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From Conservatism to Postliberalism: The Right after 2020

In 2016, voters on both sides of the Atlantic shocked the political establishment by voting for Brexit and Donald Trump. In the eyes of their critics, these movements represented the resurgence of dan­gerous forms of populism and nationalism. Combined with earlier “nationalist-populist” victories in central Europe, and rising support for populist parties elsewhere, commentators at the time predicted—or, in most cases, feared—that a populist wave could soon sweep across the West and beyond.

Four years later, such a wave has not materialized, though popu­lism has hardly disappeared. Andrzej Duda recently won reelection in Poland, while Viktor Orbán’s Fidesz party has held on to its super­majority in parliament, and populist parties represent significant vot­ing blocs in legislatures around the world. After a three-year interlude, the United Kingdom has moved forward with Brexit under the premiership of Boris Johnson.

Today, as another U.S. presidential election approaches, it is worth taking stock of the transformations that have—and have not—oc­curred within American conservatism during the last four years. If Trump goes down to defeat this November, some will suggest that any attempted reconfiguration of the American Right provoked by his 2016 election was a misbegotten effort, and that, after a four-year hiatus, global liberalism can now safely resume. But a closer examination of right-wing populism’s trajectory, both within and outside the United States, suggests that such a return to Bush-era conservatism is unlikely. Regardless of what happens in the November election, the gaps between conservative ideology and practical realities will continue to push right-wing parties in postliberal directions and will continue to favor political, if not necessarily partisan, realignment.

The Regime of Separations

A more compelling framework for understanding contemporary pol­itical trends on both sides of the Atlantic emerges from considering the character of modern democracy. In his 2006 book A World be­yond Politics?, Pierre Manent distinguishes “several broad categories of separation” that characterize modern democracy: “separation of professions, or, division of labor; separation of powers; separation of church and state; separation of civil society and the state; separation between represented and representative; separation of facts and val­ues, or science and life.”1 These separations have been the engine on which liberal democracy runs, economically, politically, and so­cially. By its own admission, liberalism sought to separate matters that had historically been combined. The division of labor would allow for the maximization of profit. The separation of powers would allow modern states to retain power while not succumbing to tyranny. The separation of church and state would free churches to preach the Gospel while allowing the state to focus on civil goals. Civil society would flourish without the state’s interference. Representative gov­ernment would secure the benefits of democracy without the need for direct democracy. And finally, a science free to pursue knowledge as it understands it would be wholly beneficial to mankind.

Yet what currently characterizes Western democracies is not this movement of separations but rather reactions against the system of separations. These reactions take various forms, and no reaction is comprehensively against the whole. Indeed, one could hardly imagine what a complete reaction against the system of separations would be: the division of labor, after all, is hardly on the verge of disappearance. But a protest against excessive separation has emerged across Western democracies. Many economic enterprises have become unmoored from their countries of origin, and have become global behe­moths beholden to no one. The separation of professions has led beyond the optimization provided by the division of labor to phe­nomena like those noted in small print on the back of the iPhone: “Designed by Apple in California. Assembled in China.” The vul­nerability of pharmaceutical supply chains under globalization has now been made painfully clear in the reaction to the coronavirus out­break. In the United States, the separation of powers often seems to have led to administrative inefficiencies and political deadlock. The separation of church and state has steadily pushed churches out of public life, to a degree that would have surprised Americans of the nineteenth through even the mid-twentieth century. Meanwhile, the marvels pro­duced by science and engineering in the twentieth century seem destined to be overshadowed by the monstrosities of a new bio­political tyranny coming, like eugenics the last time, in the guise of humanitarianism. Finally, the separation of represented and representa­tive seems to have grown, as representatives become captured by financial interests and corporate pressure.2

