Skip to content

The Anxieties of Conservatism

The conservative movement is understandably in a state of anxiety. Donald Trump was not their candidate. The key issues of his campaign were not those in which the Right’s leading thinkers had invested their efforts. The major organs of conservative opinion distanced themselves from his candidacy, only allying with him tactically, and in many cases never abandoning the “Never Trump” rallying cry. They breathed a sigh of relief after the election brought many conventional Republicans to power along with Trump, and Trump’s cabinet selections have been largely reassuring to the Right. On the whole, conservative opposition to Trump has simply transformed into professions that conservatives will have to keep a close eye on the new administration’s policies in order to make sure that they do not depart too far from past Republican efforts.

But the sources of conservative anxiety are not about to go away. From his Inaugural Address onward, Trump has continued the argument of his presidential campaign—that prioritizing American economic and military security is of higher priority than ticking items off the movement conservative wish list. And if conservatives follow the path of judging the new administration simply on the basis of their past goals, they will be missing a generational opportunity to reshape American politics along newly cross-partisan lines. Such a cross-partisan position would be very different from the “centrism” that currently masks a set of uniformly neoliberal policies. The political upheavals of 2016 point to the possibility of another sort of centrism: a broad political constituency wanting a well-defined country able to offer its citizens security, a sound economy, and brighter future prospects. The basic character of such a cross-partisan political shift is not a secret—progressives should also want to protect American workers and distribute economic gains more broadly—even if its details remain up for negotiation.

At an intellectual level, however, many self-described conservatives remain within a framework originally designed for the Cold War and later updated, after its end, for what everyone assumed would be the safe triumph of global capitalism. They refuse to recognize that the political circumstances which gave rise to that platform, originally called “fusionism” to describe the linking of market liberals with traditional conservatives, no longer obtain. Instead the basic integrity of the American polity has been put under stress by economic policies justified in the name of global markets but unjustifiable in their effects on many local communities. American foreign policy seems confused in both its ends as well as its means. The moment is thus one of retrenchment along political lines that ordinary citizens want and need. This sentiment will not be going away soon. To adjust to it and guide it responsibly, thoughtful statesmen on both sides of the aisle will have to review the trajectory that got them here, for it also contains the path out.

Analysts and commentators now take for granted that the citizens who were ignored behind the Democratic Party’s former “Blue Wall” had experienced a plight that led them to vote for Trump. In the media, a shift of tone came about almost overnight, from doubt about whether ordinary Americans had really suffered from economic and political globalization in the last generation to regret that their certain suffering had caused them to cast such a desperate vote. But this sudden interest in the conditions of forgotten workers (and would-be workers) in Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan, and Wisconsin has not yet translated into a different vision of what American conservatism should be—and, mutatis mutandis, progressivism. That’s because  Cold War conservatism established a program whose preservation became more important than preserving the country. In his typically direct way Trump challenged not merely parts of the conservative program but its perspective: “Folks,” he said in April 2016, “I’m a conservative, but at this point, who cares?”

Preserving one’s country is not a uniquely partisan goal, even though the two parties see the country in different ways. When the basics are going well, the parties can return to the interminable debate about whose second-level goals are more pressing. The ordinary voters who delivered the election to Trump thought otherwise. Many but far from all considered themselves conservative. Instead the virtues of loyalty and patriotism propelled them to select an unlikely candidate whose aims they considered urgent. They wanted to preserve their country just as Britons did when they disregarded the stated positions of their parties in a transformational referendum. If conservatives cannot appreciate why this situation changed and why they were ill prepared to grasp it, then “conservatism” will deserve to wither on the vine.

Conservative Intellectuals and the (Old) New Majority

That today’s anxieties began life as yesterday’s confident new suggestions is a common occurrence in political history but one that is always difficult to face. When William F. Buckley Jr. started a project to unite market liberals opposed to New Deal institutions and patriotic Americans opposed to progressive social programs and cultural liberalism, the political movement it would lead did not yet exist. His long-term goal in founding National Review in 1955, as Lee Edwards noted recently in National Affairs, was “the development of a political movement.” Only later, first in 1964, did the conservative movement field a presidential candidate for the Republican Party.

