America Divided: The Republican Party in Theory and Practice

COMMENTARY Conservatism

America Divided: The Republican Party in Theory and Practice

Oct 18, 2017 10 min read

Former Director and AWC Family Foundation Fellow

David Azerrad studies conservatism, progressivism, identity politics, libertarianism and the American Founding.
At its best, reform conservatism offers sensible policy proposals to improve the quality of life of all Americans. iStock

Key Takeaways

The dominant ideology on the Right is anti-statism. Conservatives tend to reduce politics to a zero-sum battle for liberty between the federal government.

The “conservatarian” fixation on liberty made some sense during the Cold War. It does not, however, speak to the challenges confronting most Americans today.

The issue, for Trump, is less the size of government than whose interests it serves. The battle at home, he claims, is between the ruling class and the people.

Turning to the Right, the dominant ideology is libertarian anti-statism. Among mainstream conservatives, there is a marked tendency to reduce politics to a zero-sum battle for liberty between the federal government and the rest of the country (individuals primarily, but also the states, the private sector, and civil society), and to trust in markets to solve nearly all problems. Mainstream conservatism, in others words, frequently confuses conservatism with libertarianism. “I believe the very heart and soul of conservatism is libertarianism,” Ronald Reagan once explained. “The basis of conservatism is a desire for less government interference or less centralized authority or more individual freedom, and this is a pretty general description also of what libertarianism is.”

Mainstream conservatism has carved out two important exceptions to this anti-statist ideology, the goal of which is to maximize individual liberty. It has created protected realms for social conservatives—whose goal is to protect the family, defend the vulnerable, and uphold traditional morality—and for foreign policy hawks who want a well-funded military capable of keeping America safe and projecting force the world over.

While conservative intellectuals are fond of invoking the fusionist three-legged stool of fiscal, social, and national security conservatism to describe themselves, this analogy does not capture the underlying philosophy of mainstream conservatism (or the self-understanding of the average Republican voter, for that matter). In terms of its worldview, fusionist conservatism could more accurately be described as a two-branched tree: the trunk is anti-statist libertarianism, to which are added the two branches of social and national security conservatism. This explains why social conservatives are always on the defensive: they must justify their views before the libertarian tribunal of more choice, more liberty, and less government.

The “conservatarian” fixation on liberty and opposition to government made some sense during the Cold War when the threat of communism loomed over the world. It does not, however, speak to the challenges confronting most Americans today. Aside from the most committed libertarians, few Americans would list a lack of freedom in their lives as their most pressing concern. That is not to deny that militant leftism, the administrative state, and the imperial judiciary threaten liberty—they most emphatically do. Nor is it to argue that conservatives should not care for liberty. Rather it is to recognize that the average American, including the average Republican voter, is not a libertarian, has come to expect quite a lot from the federal government, and cares as much, if not more, about security than liberty (or opportunity for that matter, unless he is young and on the make).

In its celebration of rugged individualism and the virtues of entrepreneurship, libertarian anti-statism does speak to a part of the American soul that ought to be preserved. But because it pushes its individualism too far, it has a harder time speaking to the patriotic part of the American soul. In fact, it has a tendency to undermine it by reducing the country to a national free-trade zone and American citizens to consumers in a global market economy.

In the Republican Party, this fusionist “conservatarianism” is the reigning ideology. Most Members of Congress identify as conservative and generally talk and think in terms of less government, and more freedom. How they govern is another matter altogether. After more than a century of progressive-liberalism, the administrative state and the welfare state are deeply entrenched. The realities of big government, coupled with the expectations of voters and the pressures of lobbyists, force most Republican Members of Congress to be more conciliatory in practice — to the point where many come to define the conservative position as simply spending less than what the Democrats propose. To the perennial dismay of movement conservatives, the GOP tends to govern in a rather establishmentarian way.

