Where Are American Conservatives Headed?

These days, as conservatives consider the future from outside the White House, I often hear terms like “new right” or “realignment Republicans.” I have hinted at, or used, the terms myself when writing in The American Conservative and The Daily Caller. President Trump’s upset capture of the GOP presidential nomination five years ago disrupted the Republican establishment. The American right has undergone, and undergoes, a transformation. But what sort of transformation? Where does it come from? What does it stand for? 

Notions and labels such as these are up for grabs. Conservative intellectuals and pundits of all stripes, from academics to pundits and journalists, are well aware that the party is in the process of rebranding itself. But none, to my knowledge, has self-consciously adopted the label, “new right.” No doubt much more ink will still be spilled on this topic. But I want to outline the situation on the right, first adumbrating the contours of a new right as it has been articulated thus far; and then to suggest—knowing the conversation is ongoing—what this realigned movement should look like, for it is my conviction that maybe, after all, there is a thing or two worth saving from Conservatism, Inc.

The Common Good Against the World 

The manifesto “Against the Dead Consensus,” co-signed by 15 mostly Catholic intellectuals, professors, and journalists, did not inaugurate a new era for the GOP. But the essay in the ecumenical publication First Things gave voice and cohesion to the ideas animating the new Trump coalition. Broadly speaking, the dead consensus refers to the Reagan-era commitment to unbridled free trade and tax cuts, tax cuts, and more tax cuts—so-called “supply-side” economics. The same consensus presumed cooperation between social conservatism and a libertarian-style outlook on the role of government. But this assumption is no longer sustainable, the signers argued, in an era when the culture wars had been clearly lost by the right and federal government had been weaponized to enforce obeisance to progressive cultural politics. What is more, as Rod Dreher and others have pointed out in these pages, big business, like big government, has become increasingly woke. This criticism of Reagan-era thinking presumes that social conservatism must become an activist politics, one determined to challenge the cultural power of the left. To quote Professor Gladden Pappin:

Modern American conservatives…in making their task the defense of liberalism in its market-oriented and social aspects, have made themselves unable to articulate the purpose of power…. Liberalism was a theory to explain the state; and conservatism was a theory to explain liberties, but not the state.

The argument here is straightforward. The American right became so preoccupied with the perils of governmental power that conservatives no longer understood, nor could they articulate, a theory of what government should seek to achieve should the right win elections. And so the New Right seeks to (re)understand the positive ends of political power, formulating a distinctly conservative theory of the state. The rhetoric of “Common Good” conservatism embraced by Marco Rubio, Sohrab Ahmari and others—more often than not indebted to Catholic social teaching—represents an attempt to articulate a conservative theory of state power. They aim to go beyond the “don’t tread on me” sentiments of the Reagan-defined GOP.

The term “dead consensus” has become common in such policy circles, so much so that prominent conservative intellectuals—although their prominence is threatened by Trumpism—like Bill Kristol and Charles C.W. Cooke have had to acknowledge the term in debates. Kristol allowed that his position is the “dead, or not so dead” consensus in a recent roundtable discussion sponsored by the Intercollegiate Studies Institute. He acknowledged the plight of Reagan-style neoconservatism in our time and his hopes to restore its prominence.

Six months after the “Dead Consensus” piece ran in late 2018, Sohrab Ahmari published another First Things piece, “Against David Frenchism.” He developed his vision of a socially conservative, economically populist government willing to abandon laissez-faire as the always-and-everywhere solution and asserted the need for conservatives to use the levers of government to promote—and, in the process, define—the common good. Ahmari’s essay was read as a repudiation of the classically liberal conservatism of David French, Bret Stephens, and other “never Trumpers,” and, more darkly, as a turn toward the illiberal, authoritarian right with undertones of Franco’s Spain. Stephens claims:

What’s needed, [Ahmari] writes, is “to fight the culture war with the aim of defeating the enemy and enjoying the spoils in the form of a public square re-ordered to the common good and ultimately the Highest Good.” That’s the voice of a would-be theocrat speaking, even if he hasn’t yet mustered the courage to acknowledge the conviction.

David French also rejected Ahmari’s embrace of the language of “common good” and “Highest Good.” French pronounced it a patent violation of the secularly sacred religious neutrality of the public sphere. Government, French contended, cannot purport to act in the name of Christian beliefs—with the exception, perhaps, of abortion or euthanasia. Its main task is to serve as neutral arbiter among conceptions of the highest good, protecting freedom of speech and the ability of all to assert their particular visions of the same.