Crafting a new majority was a political effort in search of intellectual justification. The effort to build that structure began, as Jason Stahl explains in his book Right Moves, during the postwar period of regnant liberal technocracy, and the new Republican constituency included interests and backgrounds more complicated than the stuff of intellectual debates. And, as Donald Critchlow wrote in 2013, “After much testing, the GOP responded to these broad [postwar] economic, social, and racial changes by becoming the party of low taxes, pro-business policies, strong national defense, preservation of family values (including regulation of social morality), and ultimately affirmation of equality of opportunity in opposition to preferential treatment based on race or gender. As a result,” he concluded, “an expanded white middle class drifted toward the GOP, first at the presidential level and eventually at state and local levels.” That middle class was to be the hoped-for new majority, the marriage of family-values women and their commercially successful husbands.

To unite the disparate groups of traditionalists and libertarians, Frank S. Meyer at National Review outlined the elements of an intellectual synthesis he described as fusionism. Meyer’s argument was straightforward, but it was intended as a temporary political alliance rather than as a distillation of the essence of “conservatism.” Since liberty was required for the exercise of virtue, Meyer argued, those committed to the defense of churches, families, and Western culture more broadly could join a liberty-centric political program. Since securing liberty was the final purpose of government, he could satisfy the libertarians as well. But that satisfaction only took the form of a practical agreement to work together on common political causes. On the intellectual level, the traditionalists did not accept Meyer’s starting point and the libertarians grew ever less interested in his calls to maintain liberty’s basis in virtue.

By the 1980s, politics had solved the tension that otherwise occupied conservative thinkers, by delivering a majority that neither market liberals nor social traditionalists had any hope of delivering on their own. “Fusionism” was simply the best available intellectual justification for the political alliance between social conservatives and economic classical liberals that had been achieved by Republican strategists. In the face of bristling opposition to market economies and traditional mores from the Western Left and from Soviet Communism, the fusion of free markets and sound morals seemed eminently sensible as a practical political strategy.

Beginning with the Reagan presidency, a new conservative intellectual and political apparatus began to trade upon the GOP’s finally successful postwar reorganization. The New Majority was receptive to conservative ideas, and conservative institutions began to propagate them widely. In addition, conservative think tanks were no longer mere participants in the marketplace of ideas but had become a new site of power themselves. Yet, at the same time, the debates internal to conservatism effectively stalled out. The fusion of the Republican business class with its reliable new Southern base had succeeded, and its success meant that the old intraconservative debates were politically neutralized, with the upper hand going to the think tanks and journals that had signed on to the fusionism then ascendant. With the Heritage Foundation at their head, the think tanks of the American Right rolled out fusionism not only as a component of understanding the (temporary) New Majority, but as the essence of conservatism itself—something few if any conservative thinkers had ever really held. More than anything else, fusionism became the term of art applied to the disparate postwar conservative intellectual movement. But since almost no conservative intellectuals accepted its terms, it was an ironic rather than a real descriptor.

The year 2015 saw the unlikely republication of Frank S. Meyer’s 1964 volume on fusionism, What Is Conservatism? To his credit, Jonah Goldberg in his foreword to the new edition rightly calls the book a “successful failure”: only Frank Meyer and Bill Buckley were fully committed to the fusionist enterprise. The book’s other writers lined up to point out the distinctiveness of their positions and, implicitly at least, to critique the fusionist project. Ironically, however, no one outside the journals and institutes of movement conservatism was likely ever to hear of fusionism. Ordinary voters do not vote on the basis of intellectual syntheses but rather on the basis of their perceived interests and the campaigns that match them.

Nevertheless, “National Review remains an essentially fusionist enterprise,” as Goldberg explained in a 2015 essay. Republicans have run and won elections on different iterations of the fusionist synthesis (along with the infusion of neoconservative ideas) for three decades. Reagan had cited Meyer as a definitive influence on his conservatism at the very outset of his administration. For today’s movement conservatives, the National Review consensus is no longer merely a prudent—if always intellectually tenuous—political compromise, but has come to define conservatism itself.

Yet the fusionist project had lost its constituency well before even Mitt Romney’s failed attempt to muster bored Republicans into giving him their votes. Movement conservatives’ anxieties over new challenges to fusionism are, therefore, not surprising, though they are misunderstood. Their apprehension arises not from new critiques of fusionism—for they are not new—but from the concern that the conditions which made fusionism a politically powerful synthesis no longer obtain.

