A provocative take on conservatism

Daniel McCarthy, the editor of Modern Age, which self describes as ‘A conservative review,’ has written a lengthy article for First Things,  a journal which (again) self describes as ‘America’s most influential journal of religion and public life.‘ The article is (somewhat pretentiously) headlined “A New Conservative AgendaA governing philosophy for the twenty-first century.” Now, given my own, very public, views on both religion in public life and American conservatism, I was barely even aware of First Things, and I am unlikely to follow it for either facts or opinions, but Mr McCarthy’s are provocative and worth a read.

Daniel McCarthy begins by saying (please excuse his near total disregard for the comma as an aid to reading and understanding) that “What has been known as conservatism in the Republican party since Ronald Reagan left office, fully thirty years ago, has become inadequate. This has been evident for a while, though we’re only now noticing. From the Great Recession and loss of manufacturing jobs to perpetual war in the Islamic world and intensifying culture war at home, conservatism as the GOP understood it over the last few decades was not only not the answer to our woes but was in many cases their cause. Thus our present moment: Post-Reagan conservative intellectuals soldier on in think tanks and on opinion pages, but conservative voters are abandoning the cause … [and] … Donald Trump’s program when he arrived on the national scene four years ago was in almost every respect the opposite of conservative orthodoxy: on trade, on the Iraq War, on the need to apologize for politically incorrect utterances (and sometimes worse). Yet Republican voters preferred Trump over the paragons of every major conservative faction in the 2016 primaries: the latest establishment Bush; the neocon of the future, Marco Rubio; the libertarian Rand Paul; Ted Cruz, the movement conservative’s conservative; and every other flavor. Those who claimed that Trump only won because the field was so divided overlooked the obvious. If post-Reagan conservatism was satisfactory, there should have been a plurality for any one of its champions, not for the candidate who campaigned like a Nixon Republican … [thus, he says] … now conservatism is in flux. There are those who still insist on the old formulas. There is the Trump administration, with its inevitably imperfect implementation of his campaign agenda. There are Trump imitators, mostly unsuccessful so far. And there are a great many politicians and policy minds attempting to combine something of Trump with a traditional post-Reagan Republican program. Which way is a conservative to choose, with eyes on the good of the country, not just on the success of a faction?” That is, I think a fairly reasonable summary of the last five years or so. The American people divided, almost equally,* into three camps: left-leaning (far from traditional) Democrats; the new Trump Party which consumed much of the GOP; and ‘A plague on both their houses‘ faction which sat on its hands in 2016.

Then he gets a bit contentious, for me, at any rate, when he says: “We need a conservative agenda fit for the twenty-­first century … [I agree with that, in fact, but only if you will agree that, for Canada, 21st century conservatism is, in fact, a return to 19th century English liberalism] … and the closest thing to it is in fact the program that follows through on the themes of Trump’s 2016 campaign with greater clarity and focus than the administration itself has so far done … [and I disagree, vehemently, with that bit] … This is not because Trump now defines conservatism, as his detractors allege when they complain about a cult of personality. (Trump has no more of a cult than his last two predecessors did, and less of one among professional conservatives than the deified Reagan.) Rather …[and I find this part quite persuasive] … Trump in 2016, whether consciously or not, drew upon what has been the clear policy alternative to the elite consensus in favor of global liberalism since the early 1990s: economic nationalism, and nationalism more generally. This is an honorable tradition whose roots in the Republican party run all the way back to Abraham Lincoln. So successful was the economic nationalism pursued by America in the twentieth century that we could afford to deviate from it during the Cold War for the sake of strengthening allies like West Germany, Japan, and South Korea—and even Communist China, an ally of convenience against the Soviet Union. But … [Mr McCarthy says, and I disagree] … when the Cold War ended, our economic policy, no less than our foreign policy, should have taken a turn back toward the national interest over building a liberal world order. Trump’s essential appeal to voters was his promise to do just that. He is not an aberration; he is not even a second, more successful Pat Buchanan. He is a return, in however haphazard a fashion, to the policy orientation that once really did make America great and the GOP grand.

