reform public institutions that were designed for the needs of the mid-20th century – many of which are now antiquated and out of touch not only with the needs of our time but the expectations of Americans in an age of constant innovation and endless choices.

It can own the future by showing the public how limited government can also be effective government. It can succeed, in other words, by embodying not just an oppositional conservatism but also a governing conservatism.

It’s not yet clear if the party is ready to follow this path. But it is worth noting even modest signs of hope.

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Another RINO Attack on Ted Cruz

David Brooks is at it again. In his New York Times column today, Brooks once more went after Ted Cruz, writing:

Senator Ted Cruz has not yet reached the point where he can make policy, rather than just make political trouble. But there are already disquieting signs that he is looking out for Ted Cruz — even if that sets back the causes he claims to be serving.

This is just the kind of thing you’d expect from a card-carrying member of The Establishment, a neo-statist and a RINO, a person who regularly appears on Meet the Press and The News Hour.

Except that the paragraph I cited comes not from David Brooks, who in truth is one of the most thoughtful and interesting columnists in America, but from Thomas Sowell, one of the most influential intellectuals within conservatism, a man revered by the right, and a friend of the aims and animating principles of the Tea Party. Which makes it a bit harder to dismiss Sowell as easily as it is to dismiss some other (conservative) critics of Ted Cruz. 

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David Brooks is at it again. In his New York Times column today, Brooks once more went after Ted Cruz, writing:

Senator Ted Cruz has not yet reached the point where he can make policy, rather than just make political trouble. But there are already disquieting signs that he is looking out for Ted Cruz — even if that sets back the causes he claims to be serving.

This is just the kind of thing you’d expect from a card-carrying member of The Establishment, a neo-statist and a RINO, a person who regularly appears on Meet the Press and The News Hour.

Except that the paragraph I cited comes not from David Brooks, who in truth is one of the most thoughtful and interesting columnists in America, but from Thomas Sowell, one of the most influential intellectuals within conservatism, a man revered by the right, and a friend of the aims and animating principles of the Tea Party. Which makes it a bit harder to dismiss Sowell as easily as it is to dismiss some other (conservative) critics of Ted Cruz. 

There’s a deeper point to be made here, which is that so often these days substantive arguments aren’t really engaged. It’s so much easier (and intellectually less taxing) to try to dismiss those whom you disagree with rather than actually answering their critiques. 

That is a fairly common practice on the left, but it happens on the right as well. Think about some of the conservatives who often resort to this kind of thing. X person’s argument shouldn’t be listened to because he’s not one of us. He’s not part of The Movement. He doesn’t pass The Purity Test. (A few individuals on the right, including one with an evening talk radio program, have sought to discredit George Will’s conservative bone fides by pointing out that Will wrote favorable columns like this about Howard Baker 35 years ago. The work of Prefects of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith never ends.)

This is the kind of mindset that would eventually allow you to fit the number of people in a political movement in a phone booth. Fortunately this attitude is not dominant and, while it remains vocal, one senses it’s losing steam. For one thing, it’s not terribly conservative. For another, the excommunication fires eventually burn out. Because pretty soon there’s no one left to expel.

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More on Social Justice

Powerline’s Paul Mirengoff has written a dissent from my defense of the term “social justice.” I admire Mirengoff, and his response is intelligent and worth reading. And because the topic is one I find philosophically interesting and arguably of some (marginal) political importance, I want to respond to some of the points made by Mirengoff. 

1. He writes “If justice is an individual-centric concept, then there is no room for the concept of social justice.” Social justice is, I think, different than justice, but not “superfluous.” It is, as a friend of mine said, a softer concept than justice, but certainly not (as Mirengoff seems to argue) antithetical to it.

What I have in mind with the term is what we believe a society owes to others; the belief that living in a human society entitles our fellow human beings to some degree of sympathy and solicitude–and that a failure to grant these things is a failure of social justice.

It’s also worth remembering that society includes entities other than individuals—such as families, the fundamental unit of society, and institutions like churches and civic groups—that can also be treated justly or unjustly. If justice is, as Mirengoff writes, properly understood only as “an individual-centric concept,” then “social justice” concerns itself with these other important social entities. This broader understanding is, I think, consistent with various currents within conservatism.

