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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.

When the days of easy money and economic booms ran out, the United States was left with countless communities struggling to make ends meet, even as they were left living in patterns planned for the luxuries of atomized life. The families Wilcox and Lukas design solutions to support, and Michael Strain proposes to employ, and all the rest of the “Room to Grow” authors orient their chapters around are in such straits, at least in part, because of the absence of community structures to help them support each other in the classic American spirit of “rugged communitarianism.”

It is not surprising that “Room to Grow” didn’t include these issues within its limited pages; the report covered a wide-ranging territory as it was, and solutions to community breakdown can be difficult to imagine. Recent years have seen a dawning awareness of the costs and causes of atomizing families and neighborhoods, however, and a group of planners and developers calling themselves New Urbanists have been working on recovering the wisdom of previous generations’ community design, and developing solutions to help rebuild the American sense of place. Over the coming weeks and months, The American Conservative will be rolling out a project to take up this challenge, and show how a truly conservative reform agenda can live up to its full ambitions and take on the challenge of reinvigorating America’s local communities and civil society institutions.

I hope you will join us this summer, and on through the year as we break new ground for very old purposes.

about the author

Jonathan Coppage is a TAC associate editor. He received a BA in Political Science from North Carolina State University, and previously attended the University of Chicago, where he studied in the Fundamentals: Issues and Texts great books concentration. Jonathan also worked at The New Atlantis: A Journal of Technology and Society. Jon can be followed on Twitter @JonCoppage, or reached by e-mail at [email protected]

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