But that is not the end of the story. Trump also obliquely aided reform by smashing the status quo and proving
the Douthat and Salam thesis that support from whites without college degrees is essential to Republican victory. After the election, Rubio kept advocating for democracy and human rights, but jettisoned supply side orthodoxy. He fought successfully to expand the child tax credit in the 2017 tax bill . He proposed a paid parental leave policy and criticized stock buybacks. In 2018 he delivered a speech arguing for a “new nationalism” based on “an economy built on the dignity of work,” the family as “the most central institution in society,” “working together in community,” and “the belief that every human being is endowed by God with an inalienable right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”
Rubio has cited Oren Cass’s
The Once and Future Worker (2018). It’s worth noting that Cass is a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, where Salam recently became president. Meanwhile, Levin’s follow-up to his Fractured Republic (2016) is a call for rebuilding institutions crucial to the formation of character. Reform conservatism, in other words, is far from being a spent force.
Where the paleoconservatives distinguish themselves from the other camps is
foreign policy. The paleos are noninterventionists who, all things being equal, would prefer that America radically reduce her overseas commitments. Though it’s probably not how he’d describe himself, the foremost paleo is Tucker Carlson, who offers a mix of traditional social values, suspicion of globalization, and noninterventionism every weekday on cable television.
Carlson touched off an important debate with his January 3 opening monologue on markets. “
Culture and economics are inseparably intertwined,” Carlson said. “ Certain economic systems allow families to thrive. Thriving families make market economies possible. You can’t separate the two.”
Carlson’s indictment of America’s “ruling class” and “the ugliest parts of our financial system” was remarkable for several reasons. First, he delivered it on a network whose opinion programs normally laud American capitalism and free enterprise. Second, the speech was wide-ranging, criticizing everyone from Mitt Romney to Sheryl Sandberg to parents who let their kids smoke weed. Third, Carlson offered a theory of the case. Social decline, he said, is related to the loss of manufacturing jobs. It happened in the inner cities. Now it’s happening in the Rust Belt and in rural America. When jobs disappear and low-skilled male wages decline, family formation breaks down.
While Carlson noted in passing that wage income is taxed at a higher rate than investment income, he did not make any specific proposals. “I’m not a policy guy, I’m a talk show host, but I sincerely believe that no problem is solved unless you have a clear image in your mind of what you want the result to be,” he told Michael Brendan Dougherty at the National Review Institute conference in March. Earlier this month, he welcomed John Burtka, the chairman of the paleo journal
The American Conservative (TAC), on to his program. Burtka argued for treating the social media giants as monopolies. Carlson loved it.
In a separate piece for TAC, Burtka offered a defense of “economic nationalism.” He advocated a national industrial strategy, without providing many details, though presumably incorporating some mixture of tariffs and government-directed investment. This reluctance toward nuts-and-bolts legislative proposals is widespread. “We still need to figure out a lot of the details for how this vision of conservative politics, a pro-family, pro-worker, pro-American nation, conservatism actually looks in practice,” J. D. Vance told a recent TAC gala. We’re waiting!
Paleos have brought renewed attention to the condition of American communities. Tim Carney of the American Enterprise Institute and Washington Examiner devotes his new book, Alienated America, to the frayed bonds that barely connect working-class Americans to each other. Like Carlson, Mike Lee might not accept the paleo label, but he best represents this mixture of traditionalism, communitarianism, and nonintervention in the U.S. Senate. His social capital project is a major effort to assess the strengths and vulnerabilities of American society. He’s worked with Rubio on parental leave, though it should be said that unlike paleos he opposes Trump’s trade policies. Paleos might not have exact answers when it comes to domestic policy, but they are certain American foreign policy should be restrained, within constitutional bounds, and prioritize diplomacy over military force.
Here is a group that I did not see coming. The Trump era has coincided with the formation of a coterie of writers who say that
liberal modernity has become (or perhaps always was) inimical to human flourishing. One way to tell if you are reading a post-liberal is to see what they say about John Locke. If Locke is treated as an important and positive influence on the American founding, then you are dealing with just another American conservative. If Locke is identified as the font of the trans movement and same-sex marriage, then you may have encountered a post-liberal.
The post-liberals say that
freedom has become a destructive end-in-itself. Economic freedom has brought about a global system of trade and finance that has outsourced jobs, shifted resources to the metropolitan coasts, and obscured its self-seeking under the veneer of social justice. Personal freedom has ended up in the mainstreaming of pornography, alcohol, drug, and gambling addiction, abortion, single-parent families, and the repression of orthodox religious practice and conscience. “When an ideological liberalism seeks to dictate our foreign policy and dominate our religious and charitable institutions, tyranny is the result, at home and abroad,” wrote the signatories to “Against the Dead Consensus,” a post-liberal manifesto of sorts published in First Things in March.
