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What Now? A Conversation On Where Conservatives Go After the Trump Presidency
American Compass’s Oren Cass, WSJ’s Gerald F. Seib, and author George F. Will discuss the future of the conservative movement, co-hosted with the Wall Street Journal.
Oren Cass, American Compass
Gerald F. Seib, The Wall Street Journal
George F. Will, author and columnist
This event was co-hosted by American Compass and WSJ+ and produced by WSJ+.
Gerald Seib: Good evening, everybody. And welcome to our WSJ members and American Compass friends for tonight’s WSJ+ live discussion. I’m Jerry Seib, executive Washington editor of the Wall Street Journal. And tonight I’ll be honored to welcome two distinguished guests for discussion of the future of the conservative movement in America. When we conceived of this conversation some weeks back, we had no idea, I think it’s fair to say, of the environment in which it would be held, but I think it’s more pertinent than ever as a result.
In the wake of last week’s shocking and violent siege at the US Capitol, Americans across the political spectrum are left wondering, where do we go from here as a nation? But this is a particular moment, not just for the Trump administration, which is on its way out, obviously, but for the Republican party and for the conservative movement. It’s an inflection point for conservatives and that’s what we want to discuss tonight. How will they steer past this moment? I’m fortunate to be joined this evening by two guests who’ve done a lot of thinking about this and a lot of writing about the direction of the conservative movement in America. First guest is Oren Cass, who’s the executive director of American Compass, a group of young conservatives who think in particular about economic policy. He also previously served as the domestic policy director for Mitt Romney’s 2012 presidential campaign. Welcome, Oren.
Oren Cass: Thank you.
Gerald Seib: And I’d also like to welcome George Will to our discussion. George is one of those people who literally doesn’t need an introduction. He’s a Pulitzer Prize winning columnist, author of numerous books on political theory, conservative political theory. And I think one of the real leaders of thought in the conservative field over the last four decades. George, thanks for being with us.
George Will: Pleasure to be with you.
Gerald Seib: For the next hour, or we’re going to discuss this topic, the uncertain path forward for the Republican party and the conservative movement. I’m also looking forward to hearing from you as we do so. We’ll devote about half of our time, the first half hour or so, to a conversation among the three of us. And then we’ll shift to some of the questions you have and will send in. And we already have a large number of questions from listeners who are interested in this topic, but we will take in more. Put them in the chat box on your screen, and we’ll answer as many as we can toward the end of our conversation.
So Oren, George, let’s start at the 10,000 foot level. The mega question, and Oren, I’ll just put it to you first. Donald Trump, I think it’s fair to say, hijacked the conservative movement when he won the Republican nomination in 2016 and then the presidency. And next week, he’ll be done as our president. What happens to the conservative movement? What should happen to the conservative movement in the wake of the Trump presidency?
Oren Cass: Well, I think there are two groups that are vying to determine that. There’s a group that I would call the pre-Trumpists, who are folks who may have been more or less enthusiastic during the past four years, but have really been hoping that this too shall pass and we can go back to what the Republican party and the right of center sounded like, certainly in the pre-Trump days and arguably all the way back to the start of the Reagan administration. And I think we’re all sort of familiar with how that sounds: a very heavy emphasis on tax cuts and deregulation and spending cuts and trying to get the government out of the way.
And then I think there’s a group that I would call more post-Trump, and that’s something that American Compass does a lot of work on, which really focuses on two things. First of all, learning some lessons of recent years, recognizing that there are some real problems in this country that had not received the attention they warranted and that the Republican party and conservatives had not been talking enough about.
But then also remembering what conservatism means. And that it means more than tax cuts and that the playbook that we’ve had since about 1980 and just keep flipping through over and over again, was a playbook for a time and a place and not a playbook for all times in all places. And the challenges we have now, whether that’s within our own economy and a divergence in the fortunes of some Americans, from others, with China, with technology, with the role that financial markets are playing in our economy. Those are things we have to figure out and we have to apply conservative principles to them, but we’re going to have to come up with new solutions. And in some cases they’re going to have to mean a different role for government than we’ve been accustomed to hearing conservatives talk about in recent years.
Gerald Seib: So, George, you and I had a long conversation about this when I was working on a book on this subject a year or so ago. Donald Trump is a lot of things. He’s a populist, he’s a nationalist, he’s not really a conservative, but he has been in charge of the party that was the conservative party before 2016. Where do you think that party and that movement goes from here, and has some of the intellectual energy been sapped out of it by the Trump presidency?
George Will: I don’t think the intellectual energy has been sapped out of it. I think the intellectual energy has gone underground. The first thing the conservative movement has to do is assert the fact that concern for good manners and truthfulness are not meaningless aesthetic considerations, they are essential to the point of conservatism, which is a kind of civility and amiability and friendship among Americans of all political stripes.
Then I think—and Oren may think this is retrograde and going back to the past, I hope not—the first thing we need to do is have rapid economic growth, because all equities in America depend on economic growth. We know, having tried all kinds of approaches to antipoverty programs, that the best antipoverty program is a tight labor market. So, we want robust growth. And we want to understand what we’re not arguing about. We’re not arguing about the basic structure and architecture of the entitlement state. That argument has been had, and has been settled. The American people have an ethic of common provision that they will express through Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, and all the rest. That’s here to stay. The arguments are about the modalities, how to deliver this most efficiently and with the least economic distortions. So it seems to me, a reset is to, first of all, say that conservatives are not what Mr. Trump was, and to get back to an argument that was interrupted four years ago, but has not been meaningfully changed by the last four years.
