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Becoming Conservative Maximalists

The next generation wants more out of politics than tax cuts.

A few months ago, I wrote about how the modern church needs to get out of the sandbox and start talking about the real, serious doctrines that undergird Christianity. For my generation of conservatives, generation Z, the story in politics is much the same. We grew up watching George Bush and then Mitt Romney fail, and fail spectacularly, to garner any real political support. We watched Barack Obama glide into office like it was made for him, and saw the mainstream media pull out every stop to ensure Hillary would follow suit.

And then we came of age in the Trump era. We were inspired to discover, for the first time, that Republican politics doesn’t necessitate political failure.

In fact, the very things conservatives were told were taboo, and never to talk about if you wanted to win an election, were exactly the things that made Trump so successful. In place of the old lines about tax cuts and red tape were things immeasurably more inspiring: Close the border. Stop giving jobs to foreigners instead of Americans. Stop sending our friends and family members to fight meaningless wars in countries that have nothing to do with our national security. The worn out Republican solutions were replaced with something bold, something that actually resonated with the American people.

And yet, many of those worn out GOP ideas are still alive and kicking, merely parading under a different mask. Gov. Asa Hutchinson of Arkansas considers himself a constitutional conservative, which is why he recently announced he would not protect private citizens from businesses imposing vaccine mandates in his state. Gov. Chris Sununu of New Hampshire has done the same, calling a ban on vaccine mandates “completely un-American.” Even Kristi Noem of South Dakota, purported to be among the boldest pandemic governors, chose to ban vaccine “passports” (not “mandates,” interestingly) on government property, while leaving a wide berth for businesses to mandate the shot for employees if they so wish.

As The American Conservative senior editor Rod Dreher has argued, the real god in the old Republican coalition is business, not an abstract commitment to conservative principles. Much as we wish it were otherwise, the purse strings are also the reigns, and such candidates will always justify losing key battles if it means saving state revenue. Which is why when you see a Republican blustering about legitimate uses of state power as “government overreach,” he probably has other skeletons in his closet. Hutchinson offered the same limited government argument when he vetoed the Arkansas state legislature’s ban on gender-confirming hormone treatments for children under 18; Sununu was proud to use the arm of the state to “ban gay conversion therapy” (what this means legally we can only guess); and Noem carried the torch on transgenderism, because preventing gender-confused males from competing against biological females in sports would just be tyrannical.

Yet in courting capital, this kind of Republican seems to have forgotten entirely the battle it claims to be fighting. Low taxes and cutting bureaucratic red tape—the bare minimum of a functioning government—are the most they can offer. But contrary to popular belief, conservatism is a politics not of minimalism—just keep government out of the way and everything will be dandy—but of maximalism, because good people and good government don’t happen by accident. A new generation of Americans are hungry for this kind of conservatism.

Like the modern church, which loses ever more Christians as it pursues a watered-down gospel of inclusion, the minimalist Republicans failed because they scorned the real meat for the milk which was easier to digest. But the meat is all there, hearty and satisfying for those who would be brave enough to sink their teeth in: for one, building out the pro-life argument to more holistic family support, from marriage tax benefits and divorce law reforms to siphoning public money away from public schools and teachers unions and toward parents to help them educate their children the best way. It also means becoming a party that actually cares about labor—as other TAC editors have harped on recently. There are many ways we can begin to re-enfranchise the American middle class, and protecting workers’ interests over Amazon’s bottom line is an exemplary place to start. It means helping farmers and cattle ranchers—real ones, not the Big Four. Some of these are ideas conservatives have been talking about for years, but with little payoff, as they’ve been made second to bringing big business in to bolster state revenue. It’s time to make them central to our identity. Whatever the merits of the old strategy, it’s been a losing one too many times to be worth its salt.

No small part of the problem is semantic: Conservatives have spent far too much of the last decade arguing close to libertarian lines to protect the lowest common denominator of conservative beliefs. Ostensibly, this tactic was also to preserve conversation with the other side of the aisle and help bring undecided voters to the conservative position. Yet how many were deeply convicted to stop infanticide by arguments from utility? Who suddenly realized it was in his rational self-interest to get married after reading an article about the benefits of the traditional nuclear family for his career prospects and statistics about mental health? The answer is not cheerful.

To be a conservative maximalist is to argue for something good, not merely against bad things. Yet for the 20-something who graduated during the pandemic, a holistic vision is actually a more pragmatic one, because it offers answers to real questions we’re facing, where other solutions do not. Not all use of government is government overreach. Instead of talking about “family values,” Republican politicians should start by actually valuing what is good for families. Protect the common good. It won’t get you friends at Google and Facebook, but you were elected to represent the people. Look out for the interests of American workers before those of big business even if yes, in some cases, your state revenue may decrease.

To be a maximalist is to embrace the best possible vision for man, a vision that involves the whole human, not merely his economic worth. It’s not nearly as simple as the minimalist’s path, but it is where the heart of conservatism is, and the only fight that matters, for the maximalist who is not content with mere live and let live.