State of the Union

Republicans Wreck the Vote

This week, seven college students and voting-rights advocates are challenging a North Carolina voting regulation law, alleging age-based discrimination. They argue that the law, which does not permit state university IDs or out-of-state driver’s licenses as acceptable voter ID and ends a DMV pre-registration program for teenagers, violates the 26th Amendment that enfranchised citizens 18 and over. Separately, efforts to shut down voting sites at universities are adding to complaints that the Republican-dominated state and local governments are deliberately blocking the youth vote, which turned out overwhelmingly for President Obama twice in North Carolina and nationwide.

The irony is, Republicans may be moving to depress the youth vote just when it could be starting to turn in their favor. While the millennials who comprise young voters now look to be strongly Democratic in the short term, David Leonhardt argues that today’s teenagers may grow up conservative:

In the simplest terms, the Democrats control the White House (and, for now, the Senate) at a time when the country is struggling. Economic growth has been disappointing for almost 15 years now. Most Americans think this country is on the wrong track. Our foreign policy often seems messy and complex, at best.

To Americans in their 20s and early 30s — the so-called millennials — many of these problems have their roots in George W. Bush’s presidency. But think about people who were born in 1998, the youngest eligible voters in the next presidential election. They are too young to remember much about the Bush years or the excitement surrounding the first Obama presidential campaign. They instead are coming of age with a Democratic president who often seems unable to fix the world’s problems.

As Leonhardt argues, college students and young voters in general are not inherently liberal groups. In the 1980s, Republicans dominated the youth vote: Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush won first-time voters, under-29 voters, and voters with some college education by large margins. Those then-young voters remain a consistently Republican constituency, lining up with Leonhardt’s argument that politics are more generational than anything. Young voters are entering the electorate while making their political allegiances in reaction to ongoing policies, forming beliefs that they will carry throughout their lives.

Legislating away unfriendly voters is rarely a productive path to long-term future success for a party seeking democratic legitimacy, and voting blocs generally aren’t courted by efforts to impede their franchise or deny their voting rights. With their gaze fixed firmly backward at their past two presidential setbacks, North Carolina Republicans and their counterparts nationwide are at risk of scoring a series of own goals.

This generation in particular could be a political opportunity ripe for Republicans’ taking. The teenagers who voted in the last election, and those entering the electorate now, are voting increasingly Republican in reaction to the current administration’s failures. A Democratic president that leans interventionist and is misleadingly ineffective on student debt makes for even more fertile ground for conservative alternatives. Rather than trying to inhibit the youth vote, Republicans should craft policy solutions that could serve to swing young voters to their side and take advantage of their momentum.

Instead, the GOP seems to be one step behind the data, once more.


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The Conservatism of New Urbanism

Responding to Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry’s contention that the American left is intellectually exhausted, Noah Smith argues that one place liberals are stirring up new, progressive thinking is “the New Urbanists, which include prominent figures such as Richard Florida and a whole host of organizations working behind the scenes to transform American cities.” As Smith explains,

In the decades since World War II, the U.S. has seen relentless suburban sprawl, white flight and concentrations of poverty in inner cities. New Urbanism is looking to change all that, by encouraging walkable neighborhoods, adaptive redevelopment and less reliance on cars. Urban planning may sound like small potatoes, but it probably has more relevance to our daily lives than most federal government programs.

Urban planning can indeed have more relevance to our daily lives than most federal government programs (though urban planning is influenced by several federal government programs, it must be said). It determines the shape of our communities, and the patterns of our movement. Winston Churchill’s famous line that we shape our buildings, and thereafter they shape us may hold doubly true for our neighborhoods. And that is why New Urbanism is such an important conservative movement.