Gerald Seib: So, George, let me just draw you out a little bit further on that and then I’ll switch back to Oren. What does that policy agenda suggest? In other words, what’s the policy agenda that is suggested by that? And particularly in a time and in a Capitol where Republicans basically don’t have any power or at least minimal power. What’s the policy agenda that that approach calls for?
George Will: Let me give you two practical examples. One is free trade. Obviously free trade has casualties. Freedom has casualties. A free, open economy has casualties, we all understand that. But for the Republican party to embrace as a permanent tenet, protectionism, is to embrace the idea that the government should decide what Americans can purchase in what quantities and at what prices. And this is inimical to an understanding not only of elementary freedom, but of rational allocation of economic resources. So it seems to me, they have to go back to that.
Now, the question then becomes, what do you do about the people who are casualties here? Well, at a certain granular level, one of the things we want to do, it seems to me, is encourage mobility. Not social mobility, but geographic mobility. Americans have to be willing to get up and move in response to the churning that is an inescapable aspect, including the creative destruction of jobs, and an inescapable aspect of a dynamic continent-wide economy.
I could just give one brief example. My father’s father, my grandfather was a Lutheran minister in Donora, Pennsylvania. It’s ground zero in the Monongahela Valley in Western Pennsylvania for what’s happened to the American steel industry. It does nobody a favor to pretend that the jobs are coming back to the Monongahela Valley. They’re not. We have to encourage people to move about the country. This happened when the automobile industry was hit hard by events and the arrival of the Japanese and other forces in the 1980s, and Texans began to talk about the black tags. They were the Michigan license plates that began to appear in Texas where the jobs had gone. When the Dust Bowl and the Depression simultaneously hit Oklahoma, the Joad family in Steinbeck’s novel, The Grapes of Wrath, didn’t sit there. They got in their jalopy and moved to Southern California, where they found jobs, not happily and not without friction, but they found jobs. So at that level, that’s just one example of what public policy can do is to encourage geographic mobility.
Gerald Seib: So, Oren, trade mobility. What do you want to encourage?
Oren Cass: Well, I want to just briefly highlight those items as I think an illustration of where conservatism needs to scrutinize things a bit more. When we talk about free trade in this context, and especially as a change from the Trump administration, we’re particularly talking about China. And I think the economic relationship with China is obviously a very complicated one, but the idea that conservatism and the principles of freedom mean integrating our market with China’s, which is one of the most distorted in the world, dominated by an authoritarian, arguably communist government, and say freedom means there is no distinction between our market and that, I think is simply wrong, and certainly not conservative. And likewise, when it comes to mobility. Look, people have always moved. I think George is entirely right about that, but that’s never been the norm.
If you take the Dust Bowl as a perfect example, over the 1930s, the population of Oklahoma fell by only a couple of percentage points. And that was actually more because people stop moving to Oklahoma than that that many people moved away. And so absolutely moving to opportunity is part of the American story and something we should celebrate, but being able to stay where you are and live in your community and near your extended family is equally part of the tradition, and certainly I think conservatives should recognize the value of. And also something I think that we just have to be realistic about. In this model of economic growth that just says “free trade, destruction, help the losers,” we’ve reached a point where an enormous share of the economic growth and job creation is in as few as five metropolitan areas.
So if you start making a list of the number of places we’re going to try to move everybody out of, rather than make sure we bring economic prosperity to those places, it’s going to get long awfully quick. And so that’s why when I talk about the kinds of policies I think we need to focus on, they’re about ones that are actually going to make the economy work for the American people, instead of just demand that the American people up and change for the economy.
Gerald Seib: So let’s bore in there, Oren. Because I think that we probably are heading toward the area where you and George don’t really agree on what the conservative agenda is, which is the proper role of government in that time of economic change. And you, Oren, have argued that conservatives should, in fact, be for an industrial policy, a term that used to be anathema to conservatives. But bearing in mind the forces that George was talking about, the loss of jobs that aren’t coming back, the need to find different solutions for people who depended on those jobs, you’ve argued for an industrial policy. Why is that a conservative idea though?
Oren Cass: Well, it depends how far back you go. Alexander Hamilton was the original industrial policy proponent in this country. And as George has observed, we are living in the country that Hamilton built. What brought America from a colonial backwater to an industrial colossus was a very aggressive policy of both protectionism as well as investment in infrastructure, land grants, investment in education. All sorts of policies that that were carried through, certainly through the first century of the American Republic. So there is a tradition of it. That’s not to say that the policies of 1780 are the right ones for today, but it is to say that the idea that government has a role in fostering national economic growth, I think is an important and widely recognized one, as well as for that matter, one that Ronald Reagan focused on. The reason the Japanese auto industry moved so much production to the American South was because of government action by the Reagan administration.
So when I talk about industrial policy, people hear that and I think what comes to mind is like a Soviet five-year plan or something. And it’s not that at all. It’s the kind of policies practiced in many Western democracies: something Germany has done very well, something countries like Korea and Taiwan and Singapore have done very well. And it simply comes down to recognizing that we care about where investment happens, that some kinds of investment are more valuable to the nation and to the wellbeing of the economy and to the wellbeing of workers than other kinds. And that’s not something that investors are necessarily going to notice. That’s not something that’s going to show up in price signals and profits. And so there are a lot of things we can do. We can encourage and invest in innovation. We can create something that many people call pre-competitive consortia, where industry groups invest together in research and then share whatever comes out of it.