The Conservatism of Things

In many ways, American conservatism has been a victim of its own success in creating civil society institutions to reflect and advance its fundamental commitments. Our political associations have been very effective in propagating their political agendas among a country-wide audience, much more effective than the (fewer) comparable associations in Europe, for example. But precisely because movement conservatism was so successful in building the architecture needed to carry forward the agenda of the post-Nixon GOP, it missed the moment at which its concerns separated from the base entirely. It is also no coincidence that the most vocal defenders of the fusionist status quo come from the professional political classes with the most to lose.

To borrow Marxist terminology, the conservative superstructure came about to articulate the disparate political elements of the GOP’s New Majority. The triumph of the U.S. at the end of the Cold War, however, marked the end of that Republican base as it had been understood and explained by the conservative superstructure. To be sure, the Republican base—in no small part excited by the new talk radio stars who reinforced them as a constituency—made several apparently dramatic political statements after the Cold War, in 1994, 2000, and 2010. But its relationship to the policies which had previously sparked economic growth and strengthened American security was already being frayed. After victories in three straight presidential elections from 1980 onward, the GOP had little to offer economically in the 1990s other than accession to new free trade agreements, tax cuts that were either irrelevant to most voters or totally implausible, cheerleading of the tech and housing bubbles, and cutting entitlements. In foreign policy, post–Cold War “conservative” efforts were reinvented under the guise of furthering the global democratic order that appeared to have won a decisive victory. Meanwhile, lip service continued to be paid to the religious Right, though it was offered with increasing reluctance.

Since Republican fusionism was a patchwork ideology all along, it is strange to see Trump’s political positions characterized as a grab-bag of populist proposals in contrast to what Washington Free Beacon editor Matthew Continetti recently called “the mainstream of the intellectual conservative movement.” If anything, it is the mainstream conservative platform that has devolved into a checklist of incongruent planks now that the underlying conditions which afforded it some coherence as a political strategy no longer apply.

Continetti describes Trump’s basic message—regaining control of our borders, renegotiating trade agreements to our advantage, and pursuing an American interests-based foreign policy—as “not the conservatism of ideas but of things.” Such a conservatism, he says, can be distinguished from consciously adopting the approach of Burke or Disraeli or Hayek. As a description of Trump’s own lack of interest in major political thinkers, Continetti’s description is perfectly apt. But the current situation is not one in which movement conservatism has ownership of “ideas” whereas Trump has a concern for “things.”

Articulating any political program requires appraising the political situation on the ground and coming up with appropriate strategies to preserve what is good in them and improve what is better. Of course, the need to maintain key features of the American regime means that certain things—the preservation of due process, for example—are a part of every American political program. But in 2016 Americans sensed that both parties were failing to guarantee basic aspects of sovereignty, security, and equality that the American polity was formed to preserve. Restoring each of these requires “ideas” as much as Cold War conservatism did.

The 2016 campaign demonstrated that the interests and strategies of well-established conservatism have passed their peak effectiveness. The present circumstances offer few points at which the expectations of Cold War or Nineties conservatives are even relevant. For fusionists, the political scene does not display a conflict between central planning and the spontaneous order described by Hayek. A form of market liberalism has essentially triumphed in the Western world and the countries of the Pacific Rim. Both Republicans and Democrats have simply been debating what form that market liberalism will take. Yet their common faith in global markets left both sides doubtful that trade agreements were instruments that required careful planning to preserve American economic and strategic advantages. At the same time, a form of social liberalism has carried the day in American culture at large. As Charles Murray showed, American elites and the lower and middle classes put together different combinations of religious belief and family practice. Economically stagnant regions with comparatively high religious belief ironically fare less well in standard markers of family stability. Whether we speak of changing family structures or simply the loss of belief in them, however, the phenomenon is real.

Meanwhile, to the extent that the Supreme Court’s Obergefell ruling determined the law of the land in June 2015, the culture wars are essentially over. But the fallout has not been as either the Right or the Left expected. For the well-established Right, the disappearance of the most divisive social question since Roe v. Wade—same-sex marriage—was supposed to be a palate-cleanser for Republicans used to paying obeisance to social conservatives. They could then turn back to pressing issues that Paul Ryan identified but which had no popular constituency: repealing Dodd-Frank and cutting entitlements. The Left meanwhile realized that its expectation of further progress implied that Obergefell could not be considered a sufficient victory, and so has pressed on with matters of concern to ever smaller groups.

