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Tea Party Communitarian

Mike Lee is an unlikely candidate for conservatism’s most promising policy mind. A Tea Party firebrand since he swept into office in 2010, Lee was the driving force behind efforts to defund Obamacare that led to a 16-day government shutdown this October. Yet the past year has also seen him reveal another side to his populist conservatism: a communitarian agenda for policy reform.

At the American Enterprise Institute in September, Lee set out a tax-reform proposal centered around a per child tax credit that would apply to income and payroll taxes alike. At the unveiling, Lee said: “Now, if you are like me—a conservative with a libertarian streak—you might at first raise an eyebrow at all this. My plan, you might say, may share some features of traditional conservative tax reform but it’s no flat tax. It’s no consumption tax,” two policies long favored by conservative for their economic efficiency or ostensible fairness.

“That’s right,” he continued. “It’s better.”

With the slightest hint of braggadocio that only a humble Utahn can muster, Lee broke with the economic individualism of the conservative establishment to prioritize instead the family, “the first and foremost institution of civil society.” There was a sound economic basis for this, to be sure. Lee drew attention to what he called the “Parent Tax Penalty” whereby parents doubly contribute to entitlement programs through their taxes and the expenses they incur raising future taxpayers. And he insisted, “Here, I am not speaking about the family as a moral or cultural institution, strictly as a social and economic one.” But that in itself is significant: the family, not just the individual, is what economics must be about.

“Conservatives sometimes get criticized for putting too much emphasis on the family in policy debates,” he acknowledged. But “the real problem may be that we don’t think about the family enough. For family is not just one of the major institutions through which people pursue happiness. Is the one upon which all the others depend.”

At the Heritage Foundation in April, Lee delivered a communitarian manifesto of sorts entitled “What Conservatives Are For.” He emphasized “that the true and proper end of political subsidiarity is social solidarity” and explained that his “vision of American freedom is of two separate but mutually reinforcing institutions: a free enterprise economy and a voluntary civil society.”

Lee’s proposals focus on relieving burdens on the institutions that strengthen society in their everyday practice. This outlook goes straight back to his Utah origins. “We’ve always been a state that has had strong institutions of civil society, very strong neighborhoods, very connected neighborhoods where people know each other,” the senator tells me. “Sometimes people are quick to assume that that just refers to people who are members of my church, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, but it’s not just that. There’s a very strong neighborhood dynamic in Utah that perhaps traces back to the way we were settled,” he explains.

“People had traveled great distances, sometimes thousands of miles to get there to what was initially a fairly desolate desert. The Salt Lake Valley was said to only have one or two trees when the first Mormon Pioneers arrived in 1847, and it required people to work together a lot to build these communities, to make the desert blossom like a rose. And that has become part of our culture, and it has thrived.”

Communitarian concern for the social fabric and libertarian resistance to big-government interventions fit together naturally for the Utah senator. “Lee has been eager to show that social conservatism and concern for the family doesn’t speak a different language than his kind of constitutionalism and limited government-ism,” says Yuval Levin, editor of the policy quarterly National Affairs. Levin is encouraged by the direction he sees leaders like Lee taking.

“I think there’s been a tendency for a decade or more in conservatism to move away from communitarian talk to a much more individualist talk, and it’s very much in need of counterforce,” he says. “Conservatism needs to be a counterweight to radical individualism, not an enabler of it, and to me to see that being expressed again is really crucial.”

At AEI, Lee opened his proposal by speaking of “a new and unnatural stagnancy” that has trapped the poor and worn down the middle class. There are the beginnings here of a different way of talking about the economy, in contrast to the GOP’s old prosperity gospel for the upwardly mobile. Republicans a year ago proved all too ready to fan the flames of upper-class resentment with talk of the 47 percent of Americans who pay no federal income tax. Lee rebukes that mentality, pointing out at AEI that “people who pay no income tax do pay federal taxes—payroll taxes, gas taxes, and various others,” and squarely declaring, “Working families are not free riders.” Web issue image [1]

Lee rails upward instead, against the cronyism that big government and big business together have cultivated at the taxpayer’s expense. “At the top of our society, we find a political and economic elite that—having reached the highest rungs—has pulled up the ladder behind itself, denying others the chance even to climb,” he warned at AEI. At Heritage, he went so far as to say, “The first step in a true conservative reform agenda must be to end this kind of preferential policymaking. Beyond simply being the right thing to do, it is a prerequisite for earning the moral authority and political credibility to do anything else.” How, he asked, could working families take seriously a conservatism that props up and subsidizes big banks and corporate agricultural interests?