As Andres Duany, a founder of New Urbanism, explains in his book Suburban Nation, “The traditional neighborhood was the fundamental form of European settlement on this continent through the Second World War, from St. Augustine to Seattle. It continues to be the dominant pattern of habitation outside the United States, as it has been throughout recorded history,” whereas

Suburban sprawl, now the standard North American pattern of growth, ignores historical precedent and human experience. It is an invention, conceived by architects, engineers, and planners, and promoted by developers in the great sweeping aside of the old that occurred after the Second World War. Unlike the traditional neighborhood model, which evolved organically as a response to human needs, suburban sprawl is an idealized artificial system.

No less a conservative icon than Heritage Foundation and Moral Majority founder Paul Weyrich joined TAC‘s William S. Lind and Duany to present a report, “Conservatives and the New Urbanism,” in which they wrote,

On the face of it, it is hard to see why conservatives should oppose offering traditionally-designed cities, towns and neighborhoods as alternatives to post-war “sprawl” suburbs. As conservatives, we are supposed to prefer traditional designs over modern innovations in most things (and we do). We hope to demonstrate traditional designs for the places we live, work and shop encourage traditional culture and morals. This should not surprise us. Edmund Burke told us more than two hundred years ago that traditional societies are organic wholes. If you (literally) disintegrate a society’s physical setting, as sprawl has done, you tend to disintegrate its culture as well.

It is true that the overwhelming majority of New Urbanists are liberal. It should also be noted and acknowledged that, as Smith says, “Good ideas are good ideas, and identifying them with one team or the other just invites gridlock and polarization — which, as you may have noticed, we have plenty of these days.” But once we set Richard Florida’s “creative class” pablum to the side, it becomes apparent that when it comes to New Urbanism, progressives are designing better than they know.

Update: TAC will have much more coverage of conservatism, New Urbanism, and cities, starting next week, in a project funded by the Richard H. Driehaus Foundation. Stay tuned.

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A Crucial Question for Reformicons

All things being equal, I should be fan of Yuval Levin. I haven’t read his Burke- Paine book, but I’ve read a fair amount of Edmund Burke in my day, and agree with Levin’s take on the importance in intellectual and political history of the Burke-Paine divide. I admire without reservation The Public Interest, the monkish domestic politics quarterly founded by Irving Kristol which made the first large footprints of neoconservativism. Levin has founded a journal, National Affairs, plainly intended to be the heir and successor to The Public Interest, devoted to domestic policy ideas. The magazine is a platform for so-called reform conservatism, a group sometimes labeled “reformicons,” which seeks to rethink conservative domestic policy options in a period of rising inequality and a shrinking and financially insecure middle class.

These are clearly the kinds of problems with which conservatives should be engaged. I concur with Levin and other “reformicons” that domestic conservatism, to be politically relevant, needs to move beyond simplistic tax-cutting and “government is the enemy” notions.

So why does Sam Tanenhaus’s prominently-placed piece about Levin and his cohorts in the Sunday New York Times magazine leave a queasy feeling? Levin  (unsurprisingly depicted as “soft spoken” and “self-deprecating”) is described as “probably the pre-eminent conservative intellectual of the Obama era” by one prominent journalist (Jonathan Chait) and “a one-man Republican brain trust” by another (David Frum). The piece notes reformicon regrets about the defeat of their chief point person in Congress, former majority leader Eric Cantor, and offers a snippet about a New York Historical Society discussion of Levin’s book done with Weekly Standard editor Bill Kristol.

The answer is pretty obvious. Tanenhaus presents to a wide general interest audience the “preeminent conservative intellectual of the Obama era” and yet  erases from consideration the Iraq war or any other foreign policy question. So while it is true that Levin has interesting ideas about what’s wrong with Obama’s health care plan, we are left in the dark about whether he has thoughts about war and peace or America’s role in the world. Perhaps we can infer the answer from Levin’s association with some of the most prominent propagandists for that two-trillion dollar war of aggression, which, more than any war in America’s history, was a war conceived and successfully lobbied by intellectuals based in magazines and think tanks. Does Levin favor, as does Bill Kristol, starting a new American war against Iran? Does he favor, as also does Kristol, an American war against both the Sunni extremists in Iraq and their Iranian enemies at the same time? Would Levin deem such projects “Burkean”? I would be inclined to guess no, but then it is not especially reassuring to find Kristol and David Frum featured so prominently among Levin’s major boosters.

