Good political discussion is often quite ideological. The best conversations, as the old saying goes, focus on ideas over people and events. We ask questions like: are these views consistent? How do we apply a given principle to this novel or particularly complicated scenario? Which elements of the present are genuinely unjust? Those inquiries are fascinating, and they are the foundation of most good conversations about politics and philosophy, the kinds you have in good Twitter threads or bars and cafes where you can hear yourself think.
They’re also largely irrelevant in the real world. Most people make decisions based on group affinities and instincts rather than from any well-formulated philosophical or ideological position, even those of us (like myself) who enjoy a good intellectual conversation. The rationale comes later. Generally, if people have an overriding social or economic position, they are largely loss averse, meaning that they worry about things that represent a threat to that position. (This doesn’t mean that all wealthy people reject high taxes; by default, they would only reject high taxes if they viewed them as a genuine threat to their position.)
Thus when we look at the political decline of conservatism, we’re asking a question about ideology in a realm that is not particularly interested in ideology. This leads us to red herrings and rabbit holes; the answers that we want to find are not the ones that are moving the world around us. Stated differently: our priorities very often don’t align with public priorities. This is doubly true for a conservative focused on institutions and processes: Conservatives of a certain persuasion are arguing for the future benefits of intangible systems. Jay Cost can lament our neglect of Bolingbroke and Cato and our embrace of celebrity in politics; Ben Sasse can champion the intrinsic benefits of the separation of powers; and Jeff Flake can slam the current president’s “affection for strongmen and authoritarians”, but these positions–on their own–do not win votes, full stop, and a focus on them that results in the neglect of more tangible priorities might actually lose votes. This is tragic, but it is mass democracy in an era of limited civic engagement and civic responsibility. We reap what we sow.
So, what moves votes? Tangible promises about things that people see as threats, from telegenic and persuasive messengers with an air of authenticity. “I’m going to solve health care.” “I’m going to stop the drugs.” “I’m going to punish the bankers.” “I’m going to close the border.”
Let’s offer a model, then: to win elections, you need two things. First, you need a program dedicated towards addressing the stuff that people worry about. Second, you need a good messenger.
Conservatism had its threat for a solid four decades: Soviet communism. Anti-communism was the lodestar of the American Right from the aftermath of the Second World War through the presidency of George H.W. Bush. Threats unify disparate groups quite nicely. Social conservatives saw the anti-religious element of communism as a threat. Businessmen hated the abolition of private property and the destruction of their livelihoods. Military-oriented folks liked that the anti-communists valorized the military and rejected the ideas of detente and rapprochement–we would win by virtue of our might.
This is a stylized summary of fusionism, the old ideology of William F. Buckley and National Review, and the foundation for the conservative movement for much of the latter half of the 20th century.
Then it had its messenger: Ronald Reagan. An articulate former actor, Reagan had been in people’s living rooms for a couple of decades in various capacities, making the case about the superiority of the American system and why it needed to be protected from the threat of expansionist, godless Soviet communism. The product of this salutary merger was the 1984 election, where the Republicans stormed the gates everywhere across the country, losing only in Minnesota and the District of Columbia.
Since roughly the end of the Reagan administration through the 2016 election, the Republican Party has been trying to figure out what comes next. It usually had something to do with that old-time Reaganist religion. It worked so well in 1984; why not bring it back? Every primary debate would include paeans to the memory of Reagan, right down to the GOP hosting debates at his presidential library, in front of Air Force One, answering questions about their fidelity to the old master.
This stopped working a while ago for a couple of reasons. First, the threat disappeared. The Soviets lost; communism died. While Russia has resurfaced as a geopolitical threat, for the broader American populace, the original threat wasn’t about geopolitics, it was about religion and our way of life. A regionally expansionist Russia that is not perceived as posing a direct threat to American society is just not as powerful a motivator.
Second, there was only one Reagan. He has had many imitators in the GOP trying to take up his mantle–like leaders around the world stylizing themselves as Caesar by calling themselves czar or kaiser–but none combined his steadfastness, rhetorical skill, instincts, and polish.
What came in its place? With apologies to George W. Bush’s “compassionate conservatism,” nothing so far, because conservatism’s new threat is a much more problematic one. Namely, conservatism is no longer oriented against Soviet communism and its perceived enablers. It is now oriented firmly against various aspects of the American Left. This is extremely dangerous because, among other reasons, the Left can never–will never–be vanquished. There can be no final victory in this fight, just a never-ending tug-of-war, and increasing resentment at defeats.
Trump got there first, frankly. What other candidates sometimes hinted at, Trump dialed up to 11, identifying the problem as a “globalist” Left focused on arcane priorities and interests at the expense of American greatness. He also brought his long-held celebrity to the fold, attracting free media and positive response with his outer-borough variation on a homespun, folksy style. Message, plus messenger.
Six months into Trump’s tenure, the fractures on the Right are best identified by how they feel about Trump himself, and how they feel about the Left. There is some overlap between the groups, but most public figures can fall primarily into one group or another.
- The Institutionalist Right sees the greatest threat from Trump as beyond specific policies and more about the challenge he presents to the governmental system over which he presides. They fear both Trump and the consequences of the system reacting to him. In particular, there is a lot of focus on the separation of powers, the rule of law, and the efficient administration of the bureaucracy. What they objected to about Obama with respect to governance, Trump has escalated by orders of magnitude. Ben Sasse is probably the most prominent figure from this faction. It’s also probably the smallest segment, and the one that faces the toughest challenge in making the rhetorical case. It probably needs to co-opt another faction or find a sympathetic leader in another faction to hold influence beyond some very small fringes.
- The Libertarian Right opposes Trump on economics, generally, with an emphasis on his disgust for free trade, and his rhetorical support for police brutality. (Immigration is much more of a mixed bag here.) They oppose the Left on the size and scope of government, and tax policy. Jeff Flake has been a leader here, with Rand Paul in and out depending on the issue.
- The Fusionist Right opposes Trump for not being a movement conservative and rejecting the old three-legged stool of Reaganism. Dan McLaughlin and Jonah Goldberg are probably the two most prominent conservative writers here; Trump’s most vocal conservative opponents over 40 tend to fall in this group, with their fellow Gen-Xers Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio hanging around as well.
- The Moderate Right opposes Trump for his personal failings, his vulgarity, and his support for policies they view as cruel, particularly on immigration and health care. From the pundit class, I’d put Ana Navarro and Michael Gerson here. Among elected officials, John Kasich has laid down a marker.
- The Nationalist Right largely supports Trump’s priorities but would object to the fundamental incompetence sabotaging his program. They oppose the Left for failing to prioritize what they see as America’s national interests, putting the interests of “cosmopolitan elites” ahead of traditional American values. Tom Cotton is striving to lead this group, and Jeff Sessions is a member in good standing. A lot of talk radio has moved in this direction, now that the opportunity is there.
But we should return to our original point: these ideological objections to Trump and spins on conservatism are not what will move voters; what will move voters will be the ability of candidates to demonstrate affinities with voters and respect for their priorities. The policies they proffer must fit into that context; those that push policies that do not meet those minimal thresholds will be punished. Our debates are important to set the stage, but they are the equivalent of an athlete doing strength training in the offseason. The game itself–the political arena–requires a connection to the voters, the ones that generally don’t care much about ideology.
And so the next several years will be a battle royale between those ideological factions, trying to figure out the right way to frame a threat, and the right messenger to make the case. Frankly, with his weak approval ratings, that’s probably not Trump himself. Either someone will successfully navigate the stormy seas and bring the movement together under a coherent vision, or the schisms will continue. Bet on chaos for now.
Image by myhsu