The juxtaposition of Hillary Clinton’s and Marco Rubio’s announcements for president illustrates a serious problem for American progressivism: Its political bench looks as spry and novel as the old Soviet Politburo. Joe Biden? Jerry Brown? Elizabeth Warren? All fight for Social Security while qualifying for their full checks.
Conservatives who burn incense to the memory of Ronald Reagan are forbidden from defining youth and inexperience as political qualifications. But Reagan was a policy innovator. Democrats today have a geriatric agenda. Equal-pay arguments were avant-garde in 1963. The minimum wage was groundbreaking economic policy in 1938. Democrats propose to increase the payout of a Social Security system created in 1935.
Not everything old is outdated. But the centerpieces of today’s Democratic appeal were familiar to Franklin Roosevelt.
Republicans have seized the opportunity of running against a 75-year-old agenda by proposing a 35-year-old agenda — the Reagan-era project of lowering taxes in order to spur economic growth. But in recent presidential elections, the economic policies of the 1980s have seemed unresponsive to the needs and struggles of the middle and working classes.
Enter the reform conservatives — a group of policy experts who have set out to comprehensively update the GOP message. I recently spent a weekend in a room with many of them at the Conservative Reform Network’s second annual policy summit. In presentations on employment, welfare, criminal justice, health care, transportation, higher education and much else, there seemed to be enough crackling intellectual energy to recharge a party. A stray tornado would have destroyed the Republican future.
There is a sense in which reform conservatism can be defined as an update and overhaul of American institutions — Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, welfare programs, job training — that were created in the 1930s and the 1960s and are now creaky and fiscally unsustainable. This constitutes an ambitious agenda, involving the use of government to empower individuals with information, resources and choices — a Margaret Thatcher-like use of power to break up old power arrangements.
These efforts stand in contrast to a simplistic formulation of conservative “constitutionalism,” which doesn’t see the work of government reform as necessary because it does not cede the legitimacy of the New Deal and Great Society. In a certain way, reform conservatism is more ambitious than this type of constitutionalism because it actually offers a governing agenda that would transform the modern state, not just applause lines at a Conservative Political Action Conference convention.
But after prolonged exposure to reform conservatives, it is clear that their main policy insight runs deeper. One reason that American institutions are badly in need of modernization is to respond to new economic realities. Large, irreversible economic trends — particularly globalization and the technological revolution — have made it difficult for many Americans to find dignified work sufficient to supporting a family, particularly when they have limited skills and education. Modern capitalism has left some communities in serious need of transitional help — and the transition may last a long time. Some type of redistribution is necessary. But it should be, in the reform conservative view, redistribution that favors work, family and the accumulation of useful skills.
This, when clearly expressed, is the most potentially divisive affirmation of reform conservatives within the broader conservative movement. It means that the current blue-collar and lower-middle-class economy — because of global labor markets and automation — cannot function in a way that is compatible with our conception of social justice. The main reform conservative policy responses are wage subsidies (through an expanded earned-income tax credit), payroll tax cuts, apprenticeship programs, dramatic increases in the child tax credit and a welfare system that requires work in exchange for benefits.
Reform conservatism affirms that there is a crisis in modern capitalism. It is not the crisis Thomas Piketty describes, resulting from the diverging returns of labor and capital. Rather, it is a crisis that comes from the introduction of tremendous competitive pressures into the labor market. Those who lack human capital, knowledge and skills are being left behind in large numbers. And government can’t be a bystander. While promoting overall growth and praying for a new wave of productivity increases, government needs to prepare as many people as possible for competitive labor markets and subsidize wages at the lower end so that unskilled labor can result in a decent life (something the market no longer guarantees).
This is the type of thinking that could cause serious debates within the Republican Party — or bring it to productive power. In either case, it is a sign of life.
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