And then there is Eric Cantor. It is apt that the Richmond Republican should be described as one of the leaders of the “Young Guns”–a group of Republican congressmen most receptive to reformicon ideas. But he also holds the distinction of being the first House majority leader in American history to openly collaborate with the leader of a foreign power against the policies of an American president.

My first full-time job in journalism was with The National Interest, a publication founded and published by Irving Kristol as well, and edited by the Welsh-born Australian Owen Harries. The two magazines shared office space. Harries, as it happened, was also an admirer of Edmund Burke. Not infrequently, when the Cold War ended and the neoconservatives began to write chesty pieces about “the unipolar moment” and “benevolent global (American) hegemony” did Harries remind them of Burke’s cautious instincts in international affairs, his dread that Britain be too much feared for its own good.

Of course Yuval Levin, who has lived intellectually with Burke for years (the Burke-Paine book originated as his doctoral dissertation) is, if there can be such a thing, a genuine Burkean. But Levin’s rise in stature in domestic politics cannot help but elevate the reputations of his friends and backers–who seem to be, almost to a man, big backers of the Iraq war and neoconservative foreign policy in general. Virtually every individual mentioned as a Levin associate in Tanenhaus’s piece, save perhaps for Ramesh Ponnuru’s wife April and Michael Strain, was an active promoter of American aggression against Iraq, tub-thumping for the war or writing or editing articles impugning the patriotism of those who opposed it. Thus it is more than a little disconcerting to see neoconservatism be welcomed back into the public square under the false flag of Burkean moderation.

One can understand why neoconservatives and those influenced by them (which would include most of the editors and writers at National Review) are eager to have this history swept under the rug and forgotten. It is less easy to understand why Sam Tanenhaus would honor their wish by writing about the “preeminent conservative intellectual” of our era as if issues of war and peace were of no importance whatever.

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Nixon’s The One

nixon 100

I’ve spent the day reading Pat Buchanan’s The Great Comeback—his history cum memoir of Richard Nixon’s capture of the 1968 Republican nomination, and then the presidency. Buchanan was a key part of this. Hired as a 27-year-old who had spent three years writing newspaper editorials for the St. Louis Globe Democrat, Buchanan joined Nixon’s staff in 1966. He traveled with the candidate, handled much of his correspondence, wrote or drafted articles in his name, and wrote Nixon countless strategy memos, which came back with Nixon’s handwritten comments. This trove of historical documents was kept by Buchanan in several filing cabinets in his home, and after literally decades of entreaties by his agent Fredrica Friedman, Buchanan produced this book. It’s probably my favorite of Buchanan’s books, rich in Republican Party and journalistic gossip, full of insight into Nixon, and at the same time deeply personal.

At 27, a time when many young people then or now are in school or trying to figure out what they might really want to do , Buchanan had already compiled a formidable resume as right-wing newspaper editorialist; then in a deftly executed maneuver of ambition and nerve, arranged to meet Nixon and suggest himself for a get-on-the-bus-early campaign role. (He had actually met the former vice president a decade earlier, as a caddy at Burning Tree—a fact which he conveyed to Nixon in that first professional meeting. )

Buchanan was valuable to Nixon in great part as a representative of the New Right, that part of the GOP which had nominated Goldwater two years earlier. He and Nixon saw eye to eye that the next Republican candidate would have to represent the right, but probably not be of it. There was then at least the potential of Ronald Reagan looming, and a subtext of the book is the worry that the charismatic Reagan would somehow get untracked, and a deadlocked convention would be stampeded into going for the movie star governor. Nixon, by contrast, had no political sex appeal: he was deeply intelligent, hard working, fascinated by the issues and personalities of politics. (He seemed bored by the practice of law, and in one unguarded moment told Buchanan that if he had to practice law for the rest of his life he would be “mentally dead in two years and physically dead in four.”)