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Powerline’s Paul Mirengoff has written a dissent from my defense of the term “social justice.” I admire Mirengoff, and his response is intelligent and worth reading. And because the topic is one I find philosophically interesting and arguably of some (marginal) political importance, I want to respond to some of the points made by Mirengoff. 

1. He writes “If justice is an individual-centric concept, then there is no room for the concept of social justice.” Social justice is, I think, different than justice, but not “superfluous.” It is, as a friend of mine said, a softer concept than justice, but certainly not (as Mirengoff seems to argue) antithetical to it.

What I have in mind with the term is what we believe a society owes to others; the belief that living in a human society entitles our fellow human beings to some degree of sympathy and solicitude–and that a failure to grant these things is a failure of social justice.

It’s also worth remembering that society includes entities other than individuals—such as families, the fundamental unit of society, and institutions like churches and civic groups—that can also be treated justly or unjustly. If justice is, as Mirengoff writes, properly understood only as “an individual-centric concept,” then “social justice” concerns itself with these other important social entities. This broader understanding is, I think, consistent with various currents within conservatism.

As I argued in my original post, we all agree that social injustice exists; it make sense, therefore, to believe social justice does as well. Why wouldn’t taking a stand against state-enforced apartheid or Uganda’s harsh anti-gay laws or North Korea’s persecution of Christians qualify as standing up for social justice–that is, insisting that a society’s laws and institutions be more just? When Nelson Mandela fought apartheid in South Africa, he was not only defending individual rights (though he was surely doing that); he was also saying it was a transparent violation of the moral ideals of a just and good society, something that sets socially and culturally pernicious norms and expectations. I certainly don’t see how advocating social justice in these terms takes us further down the road to serfdom.

2. Mirengoff writes, “The pursuit of social justice may also lead to action that is inconsistent with justice.” Agreed. But that’s true of compassion, decency, fairness, equality, the public good, freedom, and even justice itself. Any phrase is subject to abuse; that doesn’t mean the phrase is itself meaningless.

Stephen Douglas used the concept of “popular sovereignty” to defend the expansion of slavery. George Wallace used the concept of “states’ rights” to enforce racial segregation. And the left has appropriated the words “choice” and “liberty” to justify allowing abortions at any point in pregnancy for any reason. Does that mean we should give up on these concepts or cede them to the left? I would say no, that it is better to rescue them.

3. This discussion is reminiscent of the debate about whether conservatives should use the word “compassion” in the context of politics and political philosophy. Some on the right strongly believe that compassion has virtually no role in a conservative governing agenda because it can lead to all sorts of mischief. Others felt like using the phrase “compassionate conservatism” was an insult, since conservatism didn’t need the modifier. And still others believe compassion is what liberals care about, so leave it to them.

My view has long been that conservatives ought to claim the term, since conservatism, in concrete ways, improves the lives of our fellow citizens, including and often especially the poor and most vulnerable members of society. For example, during the welfare debate in the mid-1990s, I argued conservatives should make it clear that our approach was far more compassionate to the poor. (It turned out it was.)

Conservatives, rather than denigrating the ideas of compassion and social justice, should embrace them and show how conservatism properly understood actually advances them.

4. Mirengoff writes, “When [a laudable charitable project] travels under the banner of social justice, it gains extra moral authority that it does not deserve.” But the left already uses the term “social justice” with some effectiveness precisely because it does carry moral authority.

It’s a term that many people are instinctively (and I think correctly) drawn to. Rather than conservatives being seen as the enemies of social justice, I would suggest they be seen as its authentic champions. Why not counteract what Mirengoff calls “false advertising” with true advertising?

The differences Mirengoff and I have are more about semantics than about ends; but in politics and political philosophy, semantics matter. 

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Conservatives and Culture

Patrick Ruffini, long one of the conservative movement’s brightest minds on tech strategy in politics, has been working (with some success) to shake the right out of its ossified technological stasis. Part of Ruffini’s insight stems from his bias toward creativity and against institutional inertia: an entrenched institution isn’t by definition counterproductive, but neither should its persistence be taken for granted.

This week, Ruffini took to Twitter to broaden his critique to the conservative movement’s attitude toward institutions in general, both its own and those of the left. This Storify page captures the relevant tweets. Ruffini undoubtedly makes good points, and has some worthwhile advice for the right. But I think the limitation he runs into here is not really about cultural institutions per se but the culture that leads to the formation of those institutions. Ruffini writes:

Where is our Harvard, our New York Times, our Hollywood, our Silicon Valley? Owning the commanding heights of culture, it matters.