Within the Republican Party and the conservative movement, there are some who, having made their peace with some form of big government, are actively working to reform it. What used to be called neo-conservatism (before the Iraq War made the term radioactive) now goes by the name of reform conservatism. It is the dominant way of thinking among conservative policy wonks of all stripes in the Beltway, regardless of whether they identify with the label, and it has a few adherents among Republicans in Congress.

Reform conservatism is admittedly a catch-all term that includes a rather diverse group of people, from the so-called reformicons, to Speaker of the House Paul Ryan and Senator Mike Lee. Despite disagreeing on particular policies and on how best to navigate the political landscape, they share a similar approach to governing. In the spirit of Irving Kristol, reform conservatism promises to reform the clunky and outdated machinery of the modern administrative-welfare state rather than to get rid of it, as the libertarians promise, or to simply manage it more efficiently, as the Republican establishment tends to do. Its main aim is not so much to expand individual liberty as it is to strengthen and reinvigorate the core institutions of civil society — families, local communities, and voluntary associations of all kinds. On a range of issues, it aims to devolve decision-making to the states and to create subsidized competitive markets where they currently don’t exit (for example, in education and health care).

At its best, reform conservatism offers sensible policy proposals to improve the quality of life of all Americans. (At its worst, it devolves into technocratic rule, albeit with a greater emphasis on fiscal responsibility and the importance of markets.) Unlike the utopianism of libertarian anti-statism, its agenda also has the great virtue of being achievable.

Reform conservatism does, however, face an uphill battle to win over the hearts and minds of Americans. Even though the policies it advocates would benefit the American people, it has limited appeal outside the Beltway. Its worldview has no clearly defined enemies and, as such, fails to inspire. Politics is always about “us versus them” — whether it be enemies abroad or factions at home that threaten the common good. Reform conservatism is critical of the failures of big government and of the excesses of modern liberalism, but it does not vividly impress upon the people the threat they pose to our way of life. On the whole, it is insufficiently spirited, and thus, insufficiently political. It has neither the rhetorical zeal of libertarian anti-statism, nor the emotional appeal of the newest and most misunderstood kid on the Republican block, Trumpist populism.

Since the days of Goldwater, the Republican Party has had a populist/anti-elitist streak. Bill Buckley famously said he would “sooner live in a society governed by the first two thousand names in the Boston telephone directory than in a society governed by the two thousand faculty members of Harvard University.” Ronald Reagan denounced those who would trust “a little intellectual elite in a far-distant capital” to “plan our lives for us better than we can plan them ourselves.”

In this vein, Donald Trump’s core contention is that the American people have been betrayed and taken advantage of by incompetent and corrupt elites from both parties. Trump’s America is divided between the people at large, whom he has taken to calling, in the spirit of FDR, “the forgotten men and women of this country,” and a ruling class, defined neither by its party affiliation nor its wealth, but by its grip on power, contempt for the American people, and globalist ideology.

Over the course of the campaign, Trump described the members of that ruling class in various ways: “wealthy donors, political activists and powerful, powerful politicians,” “the media-donor-political complex,” “big media, big businesses, and big donors rigging the system,” or more simply, “our nation’s most powerful special interests” — to which he has since added, unpatriotic athletes “making millions of dollars in the NFL, or other leagues.” Trump thinks they form a unified class that advances its own interests at the expense of the American people by supporting, for example, trade and immigration policies that enhance their bottom line or quality of life at the expense of working-class jobs. The members of our ruling class not only share interests, they have similar backgrounds, lifestyles and, most important of all, a shared worldview that is contemptuous of ordinary Americans. As Angelo Codevilla has observed, the “dismissal of the American people’s intellectual, spiritual, and moral substance is the very heart of what our ruling class is about.”