But I think we really need to look back to the middle of the 20th century and remember all of the incredible innovations and where they came from, which certainly the private sector played an incredibly important and even leading role, but NASA and DARPA and partnerships with the academy and with Bell Labs and IBM, that’s what created the technology that has driven the prosperity of the last 50 years. And so I think rather than say that simply free trade and asking people to move are at the top of a conservative agenda, I think acknowledging the challenges people have and recognizing that we need to find a way to move the economy in a direction that’s going to address those problems has to be something that we take more seriously.
Gerald Seib: So, George, the conservative argument against industrial policy has always been government picking winners and losers a bad idea because government will do a bad job of picking winners and losers. And President Trump kind of had his own strange version of industrial policy, which basically meant trying to reward companies who liked him and punishing companies who did things he didn’t like, but it wasn’t very coherent. Where do you think this idea of industrial policy lands in the 21st century?
George Will: Before Mr. Trump became president, during the transition, he and Mike Pence went to Mr. Pence’s Indiana and went to the Carrier Corporation to use political power and sort of public shaming to prevent them from sending a certain portion of their work to Mexico. Now that’s part of the problem there, is you have the government saying, “We are going to superintend the allocation of capital and the allocation of wealth and opportunity.” This was an initial impulse preceding the inauguration of Mr. Trump. I think it’s somewhat facile to say that anything that encourages economic growth counts as industrial policy. That would sweep in the Homestead Act of 1862, the Morrill Act of 1862, which gave us the land-grant college system to give us scientific agriculture and all the rest, and it would sweep in the GI Bill of Rights after the second World War, which sent so many veterans off to college. That obviously encourages economic growth, as Henry Clay’s American System did. I grew up in Central Illinois, steeped in Lincoln worship, if you will. I use that term unabashedly.
Mr. Lincoln was, before he was anything else, he was an advocate of railroads and, most of all, canals in Illinois. All that helped economic growth. That’s one thing to say that you build roads and built harbors and nowadays airports and the rest to facilitate economic growth. That’s not quite an industrial policy. Industrial policy is inevitably government picking winners and losers. And it’s not just, Jerry, that it’s inefficient, which it manifestly is. It exists to be inefficient. It says economic efficiency is not the value we want to celebrate here. We want other values. That’s fine, but let’s be candid about it.
The real problem with industrial policy is that it doesn’t give rise to crony capitalism. It is from the start crony capitalism. You have, today, the spectacle of the Trump administration’s Commerce Department processing thousands and thousands of businesses come into the Commerce Department seeking exemptions from this or that, complication resulting from the president’s trade war and tariffs. This inevitably goes to the well-lawyered, well-healed, and well-lobbied interests in Washington. My fundamental problem with industrial policy is not that it leads to vast economic inefficiencies, which it does. Rather, it is the political corruption that brings about.
Gerald Seib: Let’s step back from that and think about, at a higher level, where the Republican Party goes amidst this kind of debate. Donald Trump arrived in 2015, won the nomination of 2016 and then won the presidency by declaring himself basically a populist internationalist. Those are terms with different meanings for different people. The transformation of the Republican party did, in a way, happen. It’s now considered by many of its members to be the working-class party and the populist party, not the conservative party. George, the question I want to start with you is simply, can conservatism and populism coexist, or do Republicans have to decide whether they are one or the other?
George Will: I think they have to decide. Let’s separate populism from nationalism, which raises a whole other bunch of issues. Populism is everything that conservatism isn’t. Populism is the belief, A, that the public’s passions should be heard and translated into government action by a strong leader, translated directly, quickly, and nimbly by a leader not inhibited by the separation of powers and all the other slowing and blocking mechanisms with which our government is built. The founders, after all, when they went to Philadelphia in the summer of 1787 did not go to create an efficient government. They went for something else. They wanted a safe government.
To the extent that populism means a strong executive, quickly responsive to passions, unfiltered and unmediated to use Madison’s language about the separation of powers and all the rest, if you want to know what conservatism is, it’s not populism. That’s the beginning of it. In that sense, someone has to talk back to the American people, if you will. Adlai Stevenson famously said, “Let’s talk sense to the American people. Tell them there are no gains without pains.” It’s time for conservatives to talk to the American people and say, “I’m sorry we have a system that works slowly, that filters public opinion, that refines it, hopefully, by passing it through institutions, and we don’t apologize for it.” Populism, which is a kind of celebration of the instant desires of large numbers of people, is not conservatism.
Gerald Seib: Oren? Populism? Conservatism? Do they co-exist? Can they co-exist?
Oren Cass: I think it comes down to the definition of populism. Certainly, I agree that, to George’s definition, it does not coincide. I think there’s a way now, on both industrial policy and populism, where if you define these things as things that are bad and we don’t like, then, yes, it’s true, they’re bad and we don’t like them. I think it’s a lot more important to focus on the substance of these things and ask, “What are we talking about? What do we want to see?”
My issue with the term populism is that, at the end of the day, in a democracy, it seems to me everyone’s a populist. One could describe almost anything, any politician who’s pursuing, as populism, and in that case, you’d say it doesn’t mean much. I think, to George’s point, if by populism we mean accepting and channeling without scrutiny the immediate passions of the population, then certainly that’s not a good idea, and we’re fortunate that we have a constitution that resists that.
I do think there’s a way though that when people talk about the term populism and apply it to what is happening in the right of center, certainly some of that’s happening and is a huge problem. I think there’s potentially something else that’s happening that’s better, which is, first of all, attending to the actual concerns that people raise and recognizing that political determinations are in part values judgments, and that there is not simply a win/win that we just need technocrats to achieve. There are different things that people value differently. For instance, while economic growth is certainly important, it is not the only value and it is not something we should trade everything for in all cases. This is a point, I think, that Edmund Burke always emphasize about conservatism, that one of the things that conservatives really do is that they are actually attendant to the sentiments and traditions of the people.
