Opportunity Conservatism: A Blueprint for a Post-Trump GOP

Jerry Seinfeld once said that it’s odd to see folks essentially “cheer for clothes” at a baseball game. Players change, coaches leave, and the ballparks themselves don’t even last forever, making it difficult to see exactly what keeps fans rooting for the same team year after year. Seinfeld thought the hook was ultimately a team’s name and jerseys — the brand, rather than how a team plays the game.

Sadly, Seinfeld may just as easily have been talking about our politics. We live in a moment when our political players and ideas are rapidly changing — yet, many fans still dutifully cheer for their same old teams.

But our politics shouldn’t mirror our baseball allegiances. Our political movements and ideas should represent something more concrete. Fixed principles make our electoral choices reflect our collective values and ensure that the leaders we elect today wield power tomorrow according to some blueprint larger than themselves.

Trumpian populism has completely destroyed that blueprint for modern conservatism. The ideological seams that once bound Republicans together have completely unraveled, replaced by fealty to a single leader, no matter where he leads them. “Conservatives” still support lowering taxes, but have joined Trump’s fight to increase tariffs. “Conservatives” still pay lip service to their Buckley-era faith in reduced spending, but cheer billions to subsidize a trade war. “Conservatives” are quick to champion the Founding-era belief that all are created equal, but are even quicker to defend the President when he questions the competence of an Article III judge solely on the basis of his Hispanic heritage. And the list goes on and on.

The thread tying it all together? Some loose concept of “making America great again.” Trumpism has no intellectual anchor: nothing but Mr. Trump’s approval numbers and the threat of impeachment stop him from veering in whichever direction he chooses. Neither principled nor conservative, the swamp has never been swampier.

Yet, in the doldrums of despair, hope springs eternal. With time, Trump too will pass — and conservatives will be left to pick up the pieces of a shattered institution. How we choose to put the pieces back together will define us for a generation and determine the country’s course. The new ideological blueprint we use should be fresh, innovative, and easy-to-comprehend, but also true to our core beliefs.

What will that new conservatism look like? What will its organizing themes and policy goals be? These are questions that, so far, have gone unanswered by our current crop of leaders in Washington. We cannot move beyond Trump without an idea to move towards. It’s time to start building that idea. “Opportunity conservatism” would be a good place to start.

Opportunity is at the core of the American ideal — that anyone, no matter their race, creed, gender, or circumstance, can apply themselves to a pursuit and succeed. As Americans, we have long celebrated the pioneer, the self-starter, and the entrepreneur. They typify what it means to be an American. Being an American isn’t about looking a certain way or talking a certain way — it is about being a certain way. It is about being driven and self-reliant, compassionate and enterprising, energetic and collaborative. Conservatism’s ideas and policies should reflect that ethos.

But, at the moment, it isn’t clear that they do — or, at least, Americans aren’t getting that message. For all of their talk about fathers from Cuba with $100 in their underwear and parents working as bartenders and maids, Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio were unable to move a Republican electorate with grandiose tales of individual perseverance and rags-to-riches success. Perhaps that’s because these stories ring increasingly hollow for many Americans — the inspirational “work hard and reap the benefits” crusade isn’t quite the salve it once was.

And it isn’t hard to see why. The American dream is, on the whole, staying a dream for many Americans. Today, the gears of economic and social mobility are not as greased as conservatives should like them to be. A child born to parents in the bottom 20% of incomes is more than 10 times more likely to remain in the lowest 20% than to leap up to the highest (43% versus 4%), while a child born to parents in the top 20% of incomes is 5 times more likely to stay there than fall to the lowest 20% (40% versus 8%).

This disconnect between the outdated language of conservatism and the reality Americans are living each day allowed Trump’s populism and Bernie’s strain of democratic socialism to exploit the growing sense of unfairness felt by folks across the political spectrum. Trump blamed immigrants, Bernie blamed capitalism, and, without a compelling rebuttal, traditional conservatism was rendered irrelevant.

Trumpian populism may have scratched the country’s emotional itch, but it also corrupted our soul and distracted us from tending to our central promise: that no goal ever lies beyond any American’s reach. And while the Left predictably and mistakenly focuses on smoothing over outcome gaps with ex post redistributive schemes, conservatives have an opening to refocus on the root of the problem: the ex ante opportunity gap.