For a GOP long seen as the party of entrenched financial interests, populist credibility must be won back, and a deregulation agenda alone won’t cut it. This is where Lee’s rugged communitarianism is especially vital to his cause. In his Heritage speech, he described the conservative vision as “not an Ayn Rand novel. It’s a Norman Rockwell painting, or a Frank Capra movie: a society of ‘plain, ordinary kindness, and a little looking out for the other fellow, too’. ”

He continued,

In the last few years, we conservatives seem to have abandoned words like ‘together,’ ‘compassion,’ and ‘community’ as if their only possible meanings were as a secret code for statism. This is a mistake. Collective action doesn’t only—or even usually—mean government action. Conservatives cannot surrender the idea of community to the left, when it is the vitality of our communities upon which our entire philosophy depends.

Lee’s understanding of civil society redirects what often seems like a pure populist backlash—a mere reaction—to finding constructive ways in which limited-government constitutionalists can act on James Madison’s notion that government is for “the happiness of the people” and Abraham Lincoln’s idea that it ought “to lift artificial weights from all shoulders, to clear the paths of laudable pursuit for all.”

But can Lee sell his communitarian message to his fellow constitutionalists? Levin is hopeful: “He has a shot because to a certain extent he’s filling a vacuum, and that means he really has an opportunity to shape the arena the way he wants to.”

As Lee himself said at AEI: “For a political party too often seen as out of touch, aligned with the rich, indifferent to the less fortunate, and uninterested in solving the problems of working families, Republicans could not ask for a more worthy cause around which to build a new conservative reform agenda.”

Jonathan Coppage is associate editor of The American Conservative.

25 Comments (Open | Close)

25 Comments To "Tea Party Communitarian"

#1 Comment By Fraternite On November 19, 2013 @ 4:37 am

“[My] vision of American freedom is of two separate but mutually reinforcing institutions: a free enterprise economy and a voluntary civil society.”

This sort of paleoconservatism only works today for a handful of religious conservatives in the same cultural space as those 150 years ago — it doesn’t and won’t work for an increasingly modern and secular nation. For better or worse, the modern conservative mantra is “The individual is best suited to make his own decisions and should not be encumbered while doing so”.

Recognizing the family as the central social unit is fundamentally a communitarian approach and communitarian approaches traditionally have been labeled “socialist” (in opposition to liberal ones, obviously).

Now I have zero problem with approaches that prioritize the wellbeing and good of the family (read: group) over those of individuals, but let’s not kid ourselves about what that is — it’s a type of socialism grounded in the specific American cultural values and ideology of 150 years ago.

And as someone sympathetic to that, I can appreciate it and support it. But that’s just not how modern America and modern Americans tick (regardless of their R or D affiliation). It’s all about individuals and individual freedom these days.

#2 Comment By John Roche On November 19, 2013 @ 6:31 am

As encouraging as this sounds there is a certain naievte about this vision of community in 2013. Its not as if the only thing preventing us from living in plain, decent small town intimacy is the leviathian of the Federal Government. We are not Bedford Falls or a Jeffersonian nation of self sufficient yeoman farmers who simply want to be left alone to form our “little platoons” of civic society. Any social model based on these archaic notions are of little use. I do applaud the intentions of Senator Lee however. A nice break from the reptilian sensibility of most Republicans on social policy and economics.

#3 Comment By Frank Stain On November 19, 2013 @ 8:57 am

For all the fine talk about communitarian values and the family as a moral institution, etc., I can’t help noticing that the actual policy proposals here are the same destructive supply-side tax cuts that the Right has been promoting for decades. Starting with the EITC, the Right has continually pushed the strategy of increasing the income of wage earners by lowering their taxes rather than giving them the power to push for wage increases. All this has done is to completely muddy the distinction between work and welfare. Food stamps, EITC, medicaid are now government programs that subsidize low-wage work, allowing employers to pay a below-subsistence wage that is subsidized by government programs. Another supply-side tax cut is only going to provide employers more slack to avoid raising wages.
Supply-side tax cuts have done nothing but engender a low-wage, low benefits, low-tax economy that beggars everybody but the owners of capital. Isn’t it time we tried something different?
Can we find a way to raise wages rather than continually mucking about with the tax code?

#4 Comment By Michael MacLeod On November 19, 2013 @ 9:03 am

I think that Rep. Lee is really saying that the family is the smallest political unit, not a critical-path enabler of the individual, which is what he claims it represents.