In the midst of the uproar over Ahmari’s column, there was a debate between Ahmari and French, moderated by New York Times columnist Ross Douthat and hosted by an affiliate of the Claremont Review of Books—another key institutional player in these conversations. The encounter was informative, necessary, and sometimes ugly. We can debate who “won,” but for my purposes that’s beside the point. The dialectic between Ahmari’s and French’s visions for the GOP continues. It is usually framed as Reagan-era small-government libertarianism versus a new conservative populism; the latter is epitomized by the trust-busting anti-Big Tech crusaderism of Josh Hawley and the confrontational approach to the culture wars favored by President Trump, which his fans adored and adversaries reviled. 

A Renewed American Nationalism

In the aftermath of the French-Ahmari debate, I too was convinced that the fight to define a new right was essentially about libertarian-style business-as-usual for the corporation-friendly GOP at odds with the populist wing of the party. But Daniel McCarthy, editor of Modern Age and a participant in these debates, takes a different perspective. In an interview he explained:

The division in the GOP isn’t between libertarians and populists, it’s between highly educated suburban Republicans and the groups among whom Trump made gains in 2016 (less educated voters in industrial states) and in 2020 (Hispanics and blacks, especially in economically growing places like Florida and Texas).

Suburban centrists, and women in particular, were put off by Trump’s style and behavior. Ironically, what made Trump so unpalatable to the highly educated was likely what endeared him to the Rust Belt voters in 2016 and increased his share of the minority vote in 2020. His base of support cheers his willingness to counterpunch in the culture wars where the country club Republicans would rather sidestep or strategically retreat. In McCarthy’s telling, there is an inherent danger in using the big versus small government dichotomy as the hermeneutic to interpret the GOP’s struggles. “I think both libertarians and welfarist Republicans, like Mitt Romney, misunderstand what is happening,” McCarthy explains. The libertarian wing of the GOP misunderstands the upper midwest and northeast voters who tipped the scales for Trump in 2016:

The industrial-region voters…don’t want largesse, they simply want an end to being ripped off—both by China and other foreign competitors and by America’s own leadership class. Tariffs are not largesse for Americans; they’re punishment for the Chinese and predators.

McCarthy is also circumspect about right-wing attempts to create a European-style social market economy re-enginereed as a socially conservative social market economy. (This trend is manifest in calls for “family policy,” which involves expanded tax credits for families with children, advocated by Oren Cass as well as Senators Rubio, Hawley, Romney and others). As McCarthy puts it:

I think the GOP has to be very careful trying to outcompete with the Democrats in terms of government largesse, and simply offering different kinds of largesse isn’t necessarily going to work—especially when Democrats can always say, “I’m for all of their proposals, plus more.”

McCarthy sees Americans—even, and perhaps especially, the working class of all races—as unwavering in their fealty to the conception of the American dream as self-enabled prosperity, not dependency on government. McCarthy warns against both the excesses of the statist right and the do-nothingism of the libertarian wing of the GOP. He calls for a party that is at once, “tough on crime, on trade with China, and on the border, but confident about the ingenuity of the American people, if only our government stops subsidizing radicals, criminals, and crooks and doesn’t leave our workers defenseless against foreign cheating.” What then, should the new right look like? The answer for McCarthy is simple: “The Democratic Party of the 21st century is at its very core welfarist and anti-national. The GOP at its core should be anti-welfarist and nationalist.”

A Republican Party for the Working Class

R.R. Reno, editor of First Things and a proponent of the paradigm shift toward a GOP of workers, is more willing to embrace the libertarian-populist dichotomy as a useful framework. In response to Daniel McCarthy’s comments that the GOP’s greatest tensions are between well-educated suburbanites and the non-college educated, R.R. Reno politely retorted, “Daniel is changing the subject.… You asked him an ideas question and he responded with a demographics answer. But that demographic divide also tracks an ideological divide.” Since the 1950s, and culminating in the Goldwater nomination of 1964, the postwar GOP has been “libertarian inflected….[Now] we’re getting a more solidarity-inflected conservatism which is on the rise.” As Reno sees it,

Over the decades the Reagan consensus evolved [to the point that it] now serves the interests of the highly educated….the highly educated are the winners in the postindustrial globalized economy…Daniel is right that the new GOP coalition doesn’t want welfare. They’re saying “the free market system has worked for you, the highly educated, and now it’s time for you, the politicians, to make it work for us.”