I do think there’s a way in which populism also means that with those things, and it means taking seriously the concerns that people have, understanding that they will not all express them in the same terms a Beltway debate might, but that part of our obligation is to try to interpret and understand what the challenges they’re raising are, what some of the trade-offs they might want to make that are different than the ones that we would make, and making sure that we incorporate those into our calculations as well in a way that I think, frankly, the Republican Party in the pre-Trump years or a Republican Party of free trade and get up and move is probably not doing as much as it needs to.
Gerald Seib: Let’s think about it in more practical terms for a couple of minutes. I’m sorry, George, go ahead.
George Will: I quite agree that there is nothing, no value, for which we should sacrifice everything else, including economic growth. I would simply note that those who are most apt to be willing to sacrifice economic growth for other values are apt to be those who have already succeeded, who are already comfortable and secure. It’s the people who are trying to get on the lower rungs of the ladder of upward mobility who have the biggest stake in economic growth.
Gerald Seib: Let’s think about this in practical political terms. George, as I said, when Donald Trump became president, Republicans controlled the White House, the Senate, and the House. They now control none of the above. Nonetheless, 70 million people voted for Donald J. Trump in November, so there’s some there, there. The question I have for you is, name me a couple of things that Donald Trump brought to the Republican Party that the party ought to stick with. There’s plenty of things I know you would jettison, but what would you pick off the buffet line and keep?
George Will: What I would keep from what he has done are the things he picked up from Republicans who came before. Any Republican president would have been for cutting the corporate tax rate. For goodness sakes, Barack Obama thought the corporate tax rate was too high. Any Republican would have selected judicial nominees from list provided by the likes of the Federalist Society, of which I am a card-carrying member.
I don’t think that what Mr. Trump has done that was unique is particularly palatable. What he brought to this was bad manners. It was worse than that. He made bad manners a substitute for ideology. When Dwight Eisenhower was president, his cultured despisers, who were many, said his smile was his political philosophy. Well, yeah, and it wasn’t a bad one. Plus that when Americans are happy and cheerful and congenial, good things happen. People stay in school, invest, get married, have children, and all the rest. Well, Trumpism is bad manners. That’s not an ancillary part of it, it was the essence of it, which was to be shocking, this sort of a shock jock is president. If you like that, fine. But I don’t think… The short answer to your question, Jerry, is nothing.
Gerald Seib: Nothing.
George Will: That he brought that was unique that I want to continue.
Oren Cass: Can I take that one?
Gerald Seib: Yeah, I want you to. Go for it.
Oren Cass: Yeah. Look, I agree with a lot of George’s criticisms of certainly in manner and style being the things that were entirely unacceptable about Trump, but I do think it’s a problem if we’re in a place where we say that there was literally nothing that we didn’t have the way we wanted in 2016 or 2015 before he came down the great golden escalator. The policies that we’ve heard from Georgia alongside free trade and everybody moving, or many people moving, is now a corporate tax cut. Again, look, as he said, Obama also wanted to lower the corporate rate. I think there was a case to be made for lowering the corporate rate, but that can’t be everything that conservatives talk about. Not only is it politically foolish and not responsive to the challenges we face, it’s also just not conservative to define that as the policy agenda.
To just highlight a couple of other things I think Trump did. One, I take a lot of issue with some of the specifics of the way he pursued trade-related issues, but I think recognizing that there was something fundamentally broken in our trading relationship with China in particular and that we needed to take a different approach to it and that we needed to impose consequences and, yes, something like a tariff is costly to all sides, but the alternative of just saying, “Look, we’re going to let China do whatever it wants and take it,” isn’t acceptable either. Changing that relationship I think was really important.
Then, I think, on education and labor, there’s something really important he actually did on elevating alternatives to college. This is an example of what I would call good populism, where the standard technocratic view held by both parties to a large extent is that college is somehow the solution to everything and that if only if we could change everybody into a college graduate, then we wouldn’t have any problems. That sounds great, but it’s not going to happen.
The reality is that most Americans still don’t earn a college degree. Only one in five go smoothly from high school to college to career. I think something that Donald Trump did and his labor department and some of the groups that he set up that really did focus on was saying, look, apprenticeships, non-college pathways, alternatives to college deserve a really important focus. That’s certainly something I hope we keep going forward.
George Will: If I could weigh in on that. One of the things that got us into what I think Oren and I would agree is a mess about the celebration of college is the answer to all things, is I would say industrial policy. That is, just as we got into huge trouble around 2008, because the government had decided that it knew, just knew, the proper level of home ownership in the United States and therefore government policy through subprime mortgages and all the rest should encourage more home ownership. The government similarly has decided that it just knows how many people should go to college. As a result, to Pell grants and student loans and all the rest, we have been sending people to college so that, if I could add one more statistic to what Oren just gave you, 40% of recent college graduates are, according to the Bureau of Labor statistics, in jobs that do not require bachelor degrees, which makes for a unfulfillment and unhappiness as well as indebtedness.
I would simply say, A, that if we’re going to understand the perils of industrial policy, perils of government planning, looking over the horizon and telling us where we ought to go, we have to look at what’s happened with college among other things. I’ll let it go at that.