It’s true that culture matters, and later on Ruffini seems to acknowledge that a conservative version of the New York Times is not the best way de-marginalize conservative cultural perspectives when he writes:

This is why I’m encouraged to see guys like Robert Costa go to WaPo. Hard news reporting that started on the right.

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Patrick Ruffini, long one of the conservative movement’s brightest minds on tech strategy in politics, has been working (with some success) to shake the right out of its ossified technological stasis. Part of Ruffini’s insight stems from his bias toward creativity and against institutional inertia: an entrenched institution isn’t by definition counterproductive, but neither should its persistence be taken for granted.

This week, Ruffini took to Twitter to broaden his critique to the conservative movement’s attitude toward institutions in general, both its own and those of the left. This Storify page captures the relevant tweets. Ruffini undoubtedly makes good points, and has some worthwhile advice for the right. But I think the limitation he runs into here is not really about cultural institutions per se but the culture that leads to the formation of those institutions. Ruffini writes:

Where is our Harvard, our New York Times, our Hollywood, our Silicon Valley? Owning the commanding heights of culture, it matters.

It’s true that culture matters, and later on Ruffini seems to acknowledge that a conservative version of the New York Times is not the best way de-marginalize conservative cultural perspectives when he writes:

This is why I’m encouraged to see guys like Robert Costa go to WaPo. Hard news reporting that started on the right.

Indeed, as everyone knows, the most glaring lack of diversity in liberal media and cultural institutions is lack of intellectual and ideological diversity. The right produces plenty of talent, but the left’s rigid orthodoxy and enforced groupthink too rarely take the risk of exposing their audience to a dissenting view.

But the larger obstacle to the construction of conservative cultural institutions is that conservatives are so often by nature averse to the infusion of partisan politics into every facet of private life that would be required. Take each of the institutions Ruffini mentions.

Harvard: this is a stand-in for liberal academia overall, but it’s a good example since it retains its high status even as it basically gives its students A’s just for showing up. How does a place like Harvard become what it is today, when it once had such prestige and promise? Easy: the politicization of education by liberals who don’t want their students to be challenged. Do conservatives even want their own version of that? Should they? I don’t think they should, and I don’t they really do either. I think they yearn for the influence such institutions have, but greatly—and appropriately—disapprove of what it takes to get there.

New York Times: this is a stand-in for the liberal mainstream media, especially since the Times itself is going through such a crisis of credibility right now. But Ruffini already answered this one when he spoke of National Review’s ace political reporter Robert Costa going to the Washington Post. Conservative alternatives are too easily defined as such. More importantly, the Times mostly bellows groupthink and has allowed its bias not only to seep into its news reporting, but to become its news reporting. Why would conservatives want to foist another such institution on the country?

Hollywood: Here again we recently got a good look at how this operates. Actress Maria Conchita Alonso lost work because she supported a Republican. This new Hollywood blacklist is seemingly getting government sanction by federal authorities targeting any other nonconformists.

Blacklists, propaganda, the politicization of education—this is what it took for liberals to succeed in dominating cultural institutions. Which brings me to the last example: Silicon Valley. Ruffini answers this question with a sharp observation later in his discussion, when he writes:

If there are = numbers of smart righties as smart lefties, where do they go. On the right, they go into business. On the left, into politics

And thank goodness for that! Of course we want smart conservatives going into politics, and there are plenty. But it’s the sign of a healthy outlook when Americans are driven to the private sector instead of lusting after power. We are a nation with a government, as the saying goes, not the other way around.

It may be politically marginalizing to the right that conservatives believe in the need for a society outside the suffocating bureaucracy of the federal government, while leftists don’t. But the fact that conservatives believe in a life outside of partisan politics is healthy both for the conservative movement and the country on the whole. It’s a worthy, if frustratingly disempowering, sacrifice.