Then he says, and I find this fascinating, that American “Conservatives have long 164616-004-8E922E6Bbelieved that politics is downstream from culture, as Andrew Breitbart liked to say. Variations on the idea go back at least as far as Irving Babbitt, who was a rare conservative on the faculty of Harvard College even in 1924, when he wrote that “the economic problem will be found to run into the political problem, the political problem in turn into the philosophical problem, and bab-colthe philosophical problem itself to be almost indissolubly bound up at last with the religious problem” … [but] … Babbitt meant that the class conflict of the nineteenth century, still very much alive in his day, was symptomatic of something deeper. Breitbart in turn meant that the cultural contexts created by news and entertainment media—by the storylines they script and the emotional cues embedded within them—largely define the limits of the possible in politics. These two views combine in the conviction that culture, in both the social and spiritual senses, takes precedence over politics or economics.” Now, of course, in my (highly biased) opinion when you resort to citing Briebart and Babbit rather than Locke and Mill then you are talking about a sort of conservativism that is very, very illiberal and, in my view, wrong-headed.

Mr McCarthy says, and I agree, that “The underlying structure of American life should not be questioned at every election. But it does need to be considered anew when dramatic changes have taken place in the world or at home. Our present predicament is the result of letting political thought run on autopilot for too long. Donald Trump’s rise, and the rise today of an invigorated socialism in the Democratic party, are signs that conventional politics had failed because conventional politics was built upon an economic order that has ended without its advocates even realizing it.

He explains, and again I agree that: “In foreign policy, both Republicans and Democrats still talk about “American leadership.” Even in cultural politics, stark differences in policy can be framed within the same narrative: Abortion is ­usually about individual rights, for example, whether a woman’s or the unborn’s. For many conservatives, the alternative to accepting same-sex marriage a decade ago was to propose domestic partnerships for same-sex couples. The details matter, and they can be matters of life or death. But even the gravest questions can often be addressed within a shared idiom … [but, he says, and this is certainly debatable] … there are times when a nation faces a fundamental choice about its nature and direction. The choice between an agrarian and aristocratic or a commercial and bourgeois political order confronted both Britain and France in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Americans too had to choose between agrarian ideals (belied by the reality of slavery) and industrial development at several points between the Constitution’s ratification and the outbreak of the Civil War. In the early twentieth century, the relevant choice was between unreconciled class struggle, of the sort that had been going on for nearly a hundred years, or the imposition of a new settlement upon labor and capital alike—the mixed economy … [Mr McCarthy contends that] … America is now at another moment of choice. The class compact that came out of the Great Depression and World War II stabilized many of the social tensions dating back to the very beginnings of industrialization. It has broken down … [I fully agree with that] … The welfare state is heading toward bankruptcy … [I agree with that, too, and it applies even more in Canada] … Americans Donald Trump Holds Campaign Rally In Mobile, Alabamaare increasingly working as contractors rather than salaried employees, with fewer benefits and less security … [and] … Industrial jobs are vanishing … [a point upon which I have commented, several times] … A family wage, lifelong work, retirement guarantees, and brighter prospects for one’s children and grandchildren are not part of the bargain anymore. Economic growth is concentrated in cities and college towns, leaving everyplace else to wither. If the country continues on its present course, all of this will get worse.