But one major hurdle to overcome was the sense that Nixon, after the 1960 campaign and his failed 1962 California gubernatorial bid, was a loser who could never win a national election. Liberals hated him for his early campaigns in California, and the left (where they weren’t the same thing) hated him for being right about Alger Hiss. But the right also (correctly) sensed that Nixon was not one of them. Buchanan quotes one Nixon memo where the candidate noted that he disagreed with liberal aides (who were urging him to get to the left of LBJ on various issues.) But he also said (to one of his more liberal aides) that “the trouble with the far right conservatives is that they don’t give a damn about people and the voters sense that.” Buchanan comments that this, too, was “authentic” Nixon. He notes that,

Nixon had grown up in poverty, lost two of his four brothers, one to meningitis, the other to tuberculosis, and likely did not look on the New Deal as taking us ‘down the road to socialism’ but as an effort to help folks like his family.

Part of Buchanan’s job was to smooth out the rough spots between this complicated man and the National Review-reading, Goldwater-admiring, Young Americans for Freedom-belonging Republican right. He did this effectively enough, causing Bill Rusher once to ask him whether he was more the right’s emissary to the Nixon camp, or Nixon’s to the right. The answer: the latter, always.

Romney and Rockefeller were more glamorous Republicans, generally more favored by the East Coast media, and they regularly scored higher in midterm presidential polls. But Nixon outworked them, in a Stakhanovite schedule of campaigning for Republicans in the midterm elections, picking up IOU’s from congressmen and state committeemen all over the country. Eventually Romney and Rocky’s weaknesses displayed themselves. If you were ever of the age to once have wondered how it was that Nixon managed to become the Republican nominee in an era when there were few primary elections, Buchanan’s book is the best possible guide. Read More…

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Homelessness, Housing, and the Failures of the Regulatory Impulse

When it comes to homelessness, many communities’ first instinct is to regulate the problem away. Making certain aspects of life on the street illegal, the approach goes, will force the homeless into city programs—or into other cities. This regulatory approach, sometimes referred to as the municipal criminalization of homelessness, includes the seizures of homeless Americans’ private property through police sweeps, laws against panhandling, and restrictions (or even bans) on sharing food with the homeless in public. These measures end up wasting money through the overincarceration of the homeless for nonviolent crimes: according to the National Coalition for the Homeless, it costs up to three times as much to keep someone in jail for one night as it does to keep someone in a shelter.

But the approach, which only deals with the visibility of homelessness and not its root causes, is also fundamentally flawed in that it tends to manifest as merely a short-term bandage for a much more complex issue. The misguided strategy is exemplified by Honolulu mayor Kirk Caldwell’s “war on homelessness,” which has quickly devolved into a “war on the homeless” by seizing the property of the homeless, banning tents in public spaces, and drafting bills to authorize the police to harass anyone sleeping in public spaces. Though it is intended to improve the local economy by boosting tourism—and a booming local economy would be beneficial to the homeless population in the long run, to be sure—this regulatory approach provides no alternatives other than exodus for the homeless population. As Leah Libresco put it, “Hawaii, more than other states, shouldn’t just try to hide their homeless, since, as an island state, they can’t pull the trick other cities have used and hand out one-way bus tickets to shunt their homeless to another city.”

That same regulating impulse on the local level is also driving up housing costs in cities across the country, likely contributing to homelessness. Scott Beyer recently illustrated how housing policy intersects with homelessness in D.C., where the public health crisis at the decrepit General Hospital shelter is contrasted with housing prices that are rising along with regulations slowing development. “Collectively, writes Cato Institute economist Randal O’Toole, these ‘planning penalties’ add $135,000 to the costs per unit in D.C. Such expenses are paid upfront by businesses, but ultimately get passed onto consumers, making the idea of owning — or even renting — housing impossible for many residents,” Beyer says. He notes that the situation is not specific to D.C. but has spread to politically similar cities like New York, San Francisco, Portland, and Seattle.

