What the Conservative Civil War Means for Republican Policy

Philosophical debates over the true meaning of conservatism are fascinating. But what about policy?

Alex Muresianu
Feb 20, 2020 · 11 min read

In 2019, conflicts within the conservative intellectual movement that have warmed for decades and simmered for the past few years reached a boiling point.

The National Conservatism conference held in mid-July was an important step for the new tide of loosely populist, pro-Trump commentators to build an intellectual superstructure from which they can carry their ideas forward. As some journalists at the conference noted, despite President Trump calling himself a nationalist, speakers and attendees for the most part avoided focusing on him.

The conference seemed to be not so much pro-Trump but post-Trump, to adopt a term that the anti-Trump conservative and former National Review editor Jonah Goldberg used to describe his new publication, The Dispatch. In 2019, debate among conservatives shifted from being about Trump specifically, to what conservatism is, and on a less abstract level, what the GOP will look like once the current president is out of office.

In early 2019, the religious magazine First Things and Fox News host Tucker Carlson launched attacks on the libertarian and business wing of the Republican coalition on behalf of traditional, social, and populist conservatives. In the First Things statement, titled “Against the Dead Consensus,” a collection of commentators and thinkers condemned the right’s perceived overvaluing of “individual autonomy” and support for the “soulless society of individual affluence.”

Senator Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) is a voice for many of these concerns, and trained his metaphorical guns most prominently against Big Tech companies. His colleague in the upper chamber, Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), has challenged the Republican Party’s supposed commitment to free market orthodoxy, arguing instead for what he calls “common good capitalism.”

These—and other—“dead consensus” replacers have struck a nerve in the conservative world, and their points about the political popularity of some parts of Republican economic orthodoxy seem legitimate. However, a few senators, a Fox TV show host, and a niche magazine probably aren’t enough to upend the policy agenda of the Republican Party. What does this movement actually mean for GOP governance, if anything?

As Washington Free Beacon founder and American Enterprise Institute fellow Matthew Continetti suggested in a discussion of these internal divisions, there are three distinct levels of organization within the right wing of American politics. There’s the Republican Party, with its tens of millions of supporters and varied viewpoints. Then there’s the conservative movement, which is comprised of interest groups, grassroots activism organizations, nonprofits, and the like. And lastly, there’s the conservative intellectual movement, which is a handful of journalists, academics, and policy wonks who are concerned with ideas that sometimes translate into public policy.

While these groups are obviously closely related, changes in one might not bleed over into another, or into public policy.

The Trump administration provides an important demonstration of how a change in political message doesn’t necessarily translate to a change in policy direction. While “moderate” might feel like a weird term to describe such a volatile and often radical (not to mention bigoted) politician like Trump, his 2016 campaign moved to the center on several policy issues. From opposing entitlement reform, to general hostility to trade, to supporting raising taxes on the top 1 percent, even to showing skepticism about some foreign interventionism, Trump the candidate represented a rebuke of a lot of GOP orthodoxy.

However, his presidency has been a different story. As president, Trump has only one major legislative accomplishment: a $1.5–2 trillion dollar tax cut, the sort of policy every Republican has advocated since at least the Reagan administration. Why? Because the conservative establishment has built up a policymaking infrastructure. The Tax Cuts and Jobs Act is based on the Better Way framework developed by former House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), which built on academic economic research and the work of numerous right-leaning think tanks over at least a decade.

On foreign policy, despite the efforts of his isolationist-inclined supporters to cast him as our best hope for ending the “endless wars,” Trump has pursued a hard line on Iran and continued to stand behind Israel. On trade and immigration, he’s been able to use his executive power to shift towards a harsher, more “nationalistic” policy, but those changes are by nature temporary.

When it comes to policy, the strong version of the thesis that Trump has “hijacked” the party feeds off a half-baked assumption about past libertarian supremacy. But the idea of a pre-Trump, “libertarians who run everything” GOP is not a narrative that accords with reality. If that party ever existed, it lived solely as an opposition party under the Obama administration. The last GOP president before Trump, George W. Bush, was not a cut-government-for-government’s sake guy by any means. Sure, he tried to pass Social Security reform, but outside of tax cuts, his biggest legislative accomplishment was Medicare Part D, an expansion of government’s role in healthcare.

Neither was his father, George H. W. Bush, a libertarian ideologue. Hard to be one of those when a big part of your legacy is breaking a promise of no new taxes. Even Ronald Reagan recognized the need for a social safety net. The argument he used for tax cuts was not one of starving the beast (that cutting taxes will reduce revenue and necessitate cutting spending), but of the Laffer Curve (cutting taxes will stimulate growth, which will lead to more tax revenue available for government spending). Additionally, Reagan was willing to raise payroll taxes to strengthen funding for Social Security.