Trump and the American Conservative Response

Michael Lind has described the situation as a new class war. “A trans­atlantic class war has broken out simultaneously in many Western countries,” he writes, “between elites based in the corporate, financial, government, media, and educational sectors and disproportionately native working-class populists. The old spectrum of left and right has given way to a new dichotomy in politics among insiders and out­siders.”3 Lee Drutman’s much-discussed analysis of the 2016 elec­torate in the United States indicates how this reconfiguration has begun to unfold. Comparing the social and economic views of voters for Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton in 2016, Drutman found, not surprisingly, that traditionally conservative voters favored Trump and traditionally liberal voters favored Clinton. What propelled Trump to victory was his three-to-one win over Clinton among populist vot­ers—those liberal (i.e., Left) on economic issues and con­servative on social questions and matters of identity. Most strikingly, populists made up 28.9 percent of the American electorate in 2016, whereas libertarian voters—those conservative on economics and Left or lib­eral on social questions—were only 3.8 percent of the electorate.4

It was Trump’s performance among the large number of populist voters and Trump’s disregard of libertarians that shocked the Ameri­can Right in particular. Ever since Frank Meyer and William F. Buckley patched together “fusionist” conservatism in the 1950s and ’60s, the American Right has combined social and cultural traditionalism with a broadly liber­tarian economic outlook. The terminology has long been confus­ing, as American conservatives have typically held views called liberal or neoliberal in the European context: they argue for a small state with minimal intervention in the private sector; they favor (at least in theory) the privatization or elimination of many government services; and they are suspicious of public benefits as well as public services, but they make an exception for a strong military. This alliance was driven by the turn of the Democrats toward the Left, although the Democratic Party had previously been home to socially conservative Catholic immigrants who favored the corporatist agenda of Franklin D. Roosevelt in the 1930s.

The American Right incorporated economic neoliberalism on socially conservative terms, by appealing to the American tradition of self-reliance and independence—what Alexis de Tocqueville called “the doctrine of self-interest well understood.” First, in the mid-1950s, conservatives sought to fashion a “classical liberal tradition,” sup­posedly betrayed by the statist liberalism of FDR. Then, beginning in the late 1960s and con­tinuing through the 1970s, the Republican Party, traditionally the party of socially liberal northeastern industrialists, sought the votes of disaffected, socially conservative Southern Democrats. By the presi­dency of Ronald Reagan, that movement was consolidated, and the Republican Party had become the socially con­servative, economically neoliberal party.

One additional factor is needed before explaining how the Repub­lican Party and American conservatives responded to Trump’s vic­tory. Tocqueville was correct when he observed that America was a society full of associations, with citizens constantly forming new groups to push for political and social changes of every variety. Over the second half of the twentieth century, however, many of these associations changed from organic expressions of citi­zen concern to large foundations which advanced the agendas of their donors. On the right, this change meant that conservative think tanks, activist groups, and the like adopted an almost universally libertarian viewpoint—as the donors endowing these foundations held libertarian views on economics—albeit under the banner of “fusionism.” Consequently, at typical conservative conferences for university students, socially con­servative students are imbued with libertarian free market doctrines (though rarely any serious empirical study of modern markets and firms).

As American conservatives drew on nineteenth-century for­mula­tions of English liberalism, they became ever more hostile to and skeptical of the state. In a stereotypical rendering of history according to this viewpoint, the United States was a libertarian paradise till the presidency of Franklin D. Roosevelt (or perhaps Woodrow Wilson), whose dramatic expansion of the federal government destroyed tra­ditional American liberties and accordingly set back American eco­nomic progress. The reality is rather different, as the United States adopted a model of state-led industrialization very early in the nine­teenth cen­tury, in keeping with the ideas of Alexander Hamilton. Yet as the importance of military-industrial competition with the Soviet Union faded, conservative think tanks’ commitment to libertarian economics only grew stronger.

The end of the Cold War and the success of Bill Clinton’s neo­liberal presidency—during which he incorporated welfare reform, free trade, and stricter criminal justice policies into the Democratic platform—convinced libertarians and neoliberals on the right and left that their moment was at hand. The Republican Party came to power in the U.S. Congress in the 1994 elections on a mission to slash government spending and welfare benefits. “The era of big government,” said Clinton in his 1996 State of the Union, “is over.” While the GOP did not achieve all its dreams (it had also hoped to eliminate numerous federal agencies like the Department of Education), free trade agreements such as nafta and Chinese accession to the WTO were signed with bipartisan support. During this period, the United States conceived of a future economy that would combine the mone­tization of internet technology and a transition from heavy manufacturing employment to a service-sector economy (hospitality, etc.). With a few exceptions, American conservatives had little or nothing to say about this change, even as the manufacturing core of the American economy was hollowed out. Fusionist conservatives had outsourced the economic portion of their thinking to libertarians, and they mostly professed their desire to “allow market forces to work.”