Republicans and Democrats alike, in other words, hoped that Obergefell would beat a path back to their core issues. In public, the Republicans would lightly touch up the regulatory state and the Democrats would make war on the last vestiges of prejudice. Just out of public view, though, they would unite to pass the Trans-Pacific Partnership and work further toward the endgame of comprehensive immigration reform. Without the candidacies of Sanders and Trump, the issues that actually concerned a vast but neglected segment of the American public would have been left to the side. All the while analysts were hoping that these candidates were simply exceptions, and that voters whose inarticulate views were now being voiced would go back to casting reluctant ballots for party-chosen favorites.

Rediscovering Civic Friendship

Since the election, a growing number of analysts have awoken to the realization that for many Americans things are not well. The conclusion of the culture wars has not brought the triumph of Republican economic wonkery and Democratic clientelism, but has instead uncovered the fact that many left-behind Americans had tuned out from the culture wars long ago. This time around, the culture war was finished before its conclusion was ratified by the Supreme Court: Obergefell tracked a shift in public mood and then solidified it. On the economic front, the Trump and Sanders campaigns signaled that the post-2008 recovery was much more anemic than the press indicated. After Joe Biden declared the “Recovery Summer” so long ago in 2010, the financial press largely followed the Obama administration’s interpretive cues. The plight of working-class Americans did not suddenly begin in late 2015. Yet in 2016 attempts to describe their plight deployed fatalistic terminology: the Atlantic wrote about “The Original Underclass,” and J. D. Vance wrote a plaintive Hillbilly Elegy (Harper, 2016) for parts of America that appeared to be doomed.

Those who voted for Trump were not only those in economic difficulties. In the cities and towns of America’s Midwest, everyone has an interest in seeing revitalization, not simply those who are less well off. This potential element of civic friendship escaped the notice of those who tarred Trump’s Inaugural Address as “divisive.” Instead he spoke of civic solidarity among all those with an interest in seeing their cities and regions prosper. Those in more prosperous coastal or large metropolitan areas have an interest in regional success, as well. Many Americans have vacated their home towns out of necessity, not out of choice.

The Court–Country split, commonly used to describe the division of early eighteenth-century Britain, has also made a reappearance in current analyses, beginning with Angelo Codevilla’s 2010 essay in the American Spectator. Katherine Cramer of the University of Wisconsin introduced a similar analogy (without referring to the British example) to describe Scott Walker’s 2012 ascent to the Wisconsin governorship. Her new book, The Politics of Resentment (University of Chicago Press, 2016), portrays Walker as a clever politician able to appeal to rural anxiety, even though she argues that Democratic policies would have served the rural poor better. While her argument rightly draws attention to the plight of rural areas, she also unintentionally explains Scott Walker’s failure at the national level. Though she is too optimistic that Democratic redistribution programs would make a decisive difference in the lives of the rural poor, she is right that the mainline Republican agenda, typified by Walker, had little to offer them. When given the alternative to choose a vulgar dealmaker who spoke directly to their concerns with solutions that seemed plausible, those voters went to Trump in droves.

Ross Douthat also resurrected the Court–Country analogy in a New York Times column of 2013. “There really is,” he wrote, “a kind of ‘court party’ in American politics, whose shared interests and assumptions—interventionist, corporatist, globalist—have stamped the last two presidencies.” But as he also noted, Bolingbroke’s original Country Party failed, and the modern Republican Party had not yet shown itself “interested in governing” in any convincing way. Douthat was referring to the Republicans’ tendency to wage grand struggles that it could never win, like the repeal of Obamacare under Obama, rather than advocating smart solutions that offered tangible improvements.

Though Douthat was surely right that a Republican Party “interested in governing” would have done better than the posture-striking party of 2008 and 2012, the 2016 election showed that Republicans were out of touch with a more fundamental dissatisfaction in the electorate. The new position of reform conservatism, articulated by Douthat and National Affairs editor Yuval Levin, has been a worthy effort to articulate what a moderate governing agenda would look like—for a Republican Party narrowly able to win over entrenched Democratic interests. But the moderate Burkean inspiration for moderate reform works when times are going moderately well, and only then. Our regime’s successful endurance made it difficult to see the growing pressures and stresses that had been building in the last few decades. Many reformist conservatives mischaracterized Trump’s support as a form of “nostalgia” for a long-lost time during which the rising tide lifted all boats. But this portrayal of Trump’s support made them inattentive to the effects of offshoring and financialization on the American economy. At the moment when ordinary Americans were simply feeling that matters ranging from markets to immigration to national security had gotten out of control, the reform conservatives could not frame a program matched to the situation.