However necessary family life is, there are other crucial externalities. After all, we do not stay children all our lives, and his argument makes no more sense than the commies who maintain that since everybody needs air, water, shelter, food, medical care, sex, and high-speed Internet access, that obviously government should look to these needs. Where’s my Sexual Security Card? I’m still waiting.

Libertarian anarchists such as myself generally run away from Daddy, not to him, or Him. Our experiences of family life were very different, often the same persecutions as the State, writ small.

Sigh. It’s tempting to blame the lack of frontiers again. People like me would have been off to the log cabins and fresh air rather than bubbling like yeast in a society that yearns for a government more like a happy family. I’ve never known any.

#5 Comment By RKJ On November 19, 2013 @ 9:12 am

I hope the picture you paint of Mr. Lee is accurate. If it is, it makes me very happy. I only say this in light of the way he has been presented by mass media as just another Tedward Cruz.


In the last few years, we conservatives seem to have abandoned words like ‘together,’ ‘compassion,’ and ‘community’ as if their only possible meanings were as a secret code for statism. This is a mistake. Collective action doesn’t only—or even usually—mean government action. Conservatives cannot surrender the idea of community to the left, when it is the vitality of our communities upon which our entire philosophy depends.

Is good stuff…

#6 Comment By Brendan Trainor On November 19, 2013 @ 10:08 am

I like Sen Lee. He has a quick mind, and he generally votes his conscience. However, this latest bit of social engineering is just that-social engineering. The State should not be rewarding procreation any more than it should be punishing it. What we need is a frank discussion on the income tax and payroll taxes with an eye towards a Chile type of solution whereby people have the choice between paying them or not paying them. Because in fact the income tax is an excise tax on federal privilege, and not an unapportioned capitation on workers, as it is being collected as today.If you want to pay the tax to get benefits, fine. But if you do not, then there should be recognition that you do not have to.

#7 Comment By Max Planck On November 19, 2013 @ 10:10 am

Can we stop with the conceit that these sops to the kiddies and the parents are going to change the social or economic equation in this country? This is the old “Kinder, Küche, Kirche” tripe, and I wish AmCom would stop pushing it. I was impressed with the site’s independence at one point, but it’s devolving into self-parody.

#8 Comment By balconesfault On November 19, 2013 @ 10:38 am

Maybe it takes a village?

#9 Comment By WorkingClass On November 19, 2013 @ 10:45 am

“people who pay no income tax do pay federal taxes—payroll taxes, gas taxes, and various others,” and squarely declaring, “Working families are not free riders”

This belated concession to reality could greatly enhance Republican prospects at the polls.

#10 Comment By David Naas On November 19, 2013 @ 11:11 am

It’s a step in the right direction. We’ve had far too much nihilistic worship of individualism. If “conservatives” are not about community (family, church, schools, clubs, they are libertarians (first cousins of anarchists, regardless of what the minions scry in “tea leaves”.)

#11 Comment By Fulton On November 19, 2013 @ 11:43 am

It’s very worthy and I’m all for it. However, I’m sceptical that it’ll catch on with the wider GOP, which these days seems to have gone a lot more Ayn Rand than Norman Rockwell.

#12 Comment By Frank Stain On November 19, 2013 @ 1:00 pm

I see little evidence that there is anything ‘communitarian’ about this proposal at all. You cannot construct genuine community if your vision of the nation is ‘ two separate but mutually reinforcing institutions: a free enterprise economy and a voluntary civil society’.

Hence, Mike Lee’s argument for this tax cut for child-bearing families is not a communitarian one at all, it is the individualist argument that these families are treated unfairly by being double-taxed. This is nonsense, as all non-child-bearing families who subsidize local schools would be quick to point out.

A genuine communitarian solution would be one that said: families don’t have children, communities do. Rather than offering handouts to select constituencies conceived atomistically, the upshot of this approach would be to ask: how can we organize the community to support families? And then you would start asking about things like affordable child care, affordable health care (including preventive care and dental), support for maternity and paternity leave, and so on.

But of course, the stock response to any appeal to real community is ‘sorry, not my problem. Your kids are not my responsibility, and neither is your lack of health care’.
So much for community.

#13 Comment By Siarlys Jenkins On November 19, 2013 @ 1:13 pm

Starting with the EITC, the Right has continually pushed the strategy of increasing the income of wage earners by lowering their taxes rather than giving them the power to push for wage increases. All this has done is to completely muddy the distinction between work and welfare.