In the absence of an economic policy that would help middle- and working-class Americans, however, conservatives’ insistence on con­serving traditional family structures became hollow and moralistic. Many otherwise socially conservative black and Hispanic voters have avoided the Republican Party for precisely this reason. But socially conservative white voters, even those whom Republican economic policies do not help, have stayed with the party in the hopes that Republican presidents would appoint socially conservative judges to the U.S. Supreme Court and other federal courts. A tipping point during the 2016 campaign was Trump’s decision in May of that year to release a list of possible Supreme Court picks in order to reassure pro-life voters of his sympathy with socially conservative causes.

Yet Trump’s appointees have largely disappointed social conservatives with their recent rulings. It seems increasingly clear that, over a period of four decades, the conservative legal movement’s primary success has been to keep Republican voters engaged in a Sisyphean task. America’s underlying liberalism, as Adrian Vermeule put it re­cently, has meant that “in critical cases, involving central commitments of the unwritten constitution, it is highly likely that one or more of the middling conservative justices” will defect.5 Conservatives have pinned their hope on institutions designed to fail them in critical moments.

Periodic efforts have been made to reform the Republican Party along less libertarian lines: “compassionate conservatism” during George W. Bush’s presidential campaign, and “reform conservatism” toward the end of the Bush administration in 2008. Reform conservatism advanced modest economic policy proposals that would be more beneficial to socially conservative working-class voters in the Repub­lican Party. But those proposals were generally small and indirect, such as expanding the child tax credit in order to make raising families more affordable. Reform conservatism offered no vision of political economy—of what the American economy as a whole should look like, and of what role the state had in making such an economy pos­sible. The situation that Trump entered in 2015 and 2016, then, was one in which the Republican Party was largely stuck on the playbook it had fashioned in the 1970s and 1980s—a narra­tive of entrepreneurial risk and triumph that bore little resemblance to the highly financialized cap­italism of the twenty-first century, now driven by the relentless mini­mizing of domestic labor costs and the substitution of an internet-based, financial, and service-sector economy for the old manufacturing economy.

A Typology of American Conservatives

Following the shock of 2016, American conservatives have divided into three main categories: (1) those who opposed Trump, still oppose him, and hope to regain control of the Republican Party on the stand­ard pro-business, laissez-faire platform of recent decades; (2) those who were initially skeptical about Trump but have rallied around the cause of nationalism; and (3) those who have used the occasion of the Trump presidency to push for a new Right. Let us take a brief look at these three groups.

Commonly called the “Never Trumpers,” the first group has grown even more embittered in the years since 2016. Initially organized around Bill Kristol’s now-defunct Weekly Standard magazine, the “Never Trumpers” were the self-described neoconservatives of the George W. Bush era—those who advocated for the Iraq War abroad and Wall Street capitalism at home. (They in turn had inherited the mantle of the earlier generation of neoconservative converts.) Trump crossed them on both these commitments and brought on their wrath. Largely pushed out of conservative publications, they have founded new donor-driven websites like the Bulwark and the Dispatch (led by Jonah Goldberg), whose content is often indistinguishable from the Trump-related hysteria at CNN or msnbc. Their leading political figure is Utah senator Mitt Romney, the failed 2012 presidential can­didate, and most have endorsed Joe Biden for the 2020 election. They organized a small conference on “Principled Conservatism” in Wash­ington in February, and have also used the slogan “conservatism conserved.” As the slogans suggest, the Never Trumpers interpret the 1980s fusionist conservative orientation as a tablet of eternal commandments. While attacking Trump for putting his personal interests ahead of the country, they are more than willing to adhere to “con­servative principles” (on free trade, for example), even though the country has suffered from an ideological application of those princi­ples. Their attitude toward the suffering parts of the United States borders on blithe disregard. Considering that Trump’s support among Republicans hovers around 90 percent, the Never Trumpers have become a rump of donor-supported pseudo-intellectuals with almost no base in the Republican Party as a whole. Their vision of the Republican Party as an alliance between social conservatives and economic libertarians—with the party run by the latter—is in tatters.