The supposed “libertarian” power over the Republican Party that populist right-wingers like Tucker Carlson and Hill TV host Saagar Enjeti deride isn’t really about libertarianism. It’s more a hodgepodge of free market economists and business interests, who at least on economics have things in common with libertarians, as well as institutional power that matters for policymaking—power that the populist, post-liberal, or national conservative types do not have. Even if the editorial staff of First Things sets up a think tank that will publish working papers on how to reorder the tax code to the highest good, it’s hard to see pro-business forces finding a better home across the aisle as the Democratic Party moves to the left on economics.

So what does this mean?

Republican policy will not be driven by Barry Goldwater-ism in the future, which isn’t surprising, given that no modern Republican administration has ever followed such a policy program. It will also not be dictated by Josh Hawley alone or applied Catholic social teaching, because of the institutional strength of pro-business forces. So which directions could Republican policy go? How will these internal philosophical conflicts of vision manifest themselves?

The possible future(s) of the Republican policy agenda can be found not in Trumpism, but in an intellectual movement that predates him that has since fractured. That movement is reform conservatism.

The reform conservative movement (reformicons, for short) can be traced back to then-Atlantic editors Ross Douthat and Reihan Salam’s book “Grand New Party,” which was published in 2008, and laid out several solutions for how the Republican Party should move to address issues like slow wage growth, healthcare costs and lack of access, job loss due to automation or trade, inequality, and declining social mobility.

The reformicon movement grew in response to Mitt Romney’s loss in the 2012 election, amidst concerns that the Republicans needed to adapt their message and policies to fit modern issues. It was a rebuke to the “makers and takers” message Republicans sometimes pushed, and was contrasted against the Tea Party, who (claimed to) believe in sticking to pure small government for small government’s sake.

Even though he didn’t embrace most of their wonky policy ideas on the campaign trail, Trump’s election was a vindication of the reformicons’ concerns about Republican small government. He benefited greatly from defending Medicare and Social Security, two common GOP boogeymen for the preceding decade. And he promised healthcare for everyone, even though he never had a coherent proposal to do that.

The reformicons aren’t gone, either. They still have institutions and experts in policymaking and governance, and aren’t so reactionary or anti-capitalist as to scare off the support of the business wing. They have a huge advantage over the post-liberals, such as Notre Dame political theorist Patrick Deneen, who tend to be theoreticians interested in philosophical analysis and criticism rather than drafting up clear agendas of public policy changes. In other words, even if post-liberal politicians gain enough political power to pass legislation, they’ll probably have to rely on the reformicons to do the policy for them.

So it might seem like I’m projecting that reform conservatism is the future and it’s all set in stone. And, okay, maybe I am. But even among the reformicon subset of the modern right or conservative movement, there’s a deep, underpinning divide that creates two possible paths.

The feud between National Review senior writer David French and First Things columnist Sohrab Ahmari in May of last year generated a lot of attention, and led to some hilarious moments (Drag Queen Story Hour! And who can forget the Great Breast-Counting Incident?) However, the intra-conservative debate that provides the best window into the two directions that GOP policymaking could go is a running debate on National Review back in November of 2018, between author and Manhattan Institute scholar Oren Cass and the Joint Economic Committee’s Scott Winship.

Instead of devolving into accusations of impropriety for having seen too many bare breasts on Game of Thrones, this back-and-forth centered around Cass’s book, The Once and Future Worker, which discussed, as the title might suggest, ways to help American workers. Winship challenged Cass’s claims about wage stagnation, arguing that using a correct measure of the price level demonstrated that wages for the middle class haven’t really stagnated over the past few decades, and a debate over specifics ensued.

It’s an interesting technical issue that lots of economists, not just reformicon wonks, have discussed. But beneath this murky argument about data analysis lies a foundational question in two strains of reformicon thought: Were the last 40 years good?

Winship’s side says yes.

Ramesh Ponnuru explained this side of the debate as believing the problem with small government or pure laissez-faire capitalism is a political one. Arguing that government intervention is bad and that markets are good purely as a principle is insufficient today. Instead, conservatives should focus their efforts on specific policies that will solve economic problems people have. Reihan Salam once described the reformicon perspectives as applying the ideas of Reaganism to new problems.

