The Trouble with Conservatives these days

There is a tension in American life between goods that need to be kept in some balance, and we have often failed to find that balance lately. — Yuval Levin

Yuval Levin belongs to a political faction that I think of as conservatives in exile. They struggle to find a way for conservatism to recover from the damage that they see inflicted by President Trump. Although Levin’s recent blog essay is a response to some specific current events, it collects thoughts that he has been mulling for several years. I believe that his essay deserves a careful reading and response.

Levin writes,

disapproval of Trumpism ought not be a defense of what came before him. It should, rather, compel some contention with the failure of the pre-Trump Republican Party to speak to the concerns of even its own electorate, let alone the larger society — a failure so serious that it left Republican voters open to Trump’s appeal.

Where did conservatism go wrong?

Levin says that “Conservatism has ceded its economic thinking too thoroughly to libertarianism since the 1990s,” and he goes on to write

Contemporary populism on the right has been aroused in part by the costs of this . . .which are both cultural and economic. That populism is an alarm bell that should help us see the need for rebalancing. But it is not itself the new balance we seek. It is too angry; it is frequently self-righteous and self-pitying; it lacks historical perspective; it assumes malevolence in its opponents where it should mostly see ineptitude; it leaves itself dangerously open to racial resentment and the lure of barking mad conspiracies; it lacks the gratitude for basic social order that defines the conservative disposition; it shows too little interest in accommodation and social peace; it is much clearer about what it hates than what it loves; and it has come to be identified with (and at times led by) a bullying, buffoonish narcissist who assertively embodies all these downsides while only tangentially enabling any upsides and so threatens to discredit any rebalancing his ascendancy makes possible.

The inability of a populist movement to advance a constructive agenda is typical. This is one of the themes of Martin Gurri’s important book The Revolt of the Public, in which he connects the dots between such diverse movements as the Arab Spring, Italy’s Five Star party, and the French “yellow vest” protests (even though the latter emerged after the book’s publication.) He explains how the more democratized media environment created by the Internet has stirred up and empowered anti-elitist sentiment. The populist movements are often effective at dethroning established leaders, but they fail to achieve — or even to propose — coherent reforms or solutions.

Levin is saying that a segment of the electorate turned to Mr. Trump because they failed to see mainstream conservatives as addressing their concerns. The challenge that conservatives face is to re-connect with these voters without relying on Mr. Trump’s rhetorical style or on his policy agenda, which lacks coherence and is often at odds with conservative wisdom.

Balancing Liberty, Fairness, and Order

We can think of the American challenge as one of finding a balance among the values of liberty, fairness, and order. Libertarians are particularly attuned to threats to liberty. Progressives are particularly attuned to threats to fairness. And Conservatives are particularly attuned to threats to order.

In The Three Languages of Politics, I discuss this model at length. I suggest that each faction demonizes as threats those with whom they disagree. Libertarians see those who disagree as allied with the forces of authority, threatening to destroy liberty. Progressives see those who disagree as allied with the the forces of oppression, threatening to destroy fairness. And conservatives see those who disagree as allied with the forces of barbarism, threatening to destroy order.

But what are the threats that are most salient to the segment of voters that were captured by Mr. Trump’s populism? And can conservatives speak to those threats?

The Divide is Cultural, not Economic

Many observers emphasize economic threats posed by trade and automation. But I believe that the divide is mostly cultural. In an insightful article in the Wall Street Journal, Aaron Zitner and Dante Chinni wrote,

a campaign for Congress in many places starts with 60% of college-educated white women favoring the Democratic nominee. An even larger share of white men without degrees favor the Republican — making both essentially unreachable by the opposing candidate.
…The differences between the two groups are stark on many of the issues dominating the midterm campaign: immigration, gun control and health care. In each case, white men without college degrees support Mr. Trump’s policy stance, while white women with degrees are opposed.

But issues are not the driving factor in our increased polarization, according to political scientist Lilliana Mason, author of Uncivil Agreement. She finds that measures of hostility across political parties have gone up by much more than disagreement over policy.

A number of factors are exacerbating the cultural divide in America today. People of different social strata do not mix as much as they used to. The college-educated woman who hates Mr. Trump may not have any occasion to personally engage with any non-college educated men. There are fewer organized groups and activities that bring together people of different cultural classes. In Mason’s terminology, we have fewer “cross-cutting identities.”

In short, I think that Yuval Levin and others may be on the wrong track in emphasizing economic disruption as directly causing populist resentment. Instead, I see populist resentment as coming from a sense of cultural resentment that is strongest among non-college-educated males.

Increased cultural segregation is the main driver of this resentment, as Senator Ben Sasse suggests in his book Them. Although economic change may be contributing to this cultural segregation, other factors are also involved. These include:

— changes in the demographic makeup of different regions, as more people “sort” themselves according to cultural criteria, including political affiliation.

— changes in marriage patterns, especially fewer marriages between the college-educated and non-college educated

— incentives in the political media environment that once favored blandly appealing to the largest possible audience but now favor cultivating the outrage of one specific faction or another.

— a shift in leisure-time pursuits away from common-denominator participatory activities (such as the proverbial bowling team or church social) to narrow niche hobbies or solitary forms of entertainment employing electronic devices.

The Dilemma for Conservatives

The populists prefer someone they perceive as fighting for them. That is the appeal of Donald Trump. But resentment-fueled politics has its costs.

Conservatives face a dilemma. If they move in the direction of civility and respect for their political adversaries, then they risk being viewed as soft on the cultural enemies of their voters. Demoralized, the voters who turned out for Mr. Trump could abandon Republicans at the polls.

But if instead conservatives embrace unmitigated hostility and smash-mouth tactics against those cultural enemies, they risk exacerbating polarization and political tribalism. This would have the effect of destabilizing the very order that conservatives cherish.

For what it’s worth, I would like to see the Republicans adopt a more moderate tone and a more conservative agenda. Prominent in a more conservative agenda would be a commitment to curb present and future deficits.

I think that adopting a moderate tone has more upside potential and less downside risk than proceeding with a warpath mentality. A moderate tone’s upside is that it would make it easier for Democrats and Independents who are turned off by left-wing extremism to consider voting Republican. The downside risk of the warpath approach is that it could turn an electoral loss into a catastrophe. That is, it would accentuate and appear to validate vengefulness and extremism on the part of the Democrats when they return to power.

In fact, I think it would be good for the Republican Party for a leading figure with a conservative agenda and a moderate tone to compete with President Trump for the nomination in 2020. The goal would not be to take Mr. Trump down but to set an example for a different Republican Party. This might give hope to those of us who wish for a political future that is less viciously tribal.