The Vanishing American Dream: The Economic Realities Facing Middle- and Lower-Income Americans

| Sep 16, 2020

Excerpted Comments by Oren Cass (edited for clarity)

On the Right after Trump:

There is Trump, but then there will be after Trump, and that’s a fight that will really be joined in full right after Election Day, whether he wins or loses. What comes next? And certainly, there’s a lot of institutional momentum behind the idea that we should really just go back to what it sounded like before Trump, but I think that is correct neither on the merits or as a politically plausible matter.

On the needs of Americans:

And I think what we’ve seen across the political spectrum is a real belief that essentially as long as we keep raising everybody’s material living standards, they’ll be happy, and it doesn’t so much matter how we do that. If fewer and fewer people generate the wealth and the income and we have to redistribute, then so be it. That can be fine too. And that’s not, I think, what people are looking for. I think there’s a very real and genuine economic frustration that the economy is not generating widely shared prosperity, and that our institutions are not providing the kinds of supports that they did in the past and that they need to.

On conservative economics:

That what we call conservative economics in America has really become almost entirely libertarian and not concerned with the things that conservatives would focus on, and that there’s a real need for a strong conservative argument about refocus on family and community and place and healthy institutions, whether that is public sector institutions, labor, education, the military, all of those institutions that shape how our nation operates and how the market operates. And that policymakers, frankly, I think have not attended to in the quest for evermore efficiency and growth.

On bipartisan introspection:

I’m certainly happy to concede that there are very serious problems with the Republican Party, but I think a good faith and progress-building conversation has to involve a little bit more introspection from the left of center as well than has been my experience in a lot of these conversations.

On the American System:

I think some of the things that Governor Patrick underscored with respect to industrial policy and investment and infrastructure are a particularly exciting and important place to start recognizing that what America did historically, and that built our thriving economy, for a time, it was called the American System. And this was something conservatives were very enthusiastic about. I mean, this was from Hamilton to Henry Clay, to Abraham Lincoln, to Dwight Eisenhower, building the interstate highway system. The idea that a robust and thriving private sector economy has to be built on aggressive public sector investments, that shouldn’t be a left of center idea. That should be something that conservatives are enthusiastic about and committed to as well.

On policy trade-offs:

I think where a lot of these conversations go off the rails is enlisting lots of new, great things we should do without recognizing that they all entail trade-offs, that we can’t just do more of everything. A good faith conversation is going to have to include a discussion of some things that we do less of. It can’t possibly be the case that everything we do today is great and needs no reductions. Or to take a final example, when we talk about education, I think it’s incredibly exciting to see the growing consensus around the idea that non-college pathways have to be a much greater emphasis, if not the primary emphasis, given where we are right now. But that can’t just mean throw more resources at everything. It’s going to have to mean a pulling back from some of the quite lavish support we put on our underperforming traditional higher education system.

 

Full Remarks by Oren Cass

Belle Sawhill, Brookings Institute senior fellow: But I was saying that I thought that was a great lead in to talk to Oren Cass. Oren has been a scholar at the Manhattan Institute and an advisor to Mitt Romney, and he has just started a think tank called American Compass, and it’s going to be devoted to rethinking the future of conservatism in America. And so I think it’s a wonderful follow on to what Jacob just said, and I’m sure Oren has some different views than Jacob. I think a lot of people, though, are disturbed about what has been happening to the Republican Party of late, and my assumption, Oren, is that you were trying to bring some fresh thinking to what it means to be a conservative these days. So, please tell us a little more.

Oren Cass, American Compass executive director: It’s great to see you Belle and Jean. And Brookings, thank you for hosting this, and Jacob for your kind words a minute ago. I think exactly as you framed it Belle, there’s a lot of work happening within the right of center and among conservatives about both in terms of politics and substantive policy. What does the future of the right of center look like? I don’t know if Trump even gets an ism. I don’t know that he is an idea as much as a person. There is Trump, but then there will be after Trump, and that’s a fight that will really be joined in full right after Election Day, whether he wins or loses. What comes next? And certainly, there’s a lot of institutional momentum behind the idea that we should really just go back to what it sounded like before Trump, but I think that is correct neither on the merits or as a politically plausible matter.

I think there are a lot of very important things that Trump brought to the surface, not necessarily in terms of concrete policy proposals, but in terms of the issues he raised and the concerns that he spoke to that were obviously genuine and widely held concerns, and ones not really being addressed anywhere on the political spectrum. And so my view is that certainly there’s a lot of work to do on the right of center in developing a politics and a policy agenda that really focuses on exactly the set of issues that we’ve been talking about here today, but also that it’s an incredibly bipartisan problem. I think if we lived in a world where the Democratic Party was meaningfully responsive to these range of concerns in economic terms, or for that matter in cultural terms, we wouldn’t be in the place we are either.