What actually propelled the candidacies of Trump and Sanders was the sense among their voters, right or wrong, that the candidates were interested in them—not just in power or policies, much as those are necessary. Yet the signs that voters in the forgotten parts of America had been forgotten were written all over the mainstream economic press before Trump’s campaign. “Badly educated men in rich countries,” read an Economist headline in 2015, “have not adapted well to trade, technology or feminism.” “After 200 years,” runs a more recent Economist leader, “the machinery question is back.” “The new divide in rich countries,” claims yet another headline, “is not between left and right but between open and closed.” Another explains that “high-flying cities, and the successful firms they contain, are detaching from the rest of the economy.” “The Fed,” added the Wall Street Journal in August, “is a case study in how the conventional wisdom of the late 1990s on a wide range of economic issues, including trade, technology and central banking, has since slowly unraveled.” If all these things are true and have been true, it should not have been a surprise that candidates would be successful who tapped into voters’ anxieties. Even the smartest, post-Reaganite conservative policy thinking won’t inspire voters who want old-fashioned recognition.

The Loss and Reassertion of Political Control

Behind the most prominent headlines about the Trump and Sanders campaign lies the difficult economic reality chronicled a few pages deeper in the daily papers. While market liberalism has triumphed in and indeed constructed the developed world, the form that liberalism has taken is specific and not accidental. The capitalism we chose to make has been one driven by financialization—by the quest to put all land, labor, and capital in financially manageable and tradable form, and to promote that trading as our expertise. That effort has combined with the insistence on lessening borders’ effect on market activity, with the favor given to whitecollar labor over blue, and with a culturally ambitious Left that casts aspersions on traditional mores. We chose to soften the role of borders in the U.S. and Europe, to send working-class jobs abroad, and to make universities spend their prestige on battling privilege. We have chosen to favor those with the greatest flexibility to leave their home towns, to switch from manual to mental labor, and to relax about the importance of family structures, inherited religions, and other cultural tropes. This world is one of our making. It is not a fait accompli, it is not on track to conquer the rest of the world, and we are not out of decisions to make.

Even if Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump had not come along, the tendencies that are pressuring our established political arrangement would not have abated. Donald Trump was not responsible for the fact that the ability to out-earn one’s parents has dropped precipitously from 1970 to today. Those left behind as we built our current economy would eventually have found other vehicles for their distress, perhaps ones even more strident or more vulgar. The language of good governance, of constitutional sensibility, and of principled conservatism (or liberalism) is designed for the ordinary political world of constitutional settlement. Yet in constructing the economy we have now, we knew very well we were designing something that would be markedly different from what came before. We wrongly assumed, for a variety of reasons, that the new economy would proceed smoothly. Now that it obviously has not, our elites have no excuse to pursue the same strategies.

The elites who bought the “End of History” hypothesis have been the most shaken by Trumpism in the United States and “populist” movements elsewhere. Once they concluded that Trump would be an authoritarian and demagogue, they reasserted what they saw as the fundamental elements of a functioning commonwealth. But supporters of Trump and Sanders were doing exactly the same thing. Faced with a political process no longer responsive to or even aware of the stagnation of a middle class once ever improving, those voters grabbed for what they saw as the lost precondition of politics: political sovereignty. It is true that modern comforts are so great that a recession today would not be felt as the Great Depression in its time. But since modern society tells us we are sinking unless we are rising, merely treading water—trying harder and harder just to stay afloat—is an indignity. The social revolution and the spread of family dysfunction add failure to indignity. Sexual freedom itself has become a form of privilege for those who know enough to manage the consequences of their liberties in the freest but most controlled ways.

