A extra excellent conservatism
Editor’s note: This paper is part of a symposium to justify prudent policies within the GOP.
It is not easy to speculate about the future of an “ism” without knowing what the term in question actually stands for. The future of American conservatism largely depends on how it is defined. What are your main goals? What exactly is it trying to maintain? After the turmoil of the past four years, is it right to say that American law is synonymous with American conservatism? Is the coalition that Donald Trump elected a “conservative” coalition? Do the most prominent and staunch defenders of Trumpism identify themselves as “conservative”?
Conservatism or Trumpism?
Trump’s emergence reflected a clear and ingrained skepticism about the success, viability, and underlying ideas of the modern American conservative movement. Its intellectual supporters repeatedly denounced “Conservatism Inc.” on, a derogatory term referring to the “neoliberal consensus that has dominated the American right” that has found refuge in large conservative think tanks and organizations like the Heritage Foundation or the American Enterprise Institute. Voters, who gave Trump a large number of votes first in the Republican primary and then a narrow victory on the electoral college in 2016, had little sympathy for the other, more established Republican candidates like Jeb Bush, Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz.
In short, Trump’s appearance vividly illustrated the great distance between the ideas of American conservatism and the interests of those who made it eligible. Although much of his policies – nominating originalist judges, questioning the regulatory state, tax cuts – were entirely compatible with traditional conservative ideas, it represented a departure from orthodox conservative ideas, and especially from traditionally conservative style and behavior. Hence the future of the Trump coalition and the future of conservatism may not be the same.
This is the overarching challenge to American conservatism. Can it maintain consistency with its own principles while adapting to the new political reality? Trump exposed the discrepancy between the ideas of conservatism and the practical realities on the ground in American society. American conservatism simply did not speak to or speak for the people on whom it base its support. It was an elite movement that relied on the votes of non-elites that it took for granted. This had nothing to say to the massive numbers of workers and their families suffering from the effects of globalization.
Politics, style and tactics
This untenable rule had to fall apart at some point, and American conservatism may do better for it. When I worked at the Heritage Foundation (2007-2010), everyone there took its mission statement seriously: “Build an America where freedom, opportunity, prosperity and civil society flourish.” In practice, however, the focus has been on the first three of these four Goals with mostly lip service from civil society. The policy was hard for Hayek, easy for Tocqueville.
Adapting American conservatism policies to the new environment is a less daunting task than it may seem. While it would be necessary to lift ideologically rigid commitments on trade and debt, it’s important to remember that Trump adopted most of what defined traditional American conservatism. The real challenges are in style and tactics, not substance.
In terms of style, Trump’s personality defined conservatism for better and for worse over the past four years. His Twitter feed raised millions to support him and alienated millions who may have supported his policies but couldn’t stand his character. It’s hard to measure the costs and benefits of Trump’s personality with confidence. Trump won in 2016, of course, but lost the referendum and faced a historically poor opponent. He lost in 2020, of course, but he seemed like a likely winner at the start of the year before the bizarre events of 2020 turned the nation upside down. Could a political party and its leaders join Trump’s grassroots and integrate them into the coalition without adopting his stupid style?
In addition to concerns about style, conservatism has to deal with issues of tactics. Perhaps the central charge Trump’s intellectual supporters had brought against conservatism was that it was not aggressive enough. Conservatives, in the famous metaphor of this view, are “the Washington generals of American politics. [Their] The task is to emerge and lose. “You” have “self-handicap and self-censorship to an absurd extent.” Instead of fighting, they willingly give up soil just to get a seat at the table.
Like the claims about style, these criticisms of conservatism tactics cannot be assessed objectively. To illustrate, the left-wing faculty at my former university routinely complained that conservatives dominated national politics during the Obama presidency. (I attended a faculty dinner party once where the main theme was President Obama’s amazing refusal to fight harder for progressive causes. Unfortunately, they concluded he was just another Conservative in disguise.)