Daniel McCarthy provides a concise history of American politics since 1945 which is both factually correct but misleading: “Up to now, the choice has been made by default. Leaders in both parties, in corporate America and in the academy and media, have assumed that what worked twenty or thirty years ago will continue to work today. The reigning assumption has been that politics should focus on fine-tuning the private and public sectors to provide the growth, opportunity, and security Americans have come to rely upon. A tax cut or a new entitlement is all we need … [I think that’s a fair assessment] … But“, he says, and I’m not sure he’s wholly correct, “the America of the twentieth century was a country in several ways profoundly different from the one we inhabit today. It had strong community ties supplied by religious and ethnic groups. It had a powerful private-sector labor movement. Its economy was localized, not globalized; where an industry was located mattered. America exported goods to the world—enjoying a trade surplus as late as 1975—and manufacturing was at the heart of the economy (though it was never the largest employer). In Europe the class bargains that tamed the strife between labor and capital characteristic of the nineteenth century put primary emphasis on the welfare state, but in America the welfare state was secondary. More important was the reigning political economy’s promise of a vigorous private sector that would provide prosperity and continuous flourishing for all … [I think that last bit is a gross oversimplification, but I agree that] … By the late 1970s, the postwar economic order was under obvious strain. Stagflation was one symptom; … [and he says, using Trumpian ‘logic’] … lagging American competitiveness against the allies we had rebuilt was another … [which is a standing complaint amongst some Americans: “we gave you everything and then nasty foreigners you beat us at our own game“] …  The liberalization of the economy that started with conservatives in Congress under President Carter and expanded under President Reagan was necessary to restore the postwar promise. And it worked, in part by unleashing technological innovation that would be more creative than destructive over the next decade. The 1970s and ’80s also saw the creation or expansion of international institutions that were viewed at the time (if not always explicitly acknowledged) as instruments of Cold War policy … [that’s at least partially true, and I would argue that the US won the Cold War as early as 1959] … Everything from the acceptance of China into the American-led world economy to the construction of a European union was part of a strategy aimed at constraining the Soviet Union in the long run. Only the long run proved to be much shorter than anyone expected. By 1992 the strategic environment was totally transformed … [but, he says] … America’s leaders did not think through the implications. Free trade agreements that made sense as a component of Cold War strategy took on a logic of their own, with plenty of support from academic economists who dreamed of nothing but global efficiency. Instead of viewing post–Cold War China as a rising rival, America’s elites saw the remaining communist superpower as a land of opportunity for themselves … [in fact, China hasn’t been “communist” since 1980 but that fact seems lost on American conservatives] … The original rationale for America to pursue a global economic order had vanished. Yet instead of once again focusing on the economic interests of America’s workers, the country’s leaders committed themselves to universal liberalism. The result was a political backlash: The Pat Buchanan and Ross Perot campaigns of 1992 and 1996 featured pitched battles in Congress over “most favored nation” status for China and street protests against the World Trade Organization in 1999—the “Battle of Seattle.” But the backlash was undercut by a decade’s worth of technology-driven prosperity, and rather than conceding that the critics had a point, the consensus in Washington pushed ever further ahead. That led to a plunge in American industrial employment after 2000, as China was fully welcomed into the world economy.” It is, now, fashionable to say that the US-led West‘s strategy towards accommodating China’s rise was flawed, from the get-go, but I think it was, on the whole, reasonable and prudent under the circumstances. What were the alternatives? Trying to keep the Chinese people in abject poverty? A war?

Mr McCarthy says that what he calls (and I love the phrase, and I’m going to steal it from him) “Palliative liberalism and the rest of the political program of today’s leadership class hold little promise of keeping the country together. Whatever else it tries to do, an elite has to manage discontent … [but he asserts, and I agree] … The rise of socialism and nationalism in American politics shows that already the effort is failing. The best-case scenario for the liberal elite is daunting to contemplate. Their interests, economic and cultural, are well-served by a completely atomized America, one in which states have not seceded, but individuals have … [which is what Professor Guy Standing says is happening with the precariat ~ the modern proletariat (working class) which is, precariously perched on the edge of socio-economic disaster] … [the precariat, he says, consists of a] … heap of loose economic actors who have lost their cultural bearings allows itself to be managed benignly, if contemptibly, by the wealthy and educated. The more likely scenarios, however, involve upheaval in the name of socialism or something like military-imposed order. Look to Latin America for the past as preview.” I do not disagree that America, under Trump and his successors from the increasing polarized left and right could be dragged down into a sort of Venezualian hell.

His prescription, which I am quoting in full, is scary, for me: “There is a better way … [he asserts] … The most effective and honorable way out of the dilemma we face is to embrace something like nationalism as an economic program. At the end of the eighteenth century, the French ­ancien régime paid the ultimate price for failing to mend its ways. Had nineteenth-century Britain not adjusted the balance of power and interests between landed lords, commercial magnates, and the growing urban working class, a similar fate would have awaited it. America’s fundamental political choice now is between mild nationalism, resurgent socialism, or suicide by liberalism, whether of the libertarian or palliative sort. That being the case, how would the nationalist alternative work?

he says that “It would begin by rejecting propaganda about the end of the export economy. World population is still growing, and growing wealthier … [almost entirely because China and India have exploited US-led liberal-globalism to drag billions of people out of abject poverty, the “propaganda” comes mainly from the Trump Party] … which means there are more people around the world increasingly capable of buying goods made in America … [true enough or, as all good capitalists must agree, made by anyone who can exploit a comparative advantage in any country from the Philippines to Patagonia] …  We sacrificed some of our competitive advantage after World War II for the sake of Cold War strategy, and we were right to do so. But now the time has come to compete to the utmost, at once politically and economically, with our rivals, above all China. That means driving bargains to open markets for our goods while permitting access to our markets—still the most desirable in the world—on terms favorable to our citizens in full, in their capacity as producers, not just as consumers. The argument that the loss of manufacturing jobs to technology excuses the extinction of manufacturing employment is not an argument at all … [but, inconveniently, it is a fact] … What follows is that we ought to minimize the loss of employment due to every factor not technologically inevitable, such as ill-conceived trade deals. Tariffs are not an end in themselves, of course: They are a defensive measure and a source of leverage … [and they are a tax on the American consumer, a heavy tax for the precariat].”