Even affordable housing requirements, meant as a regulated solution to those inflated housing costs, are handled in the same wasteful way. Josh Barro recently detailed the issue of inclusionary zoning, an attempt to increase affordable housing in New York City by offering Manhattan developers the ability to build more luxury apartments if some are allocated to lower rent levels. But while perhaps politically necessary, the strategy underperforms. According to Barro, “Inclusionary zoning generates fewer affordable housing units than a cash equivalent because luxury apartments make for an expensive form of affordable housing.” Read More…

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David Brat’s Half-Cocked Theological-Economic Fusionism

Michael Tanner recently—but before the shocker primary in suburban Richmond—lamented that the tea party’s influence was waning because it had strayed from its core mission:

Sparked by outrage over the Wall Street bailouts, the original Tea Party was motivated by an opposition to Big Government. The motto of the Tea Party Patriots, one of the largest and most influential groups, was “fiscal responsibility, limited government, and free markets.” The Tea Party’s core issues were the skyrocketing national debt and opposition to Obamacare.

Social issues were not part of the platform. In fact, Jenny Beth Martin, leader of the Tea Party Patriots told the New York Times, “When people ask about [social issues], we say, ‘Go get involved in other organizations that already deal with social issues very well.’ We have to be diligent and stay on message.”

Tanner is one of an unfortunate many who took the tea party at face value. As I’ve been arguing for years, economic issues, for tea partiers, are inseparable from social ones. It’s the (largely) Protestant version of the seamless garment: capitalism is part of God’s blueprint for human society, just like traditional marriage and heteronormativity. Ironically echoing the atheist Ayn Rand, this worldview values capitalism not merely as an instrumental good, a man’s-estate-reliever, but as a moral imperative.

Research by David E. Campbell and Robert Putnam and long-form reporting by Jill Lepore have lent empirical weight to my intuition that the tea party is a religious movement by proxy. Ed Kilgore put it bluntly: “scratch a ‘fiscal conservative’ and you’ll find a culture-warrior of one sort or another right under the surface.”

Along comes David Brat, professor of economics and slayer of the dragon Rep. Eric Cantor, to bring the argument into sharp relief. The parsing of Brat’s academic writings and theological-economic beliefs has become a cottage industry. The Washington Post called Brat’s primary election an indication of a “rise in the crossroads of religion and economics.”

At first blush, Brat seems to draw from the tradition of thinkers like Wilhelm Roepke, who believed that, to properly function, markets depend on bourgeois virtues. As Brat once put it: “If markets are bad … that means people are bad.” There’s an interesting wrinkle to Brat’s fusionism, however. Where proponents of what can only loosely be called “Christian economics,” such as R.C. Sproul, Jr., tease out capitalist principles from the Bible, Brat teases out a biblical influence on secular economic writing. As Kevin Roose writes:

In one unpublished paper from 2005, “Adam Smith’s God: The End of Economics,” (Word doc here), which I accessed through a Google Scholar search, Brat makes the case that even though Adam Smith (the father of modern economics and author of The Wealth of Nations) is thought of as one of the great figures of the Enlightenment, his “invisible hand” theory should properly be seen in the context of Christian moral philosophy.

“In fact, [Smith’s] system really retains most of the fundamental features of the Judeo-Christian system,” Brat writes. “On paper he places Stoic reason above Christian revelation. But on the other hand, he chooses the Christian God over the Stoic God. And in the end, his choice of virtues and ends take a decidedly Christian turn.”

In a sense, Brat’s brand of Protestant-ethic revivalism completes a circle: now, not only can Christians find Adam Smith in the Bible, they can find the Bible in Adam Smith too!

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Crony Capitalism Kicks Off the World Cup

Crony capitalism looks a little different when the corruption in question is pervading a stateless conglomerate. But government cooperation, internal politics, and the casual passing of millions of dollars are looking all-too-familiar as one of the world’s largest bureaucracies takes center stage with the 2014 World Cup kicking off in São Paulo, Brazil today.