They defend the Reagan Revolution as the correct set of policies for the time and argue they stimulated economic growth and prosperity. They see globalization and opening up to free trade as fundamentally good, though not without tradeoffs; they’re still devoted to free markets as a rule, and support increasing at least high-skilled immigration. There’s not much of a strain of anti-corporatism, either.

However, while they might argue that wages haven’t stagnated, they recognize that they need policies that will help the middle and lower classes, whose wages might not have grown as quickly. A lot of those policies have to do with reducing government barriers to entry, like occupational licensing reform or zoning reform. But they aren’t orthodox libertarians either: they support a safety net, particularly in the case of healthcare, often advocating that the U.S. adopt a system modeled after that of Singapore or Switzerland.

A useful point to remember here is that government spending and market freedom aren’t necessarily opposed. This group is pretty staunchly in the free market camp, which is to say that they are opposed to a lot of types of regulation, wage and price settings, subsidies for specific firms or industries, and economic protectionism. But they are not fundamentally opposed to government spending on social programs, and while they might still support tax cuts for economic reasons, they’re not outraged about the injustice of a progressive income tax, or the income tax in general.

Karl Smith, Patrick Ruffini, Ramesh Ponnuru, Scott Winship, Megan McArdle, Jim Pethokoukis, Michael Strain, Brink Lindsey, Kristen Soltis Anderson, and Avik Roy all come to mind as thinkers friendly to this position. Perhaps the best way to summarize this perspective is staunchly free market, but not fully anti-government, either. They see the problems of the modern economy not as a result of the freeing up of markets, but as a result of the failure to free up specific parts of the economy.

This side could be called the Reaganite Reformicons, or, if we really want to draw another hard-to-define term into The Discourse: Neoliberal Reformicons.

Cass’s side disagrees.

They view the past 40 years as, on net, a negative for the United States of America. They argue that wage growth has been stagnant, and the whittling away of American manufacturing is at the root of social and health problems like the opioid crisis and general social alienation. They’re also friendly to unions, especially in the private sector, as they share a view of the current labor market as non-competitive, meaning that either a higher minimum wage or collective bargaining is necessary to ensure that workers get paid their fair share.

They’re also supportive of industrial policy, in which the government selects industries to support and grow. Usually, reformicons of Cass’s ilk couch this in the context of competition with China. Similarly, this group is also more friendly to protectionism. Broadly, the decline of manufacturing is a major concern. While the liberal reformicons acknowledge some of the costs of trade, they see the rise of the service sector over manufacturing to be a good thing thanks to comparative advantage.

Perhaps it’s my own bias seeping in, as someone who finds him squarely aligned with the first group of reformicons, but this latter group is often less interested in promoting economic improvements, and more about the trade-offs between economic prosperity and some form of perceived social higher good. Arc Digital’s own Ben Sixsmith hinted at this perspective last May, regarding his opposition to free markets in organ donation, pornography, prostitution, and surrogacy, among other things.

There’s certainly common ground: both groups want to expand the child tax credit and are sympathetic to paid family leave, and agree on the premise that small government for small government’s sake is a mistake, either for ideological or political reasons. On healthcare, both sides see a role for government funding. Even the arch anti-Frenchist himself admits that the libertarians have a point about zoning regulations. But on other issues, from taxes to trade to immigration to unions, they split. In mid-February this year, Cass announced his new think tank, American Compass, which should prove to be an ideas factory for this side of the debate.

This divide is a realistic approximation of two paths the Republican Party could follow. The liberal reformicons present a shift in political message for the GOP away from small government fundamentalism that can be tied with the real concerns the public, particularly Trump voters, has, but remains grounded in the same economic perspectives. Meanwhile, the illiberal reformicons build an ideological framework and comprehensive policy agenda around the loosely defined concept of “Trumpism,” but as Helen Andrews wrote in First Things, they remain resolutely anti-socialist, and with an increasingly left-wing Democratic Party, adopting this agenda would not cause the business wing to leave the GOP behind.

Philosophical debates over the true meaning of conservatism and the highest good are fascinating. But how those debates manifest themselves in public policy is where they really matter.

Arc Digital

The internet’s best opinion page

Alex Muresianu

Written by

Young Voices contributor and Tufts student writing about economics. Published: The American Conservative and The Washington Examiner. @ahardtospell

Arc Digital

The internet’s best opinion page

Alex Muresianu

Written by

Young Voices contributor and Tufts student writing about economics. Published: The American Conservative and The Washington Examiner. @ahardtospell

Arc Digital

The internet’s best opinion page

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