In fact, the campaign to unionize fast-food workers (Fight for $15) had produced an incredibly effective video, highlighting that when McDonald’s workers call a company help line, they are referred to food stamps and other government programs that could help them sustain their families on the meagre wages McDonald’s pays.

Its linked to from this page:

I haven’t thought much of anything Mike Lee has done to date, but I could see this being a breath of fresh air. It would need to be tempered by the best of political give and take. I’d want to know how social security and Medicare will be funded if there is a “child credit” against payroll taxes. Perhaps Lee will take a page from Huey P. Long’s speeches and propose a tax on wealth to make up the difference, but I wouldn’t bet on it.

We already have a per-child exemption from taxable income… how will that relate to a tax credit?

I’m definitely in favor of keeping a progressive income tax. I wonder what Lee would think of exempting the first $20,000 from tax, for everyone, no matter how rich or poor, and running the top bracket up to 50 percent for income over one or two million per year? Maybe that could be combined with an exemption for income invested in actual new economic activity (as distinct from purchasing old dead stocks, which does not create jobs or new production).

#14 Comment By Reinhold On November 19, 2013 @ 1:56 pm

Yes, because free enterprise has not dwindled away the family increasingly over the past two centuries, turning it from an extended family into a single-parent home; it has not created breadwinner-parasite resentments btw. spouses or parents and children; it has not encouraged people to leave home as soon as possible to enter the labor market and purchase property. This is the point that will never sink in: fusionism is antithetical to conservatism.

#15 Comment By Hooly On November 19, 2013 @ 2:03 pm

Hmm, I don’t know. I thought the hallmark of Western, especially American, civilization was emphasis on the individual. ‘Individualism’ over ‘collectivism’, one manifestation of collectivism is ‘the family’, or in other cultures called ‘the clan’, ‘the surname’, ‘the tribe’, etc. Senator Lee sounds vaguely East Asian in his promotion of ‘the family’ frankly. He sounds more Confucian (who was a paleoconservative) then Libertarian. Am I reading too much into this??

#16 Comment By Richard Wagner On November 19, 2013 @ 2:09 pm

Many, not just on the left, but independents, centrists, libertarians, and others; when we hear “family” from conservatives that often translates to “gay marriage threatens the sanctity of my 4th marriage”. True family values, however, are a worthy end. Confucius once said, “The strength of the family derives from the integrity of the home.”

If conservatives will emphasis that, and tie it closely to more appealing values such as freedom of choice, this will be a winning message. They can also emphasize, as I often do, the desire of the left to replace family functions with government. The left clearly has an agenda of imposing a new brand of conformity as they seek centralized solutions to social debates, such as the marriage equality debate.

#17 Comment By RKJ On November 19, 2013 @ 2:42 pm


Yes…maybe 🙂

@Frank Stain

“You cannot construct genuine community if your vision of the nation is ‘ two separate but mutually reinforcing institutions: a free enterprise economy and a voluntary civil society’.”

Yes you can. I see the seeds of it in my community. Ultimately, it’s important to give the entities that drive community the power to do so (institutions, families, localities, churches, etc), and not give power to the ideas that drives the individualist presuppositions of a culture. Egalitarian robust individualism leads to an ever-increasing nanny state. The opposite is true as well: A massive centralize state leads to individualism. The choice isn’t either individualism or collectivism. Communitarian principles can lie outside this paradigm. You very well can have a free economy and voluntary civil society. “Free economy” and “voluntary civil society” have to be defined, though. I do not believe the current system or the system that we have had has been reflective of a free market. Nor do I think many of the policies that have been driven in the name of the “free market” actually are “free market” principles. Families have children, not communities. But, children are born into these social settings where communities exist. The government, particularly the disconnected abstract federal government, has no understanding of what each locality, community and institution needs and requires. Community is not the result of any policy making, other than policies that defend and protect the societal units that create, establish and maintain community. The family is the cornerstone of society. I think the policies you seem to be advocating for are actually the inevitable result of what radical individualism leads to. But it doesn’t create community. It just begins to try and fill the void that individualism produces.

**It’s important to note that I speak from a Conservative and Localist Christian worldview. Please refrain from associating that with what the mainstream calls the “evangelical right”. That’s a loaded term with so many presuppositions. I say this because it may give some more definition to my response.

#18 Comment By EarlyBird On November 19, 2013 @ 2:51 pm


It may be that “approaches that prioritize the wellbeing and good of the family (read: group) over those of individuals,…” may be part of a “…type of socialism grounded in the specific American cultural values and ideology of 150 years ago.”