Like Sandersism, Trumpist populism is rooted in class conflict. But it defines the classes by their access to power and their worldview, rather than by their income and assets. Trump’s ruling class will of course include many of Sanders’s 1 percenters, but it will also include many considerably less well-off people who share the ruling class’s prejudices and support policies that harm the American people. An underpaid but well-connected blogger for the New York Times who graduated from Sarah Lawrence College and supports open borders would be considered part of the ruling class. A millionaire used-car dealer in Omaha who “clings to his guns and religion” and is proudly patriotic would not.

In this class conflict, Trumpist populism is wholly on the side of the American people. And it is much more comfortable than mainstream conservatism with the idea of using the federal government to advance the interests of the people. Trump, it is true, recognizes that most organs of the state are controlled by elites that use them to their advantage. He therefore wants to “drain the swamp,” or in the words of Steven Bannon, to undertake “the deconstruction of the administrative state.”

But Trump also thinks the federal government can help the American people. Hence his opposition to reforming entitlements, his calls for a trillion-dollar infrastructure plan, and his proposal to institute paid maternity-leave (Ivankacare). This support for “big government” is one of the greatest sources of tension between Trumpist populism and mainstream “conservatarian” thinking. While both are highly critical of the administrative state and the toll its regulations take on the economy, Trumpist populism seems for the most part comfortable with a welfare state in which transfer payments go to ordinary Americans.

The issue, for Trump, is less the size of government than whose interests it serves. The battle at home, he claims, is not between the individual and the state but between the ruling class and the people. The stakes are not so much liberty, as they are the security and well-being of the American people. Trumpist populism thus expresses itself primarily in the language of justice and solidarity, rather than individual freedom. In a campaign speech, Trump promised “to deliver justice, and safety, and security for all Americans.” He made solidarity — not freedom — the underlying theme of his Inaugural Address.

While Trump sees a deeply divided country, he believes that patriotic nationalism would go a long way to unifying the American people. As he said in his Inaugural address: “At the bedrock of our politics will be a total allegiance to the United States of America, and through our loyalty to our country, we will rediscover our loyalty to each other.” Properly understood, Trumpist populism is not the white backlash response to identity politics. While some of Trump’s followers may well think of him as the defender of the white working class, that is neither how he has campaigned nor how he has been governing.

In its affirmation of the unity of the American people, Trumpist populism rejects the divisiveness of both class-based redistributionism and identity politics. “For too long, Washington has tried to put us in boxes. They separate us by race, by age, by income, by place of birth, and by geography,” Trump said. “Now is the time to embrace the one thing that truly unites us. You know what that is? America.” More so than any of the other worldviews on the Left and the Right, Trumpism is unabashedly and proudly patriotic — and nationalist.

Contrary to the hysterical claims of the chattering class, this is a not a volkish nationalism of the blood. Its goal is not to preserve the ethnic or religious purity of the nation. Rather it is a nationalism of borders whose aim is to defend national sovereignty and the national interest. In a globalized world, it promises to put Americans First. Its primary targets are the foreign countries that take advantage of America and the domestic elites who, enamored as they are with transnationalism, misconstrue or ignore the interests of their fellow citizens. Trumpism is ultimately grounded in a simple “crucial conviction”: “that a nation exists to serve its citizens” — and not the whole of humanity.

Such language makes the identitarian Left very uncomfortable. Only the oppressed peoples of the Third World are allowed to voice nationalist sentiments. For Westerners to openly admit a preference for their own is either a slippery slope to racism, or racism plain and simple. Allegiance, for the identitarians, is owed either to one’s identity group at the subnational level or to the whole of humanity at the transnational level.

Trump’s nationalism also sits uneasily with certain patriotic conservatives who have a deep attachment to America but think of it more as an idea — a propositional nation — than a particular nation with distinct interests. The two are not of course mutually exclusive, as the Founders well knew. Just as conservatism should remember American particularism, Trumpism could be strengthened if it gave more prominence to America’s founding principles.

This is part two of the “America Divided” series. Click here to read part one and part three.

This piece originally appeared in The American Spectator