The great hope of the Never Trumpers seems to be that a Trump loss in November, especially a decisive one, will revive their fortunes within the Republican Party. But their political prospects seem lim­ited even in this scenario. Despite advertising themselves as responsible centrists, they have shown essentially zero interest in serious policymaking, focusing almost entirely on Trump’s character, per­sonal scandals, their preferred vision of “American values,” and so on. Meanwhile, the few areas of potential bipartisan collaboration have shifted, for the foreseeable future, mainly to issues of industrial policy and technological competition with China—issues the Never Trump­ers have totally ignored, both during the last few years and throughout their entire careers. It was Republicans like Tom Cotton, Marco Rubio, and Josh Hawley who recently cosponsored the American Foundries Act with Chuck Schumer, for example. And now that Democratic nom­inee Joe Biden has made issues like industrial policy and “Buy American” key aspects of his campaign, any Republican cooperation with a Biden administration will likely be led by the economic pop­ulists. The Never Trumpers are simply irrelevant on these issues, and their actual records when in government remain glaring liabilities for anyone associated with them. Donors and media out­lets might have some use for them, as they apparently do today, but neither the Biden administration nor the post-Trump Republican leadership are likely to have much interest in these figures.

Unlike the Never Trumpers, the second group of conservatives have embraced Trump’s “nationalist” rhetoric, but they have other­wise left traditional (anti-statist) American conservatism intact. Among voters, these were Americans who gravitated to Trump’s slogan, “Make America Great Again,” along with immigration restrictions and a rejection of globalism in economic and foreign policy. Some conservative intellectuals embraced the nationalist framework from the beginning, such as Michael Anton, whose article “The Flight 93 Election” starkly contrasted the options of Trump and Hillary Clin­ton. Writing in 2016 at the ironically titled blog Journal of American Greatness under the pseudonym Publius Decius Mus (a blog to which I contributed as well), Anton excoriated “checklist conservatives” for having stuck with free market ideology and neoconservative foreign policy even in the face of repeated failures. This group of nationalist conservatives have congregated around the Claremont Institute and its Claremont Review of Books and affiliated publications. Aside from becoming gen­erally more nationalist on foreign and immigration poli­cy, however, this group has had little to say about the implications of broader political realignment.

In summer 2019, the Israeli intellectual Yoram Hazony launched a conference in Washington under the name “National Conservatism,” aiming to gather intellectuals and politicos who reject the Never Trump framework. Hazony’s own defense of nationalism, published in the 2018 book The Virtue of Nationalism, is itself sui generis. In Hazony’s account, nations are the permanent opposition to empires, against which they always find themselves locked in struggle, though it is difficult to fit into this framework nations that became or ac­quired empires (what would anti-imperial nationalism say about Algeria, for example?). Hazony’s view of nations is based heavily on the Old Testament and the experience of Israel and England, as well as a pecu­liarly English view of conservatism as subrational and tra­ditionalist. National Conservatism is also markedly Protestant in an old-fash­ioned way, as Hazony has promoted the view that Henry VIII’s actions constituted the first Brexit in resistance to ecclesiastical imperialism. While openly aligning itself with European populists and nationalists, however, National Conservatism has had little to say about the sources of continental right-wing thought, from Roman law to the Catholic Church, or about the conservative use of the state.

National Conservatism has been important for two reasons, how­ever. First, it has offered a label under which pro-Trump (or anti-anti-Trump) neoconservatives can nest themselves. The second reason for National Conservatism’s importance is that it has extended its reach beyond the United States through the organization of a Febru­ary 2020 conference in Rome, aimed at gathering national conservatives from a variety of European nations, including Viktor Orbán, Marion Maréchal, Giorgia Meloni, Ryszard Legutko, and others.

The National Conservatism conference in Rome was significant in that it was perhaps the first prominent expression of interest in vari­ous European right-wing political movements on behalf of mainstream American conservatives. In addition, the conference largely avoided the typical flaw of Ameri­can political efforts in Europe, which often amount to attempts to export American political ideolo­gies—such as laissez-faire ideology in the years just after the fall of Communism (a project which contin­ues to this day!). And last, the National Conservatism conference allowed “organic” expressions of conservatism from each participating European country—France, Spain, Italy, Hungary, and several others. Efforts such as these have been sorely lacking on the American right.