Gerald Seib: Let me ask each of you to address quickly a question that I think about a lot and then I want to turn to some of the many, many, many questions from viewers that are coming in. As I think about conservatives traditionally, there are three things they stand for: free movement of goods, free trade, free movement of people, which suggests a certain openness to immigration, and limited executive power. Donald Trump doesn’t really believe in any of those three. George, and then Oren, in turn, should conservatives and Republicans still stand for those three things?
George Will: All three, yes. Free trade has gone more human good in terms of reducing pain and suffering in the last 40 years than any other policy that human beings have experimented with in 10,000 years. That is the number of people who have been lifted out of subsistence poverty by a regime of open markets and free movement of goods and people and ideas is astonishing. Second, immigration. We have, Jerry, an aging population and a welfare state. That’s a really ominous combination, because the entitlement state we have exists to transfer wealth from the working young and middle age to the retired elderly who are an enormous political force, they vote more than other people because the welfare state’s more important to them than it is to other people. Therefore, we need immigration, intelligent immigration, one that tries to mesh the skills of the immigrants with the needs of the economy. We need immigration to replenish the workforce. What was your third item, Jerry?
Gerald Seib: This’ll be an easy one for you, George. Limited executive authority.
George Will: Yeah. Well, I’ve become an intergalactic bore on the subject of excessive presidential power, but it didn’t begin with Donald Trump. It didn’t begin with Barack Obama and his, “I have a phone and I have a pen.” It goes all the way back to Woodrow Wilson. Indeed, it goes back to Teddy Roosevelt, who said, “A president should be as powerful as he can be.” And in his stewardship idea of the presidency, Teddy Roosevelt said, “A president can do anything he’s not explicitly forbidden to do.” That just seems to me it leads to disequilibrium among the branches of government.
Gerald Seib: So Oren, quickly, free trade, immigration, limited executive authority.
Oren Cass: I think I agree most strongly on the third, the limited executive authority. On the other two, again, I think it’s fascinating to suggest that conservatism would be defined this way. You’re right that this is how we have defined American conservatism in recent years, but that’s really a function of having handed economic policy over to libertarians several decades ago. I mean, again, going back to Burke, the very principle that you decide things based on circumstances, not absolute principles, is core to conservatism. And so to simply say free trade, free goods, free people, free movement of people, we’d have to talk a lot more about the specifics, and on the free trade question in particular, again, I have to go back to the point George just made saying it had raised more people out of poverty than anything else in history.
I think particularly if you look in recent decades, of course the largest move of people out of subsistence agriculture and so forth has been in China. And it’s certainly true that China took advantage of our free trade system to do that, but it certainly didn’t do that through a policy of free movement of people and goods, and free trade. In fact, it did it with an extraordinarily aggressive industrial policy and program of central planning. Now, I’m not saying that America could or should endorse a Chinese-style system, but to suggest that it was the free markets and free trade that that brought people out of poverty in China, there is an element of truth to it. But again, it’s just overly simplistic. And so I think that the actual conservative approach to these questions would be to look at the actual economic circumstances and challenges we have and ask where public policy might play a role in addressing them.
And of course, government is going to get a lot of things wrong, but sorry, Jerry, just to wrap up quickly, when George then defines student debt and higher ed spending as industrial policy, we’re again just taking things we don’t like and calling them industrial policy. I gave one example of industrial policy, which was we should actually support investment in innovation in different industries. I think that’s a really important one. I think the way we do training and education to prepare people for particular industries is really important. I think ensuring that investment flows toward the real economy and not just financial speculation is really important. So if we don’t want to use the term industrial policy, we don’t have to, but the point is there’s a real role for public policy to drive us toward better economic outcomes than we’ve been seeing in recent decades, which have just not worked for a huge share of the population.
George Will: A huge share, surely not. I mean, obviously the churning, the dynamism of a commercial society has casualties and frictions, but to say that a huge majority of the American people have not benefited—
Oren Cass: I didn’t say a huge majority.
George Will: You said … Well, rephrase it then. Tell me what you did say.
Oren Cass: I said a huge share. I would say it’s less than a majority, though I would say it certainly is a majority of the people who don’t have a college degree.
George Will: Better get to our questions, Jerry.
Gerald Seib: Okay. We’re not going to resolve that one. Anyway, fascinating conversation. But let me get to the questions. And let me start with, there are several, surprisingly high number that kind of go along this path. Neil Piccus, for example, asks, “Wouldn’t this be the time to start a new party, to disassociate from the harmful elements still remaining in the Republican Party?” And Thomas Barry asks straight up, “Is there ever a hope for an independent party in the US?” And there are several more variations on that theme. But George, let me start with you on that. As a practical, political matter, given what Donald Trump has done to the Republican Party in both practical and ideological terms, is there room for a third party or an independent movement?
George Will: Right. Back in the 1950s, when Herman Kahn and the others were having gloomy assessments of what might happen in the nuclear war, the consensus was that cockroaches would survive, because they’re such simple mechanisms. Our political parties are like cockroaches. They’re such simple mechanisms they’re apt to survive, and they’re also very adaptable. These two parties we have today have framed the American political arguments since 1856. That’s a remarkable stability. More remarkable, say, than the British party system has been, and lord knows, the French party system. So, it’s difficult to see the Republican party going the way of the Whigs, however much it seems to be trying at the moment to go the way of the Whigs, who preceded the Republican party.