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“Principle Had Made Its Painful Peace with Circumstance”

“Purer souls, sterner moralists, can and do argue that, far from being models for emulation, the architects of American constitutionalism were temporizers, or whistlers in the dark, or even covenanters with Satan himself,” the University of Chicago’s Ralph Lerner has written. Lerner went on to say:

Where such critics may see weakness and confusion, Lincoln unhesitatingly perceives prudence. The premise of his admiration is plain enough: “From the necessities of the case we should be compelled to form just such a government as our blessed fathers gave us.” Again, what Lincoln has in mind is a defense not of every jot and tittle of earlier policies and provisions but of the general stance the founders took toward the actual presence of slavery in the new nation. Its presence was a fact, not less a fact than its being a wrong. Neither fact might be ignored or wished away, and the authors of the Declaration responded to both. At one and the same time they both declared the right of all to the equal enjoyment of inalienable rights and took account of the circumstances standing in the way of an immediate universal attainment of these rights. A moral imperative was embedded in a far-from-yielding world and then left to work its influence…. Principle had made its painful peace with circumstance.

“It is to this policy, at once moral and prudential,” he added, “that Lincoln urges his countrymen to return.”

This strikes me as an elegant and historically informed way to help us think about two virtues that can be, but need not be, in tension: a deep commitment to principles and to prudence. 

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“Purer souls, sterner moralists, can and do argue that, far from being models for emulation, the architects of American constitutionalism were temporizers, or whistlers in the dark, or even covenanters with Satan himself,” the University of Chicago’s Ralph Lerner has written. Lerner went on to say:

Where such critics may see weakness and confusion, Lincoln unhesitatingly perceives prudence. The premise of his admiration is plain enough: “From the necessities of the case we should be compelled to form just such a government as our blessed fathers gave us.” Again, what Lincoln has in mind is a defense not of every jot and tittle of earlier policies and provisions but of the general stance the founders took toward the actual presence of slavery in the new nation. Its presence was a fact, not less a fact than its being a wrong. Neither fact might be ignored or wished away, and the authors of the Declaration responded to both. At one and the same time they both declared the right of all to the equal enjoyment of inalienable rights and took account of the circumstances standing in the way of an immediate universal attainment of these rights. A moral imperative was embedded in a far-from-yielding world and then left to work its influence…. Principle had made its painful peace with circumstance.

“It is to this policy, at once moral and prudential,” he added, “that Lincoln urges his countrymen to return.”

This strikes me as an elegant and historically informed way to help us think about two virtues that can be, but need not be, in tension: a deep commitment to principles and to prudence. 

The danger facing those who are active in politics is leaning too much toward one at the expense of the other. The result can be people who become ideologues devoted to abstract principles without taking into account actual circumstances (and vilify those who do). Still others will embrace compromise for its own sake, with no sense of what is trying to be achieved when it comes to justice and the ends of government. For principled politicians to make painful peace with circumstances, to shape a far-from-yielding world in a moral direction, is among the hardest balances to strike and the most impressive things to achieve. (None faced more difficult challenges, or met them as well, as did Lincoln.)

It’s perhaps worth noting that this task is made harder, not easier, by those who insist on elevating every debate, and even tactical differences, into an existential struggle between liberty and tyranny. Who have convinced themselves that the road to victory begins with excommunicating the non-pure–the heretics and apostates–in their midst. These voices are loud, often intemperate, and hardly conservative.

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Both Obama and the GOP Badly Damaged

The most recent NBC News/Wall Street Journal survey is filled with ominous news for the president.

It’s not simply that the president’s approval ratings are near all-time lows for him in this particular poll (43 approve v. 51 disapprove). Or that for the third-straight survey those who view Obama negatively (44 percent) outnumber those who view him positively (42 percent). It’s also the sour and anxious mood of the nation.

Nearly 70 percent of those surveyed (68 percent) believe the country has either gotten worse or stayed stagnant during the Obama era. Fifty-nine percent say they are either “pessimistic and worried” or “uncertain and wondering” about Obama’s remaining time in office. By a 39 percent to 31 percent margin, Americans believe the country is currently worse off compared with where it was when Obama first took office (29 percent say it’s in the same place). And when asked what one or two words best describes the state of the union, here are the top three responses: “divided” (37 percent), “troubled” (23 percent), and “deteriorating” (21 percent). Only 28 percent of those surveyed say we’re on the right track. And the president’s instantly forgettable State of the Union address won’t change any of that.

But before Republicans rejoice too much, they should consider this finding: Only 24 percent of the public has a very or somewhat positive view of the GOP, whereas 47 percent have a very or somewhat negative view of the Republican Party (28 percent are neutral). So nearly twice as many Americans now hold negative views about the Republican Party as positive ones. (As a point of comparison, 37 percent have a very or somewhat positive view of the Democratic Party v. 40 percent a very or somewhat negative view of the Democratic Party, with 22 percent neutral.)