I don’t have a problem with that. Though the primacy of the individual is very American, so is this version of “socialism” you refer to. Many people who look fondly on the good ol’ days are harkening back to a time when American government understood that there was a need to look at groups’ and Americans’ welfare in general in order to preserve social stability, a very conservative concern.

“It’s all about individuals and individual freedom these days.”

I disagree. I think most everyone is concerned about the atomization of family and communities, and the dangerous disassociation of the elite from the masses. The trick of course, is how to address these concerns.

I will be cautiously optimistic that Lee wants to focus on the American family unit and American national family. Let’s hope his fix isn’t just more taxes breaks, deregulation and gutting of social services.

#19 Comment By Michael MacLeod On November 19, 2013 @ 3:34 pm

The discussion so far does not address, directly, the granularity issues involved with socialism. Making decisions on behalf of the masses leads to handing out white boxes with black lettering saying, “Food”, like the net entrepreneur now hawking his “soylent” instant food powder to those disenclined to cook for themselves. His attempt to present his product from the intellectual high ground (“it’s the logical choice”) makes me ill.

But the important point is that this discussion is taking place against a backdrop of the relentless and terrifying and promising process of endowing individuals with more and more power, political, military, industrial, and medical. In an age where one can “print” a 2500 sqft house in 24 hours, or buy your air force of drones cheaply, or produce megatons of “food” powder, it’s the libertarian individualists who have the most to gain – and lose.

It is not clear that these trends will or will not ultimately destroy the social-political-technological substrate that has enabled them; extrapolating the empowerment trend into the next few decades suggests that individuals will possess the military power of 19th century governments, so I suppose we will find out…

#20 Comment By Fraternite On November 19, 2013 @ 10:17 pm


If anything, Lee seems to be channeling the Red Tory tradition of Canada and the UK. Like I said in my initial reply, I’m very sympathetic to something like this despite it having socialist overtones.

The way “socialist” has become an epithet and equated with liberal leftism has really hurt political discourse in the country as far as I’m concerned, and as much as I find that “socialism” to be distasteful, I wish that the communitarianism that Lee seems to promulgate would be less inimical to modern conservative thought.

I don’t hold out much hope, though; Reagan put the nail in the coffin a long time ago. Since then, conservatism *is* tax cuts, deregulation, and cutting of social services. I don’t know how much longer I can stomach voting for it, though I really don’t see any alternative (other than not voting at all).

Maybe I should turn into one of those oft-despised primary voters who tries to vote for a candidate I like that will have no chance in the general election, heh.

#21 Comment By AnotherBeliever On November 19, 2013 @ 11:26 pm

This is a start. A positive agenda, an alternative vision to the current Administration’s many missteps. Throw in paid maternity leave to counter the “war on women,” refer all questions on gay marriage to the will of the people, and highlight (gently) the communitarian traditions of many subsets of American culture, mention a couple times in passing the economic benefits of marriage, and you just might have something here. Grab onto rightsizing the national security state and run with it! Like many AmCon readers, I am not exactly a card-carrying conservative. But I have some conservative tendencies, and this platform, I’m finding very appealing.

#22 Comment By stef On November 21, 2013 @ 12:46 pm

Federal tax policy already heavily subsidizes families in the form of child deductions, child care tax credits, tuition tax credits, mortgage deductions.

States have their own tax credits, as well as state voucher programs (involving taxpayer transfer payments to families with children for private school.)

And Lee wants more?

#23 Comment By Erin On November 22, 2013 @ 9:51 am

This feels like a huge tax break for Utah – Utah leads the nation in households led by married couples (61% to 48% for the nation), average household size (3.1 to 2.58) and households with children (43% to 33%).

A lot of Utahns were pretty mad at Mike Lee about the shutdown since so much of Utah’s income comes from tne National Park system. This proposal is probably nothing more than a mea culpa from Lee and an attempt to move his politics closer to his home state’s values (which are much more communitarian than libertarian).

#24 Comment By HeidiC. On December 1, 2013 @ 6:02 am

I would not be so eager to claim today’s society as a standard, just because is 2013, instead of 1930 (how far back do I go?) Ethics and values have ERODED over time. Going back to conservative ROOTS sound good to me, and many, many others! That would include a return to the family unit’s beauty and importance!

#25 Comment By cruella e-vil On December 17, 2013 @ 4:37 pm

Can the Tea Party or any other party put families first? Not with the number of homeless and hungry children (and their parents) out there.