The organization in question is Fédération Internationale de Football Association, or FIFA, the international governing body of soccer. FIFA’s job, when it was founded in Paris in 1904, was to set rules and organize matches among a few nations interested in a game popularized by English public schoolboys just a few decades earlier. It now has more member countries than the United Nations, and over a billion dollars in its bank accounts, with several billion more on the way.

FIFA has never been altogether innocuous (soccer’s export and popularity would have been impossible without British imperialism), but its recent turn to the blatantly corporatist has brought unprecedented scrutiny upon the organization, such as the New York Times‘s recent two-part investigation into the organization’s entanglement with match-rigging syndicates.

What finally cracked soccer fans? The next three World Cups: Brazil 2014, Russia 2018, and Qatar 2022.

As for the first, the World Cup has wreaked absolute havoc on the Brazilian landscape. Over 250,000 Brazilians have been displaced and their neighborhoods (usually poor communities known as favelas) destroyed by the preparations for the World Cup. “Since the television cameras can’t remove them from view, FIFA and the IOC demands cause the Brazilian government to send in the bulldozers to do the work,” David Caruso postulates, summarizing journalist Dave Zirin’s recent book Brazil’s Dance with the Devil. “FIFA and the IOC give the Brazilian government an excuse to do what they have long wanted to do: please the wealthy class.” The displacements, compounded by millions of wasteful government spending on stadia in remote Amazon towns, facilities likely never to be used again, have caused mass demonstrations that will continue throughout the tournament. As Zirin himself reported, “a friend in São Paulo told me, ‘FIFA is about as popular in Brazil as FEMA was after Hurricane Katrina.’” Most protests are directed at President Dilma Rousseff’s government, which has funneled at least $3.5 billion of taxpayer money into the event, even as its job-production power is limited by regulations on vendors (official FIFA partners only) and quotas (600 vendors to a stadium).

Russia 2018 and, especially, Qatar 2022 have attracted similar international outcry based on a combination of bribery and abusive working conditions. Files obtained by the Sunday Times just this month revealed that at least $5 million in bribes were handed out by Mohamed bin Hammam, a Qatari football administrator known to make frequent trips to Russia. Bin Hammam was a member of FIFA’s executive committee in 2010 when Russia and Qatar were awarded their respective World Cups. He has since been banned for life from FIFA for other corruption charges related to his FIFA presidential election campaign, but FIFA has thus refused to revisit the results of its vote. Qatar’s blistering summer temperatures have been pointed to as evidence of the inappropriateness of its win, but the real problem is with the horrific working conditions in the nation. FIFA president Sepp Blatter has argued that knee-jerk anti-Qatar reactions hint at racism, an argument that has surfaced time after time as Qatari oil barons buy up soccer network after jersey sponsorship. But even he thinks awarding Qatar this tournament was a mistake. Read More…

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Eric Cantor Rides Tea Party Tiger, Is Devoured

If you look at the arc of House Majority Leader Eric Cantor’s last three years of service in Congress, it begins, in 2011, with an ambitious insider’s game to undermine the Speaker of the House. Cantor was the tea party whisperer; he was their not-so-secret champion; he was the guy—“Yes, it’s probably an accurate conclusion”—who stood between John Boehner and a “grand bargain” on fiscal policy with the Great Satan.

Unrest within the House Republican conference boiled over in January 2013 with a hapless attempt to oust Boehner from the speakership (including three votes for Cantor). It was at this point, as symbolized by his loud and clearly irritated voice vote for Boehner to retain his position, that Cantor seemed to have recoiled from his game of sabotage. Sure, just days before, Cantor split with Boehner on the vote to avert the so-called fiscal cliff. Yet, from that point until now, Cantor played the role of dutiful deputy. Maybe it was simply another tack: play nice until the next GOP wave, wait for Boehner to step aside, and smoothly ascend to the speakership.

I’d like to think, however, that Cantor was growing tired of the decrepit state of the GOP governing agenda in the wake of a resounding repudiation of Mitt Romney. At a party retreat earlier this year, he recognized the need for the party to appeal beyond the ranks of small-business owners and entrepreneurs and substantively address middle-class anxieties.