The complaint that American conservatism was tactically ineffective is, in my opinion, exaggerated. Conservatism has transformed American politics since it emerged in the mid-20th century. It reshaped the federal courts, defeated the Soviet Union, and dramatically changed the nation’s financial policies. It has also resisted repeated attempts to turn the nation into a much more radically progressive regime. America is not Canada, France, or Spain, and American conservatism is at least partially to blame.
Overall, the challenge of American conservatism in finding a definition of itself in a new political setting is less about politics than style and tactics. While some policy adjustments need to be made, those adjustments will improve both conservatism and the country.
Opting for bombastic rhetoric and aggressive, uncompromising tactics, however, is both politically risky and, more importantly, threatens to sacrifice real virtues of American constitutionalism that conservatism must prioritize. Our political system was not designed for demagogy and presidential politics.
The counter-argument to my call for restraint is essentially that the train has already left the station. Look around. Due to a variety of technological, cultural, and political changes, American politics is hyper-democratic and non-partisan. In this new environment, it is said that rhetorical constitutional restraint is suicide, if not disarming both sides. The defeatism of this position, however, smells like irony. If the main criticism of American conservatism is that it has too easily given too much ground, it is difficult to understand why conservatives should give up such important goods as constitutional norms and restrictions.
Wilderness years ahead?
If, in my opinion, American conservatism can find its way through this challenge, its future is bright. Historically, when an autopsy asks a side to reassess its long-term prospects, it is because that side was sensibly defeated. (Even then, such an eclipse is seldom justified. Recall the progressives’ complaint about the results of the 2004 elections.) This was not the case in the 2020 election.
The “rural party” benefits from a political system that is “all-rounder” at the district level and is not based on proportional representation. A coalition that cannot win in such a system outside of an urban system in which the votes are highly concentrated will not be able to translate its raw votes into a proportionate number of seats in the legislature.
There is significant evidence that this new coalition has electoral power. Most obviously, Trump received over 74 million votes, 47% of the popular vote, and outperformed previous Republican candidates with minority voters. California’s proposal 16, which would have restored preferential treatment in public employment and education, was decisively rejected. His presence on the ballot may have cost the Democrats a handful of house seats.
The hard, illiberal left does not have the support of the majority of Americans. Democrats need Senators like Joe Manchin (D-WV) and Jon Tester (D-MT) to get the thinnest majority. The majority in the House of Democrats is also extremely thin, including moderates who risk losing their districts to Republican challengers if the party moves in their left flank. Many party members understand this and, in a conference call after the election with the leadership, expressed concern about the party’s image in temperate districts.
The hard left is not the primary, immediate threat to conservatism. Any party that is fully committed to it will not, at least for the moment, gain majority control over our political institutions. While the left has and will use the administrative state and its cultural influence to further shape the country, it is fighting to win elections and it can be checked whether conservatism remains electoral. The main threat to conservatism is internal, not external.
Conservatism also has a bright electoral future, partly because of the structural advantage it receives in a system of geographical representation (another reason for conservatives to defend constitutionalism). The “rural party” benefits from a political system that is “all-rounder” at the district level and is not based on proportional representation. A coalition that cannot win in such a system outside of an urban system in which the votes are highly concentrated will not be able to translate its raw votes into a proportionate number of seats in the legislature.
This constant source of frustration for progressives shocked one Writer of the Week to declare that America could soon become a Republican-dominated “one-party state”! Last but not least, such statements should give the conservatives the certainty that they will not be in the wild for a long time. Progressives will of course try to change these rules towards a national system of referendums with proportional representation, but they will need the cooperation of moderates who are (so far) unwilling to use such “nuclear” options. Conservatives should therefore be vigilant when it comes to defending those aspects of American constitutionalism that encourage negotiation and coalitioning rather than mere national majoritarianism.
From a historical perspective, the 2020 election was hardly transformative. However, the advent of Donald Trump four years ago left conservatism for a fork in the road. On the one hand, conservatism can emerge stronger than before when it adapts its policies to the interests of the American people. To do this, it requires a party leadership that can exercise restraint and use the virtues of moderation and coalition building that our constitutional system is designed to ensure.