There are, I suspect, several different things going on at once. There’s clearly a deep disenchantment with American politics today, and it’s directed at both parties, most politicians, and many of our political institutions. There is a great deal of frustration that things aren’t working as they should, and the entire political class has been implicated.

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The most recent NBC News/Wall Street Journal survey is filled with ominous news for the president.

It’s not simply that the president’s approval ratings are near all-time lows for him in this particular poll (43 approve v. 51 disapprove). Or that for the third-straight survey those who view Obama negatively (44 percent) outnumber those who view him positively (42 percent). It’s also the sour and anxious mood of the nation.

Nearly 70 percent of those surveyed (68 percent) believe the country has either gotten worse or stayed stagnant during the Obama era. Fifty-nine percent say they are either “pessimistic and worried” or “uncertain and wondering” about Obama’s remaining time in office. By a 39 percent to 31 percent margin, Americans believe the country is currently worse off compared with where it was when Obama first took office (29 percent say it’s in the same place). And when asked what one or two words best describes the state of the union, here are the top three responses: “divided” (37 percent), “troubled” (23 percent), and “deteriorating” (21 percent). Only 28 percent of those surveyed say we’re on the right track. And the president’s instantly forgettable State of the Union address won’t change any of that.

But before Republicans rejoice too much, they should consider this finding: Only 24 percent of the public has a very or somewhat positive view of the GOP, whereas 47 percent have a very or somewhat negative view of the Republican Party (28 percent are neutral). So nearly twice as many Americans now hold negative views about the Republican Party as positive ones. (As a point of comparison, 37 percent have a very or somewhat positive view of the Democratic Party v. 40 percent a very or somewhat negative view of the Democratic Party, with 22 percent neutral.)

There are, I suspect, several different things going on at once. There’s clearly a deep disenchantment with American politics today, and it’s directed at both parties, most politicians, and many of our political institutions. There is a great deal of frustration that things aren’t working as they should, and the entire political class has been implicated.

Yet there’s no getting around the fact that the Republican Party is in a very precarious situation. In the fall of 2013, for example, in the wake of the government shutdown, the GOP recorded the lowest favorable rating measured for either party since Gallup began asking this question in 1992. Which means Republicans have a tremendous amount of work to do in order to win back the confidence of most Americans.

Different people recommend different solutions. Some will argue that the GOP has been too easy on the president and that its rhetoric hasn’t been sufficiently anti-government. They will argue that those on the right need to amp up their declamations against Mr. Obama, invoking words like “Marxist,” “coup,” and “tyranny” to describe him. The key to making the GOP more popular is for it to become more strident, the language more apocalyptic. People in this camp think the government shutdown was an impressive victory for the conservative cause and backfired only because of a failure of nerve by Republicans. They believe the contemporary politicians whom Republicans should pattern themselves after are Sarah Palin and Ted Cruz. 

Readers of this site know that I’m of a different view, that the leaders of the GOP and the conservative movement, while leveling very tough criticisms at the president, also need to carry themselves with a degree of grace and winsomeness. They need to be less agitated and more agreeable, in possession of strong convictions and moderate temperaments. They need to demonstrate a genuine interest in justice and those living in the shadows of society. And they need to propose far-reaching conservative reforms that constitute an actual governing vision, one that matches the challenges of this moment.

Which is why the recent health-care plan put forward by Senators Burr, Coburn, and Hatch is so encouraging. An alternative to the Affordable Care Act, It would cover pre-existing conditions, provide universal coverage, reform Medicaid, and promote medical liability reform and market-oriented policies. (Among the specific proposals is to extend a tax credit for the purchase of health insurance to all Americans below 300 percent of the poverty level who don’t have health coverage from a large employer.) No piece of legislation is perfect, and neither is this one. But I agree with those who consider it to be the most impressive conservative health-care plan yet put forward by Republican lawmakers.

There are, then, several currents of thought that exist in the modern GOP. The debate isn’t between those who are conservative and those who are not so much as it’s between those who have some important disagreements over what constitutes authentic conservatism. The debate involves differences in tone and style and divergent interpretations of the federalist Founders and the Constitution, the role of government, and the conservative tradition. 

It’s a fascinating debate, really, and at times quite a spirited one. Whichever side prevails will go some distance toward determining the future of conservatism and the country.

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