The construction of modern states has always involved both the assertion of sovereignty and the development of rational administration, from the days of Louis XIV through that of Jean-Claude Juncker. The U.S. and Europe have enjoyed so much success in establishing stable polities, however, that they have assumed the assertion of sovereignty was a thing of the past. Management and governance could replace rule and the struggle for power: such was the fond hope of those who built the structures of regional and global “governance.” By their own self-understanding, however, “management” and “governance” are designed to keep critical aspects of the economy, state administration, and security from being “politicized.” They are incapable of being experienced by citizens as a place of political activity where democratic citizenship matters. Insulating economic policy from “political” questions means that ordinary citizens increasingly lack any means of redress when management goes bad. The “political” level on which such management takes place, in the hands of transnational administrative bodies and arbitration panels, cannot be found on the political compass of ordinary life. Contrary to its purpose, depoliticization raises the political stakes of economics and security whenever their management does not go according to plan. When something has been precariously removed from political control, the reassertion of political control over it takes forceful forms. Empires have been built and then collapsed, borders have been drawn and redrawn, without any example having been given that borders will simply disappear after being forgotten.

Consider these words, seemingly characteristic of the 2016 primary campaign: “There is no substitute for making things, as long as Americans use computers, wear clothes, drive autos, build with steel, play video games—in short, do everything.… Debt, not wages, allowed Americans to continue to consume. The rest of the world, beginning with Europe, Japan, the Asian Tigers, and now China did not mind because U.S. demand was their growth machine. This cannot continue. But to return to making things will require new investment, labor, and trade policies.” Are these the words of a 2016 stump speech?

In fact they are the considered judgment of an eminent American historian. Judith Stein, a professor at the Graduate Center, CUNY, put the matter that way in her 2010 book Pivotal Decade, whose subtitle argues that the U.S. “traded factories for finance in the Seventies” and has been adjusting (or paying the consequences) ever since. In some cases, she suggests, our attention to tax rates and inflation indirectly promoted the shift away from production and toward the service economy, of which financial services are a part. More often than not, however, we decided that the service sector was the way of the future, that spending on education would produce higher incomes, and that improved financial services—easier access to credit, mortgages, and rising stock portfolios—would compensate for our declining productivity elsewhere. In the ninth year of a still questionable recovery (must we have merely a recovery?), we have to face directly the question of improving America’s productive economy without using automation or trade liberalization simply as excuses. The arc of history is not going where its predictors claimed, but rather back toward the nation-states, which have never really been left behind.

Obstacles to Realignment

Policymakers, economists, and political strategists know that even more trends lurk beneath the surface with uncertain consequences. Recent advances in automation, artificial intelligence, and robotics point in an uncertain direction. The advent of self-driving cars has already begun in some cities, and likely heralds a more contentious fight than the arrival of Uber did in the cities hostile to it. Many industries, such as the textile industry, remain resistant to automation. The only certainty is that blithe invocations of labor’s ability to regroup and take up another human task will not be a sufficient guide to the political difficulties that could result from automation. Simple promises to return jobs from overseas will be difficult to keep when the labor market at home and production methods abroad have both changed. Yet most political and intellectual leaders still have not shifted from a smug assurance about globalization’s inevitability toward practical thinking about the role we want labor, production, trade, and borders to play in the future.

The difficulty in shifting the range of opinion on these matters stems from several primary sources. Intellectually, what hampers sound decision-making is the belief that present trends, as we understand them, constitute a direction that we must follow and even encourage. Each party focuses on different trends, but both operate within a frequently historicist framework, wrongly assuming that events have reached a point at which political action is useless or even impossible. The regular dismissal of calls to restore broad participation in American manufacturing as “nostalgia” is a telling—but politically obfuscatory—symptom of this latent sense. While it is almost impossible for any political campaign not to trade in some nostalgic rhetoric, seeking to renew America’s manufacturing base or preserve her standing in international relations requires no nostalgia at all. Insistence that Americans resign themselves to stagnant economic growth, higher-than-reported consumer inflation, delayed adulthood, and scrambled job prospects is a political platform that convinces no one. What Americans ever voted to make their country one of banking executives on the one hand and Walmart clerks on the other?

Second, the relationship between party constituency and political platform has become obscured by the growth in civil society dedicated to political advocacy. When a political platform is successful in preserving and improving the conditions of a party constituency—as many aspects of Reagan’s agenda did in the 1980s—it’s only natural to take that platform as a permanent playbook. But that natural tendency has been exacerbated by ongoing donor support for legacy conservative think tanks that have reinforced that superstructure in ways that are now counterproductive. How to resolve this bind is no secret. Closer attention by politicians and strategists to the character and needs of their constituencies would likely result in different political proposals. Such an approach is obviously insufficient on its own for articulating what that agenda should be. But the preference given by the Right to postwar market thinkers has proven clearly insufficient in generating the virtues of prudence that would enable politicians to judge between doctrinaire neoliberalism and the political interests of their constituents.