As long as we have, and I hope we have for a very long time, the winner-take-all allocation of electoral votes by states, it’s very hard for another third party or an independent candidate to get traction. Remember, Ross Perot in 1962 got 19.7% of the popular vote, and zero electoral votes, because they didn’t have a regional base. So I think we’re stuck with these two parties. Now, a recent poll immediately, after the events of a week ago Wednesday, showed that 23% of Republicans, I think it was 20-some percent of Republicans, opposed the attack on the Capitol, and 40-some percent thought it was justified. If that’s the future, as most recent polls still show that 70% of Republican voters still approve of Donald Trump, then the Republican Party could be testing my theory that it’s more durable than cockroaches.
Gerald Seib: Yeah. For what it’s worth, I’ve been asked this question a lot over the last several years, and a lot in the last several weeks. And I just don’t think this system allows for a third party, and what happens … This is not a parliamentary system. I think what happens in the US system, as you suggest, George, is parties morph. They respond to stimuli, and they change. And that’s what happens in the American system, because I think structurally it’s just built to advantage the two existing parties. But maybe I’m wrong. Oren, what do you think?
Oren Cass: Well, I agree. I think both for the structure of our democracy, as George described, and just the institutional and infrastructural challenges of trying to set up a party, it’s something that everyone says enthusiastically, but they tend not to understand just what the party actually is, and the depth and breadth of its networks, and so on and so forth. So I would be very surprised if we got a new one, or at least a successful one. But I think to your point, Jerry, there is a morphing underway. And I think a lot of folks talk about this concept of a realignment, and I think that it’s something that we’ve seen happening that’s, again, tied to the actual problems in the country, and the actual interests of constituents.
And what we’re seeing is that the Democratic Party is more and more becoming a party that focuses on the college-educated, better-off voter with very strong social progressive concerns. And the Republican party is focusing more on the concerns of the folks who are seeing greater challenges to their ways of life. And there are some ways in which that looks counterintuitive, some ways that it makes a lot of sense, but as that happens, I think we’ll see more shuffling of who is in which parties, and that will in turn guide the kinds of policies they’re likely to be pushing for.
Gerald Seib: So, George, let me throw this question your way. It’s an interesting quest for some historical perspective on what we’re going through here. Marianne Lacasico—I hope I pronounced that right—asks, “How is our current, shocking, ultra-partisan political scene different from, for example, Hamilton versus Jefferson?”
George Will: Well, it’s Hamilton versus Jefferson. It’s an 1880 election with social media added in to make it worse. I mean, the rhetoric in the 1800 election, arguably the most important election in world history, because it was the first peaceful transition of power from one party to another after an election, it was pretty severe. I would not want to really trade today’s atmosphere, toxic though it is, for that of the 1850s. Let’s remember that when Preston Brooks of South Carolina came on the floor and beat Charles Sumner, Senator Sumner, nearly to death, he brought with him an armed fellow who stood there with a pistol to protect this assault.
We’ve had awfully raucous times and lethal times in our politics before. It is made worse now by the existence of social media, these media that, A, amplify and encourage by their instantaneousness a kind of shrillness of extremism. But I think the novelty will wear off. I think we’ll get used to this. I think we’ll learn to quarantine the mad men in their particular silos. So I’m not a technological determinist here. I don’t think social media is going to shape our future.
Gerald Seib: Yeah. Oren, I invite you to talk about that too, but let me, before that, throw up a question that might actually open the path to do so in a different way. Jim Harper—and I think this is something, Oren, that you and your friends at American Compass have thought about—Jim Harper asks, “Why do the establishment left and right have such blindness when it comes to dealing with rural America and working class Americans? Trump saw these people, but no one else seems to connect.” And this gets to another element of Trumpism, which is the antiestablishment character, nature of at least its rhetoric, if not it’s reality. Why is the establishment so hated and does it seem to be so distant to so many people? And what can be done about it?
Oren Cass: It’s a huge challenge, and it’s interesting. I think within the question, you asked it in both directions. There’s both, “How does the establishment regard the non-establishment?” And vice versa. I think from the establishment perspective, and I would be the first to acknowledge that I meet every definition or characteristic of establishment there is, and have faced these challenges myself. We are all a function of our bubbles. We are all a function of our peers, of our friends, of the media we consume. And so the world that we see and the understanding we have of the world and the cultural we develop as well are going to differ just among groups generally.
I think the problem that we’ve run into in this country in recent years—and I apologize for continually emphasizing this college versus non-college split, but I think it’s so central—is that we have an economy and a culture that is increasingly bifurcating between a sort of college educated, more oriented toward knowledge work, culture and community, and a non-college educated, more oriented toward blue collar work community. And they leave each other’s company earlier in life than they might have in the past. Another problem with our college system is we essentially strip mine the country for all the talent we can find and concentrate it in a few extremely liberal establishments. I’m not sure that’s quite the way to go, but we do that, as incomes have diverged, we increasingly see geographic consolidation into ZIP codes and areas of the country that look very different. And so it takes work to bridge those gaps. And historically the establishment hasn’t shown as much inclination as I think it needs to, to do that.
And again, this is what I would say is one of the important definitions of the term populism, is if that, among other things, those in the non-college half don’t express their concerns necessarily in the language of the Washington Postop-ed. And it’s very easy to say, “Well, those concerns don’t make sense or aren’t as important.” And that’s just not true. We have to understand what the current terms are, and we have to find a way to address that. And I think what Trump did, I liken him to an earthquake. He was a disaster. He certainly didn’t build anything, but in shaking things, he showed us where the really weak, poorly built, outdated structures were. And we need to learn from that, and we need to build something better, not just rush back in and build back the same things we had before.
Gerald Seib: So, George, you write a column that appears on the op-ed page of the Washington Post. I don’t know if I have to give you equal time here or something. I don’t know.
