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A Tale of Two Conservatisms

| Jan 19, 2021 | Politics

Being called a “socialist” by George Will in the Washington Post was already a professional highlight. So I was thrilled for the opportunity to talk with him about the future of conservatism. Clearly, we would have a lot to discuss.

Last week, American Compass and the Wall Street Journal co-hosted that event, “What Now? A Conversation On Where Conservatives Go After the Trump Presidency.” It provided a fascinating distillation of the contrasts between the right-of-center’s pre-Trump orthodoxy and the post-Trump conservatism that American Compass hopes to advance. You can read the full transcript and watch the event here. Below I’ve extracted five of the most interesting questions from the Journal’s Jerry Seib and the answers that George and I each gave (lightly edited for clarity). My thanks to both George and Jerry for an illuminating evening.

1. What should happen to the conservative movement in the wake of the Trump presidency?

Oren Cass: [We have to] remember 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. 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.

George Will: 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. … 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.

2. 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 escapable aspect of a dynamic continent-wide economy. … 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.

Oren Cass: 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 was 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. Certainly I think conservatives should recognize the value of that. … 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.

3. Can conservatism and populism coexist, or do Republicans have to decide whether they are one or the other?

George Will: 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.

Oren Cass: I think it comes down to the definition of populism. Certainly, I agree that, to George’s definition, it does not coincide [with conservatism]. … 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 emphasized 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 … 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.

4. Why do the establishment Left and Right have such blindness when it comes to dealing with rural America and working class Americans? … 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: I think the problem that we’ve run into in this country is recent years … 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.

This is what I would say is one of the important definitions of the term populism, is that if, among other things, those in the non-college half don’t express their concerns necessarily in the language of the Washington Post op-ed, 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 concerns 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.

George Will: 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 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.

5. 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: 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. … 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 4. 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.

George Will: 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 that kind of epidemic of loneliness of the sort that Sasse has written about then and now. So I think Ben Sasse is someone who’s thinking through these things, and makes the point, for example, 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 be and they go directly at the largest employment category in the United States. That would be a challenge.

[Oren Cass interjects:] 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, but 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.

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Oren Cass

Oren Cass is the executive director at American Compass.


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