What does that look like in practice? It starts with the recognition that a quality education is the primary avenue by which a child of low-income parents can rise to achieve their dreams and that grade school is a better place to combat poverty than the welfare line. Opportunity conservatism will not accept that the United States is ranked 30th in math and 19th in science compared to other OECD nations. It won’t deny that wealthier families invest, on average, 7 times more in their kids’ education than their poorer counterparts; or that, while children up and down the socio-economic ladder exhibit similar cognitive abilities at 8 to 12 months, kids of wealthier families, by the age of 3, have a vocabulary twice the size of kids whose parents are on government assistance.

Instead of running away from these facts, opportunity conservatives will tackle these challenges head-on. We’ll prioritize improving our schools and encourage stronger families. We’ll transform inner-city classrooms into laboratories of opportunity and encourage bold experimentation until we discover the best ways to educate underprivileged kids. We’ll tailor curricula to the skills and flexibility required in a 21st-century economy. In order to make good on America’s promise, every child will need a top-rate school that gives them a fighting chance at success no matter where they live or how much money their parents make.

Second, opportunity conservatism will champion the dignity of work and ensure that the best workers are able to climb the corporate ladder, no matter their race or gender. But, it also won’t be blind to the fact that globalization and technological innovation present major headwinds for American labor. As businesses have found new ways to accomplish things for less, the need for low-skilled labor has declined and the skill sets required for most jobs have changed dramatically. Many who spent years training and working in a particular field are increasingly seeing their skills devalued and their opportunities diminished.

The uncomfortable reality is that these jobs will not soon resurface simply because of a hard-nosed negotiation with China or a game of chicken with Canada over NAFTA. Opportunity conservatives will recognize that if we outpace other countries in the coming decades and remain the leading global economic power, it won’t be because our tariffs were 30% higher — it will be because we out-innovated and out-worked the rest of the world.

Instead of walling ourselves off to protect against forces that are far bigger than our trade policy, an opportunity mindset will confront these trends with an economic agenda that focuses on spurring growth and innovation, upgrading our workforce, and improving the fluidity of our domestic labor market. It will set a goal that by 2030, a construction worker in Ohio be able to finish a 2-year job and, within 6 to 9 months, transition and be reemployed as a data analyst or warehousing technician. The more nimble American workers become the less they will be harmed by cyclical market corrections and macro trends, stabilizing employment and ensuring that opportunity remains available to any American willing to seize it.

Finally, opportunity conservatism will confront the failing state of our criminal justice system. It will question why the United States accounts for just 5% of the world’s population, but over 20% of its prisoners; and wonder whether we’re really getting the return we should expect on the over $60 billion we spend on corrections each year. It will commit itself to the idea that a prison sentence shouldn’t be a lifetime bar to employment or productivity and strive to reform prisons in a way that addresses the staggering fact that 77% of released prisoners are rearrested within five years.

We’ll readily acknowledge that it’s in the country’s best interest to have a robust prison-to-work pipeline. Our ideas will explore new ways to restore former inmates’ access to revoked or suspended occupational licenses; to stabilize families and get them back on their feet after extended incarceration of a primary breadwinner; and allow former prisoners to vote once their debt to society has been fully paid. If America wants to save money and get more out of all of its citizens, it should give former prisoners more opportunity.

Opportunity conservatism’s reach isn’t limited to these examples — its applications abound. About 22% of the working civilian population in the US needs a license to work. This means the United States licenses a greater percentage of its workforce than the European Union. Opportunity conservatism could thus make it far easier to actually work in America. The US abortion rate among prenatally diagnosed babies with Down syndrome is 67% — and is increasing globally — while medical advances are allowing Down kids to live longer, more productive, happier lives. They deserve opportunity, too.

Opportunity conservatism has the power to accomplish all of these things if only a new generation would find the courage to stand up and fight for them. It won’t be easy and may require losing several primaries before we win — but, that’s the point. Conservatives need to rediscover that politics isn’t all about winning elections or finding a policy agenda that maps onto an existing constituency. It’s about winning hearts and minds and creating new constituencies. The current state of play isn’t static and though it’s Trump’s GOP today, it could be anyone’s tomorrow. Conservatives should drown out the chaos, set our eyes to the future, and get to work.