An obsessive and paranoid reader of the New York Times opinion page might notice something peculiar about my essay, “The Communal Power of a Real Job,” published in August 2019. The byline reads, “Mr. Cass is the author of The Once and Future Worker,” making no reference to my employment at the time as a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute. This was not by accident.
Think tanks tend to advertise proudly their role in work published by the Paper of Record, but here the Institute demanded to go unmentioned. It wanted no connection to the subtitle that the Times had written, which read, “Conservatives should look beyond libertarianism and embrace workers.” Everything about the situation was bizarre: The phrase at issue was a mild one, written by an editor, accurately summarizing the essay. If people did want to take offense and charge the Institute with anti-libertarian heresy, the particular wording of the byline would have been immaterial. No matter. Preserving the place of libertarians in the conservative coalition was this important.
I tell this story not to impugn the Manhattan Institute, which consistently supported me in tackling such topics, even as it sought to manage the external blowback, but to make tangible the intellectual environment into which American Compass launched just a few months later, with a mission to restore an economic consensus that emphasizes the importance of family, community, and industry to the nation’s liberty and prosperity. A consensus is a difficult thing to define, operating often through unchallenged assumptions, topics avoided, and subtle cues that convey within a coalition what members in good standing should believe. How can anyone determine objectively a status quo ante from which we depart, or chart the progress made?
“A consensus is a difficult thing to define, operating often through unchallenged assumptions, topics avoided, and subtle cues that convey within a coalition what members in good standing should believe. How can anyone determine objectively a status quo ante from which we depart, or chart the progress made?”
We must mark the fixed positions where the subtext bubbles to the surface and gets plainly said, allowing us to see where we have been and how far we have come. In the summer of 2019, a disavowal of libertarianism in the New York Times was so far beyond the conservative coalition’s pale that a leading think tank would go to absurd lengths to disassociate itself from the sacrilege. Fast forward to 2022, and Senator Tom Cotton declared in a speech at the Reagan Library, “Whereas libertarian ideas have helpfully influenced domestic tax and regulatory policy, these ideas often falter in a world of borders.” A few months later, Ambassador Robert Lighthizer, U.S. Trade Representative in the Trump administration, delivered the keynote address at the Intercollegiate Studies Institute’s American Economic Forum. “Libertarianism,” he said, “is a philosophy for stupid people,” to raucous laughter and applause.
Lest one think such remarks remain a cause for embarrassment, the Manhattan Institute will present Senator Cotton with its highest honor, the Alexander Hamilton Award, this coming May. A few days after Ambassador Lighthizer’s remarks, John Burtka, president of ISI, an institution founded by William F. Buckley, Jr., took to the pages of National Review to publish “American Economic Forum: A Defense.” Notably, the piece was co-authored by Kevin Roberts, the new president of the Heritage Foundation.
“A new consensus” is taking shape, they wrote, “looking back to the prudential statesmanship of Jefferson, Hamilton, Taft, and Reagan to craft an economic agenda that strengthens the American nation, families, industry, and entrepreneurs.” Not by coincidence does this formulation hew so closely to the Compass mission’s “economic consensus” emphasizing “family, community, and industry.”
“The most tangible results of the shifting consensus appear in the rapid conservative embrace of industrial policy to revitalize American manufacturing.”
The decisive turn away from libertarianism, and toward acknowledgment of public policy’s vital role in fostering productive markets that deliver widespread prosperity, is just one dimension along which the economic consensus is moving. Another is the Republican Party’s turn against Wall Street’s speculative excesses. When American Compass released Coin-Flip Capitalism in 2020, Bloomberg headlined its coverage, “Private Equity, Hedge Funds Get Unlikely Foe in GOP Think Tank.” Less than two-and-a-half years later, Politico published its own in-depth reporting under the headline, “Republicans to Wall Street: We’re so over you.”
The most tangible results of the shifting consensus appear in the rapid conservative embrace of industrial policy to revitalize American manufacturing. Michael Strain, the American Enterprise Institute’s director of economic policy studies, steadfastly represents the old attitude toward America being a manufacturing center again: “In fact we cannot, and we should not want to be.” But such thinking now elicits audible gasps from conservative audiences. In this summer’s debate over the CHIPS and Science Act, designed to boost the domestic semiconductor industry, Fox News reported that Republican senators circulated American Compass’s arguments to rebut the Wall Street Journal editorial page. Even the Manhattan Institute’s vice president of research and policy, Brandon Fuller, highlighted our work on the topic, tweeting, “Industrial policy everyone can get behind? It’s one of the policy areas American Compass lists in their priorities for the next Congress.”
For their part, ISI’s Burtka and Heritage’s Roberts applauded Thomas Jefferson’s conversion to Hamiltonian supporter of domestic industry. “The example of Thomas Jefferson’s evolution on matters of trade and manufacturing does not represent moral relativism or ignorance about the fundamental laws of economics,” they wrote. “Rather, it provides a model for how conservative statesmen should exercise prudence in their defense of the American nation and economic freedom.” Contrast this with the “True North” principles released by Heritage two months before American Compass’s incorporation, which listed among “fundamental principles where we must remain resolute” the idea that America’s “system [of free enterprise] is best sustained by policies promoting free trade and deregulation.”