Daniel McCarthy says, but I disagree, that “President Trump’s instincts are correct about immigration as well: It is in need of reform that puts citizens first, with emphasis on supporting higher wages for workers. Less low-skill immigration puts upward pressure on wages. And what if there just aren’t enough American workers to fill all the jobs? That’s good, too, because, other things being equal, it encourages larger family size. When parents see opportunities for their children in a world in which more labor is needed, they have confidence to have more children. This is why populations everywhere boom at the onset of an industrial revolution, and it’s a reason why frontier settler populations so often have such high rates of family formation. Get employment growing again for Americans who are not already on the top of the heap, and their families can grow again, too. That last bit is arrant nonsense of the highest (lowest) order.

There’s an argument,” he says, and I agree “to be made for shifting policy preference from low-skill immigration to high-skill immigration, not only so that the country receives more economic value per immigrant … [but he is in error when he says that will] … put competitive pressure on the professional elite … [because in his view] … The more the elite feels the same pressures as the working class—from technology and immigration—the more its attitude toward patriotism may improve. Naturalization of high-skilled immigrants is preferable to the present H-1B visa program, which favors employers over native and immigrant workers alike by putting downward wage pressure on natives and making temporary immigrants effectively indentured to their employers.” I agree that the goal of ALL immigration ought to be “naturalization” (citizenship).

He says that “The idea that economic nationalism is not compatible with free-market economics is absurd. The history of America from the founding to the New Deal belies the idea that nationalist economics is bad for business or growth. Its virtue is that it is good for labor and political stability as well. From growth, a contented middle class, and moderate political culture flow a strong country and stronger families and citizens. In the early decades of the twenty-first century, when nations and supranational institutions are in turmoil, those benefits are of existential significance.” That is, certainly, a debatable point and reasonable people may hold that view or dissent from it.

The ideal of Jefferson’s agrarian America (as distinct from its too often plantation-based reality),” he says, “was a nation of virtuous yeomanry—small, independent farmers capable of providing for their families themselves. Abraham Lincoln’s vision was of a country in which working men, not only farmers, could improve their standards of life. In the twentieth century, the American dream became a thing to which every salaryman could aspire: a good job; enough money to buy a house, start a family, and retire; and the chance to watch one’s children rise to a higher station … [all true, I think, but he says] … In the twenty-first century, that dream has given way to delirium—feverish uncertainty about whether in midlife one will have to become an Amazon deliveryman or a Walmart greeter, and anxiety about whether one’s children will be tech-company winners or endlessly indebted gig workers … [to reclaim the American Dream, Daniel McCarthy says] … We need to accept the responsibilities of leadership. That means governing in the century in which we actually live rather than the one shaped by our political heroes. After the fall of the Soviet Union, the world began to change, and our country with it. Those changes have accelerated and are now threatening to tear us apart. The way forward requires ­refocusing on the American citizen as the basic unit of the economy. This is the essence of a nationalist political economy, which we very much need if our country’s tradition of personal independence and limited government is to endure, a tradition in which government’s primary economic role is not to provide welfare but to safeguard the conditions that make productive work possible.” I actually don’t disagree that America’s tradition is of liberalism ~  is “personal independence and limited government in which government’s primary economic role is not to provide welfare but to safeguard the conditions that make productive work possible,” that’s all true but is so far removed from what Donald Trump seems to believe, based on his words and actions, that I cannot believe that Mr Mccarthy says that his prescription is to have something close to “the program that follows through on the themes of Trump’s 2016 campaign with greater clarity and focus than the administration itself has so far done.” That’s rubbish,

My friends in the Trump Party in Canada will find much to like in Daniel McCarthy’s essay and they will take issue with my commentary. The good thing about a liberal democracy is that we can do that.

—–

* Almost 60% of eligible Americans voted and their votes were split almost evenly (30±% for Secretary Clinton and 30±% for President Trump. Thus, given that about 10% of Americans never vote, for a variety of reasons, including a deeply held religious or moral conviction in a very few cases, another 30±% chose not to vote at all, for anyone.

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