January 3, 2021
Political Economy for the Holidays
The holidays are an indulgent time, so I spoil myself here with a bit of political economy. By way of background, I think it is now obvious that significant changes to our economy have wreaked havoc with our political coalitions. While this itself isn’t necessarily a bad development, it is something we will reckon with for years to come, so deserves some reflection. I’ll focus primarily on the conservative coalition, because it experiences the most disruption.
To be a conservative in America means something different than it does anywhere else. The differences are so profound that what we call conservatism is referred to in Europe as classical-liberalism. The reason for this is simple. Those ideals American conservatives wish to preserve remain the most radical in history. Their essence lies in that one sentence George Orwell said could not be translated into newspeak. It begins, “We hold these truths to be self-evident . . .”
Even today, it is radical to believe we must be equal before the law, free to think, worship and speak as we wish and that governments exist to protect individual rights that transcend human design. The American conservative movement has long held these ideas as central to their philosophy. I am unabashedly that kind of conservative.
There are other things we conservatives celebrate. We want to see family life nurtured, hard work rewarded, personal responsibility respected and strong communities flourish. Conservatives don’t agree on all the policy particulars of these ideals, nor are we alone in celebrating these values. But respect for these philosophies are central to what we have claimed to be. To avoid the stain of hypocrisy, ideas must also guide our behavior.
Conservatives who love America cannot also hate our government. Service in that government is noble, but it is not enough to make a society or nation. American conservatives believe we need a strong private sector as well as institutions that are outside both commerce and government. Places of worship, and social institutions such as the Elks, YWCA, and Rotary, fill the gaps of commerce and government. These simple gatherings provide the mortar that holds fast the stones of our civilization.
Whatever else we American conservatives cherish, we must always return again to the documents of our founding. Unmoored from the Constitution, American conservatism easily erodes into something altogether different, strange and foreign. This can easily become a vulgar conservatism that looks backward, not forward. Conservatism that forgets the essence of our founding is not true American conservatism.
American conservatives also cannot fear argument, nor hate American progressives. The belief that each of us has a right to speak, think and worship also commands us to respect those with whom we disagree. Moreover, progressives have been right often enough — on slavery, civil rights, and myriad other matters, that conservatives must honestly welcome their contribution. When they are right, their ideas must become ours, and conserved with all our strength.
There is also much I’ve left out. American conservatives prefer less government and greater federalism — or more state and local control of matters. I’ve given short shrift to progressives as well, but their argument is not mine to make. As an American conservative, I respect them enough to leave them that task.
None of this is an argument for or against a political party. Even a casual student of history will understand that the progressive/conservative center of balance has swung several times in the past two centuries. I believe we are in the midst of such a shift. In that shift, many of my conservative friends, along with the deans of conservative thought have changed their political allegiance, finding a different party better aligned with their ideals.
Despite what appears as broad electoral success, American conservatism is in crisis. What we witness today is not merely a modest realignment of coalitions. Many American conservatives no longer recognize the arguments or actions of maybe half those whom we once thought were ideological allies. Some of these disagreements are tactical, such as recent indifference to the federal debt, which will vanish with Mr. Biden’s inauguration. More fundamental issues may be unresolvable.
For example, the many recent efforts to undo the election clash with the most fundamental canons of American conservatism. Viewed by itself, the Texas electoral lawsuit to undo Article II of the Constitution violates a half dozen conservative tenets, yet two-thirds of GOP House members supported it. This continuing rejection of the electoral results is deeply un-American, infantilizes tens of millions of voters and risks radicalizing many to political violence. This American conservative finds it repugnant and cowardly.
Now, it may be true that many voters don’t give a whit about conservative ideas. Perhaps the populist appeal to “own the libs” is a more lucrative path to electoral success. If so, this will diminish the future for many Americans. Turning away from traditional American conservatism will be especially bad for those citizens who live in deeply red states. More than anywhere else, Mississippi, Alabama, West Virginia, Indiana, Arkansas and Missouri need more state and local control, stronger social institutions, a more robust private sector and more effective government services, particularly in education. Mr. Trump’s brand of populism will deliver none of this.
The turn away from American conservatism will surely make us less prosperous, but that is not my biggest worry. Rejecting elections, fueling political violence and weakening our Constitutional norms risks everything American patriots have struggled for these past two and one half centuries. It should come as no wonder that the conservative coalition is in crisis.
About the Author
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