And I think what we’ve seen across the political spectrum is a real belief that essentially as long as we keep raising everybody’s material living standards, they’ll be happy, and it doesn’t so much matter how we do that. If fewer and fewer people generate the wealth and the income and we have to redistribute, then so be it. That can be fine too. And that’s not, I think, what people are looking for. I think there’s a very real and genuine economic frustration that the economy is not generating widely shared prosperity, and that our institutions are not providing the kinds of supports that they did in the past and that they need to. And so from my perspective, anyway, the theory of American Compass is that these are bread and butter conservative issues.

That what we call conservative economics in America has really become almost entirely libertarian and not concerned with the things that conservatives would focus on, and that there’s a real need for a strong conservative argument about refocus on family and community and place and healthy institutions, whether that is public sector institutions, labor, education, the military, all of those institutions that shape how our nation operates and how the market operates. And that policymakers, frankly, I think have not attended to in the quest for evermore efficiency and growth. And so that’s what we’re trying to bring back to the conversation.

Oren Cass: I think there were a lot of very kind of substantive suggestions thrown out by both Governor Patrick and Jacob, and I definitely want to build on those. I do want to just point out as a preliminary matter that I think part of the problem here is that we can have events where left-leaning folks sort of lament how broken the Republican Party is and say nothing about problems with the Democratic Party, of which there are plenty, and which I’m not going to now list because I don’t think it’s constructive. I’m certainly happy to concede that there are very serious problems with the Republican Party, but I think a good faith and progress-building conversation has to involve a little bit more introspection from the left of center as well than has been my experience in a lot of these conversations. In terms of-

Belle Sawhill: Could you just mention one or two specifics on that?

Oren Cass: Specific things that I think the Democratic Party has done?

Belle Sawhill: Things that the Democratic Party really needs to readdress.

Oren Cass: Well, I think if you look in recent months in particular with all of the civil unrest that we’ve had, I think that some of the extremes the Democratic Party has gone to excuse or downplay what are very serious substantive issues that people across the political spectrum are rightly concerned about has not been healthy for our discourse. And again, that’s a place where I’d say plenty of people in the right of center have obviously engaged in a not healthy way as well. But I think whether you’re talking about asymmetry in sort of political rhetoric, I think there’s plenty to be repaired on both sides. And I think also if you look at sort of the formal measures of polarization, and sort of where people have departed in terms of policy agenda, there’s been a huge shift to the left in the Republican Party, in the Democratic Party.

That was certainly on display early on in the primaries where you had, for instance I believe, universal support for the idea of free healthcare for illegal immigrants or an outright rejection of enforcing our immigration laws in any way, to take one issue. And so those are also quite sharp departures from what was a consensus, if you want to look at, say, how Chuck Schumer was talking about the issue a decade ago. And so again, as I said, I don’t think it’s especially constructive to litigate these issues on either side, and I’m the first to acknowledge there are very serious problems on the Republican side as well. But I think conversations that take the problem in our national politics to be one of the two parties are not necessarily going to move us toward the kind of bridge building that we want.

On the substance though, which again I think is the most interesting and important part of this conversation, I think some of the things that Governor Patrick underscored with respect to industrial policy and investment and infrastructure are a particularly exciting and important place to start recognizing that what America did historically, and that built our thriving economy, for a time, it was called the American System. And this was something conservatives were very enthusiastic about. I mean, this was from Hamilton to Henry Clay, to Abraham Lincoln, to Dwight Eisenhower, building the interstate highway system. The idea that a robust and thriving private sector economy has to be built on aggressive public sector investments, that shouldn’t be a left of center idea. That should be something that conservatives are enthusiastic about and committed to as well. I think as Governor Patrick raised, there is of course the question of how to pay for it, and I think revenue has to be a piece of that.

We need to raise more revenue to cover our existing obligations, let alone to cover some of the other investments we should be making. And so I think that is inevitably going to have to be part of the conversation as well, both a right of center commitment to doing that, and more discussion across the aisle on where are we going to make trade offs. Because I think the… And this is my final point. I think where a lot of these conversations go off the rails is enlisting lots of new, great things we should do without recognizing that they all entail trade-offs, that we can’t just do more of everything. A good faith conversation is going to have to include a discussion of some things that we do less of.

It can’t possibly be the case that everything we do today is great and needs no reductions. Or to take a final example, when we talk about education, I think it’s incredibly exciting to see the growing consensus around the idea that non-college pathways have to be a much greater emphasis, if not the primary emphasis, given where we are right now. But that can’t just mean throw more resources at everything. It’s going to have to mean a pulling back from some of the quite lavish support we put on our underperforming traditional higher education system. And so I think that has to be part of the conversation as well.

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Oren Cass

Oren Cass is the executive director at American Compass.

@oren_cass