George Will: Well, I don’t think we’re the root of all evil, but we are the root of some evil, no doubt. Oren is close to, I’m afraid, not only standing against something really hard to stand against, which is the cognitive stratification of modern society. It’s of interest that’s probably the least diverse classes in the United States are SAT prep classes, where all of the family advantages come into play, but also I think Oren and the other advocates of industrial policy, even narrowly defined, are in danger of doing, is discovering yet another entitlement. And this is an entitlement to preserve a way of life. That is, a neighborhood, a town built around a certain industry. I don’t think that’s possible, and I think it’s a route to an enormous expansion of government and an enormous expansion of rent-seeking on the part of special interests to say that it should be public policy to enable people to preserve a way of life that is rooted in surpassed, superseded industries.
Gerald Seib: So let me go to a strain of questions here that are a little less philosophical and much more product practical, political. And they all are kind of in the vein of Philip Norton’s question. Who are the moderate Republican and Democratic leaders, conservatives and moderate progressives, likely to emerge with the ability to work together to heal our national divide? Renee Regal asks, “Who are the Republican intellectuals that can lead this march? How can these ideas be disseminated with the current purge of conservatives from social media platforms?” And so forth, you get the idea. The question is, and I’d be curious to know what each of you think, and Oren, let me start with you. Again, Donald Trump has departed the scene or will next week. I personally think it’s less likely than it was two weeks ago that he emerges over time as the leader top dog of the Republican party. That’s one of the things that happened when the mob descended on the Capitol, I suspect. Who steps into the breach, who fills the void, who are the people in the Republican party that you find most interesting going forward?
Oren Cass: I think there are a number of people in Congress. I think Senator Rubio has really shown a leadership role in thinking through some of these issues, in publishing research on these questions, in presenting a new way of thinking about what conservatism needs to mean as applied in the 21st century.
I think Senator Cotton has shown a lot of leadership as well, and as one example, did a lot of work to push a bill that I think is a perfect example of industrial policy focused at the semiconductor industry, which is not an old dying industry. It’s an industry that we should obviously have a leadership role in globally and that we’ve been losing. And in fact, now we have activist hedge fund investors trying to even force Intel out of semiconductor manufacturing. Tom Cotton really pushed a bill to actually create government support for research and manufacturing capacity to ensure that we retain leadership in semiconductor production, which is something I think should be a government priority for national defense reasons, for innovation reasons, and ultimately for the health and trajectory of our economy.
Now, Cotton’s bill on that, I should note, passed in the Senate 96 to four. There were a couple of folks who I would describe as pre-Trump Republicans, Pat Toomey, Rand Paul, Richard Shelby, who voted against it. But this is not a fringe idea. This is obviously an extraordinarily mainstream in a sense approach.
And I think you see some folks in the House. Someone in particular who I’ve been impressed with is Congressman Anthony Gonzalez. He happens to be one of the Congressman who voted in favor of impeachment this time around and has done a lot of work focused on infrastructure in particular and the sort of innovation hubs that a place like Ohio should have.
And so, I think there’s a lot of folks doing a lot of good work on this. And it goes back to the question that we started this discussion with: Are there some folks who think essentially “free trade plus corporate tax cuts” is where we need to go back to? And I am at least encouraged that there are a lot who are pushing the envelope far beyond that.
Gerald Seib: George, who strikes you as interesting on this front going forward?
George Will: I’ll get to that in just a second. I don’t want Oren to leave the impression that I’m for more corporate tax cuts. Unless the corporate tax rate should be what I think it ought to be, which is zero, because we know that corporations don’t pay taxes, they collect taxes. Leaving that aside, I don’t think we can continue to fund an entitlement state with an aging population, with a tax system that raises 17% of GDP. So we’re going to have to have more revenues. So I’m pleading innocent against that.
Gerald Seib: Okay, fair.
George Will: Beyond that, I would say I direct attention to Ben Sasse of Nebraska. He’s a Yale history PhD. He knows that we have in some ways been here before. That is, at the turn of the last century, the turn from the 19th to the 20th century, when there was a huge influx into cities of people leaving the farms, they got to the cities, they found themselves a dust of individuals to use Durkheim’s famous phrase of urban life.
They resorted to not opiates at that point, but to alcoholism, political extremism took root in some places. So a kind of epidemic of loneliness of the sort that Sasse has written about, both then and now. So I think Ben Sasse is someone who’s thinking through these things. He makes the point, for example, that the largest occupational category in the United States and the largest in 39 of the 50 states is “driver.” Now, suppose that autonomous vehicles are all they’re cracked up to me and they go directly at the largest employment category in the United States. That would be a challenge.
Gerald Seib: Yeah.
Oren Cass: Jerry, can I just ask a quick follow-up question on that to George? I’m very interested in Senator Sasse’s work and really admire what he’s written. Is there an example of a policy that you see him advancing and focusing on that you see as an example of where you would want to head?
George Will: I’m saying no, that I don’t know about it. There may be, but I don’t think he’s at that point yet where he’s turning these insights into policies. But when he does, they’ll be intelligent.
Gerald Seib: Yeah. Carrie Finley asked… This is a long question, but I think I’m just going to read it because I think it gets to something we haven’t really touched on here, but that is both an important, and an interesting question. “I feel that Republicans need to widen the tent and stop demonizing people who could very well fit with our party. How can we get minorities and women to stop blindly voting for Democrats in so many districts across the country? No party has taken this vote and their issues for granted more than Democrats. How can we focus on policy and reach out to those groups now so that we can address their real issues around education, employment, health care, among others. This group will only get bigger. And the only way we can move forward is for Republicans to stop being afraid and start incorporating these voices into our party, because their issues and concerns are the same as ours. George, I’ll let you start. That’s a practical political question, but it’s certainly got philosophical overtones as well. How to Republicans get from here to there?
