Next Conservatism 1: What Do We Do Now?
Let’s get the obvious out of the way: Conservatism as we have known it for decades has collapsed.
“Movement” Conservatism, that is; the one that started with Buckley and led us to Beck, from “Firing Line” to slogans on hats. Conservatives all have their respective diagnoses, scapegoating, tantrums, and autopsies, but it’s chaos now, with Trump voters against National Review philosophers, Tea Party versus Establishment, fringe against fringe. Each of the factions and sects claims to be the “real” Conservatism. Donald Trump’s version prevails for now as the directionless Republican Party leaders, the flummoxed Right-wing press, and the Conservative think tanks offer nothing new.
That creates a dangerous vacuum. Moreover, it betrays the people whom Movement Conservatives say they serve, and it does so at a moment when astute political thinking should serve a purpose. America requires colossal renovations, real ones, not metaphorical or ideological ones. These needs grind into real lives, driving the economic problems that confront us in our communities and households, and widening the ugly political schisms among us. Movement Conservatism promised solutions and failed to deliver.
Conservatism ought to promote proficiency in living, orient and empower people in markets and communities, and deliver tangible results instead of wishes and frustration. The idea needs to be transformed. We can do that. It means taking over Conservatism itself and becoming the defining and most credible authority on what is and is not Conservatism. We can do that too.
What Went Wrong?
Instead of being an asset to supporters, Movement Conservatism on its record might be seen as seeking actively to damage them, to interfere with their critical thinking and to devalue reason itself. Its leaders made it into a twisted faith used by its leaders to cultivate ignorance and doubt, to resist and discredit empirical reasoning, to blind and disorient people in their world. It’s not a political philosophy now. It’s more like an addiction, made so by experts in addicting people. Like tobacco, when used as directed movement Conservatism makes your life worse, and when followed by millions it makes life in America worse.
Conservatism fell apart because its leaders built the movement for popularity, not for practical application. Its promoters engendered passion and feelings, not rigor and reason, so instead of building a school, they played with peoples’ emotions. Typically they described it something like Eliot Cohen does: “reverence for the Constitution; serious grappling with the domestic problems associated with economic opportunity for all; education and affordable health care; and commitment to the internationalist tradition of the post-World War II consensus…a federal government that can energetically do the things it should, but would limit the role of unaccountable regulators and bureaucrats and push to states and local governments every function that is not clearly a duty of the federal government. Above all, it would be committed to liberty in every sphere of personal and public life.” (https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/trumps-impending-nomination-means-its-time-for-a-third-candidate/2016/05/03/762186a4-108b-11e6-8967-7ac733c56f12_story.html). It sounds precise but it invites endless debates over what in practice is “reverence” and “serious” and “affordable” and ‘commitment” and “energetically”. It’s ad copy, commercial speech to be heard and felt instead of practiced. It’s a quintessential set of today’s Conservative positions: adamant and vapid, with nothing to test but zeal and nothing to measure but vehemence. There was branding but no bedrock. In the end Movement Conservatism shattered the Republican Party — first, every faction has its own definition; second, there weren’t any benchmarks or metrics, so there were no ways to improve its performance. It’s dying of a theory.
Understanding why this happened is useful, but another autopsy report won’t revive the Movement. What we need is a Conservatism that can prove itself, offering a programmatic agenda for people who want to participate effectively in the national rebuilding we all need. The Next Conservatism has to show Americans how to be producers of change and beneficiaries as they make it happen, instead of being just bitter, passive witnesses to chaos.
What we need to ask is, what’s “Next”?
What’s Next: Conservatism as a Practical Science for Three Renovations
In contrast with the Movement version, Next Conservatism is empirical, rational, personal, self-interested, and replicable; a science that can help practitioners, by themselves or in organized efforts, to take advantage of the three vast renovations that America requires in its places and people:
1. Upgrading the national infrastructure
2. Bringing the performance of buildings, houses, and transportation into the 21st century, and
3. Making ourselves healthier and renewing personal social mobility and wealth-building.
If it’s going to address these realities, Next Conservatism has to be explicit in its goals and deadlines, and accountable in what it delivers, and not just for leaders and legislators. It has to be a testable tool that proves itself empirically for any American who wants to use it. It has to be procedural, with actual behaviors, and with real standards and metrics. It has to prove its worth self-evidently in real homes and workplaces so that no matter who applies it, it builds wealth, promotes health and makes households and communities better measurably. In short, Conservatism has to be a science. And in remaking it, Conservatives have to decide who among us to trust, because much of the damage to this indispensable pillar of American thinking was deliberate vandalism by cynics and liars who called themselves Conservative as they misled good people and discredited the idea.
These renovations are an historic opportunity for Conservative voters to renovate their own movement, to decide what Conservatism really is, and to restore to it a sense of purpose it has lost. No one needs to wait for consensus among the ideologues.
Current technology offers Conservatives a chance to keep track of their own decisions and outcomes, but there’s a much more significant prospect: organized Conservative decisions, aggregated and measured, with their effects seen rapidly at the national scale. One Conservative who quits smoking does the right thing for herself; a million who quit improve the American healthcare picture. One Conservative who installs solar panels on his house improves the value of his property and cuts his energy bill; a million such Conservatives change the energy markets.
We’re seeing this. The national crises that Conservative leaders in Congress find intractable don’t necessarily need top-down political solutions from Conservative leaders when grassroots solutions emerge spontaneously as the market favors them. Next Conservatives are addressing them every day in practice on the ground by making simple self-interested choices. Now those decisions can be seen in the aggregate, analyzed and improved rationally, based on the empirical evidence instead of on perception and subjective interpretations of abstract principle. By themselves these actions are personal and apolitical. Together they can have huge practical impact and change the political meaning of Conservatism.
The Opportunity Ahead
This isn’t theory.
We’re watching Next Conservatism emerge every day in the collective results of a billion separate deliberations, all of them deciding whether to use Movement Conservatism as it falls or Next Conservatism as it is rises: assume or ask, waste or invest, squander or save. Next Conservatism can do what Movement Conservatism declined to do: conserve, with proof of what is being conserved reflected in real measures addressing these renovations, with metrics on costs, means, and benefits, and with results.
The collapse of Movement Conservatism is the opportunity Next Conservatives need. The people driving the future of the idea are already at work, measurably and empirically achieving real Conservative outcomes in the three renovations.
No one needs to wait for Washington. Next Conservatism is already underway.
Next Conservatism 2: Great Renovations is at https://medium.com/@David_Clow/next-conservatism-2-great-renovations-63696e89cfe8