The difficulty facing National Conservatism, however, is that it is primarily oriented toward rethinking conservatism itself rather than thinking primarily about the challenges of contemporary politics. National Conservatism and (anti-Trump) Principled Conservatism are both arguments over the content of conservatism. In the Anglo-American context, National Conservatism, as Hazony frames it, high­lights historical empiricism (or traditionalism), nationalism (i.e., against imperialism), religion, and limited executive power. While the “na­tionalism” element of National Conservatism is transferable to other countries, historical empiricism and limited executive power are not the most pressing political concepts, particularly in times of economic crisis and emergency.

A related statement emerged from First Things in March 2019, called “Against the Dead Consensus.” That letter, signed by fifteen conservative intellectuals, argued that the old conservatism “too often tracked the same lodestar liberalism did—namely, individual autonomy,” and had “surrendered to the pornographization of daily life, to the culture of death, to the cult of competitiveness.” National Con­servatism provides an important alternative to neoconservatism and fusionism for conservatives seeking to take advantage of the new “nationalist” moment. But it remains to be seen whether it can offer either a public policy agenda or a conception of present political cir­cumstances that captures American (or Latin American, European, and Asian) situations. As an illustration of the problem, consider that National Conservatism offers little or no role for “the state,” a political concept frequently neglected in the Anglo-American context. The same problem has faced First Things as it has moved toward a broadly postliberal and nationalist outlook.

Finally, many “standard” conservative activists have rebranded as being “pro-Trump.” The largest activist conferences, leaders, and media figures—like the Conservative Political Action Conference, Turning Point USA (and its leader Charlie Kirk), media figures like Ben Shapiro and countless others—have all rebranded as “MAGA” conservatives. For the most part, however, these movements have not substantially updated their policy stances since before Trump.

The conservative activists in this vein generally have no intellectual background or interest in policy, but are rather media figures seeking to monetize the political moment. Many of them operating today grew out of the Tea Party phenomenon, which formed at the begin­ning of the Obama administration to protest the government’s bailout of banks during the subprime mortgage crisis, and to protest the fiscal stimulus bills President Obama used to fight the consequent recession. The Tea Party tapped into a strongly anti-government view that had become associated with conservatism through the presidential candidacy of Barry Goldwater in 1964. Many of the student and young adult conservative activist groups like Young Americans for Freedom (founded in 1960) date from that generation and have the same laissez-faire ideology today.

Thus most of the conservative activists wearing MAGA hats at Trump rallies or conservative political conventions are simply anti-immigration libertarians. Talk to them about the need for the state to support domestic manufacturing, or the need to boost family for­mation through a Hungarian-style benefit program, and they will probably call you a socialist. In general, aside from opposition to immigration and support for the American military, they have no vision of how the government is to be used at all. In different cir­cumstances, they would revert to an anti-government stance along with opposition to increases in federal spending.

Ironically, then, many “MAGA” conservative activists do not re­flect the constituencies that propelled Trump to victory in 2016. Their visibility on the president’s behalf will merely harm his reelection campaign. While the world of conservative political activism may seem impressive, since the 1970s and 1980s it has become heavily laden down by financial motivations and salesmanship. Going for­ward, more lean and nimble organizations, particularly of a “post­liberal” variety, will be needed to enable political actors on the right to formulate what to do next.

The Postliberal Right

The third group of conservatives are those who take Trump’s election, Brexit, and the rise of populist political movements in Eu­rope to demonstrate that the configuration of politi­cal ideologies immediately prior to 2016 had fallen out of step with conditions on the ground. As it is to this group that I myself belong, I transition here from describing the circumstances of Ameri­can con­servatism to outlining, however briefly, an argument for this vision of the Right.