In his concession speech tonight, you could hear echoes of the embryonic reform-conservative movement:

What I set out to do, and what the agenda that I have said we’re about, is, we want to create a Virginia and an America that works for everybody. And we need to focus our efforts as conservatives, as Republicans, on putting forth our conservative solutions, so that they can help solve the problems for so many working middle-class families that may not have the opportunity that we have.

Add that to Cantor’s gestures toward some kind of constructive movement toward immigration reform, and we’ve got a sad and stunning moment in our politics: a conservative leader who ended, limply, where he should have begun. He rode the tea party tiger and discovered, too late, that he and his party might have profited from more bull sessions with Yuval Levin.

That’s a pity.

I know nothing of Prof. Dave Brat. But I know he is a political novice and, as he’s cheered tonight by the likes of Ann Coulter and Laura Ingraham, I can’t help but suspect he will be yet another useless crank in a still-troubled caucus.

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Reform Conservatism Needs Place

It is once again a summer of conservative reform. Just as last year’s swells of heat and humidity were accompanied by a public discussion outlining the case for a “reform conservatism” by Ross Douthat, Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry, and others, so 2014’s retreat of spring has been marked by the release of “Room to Grow,” a 120-page prospective agenda designed to drag contemporary American conservatism out of 1981’s death grip and give it marching orders fit to the challenges of the present day. Yuval Levin’s introduction calls the effort “a conservative governing vision” that articulates how conservatives can embrace policy solutions deriving from their understanding of how society best operates: decentralized and interdependent, not atomized and anonymous. The, by one count 22, policy proposals contained within “Room to Grow” address health care policy and the tax code, education reform and work-life balance, financial/regulatory reforms and family-friendly federal policies.

As responses rolled in, Levin clarified what he saw as a persistent liberal misperception of “Room to Grow” and its associated project, as the GOP’s answer to Clintonian DLC centrism:

From my point of view (and I can speak only for myself of course), the key point to understand about what people are calling “reform conservatism” is that it is an effort to move the Republican party to the right. And in particular, it is an effort to move from arguing about how much we should be willing to spend on the liberal welfare state to arguing about how to replace it with a conservative approach to government that advances our vision of a free society. 

It is not in this sense a response to the Tea Party movement (and of course it predates that movement by some years) but rather a response to the fat and happy, big-business-oriented, go along to get along, aimless centrism of too much of the Republican party over the past decade, which has been perfectly happy to argue about the cost (if that!) of our government, rather than about its purpose and structure, provided its own friends got a piece of the action. [emphasis added]

Levin’s introduction to “Room to Grow” described the aims and purposes of such a pushing of the GOP to the right:

The premise of conservatism has always been, on the contrary, that what matters most about society happens in the space between the individual and the state—the space occupied by families, communities, civic and religious institutions, and the private economy—and that creating, sustaining, and protecting that space and helping all Americans take part in what happens there are among the foremost purposes of government.

That space between the potentially atomized individual and the looming Leviathan state is what prevents either from coming to dominate the social texture, and so hollow out the rich, interweaving webs of relationships that bind a society together. Yet “Room to Grow” rarely takes up the institutions of civil society as a central topic in and of themselves. The family is certainly given ample attention, with W. Bradford Wilcox, Carrie Lukas, and Robert Stein all articulating elements of an agenda to help encourage marriage and family formation and growth. Many of the other policy discussions would surely help support non-commercial civil society institutions, and involve topics very worthy in their own right, such as breaking up the biggest banks and encouraging employment. Indeed, one gets the sense that a great deal of attention has been paid to the vulnerability and uncertainty faced by so many middle- and working-class families, who often feel that they are barely hanging on.

