Aspiring to Nothing at All
State of the Union: “Aspirational conservatism” seeks to “break from a growing preference on the right for wielding federal power in pursuit of moral goals.”
There’s a new kind of conservatism on the block. No, it’s not national conservatism or post-liberal conservatism, two movements that have emerged on the American right in the past few years seeking to revive conservative traditions and ways of thinking that predate liberal modernity. This new kind of conservatism styles itself a revival as well, but rather than reaching back to the works of Aristotle or Aquinas, it draws its inspiration from figures such as Paul Ryan and George W. Bush.
You read that right.
Its proponents are calling it “aspirational conservatism,” a self-admitted rebranding of the “compassionate conservativism [sic]” of the 1990s. “Many in the party think the GOP must choose between an anti-elitist nationalism and a return to establishmentarian small government… between waging war against wokeism and capitulating to the left,” Harvard professor and former Indianapolis Mayor Stephen Goldsmith and American Enterprise Institute’s Director of Domestic Policy Studies Ryan Streeter write in an op-ed arguing in favor of “aspirational conservatism” published by Politico on Sunday. “These are not the only paths,” Goldsmith and Streeter claim.
Everyone knew a kid in high school or college who argued, “if only we rejected the binaries of the American political system, all of our problems would be solved,” and then proceeded to talk about third parties or empowering moderates. Some never grow out of that habit.
Goldsmith and Streeter lay out their case for resurrecting the dead consensus:
It’s an “aspirational conservatism,” as we call it, that prioritizes upward mobility for ordinary people. Compassionate conservatism and reform conservatism focused largely on poverty, work and families. Aspirational conservatism could build on those previous iterations by addressing what today are the most important issues felt by middle- and working-class families alike. And it could guide the Republican Party in the months and years to come, delivering both political victory and a real governing agenda.
There’s nothing objectionable here. I like to think I embrace a politics that prioritizes the needs and concerns of working- and middle-class American families. But the reason there’s nothing objectionable about this vision is because it contains nothing of substance. It all sounds nice enough, and that’s exactly the problem: For "aspirational conservatives," sounding good matters more than doing good.
When it comes to doing good, let’s take a look at the track record of compassionate conservatism, aspirational conservatism’s named predecessor. Its zeal for free trade and open borders, its fervor for endless wars and nation building in the Middle East, and its retreatism on foundational cultural issues, not only failed to deliver for the American middle class but decimated it. Actually delivering for the people the American right claims to represent seems to matter very little to those now pedaling “aspirational conservatism.”
But let’s give Goldsmith and Streeter the benefit of the doubt and assume that, unlike some of their predecessors, their desire to improve the conditions of the average American is genuine. The pair go on to list some of the key issues “aspirational conservatism” seeks to tackle.
In numerous surveys in recent years, voters across the political and socioeconomic spectrum have expressed an interest in leadership that puts job opportunity, housing affordability, public safety and good schools front and center. This creates an opportunity for conservatives who want neither anti-government ideology nor hyperactive culture warring.
The first sentence of this quote is true. But why do voters identify those issues as being "front and center" right now? Take education, for example. The American educational system has been struggling for decades. American student’s test performance has continued to fall relative to peer nations. One of “aspirational conservatism’s” exemplars, George W. Bush, saw the trend and tried to fix it via the No Child Left Behind Act, which failed.
When schools closed because of Covid-19, parents got an inside look at what their children were being taught in the classroom. Parents saw that while their children struggled to learn reading, writing, and arithmetic, they could talk extensively about white privilege, systemic racism, and the patriarchy. Their children were being taught to judge their peers on the basis of their race, that their gender identity could change like the seasons, and that America is an inherently evil country. It fueled a parent-led uprising against the ideologies that abetted the radicalization of their children.
It’s a similar story for crime rates. After decades of decreasing crime rates in the United States, crime rates started to slightly rebound about ten years ago. Then, the death of George Floyd put in motion a national “racial reckoning” in the summer of 2020, when everyone was supposed to remain inside because of the threat of Covid-19. Across the country, protests devolved into violent riots. City blocks burned; statues were toppled. Looters took everything from small and big businesses alike. Anarchists clashed with law enforcement from Portland to Philadelphia. Some pseudo-revolutionaries set up “autonomous zones” and implemented racial segregation policies.
In response, public health officials told citizens that racism is a virus, too. Members of the media said the looting was “symbolic takings,” and a necessary part of the country’s racial reckoning. Cities answered calls to defund the police, buying into the notion that policing is systemically racist. Left-wing district attorneys doubled down, refusing to prosecute certain kinds of crime because of disproportionate racial impacts. Crime did skyrocket in 2020, and some kinds of crime, the ones local governments still bother tracking, have continued to rise in the nearly three years since.
Even with the recent spike, the crime rate today in the United States remains well below what it was fifty years ago. The rapid rise in homicide rates, one of the most concerning developments regarding crime in the past few years, still lies far below what it was in the 70s, 80s, and 90s. So, what’s all the fuss about?
The public’s focus on these issues is inextricably bound to the current culture war between a sane America and one fixated on race, gender, and sexuality. To restore education and reestablish order, conservatives need to use the levers of power to root out these ideologies from our institutions. More time studying grammar, not what it means to be gender-queer. More arrests, fewer apologies.
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But aspirational conservatism doesn’t want that. They seek instead to “break from a growing preference on the right for wielding federal power in pursuit of moral goals.”
If aspirational conservatism isn’t interested in pursuing moral goods, they are, by implication, uninterested in destroying moral evils. As dark is the absence of light, evil is the absence of good. To have a conception of one begets the other.
It leaves one wondering what aspirational conservatives are aspiring to at all.