“A new community willing to embrace chaos as the price of progress must emerge, it must develop the better framework to supplant the old. And it must confront the establishment, bringing the frameworks into direct conflict and winning the public argument.”
As the New York Times Magazine’s Elisabeth Zerofsky observed about my conversation with Roberts on conservatism’s future, hosted by the Reagan Institute: “This week I learned that Heritage agrees with American Compass that there are limitations to the free market and that tax breaks should go to families over corporations. Seems pretty clear which way the wind is blowing.”
Changing a consensus is an admittedly amorphous task. The best analog comes from science, where Thomas Kuhn famously introduced the concept of a “paradigm shift” in The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (1962). Whereas scientists and philosophers had believed that scientific knowledge advanced steadily through incremental progress, Kuhn showed that the process was one of long static periods of “normal science,” during which a community of researchers worked mostly to validate their existing paradigm, punctuated by short periods of disruption when an old paradigm failed and a new one emerged. Far from pushing this process forward, scientists will tend to defend their existing paradigm from challenge and accept new frameworks grudgingly, if at all. As the physicist Max Planck observed, “A new scientific truth does not triumph by convincing its opponents and making them see the light, but rather because its opponents eventually die and a new generation grows up that is familiar with it.”
Political economy lacks the clearly stated hypotheses and experimental evidence of science, but it experiences change in a similar way. Innovative ideas harden into dogma around which politicians and economists build their careers, warding off the heresy of new thinking until they render themselves so irrelevant and inadequate to contemporary challenges that a crisis occurs, then chaos, and then a better framework emerges. In neither science nor politics does positive change occur spontaneously. New information provides a catalyst by rendering an old paradigm indefensible, but professionals whose status depends on defending the indefensible have never hesitated to do just that.
“This is the ‘new generation,’ in Planck’s formulation, committed to the new paradigm and equipped to act on it.”
A new community willing to embrace chaos as the price of progress must emerge, it must develop the better framework to supplant the old. And it must confront the establishment, bringing the frameworks into direct conflict and winning the public argument. American Compass’s strategy since its founding has been to lead those three efforts—what we call Affiliation, Deliberation, and Engagement. We have pushed conservative policy debates into the chaos stage, and we will pull them out the other side.
We foster affiliation both publicly and privately, through the collections of essays and commentary that we publish on a wide range of topics, our collaborations with other leading organizations, and our membership group. In two-and-a-half years, we have published work by more than 100 writers. We have also brought together more than 130 policy professionals—congressional staff, lawyers, journalists, researchers, investors, and more—as American Compass members working to develop and entrench a new economic consensus. They brainstorm together, learn from each other, and work to advance each other’s projects and careers. We convene them for social gatherings, daylong seminars on topics like competition policy and financialization, and an annual retreat to identify opportunities and align on priorities. This is the “new generation,” in Planck’s formulation, committed to the new paradigm and equipped to act on it.
Our efforts at affiliation are expanding at the start of 2023 with the launch of our Navigators Guild, which will bring together our community of donors to engage more actively with each other and with the Compass team. Of course, funding is vital to any political movement. But the nature of our project attracts an especially thoughtful, focused, and innovative group of supporters with the potential to advance our work on many fronts.
We foster deliberation, laying the intellectual foundation for conservative economics. We have published the most influential analyses challenging the stale dogmas of market fundamentalism and offering conservatives a more coherent, constructive, and compelling alternative. We have partnered with organizations across the conservative movement seeking to develop and advance their own arguments and become trusted advisors to many of the nation’s most innovative policymakers. Our work is cited constantly, and our proposals are introduced with increasing frequency as legislation.
“More often, engagement is for the benefit of observers, who discover they have competing frameworks to choose between, rather than an unquestioned orthodoxy to which they must adhere, and who can discern the failures of the old and the promise of the new.”
This fall, we released a new website, designed to provide a comprehensive resource for learning about conservative economics and translating its ideas into action. The most challenging part of the process was converting all the work we had done onto this new platform, because there was so much. In our first two-and-a-half years, we published hundreds of essays, op-eds, research briefs, and policy proposals; recorded more than 50 podcasts; hosted a dozen live events. This is both the foundation and the raw material from which the conservative platform for a durable governing majority will be built.
Finally, we foster engagement, confronting directly the outdated orthodoxy that has survived only because it has gone unquestioned. We participate constantly in public debate and panel discussions—convening them ourselves when necessary. We use social media to critique the work of others and respond in real-time to critiques of our own. We mock, gently, the inability of a 1980s playbook to address the challenges of today.
In some instances, this engagement leads adherents of market fundamentalism to rethink their own commitments. But per Planck, “Truth does not triumph by convincing its opponents and making them see the light.” More often, engagement is for the benefit of observers, who discover they have competing frameworks to choose between, rather than an unquestioned orthodoxy to which they must adhere, and who can discern the failures of the old and the promise of the new.
In my first Founder’s Letter, two years ago, I wrote: “A body at rest will stay at rest until acted upon by an outside force. American Compass aims to provide that force.” So we have, applying ever greater pressure and finally breaking through. For the first time in decades, the conservative movement is actually moving—toward a genuinely conservative economics that aims to strengthen families, communities, and the nation rather than merely maximize consumption. We will continue charting that course, guiding conservatism toward a destination worthy of the American tradition.