Even in the rarefied world of free markets economics, policy plays a role, Reno argues. “When Facebook hires a software engineer Ph.D.,” they’re reaping the benefits of a “$500,000 investment in their education that Facebook didn’t have to pay for…but the midsized machine parts company, the owner of a factory making those machine parts, has to pay to train his workers.” The federal government underwrites one job training process for university-educated workers, but not for high-school-educated workers. 

Reno points out that while Wall Street went 80-20 for Biden, midsize businesses and regional companies were strongly pro-Trump. The Democrats and the “liberal establishment” (represented in both parties until recent decades) won the Cold War. They used the authority gained by this victory to pursue a globalist agenda. But it has led to the over-financialization and resulting de-industrialization of the American economy. This redirection of economic policy (often linked to foreign policy) has worked swimmingly for the highly educated. But it left the working class—white and non-white—behind.

The Democrats and nationalist-populist Republicans are offering different responses to the now apparent “negative externalities” of the neoliberal order. And here Reno’s position dovetails almost exactly with McCarthy’s point that the new GOP, while perhaps “nationalist,” is “anti-welfarist”: “The Democrats’ response is UBI—we’ll make you a first-world consumer. The Republicans’ response: We will guarantee you a productive role [meaningful work] in a first-world economy. One is a wage and jobs promise, the other is an income and consumption promise.” The Republicans’ emphasis on work and workers is what is drawing in the working classes, including a growing share of Hispanic and black voters.

The Anti-China Party

The subject of work inevitably brings us to the subject of China. The left has evolved towards a globalist prejudice, as the strong support of Biden by Wall Street and Big Tech has shown. Blue collar Americans are beginning to understand that the Democrats are “rhetorically disarmed”—in Reno’s words—when it comes to addressing the rise of China and its predatory trade practices. The same liberal establishment that won the Cold War and pursued free trade and de facto open borders is now being discredited by its continued adherence to those principles in times which require new thinking. When it comes to confronting China and international affairs generally, Reno posits that America must continue to promote a “stable global system” even as it reassesses our country’s limits in light of Afghanistan, Iraq, and other foreign misadventures: 

I’m a revisionist, not a revolutionary. It’s naive to think the U.S. will [not] be or should not be militarily the most powerful nation in the world… [but] I’m [also] in favor of sober assessments of limits. After the end of the Cold War, we lost a sense of what the limits of our power are.

Working for the Future

When I ask Reno whether he uses the term “new right” or “realignment Republican” to describe what is happening now, he is circumspect. “New right sounds like an echo of the term ‘new left’ from the sixties…. I think William F. Buckley probably thought he was founding a ‘new right’ as well. As a term it signifies change, right? It’s a perfectly innocent term.” As a representative of that change, Reno seems wary, in our phone call, of embracing any particular label. I am reminded of Russell Kirk’s admonition that conservatism should, by its nature, be pragmatic and anti-ideological. Politics, in Reno’s view, turns on the virtue of prudence. At this critical juncture in history, Republicans—not uniformly, and not with one single voice, at least not yet—are correcting for what, over time, became the excesses of the Reagan era:

And if I succeed [in changing the direction of the party]…my grandkids will be irritated with me, because they’re going to have to fix whatever excesses come out of this political moment…. My view is that politics requires the right theory at the right time. There is no one theory or one algorithm.

He says these last words while he chuckles, betraying a vestige of the Gipper that hasn’t gone away–that of the optimist and of the joyful warrior whose principles don’t get in the way of allowing him the occasion to poke fun at himself.

Daniel McCarthy, R.R. Reno, prominent figures in the national GOP, and the times themselves demonstrate that the GOP is changing. The party seems to be on a trajectory to broaden its appeal as the party of work and the party of national sovereignty. Ironically, the change in direction of the new right operates in the service of preservation. The Democrats insist on a world of constant flux, treating “change” as a virtue in itself: everything must be transformed, from energy consumption, to the definitions of man and woman, to the very grammar of the English language itself.

The new right, on the contrary, is working to shore up the permanent things. It aims to restore the guardrails in economic policy, countering the economic deregulation of the neoliberal consensus. The same goes for culture and the growing consensus in favor of pro-family policies. Being able to fill up your car with gas and work in a factory that actually makes things, being able to discuss national identity and the common good without scare quotes around either—these seem relatively obvious goods. Obvious, perhaps, but controversial in the 21st century. They are the axiomatic things for which the realignment Republicans are fighting.

Kurt Hofer is a native Californian with a Ph.D. in Spanish Literature. He teaches high school history in a Los Angeles area independent school.

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