John A. Burtka IV is the executive director of the American Conservative magazine.
Political movements need a villain if they are going to hold together diverse, often contradictory coalitions. For Democrats, their latest villain rode down an escalator in Midtown Manhattan on a mid-June day four years ago. Republicans, by contrast, have been searching for a new villain ever since the end of the Cold War.
The impeachable Bill Clinton, Islamist terrorism and Obamacare all served as targets for the conservative movement, but none of these villains was able to galvanize the coalition the way that communism did during the 1980s. Even with Donald Trump in the White House, Reagan nostalgia has not yet subsided as conservatives struggle to integrate their new working-class constituency into a party previously committed to free trade and marginal tax cuts. That is all about to change.
According to many critics, conservatism has been in danger of falling into the state that literary critic Lionel Trilling ascribed to it in 1950, espousing “irritable mental gestures which seek to resemble ideas.” There is no glue holding the coalition together, let alone any discernible policy agenda.
Enter Big Tech and the rise of China. There is consensus growing among conservatives in Washington and around the country that the biggest threats to American liberty come not from extremists in the Middle East or Democratic power grabs but from the behemoths in Silicon Valley and Beijing.
Conservatives have complained about liberal media bias for decades, but the threats posed by Big Tech and the accompanying phenomenon of “woke” capitalism and “surveillance” capitalism have combined to create a bias against conservatives that would have been hard to imagine even five years ago. Not only have Big Tech companies escalated their attempts to ban or censor conservative pundits, functioning as de facto editors of the digital public square, but they have also used their sizable economic clout, as Netflix has, to threaten states that pass socially conservative legislation.
Fox News host Tucker Carlson cut to the heart of the matter last fall, ahead of the midterms, when he asked, “What could Google be doing this election cycle to support its preferred candidates? What could they do in 2020 is a question almost nobody in Washington seems interested in even asking. They ought to be interested.”
One person in Washington asking the question is a freshman senator, Josh Hawley (R-Mo.), who has become something of a sensation among a younger generation of conservatives as he has called for a renewal of antitrust enforcement to bust up the social media giants. Last week, news emerged that the Trump administration has taken the cue, with the Justice Department weighing a potential antitrust probe against Google for anticompetitive behavior. House Democrats this week also signaled interest in investigating Google, Facebook and other Big Tech companies.
Just as concern about the power of tech monopolies has rallied conservatives and Republicans on the domestic front, China’s rise has prompted many on the right to rethink their approach to international affairs. If the primary geopolitical threat to U.S. security comes from China, then why is the United States spending trillions of dollars on military ventures in the Middle East and Afghanistan, and providing security commitments to Europeans who could be shouldering the burden for their own defense?
Conservatives may debate the wisdom of an open trade war with an expansionist rival power, but there is no question that conservatives of all stripes have pivoted toward Asia and away from the Middle Eastern focus of the George W. Bush era.
A political program built around the twin villains of Big Tech and China may prove advantageous for Republicans in the 2020 election, but it also poses fundamental challenges to conservative orthodoxy that have hitherto gone unaddressed. Conservatives must be comfortable breaking with free-market dogma in two principal ways.
Taking on Big Tech will require a revival of an anti-monopoly tradition going back to Theodore Roosevelt that stands up to concentrated economic power through vigorous antitrust enforcement.
Confronting China will require an industrial strategy that aims to protect and promote U.S. manufacturing, particularly by investing in new technologies and infrastructure. Some Republicans, such as Sen. Marco Rubio (Fla.), have taken up the challenge by developing a plan to do just that, but most Republicans in Congress and conservatives in think tanks refuse to shed their Cold War policy priorities and consider questions of political economy.
A new report by the bipartisan Democracy Fund’s Voter Study Group shows that the most underrepresented electoral constituency is socially conservative and fiscally moderate. If Republicans can speak to this audience by curbing the power of socially progressive corporations and developing a pro-worker economic platform to compete with China, they could build a new majority that might last a generation. Failure to apply fresh thinking to these two issues could mean heading into the political wilderness.