For those interested in the possibility of a political realignment, the signs are all around, at home and abroad. In Europe on the morning of June 24, 2016, the continent awoke to the news that the United Kingdom had voted to leave the European Union. Writing in the Spectator the next day, Toby Young wondered whether the alignment of interests in the Leave campaign foretold a political reconfiguration in Britain. Leave was supported by Tory traditionalists and rank-and-file Labour voters. Remain was supported by the London-based Tory and Labour elite, as well as the City of London, Scotland, and Northern Irish counties on the Irish border. “One of the oddities of the referendum campaign,” Young pointed out, “was the emergence on the centre-right of an anti-Establishment alliance between a middle-class, educated elite” and the Euroskeptic working class. Between 2005 and 2015, he noted, support for Labour in the skilled working class dropped from 40 to 30 percent, while among the working class and the unemployed it dropped from 48 to 37 percent. If the British parties were reconfigured to reflect their current national constituencies, he suggested, we might find a national party of Tory traditionalists and Old Labour, a party of metropolitan liberals, one of libertarians, and one of the Far Left.

Elsewhere in Europe such reconfigurations are already in place or are on the horizon, often for disparate reasons. In Poland, the Law and Justice (PiS) party combines national solidarity interests and Christian democracy in its platform, reflecting both Polish traditionalism and social welfare principles essential for its constituency. In the currently scrambled French political scene, as Guillaume de Thieulloy recently explained it, one “could see the right-wing candidate promoting some center-left policies; the Socialist candidate promoting center-right policies; or the National Front candidate promoting far Left policies”—a shifting of line unusual by American standards. Though these countries have a different experience of national identity from our own, they face common threats from those constructing institutions of global governance that dismiss nation-states and borders in toto.

In the United States such a reconfiguration was a clear possibility throughout the 2016 election cycle. As early as August, Jeffrey Anderson in the Weekly Standard wrote that “essentially every issue favors Trump.” It’s not as though this reconfiguration surfaced only in 2016: it attempted to make itself known before. “Against all evidence,” complained David Frum in the January/February 2016 issue of the Atlantic, Republican donors and politicians “interpreted the Tea Party as a mass movement in favor of the agenda of the Wall Street Journal editorial page.” George Will was thus right to note in September that movement conservatism had become “an orphan in an indifferent world.”

A Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll, conducted December 12–15, 2016, showed that the electorate had already become uninterested in political repetitions of orthodox conservatism of the sort that were found in Ted Cruz’s campaign. “When Trump supporters were asked why they voted for him,” the Wall Street Journal reported on December 20, only “1% said the most important reason was to advance traditional Republican policies. By contrast, more than one-quarter said the prime reason was to improve the economy, while 23% said it was to put America first rather than focusing on other countries. Some 21% said it was to defeat Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton.” Including the 18 percent who wanted to “change business as usual in Washington” and the 5 percent who voted in order to “take a tough approach on immigration,” 94 percent of Trump voters responded to the basic appeals of his campaign, in spite of a relentless effort by the Republican establishment to wage the campaign on the grounds of Republican orthodoxy.

Republican and many Democratic voters were voting on the basis of fundamentally conservative impulses. The desire to improve the economy, put America first, and take a firmer line on immigration all express “conservative” instincts in a more fundamental respect than that promoted by Cold War conservatives and their Nineties holdovers. The preservation of the American body politic and the conditions for its flourishing is not only not a given, but has been thoroughly damaged by the Right’s pursuit of global markets and military adventurism, and the Left’s alliance with urban progressive constituencies that lack real traction. Trump’s election showed that these elementary conservative instincts were shared by a significant portion of the electorate outside those who had voted for “orthodox” Republican candidates in recent elections. “In counties that are or were manufacturing-dependent,” the Wall Street Journal reported, “Trump did an average of 8.5 points better than prior nominees. Elsewhere his advantage was 6.2 points.” Three Pennsylvania counties flipped from voting Obama in 2012 to Trump in 2016, along with 10 in Ohio, 22 in Wisconsin, 12 in Michigan, and 31 in Iowa—including many like Luzerne in Pennsylvania, which swung by 25 points. That Trump accomplished swings of this degree even with the mainstream Republican intellectual elite set firmly against him indicates what is possible if statesmanlike Republicans and non-ideological Democrats close ranks.