“The ambition of
neoliberalism,” wrote the editor of First Things in the spring of 2017, “is to weaken and eventually dissolve the strong elements of traditional society that impede the free flow of commerce (the focus of nineteenth-century liberalism), as well as identity and desire (the focus of postmodern liberalism). This may work well for the global elite, but ordinary people increasingly doubt it works for them.” The result, he said, has been populist calls for the “ strong gods” of familial, national, and religious authority.
The post-liberals are
mainly but not exclusively traditionalist Catholics. Their most prominent spokesman is Patrick J. Deneen, whose Why Liberalism Failed (2018) was recommended by that ultimate progressive, Barack Obama. Israeli philosopher Yoram Hazony’s Virtue of Nationalism(2018) is another important entry in the post-liberal canon. Hazony has contributed essays to both First Things (“Conservative Democracy”) and American Affairs (“What Is Conservatism?”) making the case for conservatism without Locke, Jefferson, and Paine.
The post-liberals have put forward two contradictory political strategies. The first, advanced by
Rod Dreher, who is Eastern Orthodox, is the Benedict Option of turning away from the secular world and shielding, as best you can, spiritual life. The second, as put by Sohrab Ahmari also in First Things, is “to use these values [of civility and decency] to enforce our order and our orthodoxy, not pretend that they could ever be neutral.”
Another post-liberal, Gladden Pappin of
American Affairs, says,
Rather than asking the question, ‘What should conservatives/progressives do?’ considerable advances can be made through certain purely practical considerations: ‘How can the integrity of the national political community be assured?’ ‘
How can commercial activity and technological development continue to be turned toward the common good, and toward our own strategic advantage?’ ‘What can we do with the reins of power, that is, the state, to ensure the common good of our citizens?’
The closest the post-liberals have to a
spokesman in the Senate is freshman Josh Hawley, who attends an evangelical Presbyterian church. Not six months into his term, Hawley has already established himself as a social conservative unafraid of government power. He has picked fights with the conservative legal establishment by criticizing two of President Trump’s judicial appointments. He has identified Silicon Valley as a threat to traditional values and proposed legislation to begin to rein in the tech industry. And in a little noticed commencement address to King’s College, he inveighed against the fact that
For decades now our politics and culture have been dominated by a particular philosophy of freedom. It is a
philosophy of liberation from family and tradition; of escape from God and community; a philosophy of self-creation and unrestricted, unfettered free choice.
Pelagian vision” — Pelagius was a monk condemned by the Church fathers as a heretic – “ celebrates the individual,” Hawley went on. But “it leads to hierarchy. Though it preaches merit, it produces elitism. Though it proclaims liberty, it destroys the life that makes liberty possible. Replacing it and repairing the profound harm it has caused is one of the great challenges of our day.”
The post-liberals say that the distinction between state and society is illusory. They argue that, even as conservatives defended the independence of civil society from state power,
the left took over Hollywood, the academy, the media, and the courts. What the post-liberals seem to call for is the use of government to recapture society from the left. How precisely they intend to accomplish this has been left undefined. (Though the levy on large university endowments included in the 2017 tax bill is a start.)
Another question is whether the post-liberal project is sustainable in the first place. The
post-liberals, like other nationalists, may have over-interpreted the results of the 2016 election. Trump is many things, but it is safe to say that he is not an integralist. Prominent online and in my Twitter feed, the post-liberals might also misjudge their overall numbers. Before they recapture the state, much less re-moralize a nation of 300 million and hundreds of sects and denominations, they must first convince their co-religionists.
Appeals to the common good are rhetorically powerful, but they often
run up against the shoals of America’s constitutional structure and overwhelming emphasis on individual rights. That is one potential reason the post-liberals seem more interested in European philosophy and politics. It also could be why many of them are eager to abandon the term “conservatism.”
Which might be for the best.
Fusionism’s critics say that it was historically contingent on the unique situation of the Cold War. But if you read the best expression of “fusionist” conservatism, the Sharon Statement of 1960, you see that its ideas of freedom and constitutionalism are deeply embedded in American intellectual traditions. “There is only one American political tradition,” wrote Irving Kristol, “and every political movement must obtain its sanction, invoking the same memories, the same names, the same archetypal images, even the very same quotations.” A conservatism that does not incorporate the ideas of freedom and civil and religious liberty that imprinted America at its birth not only would be unrecognizable to William F. Buckley, Barry Goldwater, and Ronald Reagan, Americans themselves would find it alien and unappealing. And rightly so.