That economic and social isolation is not the product of macroeconomic factors alone, however. The same liberation technocracy that, often out of the best of intentions, undermined the family with the unintended marriage penalties baked into the American welfare state ravaged the neighborhoods and communities that families were once able to rely upon when the hard times came (as they did much more often in previous generations). The progressive spirit came down upon the cities, bulldozing communities weak in the measurables of the moment, but strong in social solidarity and common support. It subsidized interstate systems and street grids that were placed in the hands of planners and engineers who would work with singular purpose to maximize car flow, without a thought given to community cohesion. The postwar explosion in building was dominated by a misunderstanding of human life manifested in suburban sprawl-friendly federal policy and local zoning codes alike. Their legacy has been a country largely built for a prosperous people seeking to purchase entertainment within the privacy of their own homes and backyards, not in town commons or on front porches. Read More…

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The Tricky Politics of Fighting Crony Capitalism

The conservative fight against crony capitalism received a boost last Tuesday, when the chairman of the House Financial Services Committee stood before a Heritage Foundation crowd and became the latest, and perhaps most influential, Republican politician to take specific aim at the Export-Import Bank. Rep. Jeb Hensarling (R-Texas) devoted nearly half his speech to articulating the argument against the obscure federal institution that subsidizes American exports, while still making time to rail against the farm bill, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, and recent bailouts for GM and Wall Street. As the chairman of the committee responsible for reauthorizing the Export-Import Bank before its charter expires at the end of September, and as a potential contender for the Speakership should John Boehner relinquish the gavel after the midterm elections, Hensarling’s words carry significant weight.

Tim Carney, who has become the drum major leading the march against crony capitalism, foresees the potential for the GOP to turn the 2014 midterms into a referendum on Democratic corporatism, and a demonstration that conservatives are pro-market, not pro-business. Pete Spiliakos, however, has been skeptical. “That is fine as far as it goes,” he says, “to portray the center-left as wanting to take taxes with one hand and give out subsidies to the connected with the other, but it is starting your presentation by answering a question the public doesn’t seem to be asking.” Pete agrees that corporations that have co-opted the feds into giving them unfair subsidies should be kicked off corporate welfare, but doesn’t think such proposals “amount to much absent a positive program that directly impacts people who are near the median income or who are economically struggling,” at least politically speaking. He followed up on those comments last week, writing, ”Cutting crony capitalism has to be a means to an end rather than an end in itself. If the purpose of cutting crony capitalism is to free up money to cut the top marginal tax rates on high-earners, then conservatives aren’t going to seem any less pro-rich for wanting to cut the Export-Import Bank and subsidies to green energy companies.”

So what is crony capitalism, politically speaking? Is it a welcome restorative for a party pegged as being in the pockets of big business? Or a worthy policy initiative albeit with little public resonance? Perhaps the best answer came a year ago at the Heritage Foundation, when Sen. Mike Lee was delivering the outline of his reform agenda. Lee said:

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 pre-requisite for earning the moral authority and political credibility to do anything else.

Why should the American people trust our ideas about middle-class entitlements… when we’re still propping up big banks?

“A pre-requisite for earning the moral authority and political credibility to do anything else.” In his latest post, Pete worried that “the crony capitalism strategy treats the perception of conservatives as being pro-rich as primarily a problem of resentment. People resent the rich for getting too much unfairly, and so conservatives must target the undeserving rich.” He is right, of course, that an actual appeal to middle- and working-class voters will have to be founded on policies that address their needs. But voters aren’t policy analysts, ready to parse a tax proposal to see how it scores. Republicans are (rightfully) in a place of very low trust with most Americans, having parroted the same set of supply-side solutions with a variety of weak attempts at rebranding. To put it somewhat dramatically, putting General Electric’s head on a spike doesn’t have to be, and shouldn’t be, about slaking the perceived bloodlust of a resentful mob. Instead, it can be as simple as demonstrating loyalty to a prospective new employer by offering up the old one.

A substantive agenda will still have to be offered to middle-class Americans, and good work on that has been freshly compiled here. But first, voters will have to have a reason to trust that this time is different, and their best interests really are at the heart of the new proposals.


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