Republican strategists flatter themselves when they assume that in the coming years they will be called upon to leaven the new “populism” with “conservatism,” for neither is an adequate or coherent description of the political position to which it points. During the 2016 primaries, most Republican intellectuals rejected “Trumpism” as something intrinsically at odds with what they mistakenly called conservatism. But the terms of analysis were simply asking to be recast. Trump’s voters wanted to conserve and restore the greatness they perceived had been unnecessarily lost through mistaken policies that were being justified in nonpolitical terms. Favoring open borders, unilateral free trade, and the establishment of unaccountable transnational political structures could not be done with reference to preserving the American polity. When large corporations consider themselves beyond the reach of national sovereignty, established conservatism’s failure to object signals that it is not a conservatism worthy of the name.

Toward the Radical Center

“Ever since” the Reagan presidency, as Lee Edwards recently wrote, “conservatives have sought another Reagan with his fusionist philosophy to carry out the objectives of a more limited constitutional government, an untrammeled free market, and a restoration of Judeo-Christian values in our society.” Both the neoconservatives and the reform conservatives sought to shake up Republican politics by offering different and related approaches. None other than David Brooks in a 1997 article in the Weekly Standard called for a new agenda of “national greatness” (echoing Thomas Pangle), an agenda aimed at improving the administration of a large national government and carrying out America’s civilizing mission abroad. During the second half of the Bush administration, Ross Douthat and Reihan Salam launched the reform conservative movement designed to open up, through reforms of the regulatory state, a space for Americans to arrange their own affairs as they have always done, through the family and through praiseworthy organizations of civil society. Theirs has also been an effort to offer needed reforms beyond Reaganism—an effort whose importance has not diminished, but whose goals and scope are perhaps insufficient to attract a politically significant constituency.

What has passed as political centrism in recent years was a mixture of social liberalism (at least, limited resistance to social liberalism’s further advance) and economic globalization. This platform earned the name centrism only as a description of the overlapping portion of the Venn diagram of positions held by Washington-based policy experts and their coastal backers. Democrats offered participation in the further advance of progressive social arrangements for a constituency mixed of urban elites and legacy working-class voters. Republicans offered rhetorical objection to the progressive social agenda and deployed patriotic rhetoric in defense of economic policies primarily benefiting the business elite. The constituency supporting this form of centrism is small when considered geographically, and smaller than it seems even in the coastal regions dedicated to it. The forms of argument deployed to defend this centrism never appeal to the political interests of most Americans because their goals lie beyond the scope of national politics: borders must be erased for the sake of global humanitarianism and for the needs of global business.

But the interests of ordinary American Democrats and Republicans are markedly different from this supposedly centrist agenda. The expression of their interests looks radical only because the insistence on justifying policy proposals in terms of what is good for the nation and its constituent states is a departure from recent norms. Shifting away from checklist conservatism and identity-group progressivism will still not easily lead to agreement on an appropriate national policy agenda. The objections of old-line liberals against identity-group progressivism will not suddenly make them comfortable with the rhetoric of American greatness. And checklist conservatives will still present arguments against the economic rationality of proposals such as a border-adjusted value-added tax. But a Republican Party set simply on the implementation of tax reform, a repeal of the Affordable Care Act, and gesture-based tweaks to American trade policy will lose badly in 2020. And if the next election leads to a victory of the Democratic candidate, it will not be because of the sudden relevance of coastal identity politics and celebrity progressivism.

The political realignment under way stems from a dislocation between constituency and platform on the left as well as the right. The implementation of global trade agreements, vacillation and weakness in defense of American interests abroad, policy preference for the service sector (whether financial or blue collar)—these efforts have put citizens at a disadvantage on both sides of the aisle. Yet a campaign message that had virtually no policy articulation from established think tanks swayed a decisive portion of the electorate. Enterprising politicians: seize the day. Policy professionals: refocus. The old platforms have already adjourned, sine die.

This article originally appeared in American Affairs Volume I, Number 1 (Spring 2017): 31–49.

Sorry, PDF downloads are available to subscribers only.
Subscribe Now
Already a subscriber? Log In