American conservatism has been anti-statist since it coalesced in opposition to Franklin D. Roosevelt’s expansionary New Deal during the Great Depression, and particularly in its formulation after World War II. Even among conservatives who are not anti-statist per se, hostility to and skepticism of the federal government runs deep. The state is considerably less visible in daily life in America than else­where: health care is privately administered, public universities are not free, taxes are not suffocating, and labor is more lightly regulated. Yet most American conservative intellectuals, activists, journalists, think tank staff, and the like still act as though the primary enemy is the federal government, or use alarming rhetoric about taxation that has not been changed since the days of much higher tax rates before Reagan’s tax cuts in 1981 and 1986.

From the standpoint of the postliberal Right, the liberal view of the state as a keeper of the peace and preserver of individual liberties—the view of most American conservatives before Trump—is not an adequate answer to the present situation. A correction in the direction of the state is needed. On this point the American Right has much to learn from the European Right. And as discussed above, the constituencies that delivered the Re­publicans to power in 2016 would likely agree. According to a major March 2019 survey of U.S. adults, pluralities of respondents favor increased federal spending in almost every category: education, veterans bene­fits, rebuilding highways and bridges, Medicare, environmental pro­tection, health care, scientific re­search, Social Security, assistance to the needy, domestic anti-terror­ism, military defense, and assistance to the needy in the world. Only in the category of assistance to the unemployed did respondents favor keeping spending the same (43 percent) rather than increasing it (31 percent).6 Trump’s victory additionally suggests that there is a majori­ty of Americans who favor increased state intervention to align eco­nomic production with the national interest, and who favor an end to the increasingly punitive and destabilizing form of cultural pro­gres­sivism domi­nant at present, and a correction in favor of the family.

The way to view this movement is that a maintenance or increase of state power in the United States is going to continue. The question is simply whether the Right is willing to use power when it has access to it, and use it for the sake of the common good. Twentieth-century conservatives’ devotion to unregulated markets and liber­tarianism has now contributed to a series of financial crises, the loss of U.S. manu­facturing, and a completely demor­alized society. Yet many conservatives continue to speak as though libertarianism is the solu­tion.

What the postliberal perspective suggests is that a real political realignment is possible, but that doing so requires the Right to focus on the issues facing the economy and American families rather than on disputes over the content of conservative ideology. For years, the Right has had no guiding ideology, while the Left had Marxism and the center has had liberal capitalism. When the Right thinks of itself only within the existing frameworks of conservatism, it merely de­fends the neoliberal economic system whose distortions are now being exposed. When conservatives think of themselves as conserving “liberalism,” they are unnecessarily distorting their view of what the pressing political and economic problems are. To be sure, one can argue that a true liberalism is politically respon­sible, preserves liber­ties rather than consuming them in ideology, and is based in a defined political community. But this is a theoretical approach, not a practical one. The burden on liberalism is rather to provide an accurate diag­nosis of the current political problem as well as an answer to it. Since the things that have brought our political system to its present crisis have been done in the name of liberalism—from the erosion of traditional morals to the liberalization of trade to the global orgy of liberal capitalism as a whole—it is my view that there is no major political constituency for the conservative defense of liberalism.

Policy for the New Right

If we consider the policy areas that can and should drive political change in the United States, two areas stand out for the new American Right: family policy and industrial policy. On the first, merely speaking about the cultural pressures that families face, as American conservatives have typically done, is not enough. Too many families cannot afford children, and all the factors hindering the choice to raise children are only becoming exacerbated in the post-Covid-19 world. The United States has the fiscal resources for a family policy, like that pioneered in Hungary and elsewhere, that would meaningfully sup­port the formation of families—and the creation, for conservatives, of a stable electoral base. In the fall 2019 American Affairs, I outlined what a FamilyPay proposal should look like in the United States, cen­tered on an annual $6,500 benefit for married couples with one child, $11,500 for two, and so on. As the response to coronavirus shows, rapid political change is possible under extreme circumstances, and the Right must be ready to go with spending plans that buoy Ameri­can families during a time of severe economic distress.

Related to the goal of supporting the family, consider the question of decency laws that could restrict the distribution of pornography. Only in the last forty years, and especially since the advent of the in­ternet, have American anti-obscenity laws not been enforced. Unfor­tunately, libertarian tendencies on the American right have contributed to this situation. Conservatives have done little to stem the over­whelming tide of pornography unleashed by the internet in the last twenty-five years, and many nationalist conservatives would hesitate to pursue any policies that might be called “censorship.” Although the pro-life movement is large in the United States, anti-pornography campaigns are small. There have, however, been grow­ing demands for the U.S. government to investigate the human trafficking on which the pornographic industry depends. American conservatives should look to anti-pornography movements elsewhere, like France’s “Stop au Porno,” for inspiration. Glancing at anti-pornography laws in other major industrialized countries, it is obvious that the United States is an outlier.