George Will: Well, I think Republicans ought to recognize, and I think the election results in 2020 indicate that demography is not destiny. There’ve been all kinds of Democrats who’ve been saying for 30 years now that the changing ethnic composition of the United States is going to turn the country into a solid, durable, Democratic majority. Well, not true, because it turns out Latinos are different from African Americans and within the Latino vote, there are all kinds of factions, rivalrous on occasion. So it’s a much more complicated picture than that. But with regard to women, it would just help if— Women raise children and they’re concerned, I hate to keep coming back to bad manners, but it matters. It would be helpful if the Republican party were not led by a boar, because women don’t like that for some reason. So a change at the top in the manners and the tone of life is going to be an enormous help.
Gerald Seib: Oren?
Oren Cass: I agree. It’s an enormously important issue. And you know, something that we’ve talked a lot about at American Compass is the concept of a multi-ethnic, working-class conservatism. Because I think, again, this is something that Donald Trump showed. I certainly don’t think he was an effective spokesperson for outreach to all different ethnic groups necessarily. And yet he did better with them than Republican politicians have. That is, Donald Trump’s package in full somehow managed to appeal more. And I think, again, something that he knocked down in a sense was this assumption that identity politics was the way to reach those voters. And thinking back to the 2012 autopsy for instance, that changing your position on immigration is the way to win Hispanics, it turns out there’s another way to win those groups, which is just speak to the actual issues that concern them.
And I think that has to be the future for conservatives. And again, I realize I’ll sound like a broken record on this. That means having a policy agenda that’s responsive to their concerns. It doesn’t mean, and I certainly wouldn’t advocate trying to sort of prop up dying industries. But it means recognizing that economic prosperity has to come in a widespread broad-based form that growth does not automatically reach everybody. It’s something that we’ve learned in recent decades. And so what kind of growth matters? Education needs to be in the form that is actually going to meet people where they are and prepare them for success in the labor market and for building good lives. And so I think a conservatism that led on those kinds of issues, an issue we haven’t talked about much tonight, but I think it’s an important one is labor. Not the labor unions we have today, which are a mess in many ways.
But the idea that we should want workers to have representation that they should have power in the labor market. As George mentioned on the importance of tight labor markets, that they should have representation in the workplace, that they should have those institutions in their communities. Issues like these are the ones that are going to demonstrate that conservatism it is not just some sort of highfalutin philosophy, but it’s actually an approach to today’s challenges that will resonate with people. And I think that’s how we build a coalition going forward.
Gerald Seib: So we have just a couple of minutes left. I’m going to close with a question that really is the most practical political question of all, I suppose. And it’s a question about, well I’ll just read it from Eric King. “What can be done about Trump? He’s the best thing that’s happened to Democrats, the frenzy they got into, because it was words and actions motivate them to unite in their hatred. And though he motivates a portion of the Republican party, there are many Republicans who are disgusted and disillusioned by his behavior that works in favor of Democrats. Seems to me, it goes to a really interesting question about how the Republican party treats Donald Trump and also how viable he remains after next week.” George, what do you think?
George Will: I think not very viable. I think he was overrated in anticipation of his post-presidential life before January 6th. After January 6th I think he’s pretty much a spent force. In America, when you lose a presidential race, you disappear very often. I mean, how much have we heard from Michael Dukakis? It’s a cruel system in a way. If your party loses in Britain, if you’re the party leader, you go to the opposition in Parliament, and you’re still a force. Not true in the United States.
Gerald Seib: You think he fades away?
George Will: I think he fades like a photograph left in sunlight. He’s bleached away.
Gerald Seib: Okay. I’m going to work on that image tonight. All right. Oren, what do you think?
Oren Cass: Well, I think his presence will certainly change and just by virtue of his—he is not automatically newsworthy, which is going to change his ability to reach folks.
Gerald Seib: And drive him crazy, by the way. But—
Oren Cass: Absolutely. That being said, certainly he will be diminished, but I do think that just as different as his presidency was, I think his post-presidency will be as well, and for a related reason, which is that there are an awful lot of folks who are attached to him and not in a traditional political way. I think he has a following that is different in character. And so it will not necessarily be the Republican party writ large, but I think there is a substantial share of folks who care more what he thinks than care about what the standard bearers of a party, who we trust to step in, think.
And so, I think this will remain a challenge for Republicans, but that at the end of the day, it is needed to shift to post-Trumpism. What comes next? And I think the best way to move past him is not to go back to the set of things that we were doing that brought him down that escalator in the first place, in a sense. But to build something stronger so that the next time that type of figure comes along the parties aren’t caught flat footed. But is already addressing those kinds of issues in a much more constructive way.
Gerald Seib: Well, look, we’ve run out of time, but something tells me, and I would love to think about getting back together in say six months and revisit that question among several of the others we’ve discussed tonight. I really want to thank George and Oren and thank in particular our friends at American Compass for making this conversation possible. It’s been fascinating. If we had answered all the questions that I’ve received, we would be here until midnight. But I think the cocktail hour beckons. So thank you, Oren. Thank you, George. And thank you all for joining us. Thanks to our WSJ members for tuning in. We appreciate your questions. We appreciate your attention. For upcoming events like this, please check out WSJplus.com. Have a safe, happy evening, everybody. And thank you again.
Oren Cass: Thank you.