The second area of advance in conservative thinking concerns industrial policy. In the United States, industrial policy largely dis­appeared from public discourse after the end of the Cold War and the worldwide trend toward liberalization. During that time, though, the United States arguably implemented a different kind of industrial policy—of moving labor off­shore and transitioning to a digital and service-sector economy. Since 1990, China in particular has rapidly increased its share of value-added in high-tech manufacturing, while U.S. manufacturing produc­tivity growth has stalled. American com­panies have become less inno­vative, not more; they do less investment, not more; and many spend a significant portion of their profits boosting their own stock prices. The result is that the number of low-wage, low-pro­ductivity service sector jobs has in­creased, while many critical manu­facturing sectors have slumped.

Politicians like Senators Marco Rubio, Josh Hawley, and Tom Cotton, in particular, are putting industrial policy back on the map, arguing that national security requires us to maintain industrial capa­city, not only through Trump-style trade actions but through direct­ing American investment toward strategic sectors. Government re­ports from Rubio’s office have emphasized the need to counteract China’s plan to dominate world manufacturing by 2025, a view which has since become something of a bipartisan consensus. While indus­trial policy has often been thought to be more appropriate for de­veloping economies, the frightening reality is that Western economies are or soon will be merely “developing” compared to Chinese ad­vances in 5G communications, artificial intelligence, and many other fields. The coronavirus crisis has also highlighted Ameri­can dependence on Chinese-manufactured pharmaceuticals and medical equipment; the pressing need for an American industrial policy can no longer be ignored.

Moreover, the postliberal priorities of industrial policy and fami­ly policy are complementary. A comprehensive family policy will give statesmen on the right the stability from which to implement an ambitious industrial policy (and pursue concomitant goals of stronger labor policy and workforce skills development).

As part of this reconfiguration, Catholic social, political, and jurid­ical teaching is coming back into vogue and in new ways. In the United States, Catholic social teaching has typically been interpreted by the (Catholic) Left as a form of social justice and wealth redistribution; on the right, as simply antiabortion. During the Cold War, Catholics on the right tended to keep their distance from the social doctrine of the Church, since it also advocated an antinuclear stance in foreign policy. Accordingly, con­servative Catholics in the late Cold War era adopted the view that the American political system (under­stood as laissez-faire economics and moral conservatism) was the best regime, provided that it was sup­plemented with Catholic moral teaching. Conservative Catholics thus tended to downplay any con­tribution of the Church to economic teaching. In the reductio ad absurdum of this approach, George Wei­gel, famous as a biographer of Pope St. John Paul II, theorized that the sections of Pope Benedict XVI’s 2009 encyclical Caritas in veritate calling for a global economic oversight body could not be attributed to the pope but to his ghost­writers. Today, however, Catholic social teaching is returning on the right, as conservatives begin to think about how to make the economy serve man rather than vice versa. “The Church’s tradition,” wrote Senator Rubio in First Things, “cuts across identitarian labels, insist­ing upon the inviolable right to private property and the dangers of Marxism, but also the essential role of labor unions.” Responding to contemporary econom­ic dislocation will also require a renewal of the Church’s corporatist tradition of directing business in the name of the common good (as in Pope Pius XI’s Quadragesimo anno). Thinkers such as Adrian Ver­meule have likewise sought to invigorate a tradi­tion of “common good constitutionalism” within American law.

The State and the Common Good

What the Right has not yet found is an ideology through which to integrate these elements of a new politics that takes advantage of the state for the sake of the common good. Indeed, the Right has implau­sibly convinced itself that modern conservatism is not an ideology at all. As the reaction against liberal democracy’s system of separations implies, however, majority or potentially majority constituencies across the West want their nations to be integral wholes: to have con­trol over their borders, an economy put in the service of the com­mon good, the ability to raise successful families, and the capacity to main­tain their strategic advantage in the face of rising adversaries.

The discovery in 2016 of voters with morally right-wing and eco­nomically “statist” views has been mirrored elsewhere. In the United Kingdom, this group turned out in force, both in the 2016 Brexit referendum and in the December 2019 elections that were in effect a second referendum on Brexit. The same voter group has kept Victor Orbán in power in Hungary, and has established and expanded a right-wing majority in Poland—most recently sending Andrzej Duda to a second presidential term, even in the face of a concerted international campaign to delegitimize his election in advance. Coun­tries previously thought to be immune to populism, like Spain, show growing movements in this direction. Italy has grown even cooler toward the European Union since the EU effectively hung it out to dry during the Covid-19 crisis earlier this year. And while the French Right is politically divided, a union of right-wing forces there would be politically formidable. While the circumstances are different, each of these changes follows a similar path. At some point along the way, an enterprising right-wing party realizes that liberalism has become an exhausted ideology—exhausted because it is incapable of clearly articulating what the common good is, and incapable of inspiring the loyalty and shared sacrifice that nation-states require to function.

Everywhere that the Right is successful, it is shifting toward a postliberal political stance to reintegrate society, economy, and the state. To do so, it must begin with a base of socially conservative vot­ers, since voters split more strongly on social issues than on economic ones. Instead of trying to turn these voters into economic liberals, the Right should give them what they want: an economy oriented toward the nation by employing the means of state, and a society that is supportive of family life. Internally, this move will require the Right to change itself markedly. However important the traditions of Anglo‑American conservatism may be for some strains of conservatism, the moment is one in which politics and the state must reassert themselves against the attempt to dissolve them into markets and a borderless globalism. That will require the Right to become more corporatist in its approach to directing busi­ness activity in the na­tional interests, and more integralist in its view of the link between government and the common good. The word integralism has come back into vogue in English, not to posit some immediate union of church and state, but to argue that the liberal separation of politics and the common good is unsustainable and must be reintegrated. Whatever word we use to label it, the policies of the next Right are already in evidence: it will use the power of the state to coordinate business and industrial enterprises toward the common goods of peace and strength, while pursuing macroeconomic policies that shore up the cultural base required for any functioning polity. In doing so, moreover, the Right’s focus will inevitably shift from internal debates over the content of conservatism to external coalition building and effecting a larger political realignment.

This spring, the response to the coronavirus outbreak forced the Right, in a painful and urgent situation, to acknowledge the need for state coordination of industry. But the Republican Party only seems to take the reins of power under duress and never internalizes the rationale for acting. Under the GOP’s watch the United States passed a fiscal stimulus of an amount not seen since the Obama administration in 2009—when Obama’s stimulus caused a wave of conservative outrage. Republicans have been cool to the possibility of a second stimulus or further government intervention in the economy, though as of this writing additional economic support looks likely. It is al­ready obvious that the November election will go to whichever candidate makes a compelling case that he can navigate the American economy through the choppy waters to come. But in 2020, paeans to the “free market” will simply get us trendier mask designs, and little of the medical equipment or pharmaceutical prowess needed to deal with myriad health care challenges in the years to come. The characteristics of the next politically successful Right are already known—in the United States as well as every major European country. Time will tell whether the Right is willing to bring them to market.

This article originally appeared in American Affairs Volume IV, Number 3 (Fall 2020): 174–90.


1 Pierre Manent, A World beyond Politics?: A Defense of the Nation-State, trans. Marc LePain (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2006). Originally published as Cours familier de philosophie politique (Paris: Fayard, 2001).

2 See my “Corporatism for the Twenty-First Century,” American Affairs 4, no. 1 (Spring 2020): 89–113.

3 Michael Lind, The New Class War: Saving Democracy from the Managerial Elite (New York: Portfolio, 2020), 1.

4 Lee Drutman, “Political Divisions in 2016 and Beyond: Tensions between and within the Two Parties,” Voter Study Group, June 2017.

5 Adrian Vermeule, “Why Conservative Justices Are More Likely to Defect,” Washington Post, July 8, 2020.

6 Pew Research Center, “Little Public Support for Reductions in Federal Spending,” April 11, 2019.

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