Parallel to the rise of the tea party — with less attention but more potential influence — has been a gathering movement of reform conservatives whom my colleague E.J. Dionne Jr., in an essay in the journal Democracy, dubs “Reformicons.”
One version of the tea party’s governing vision was recently and neatly summarized by Mississippi Senate candidate Chris McDaniel: “I’m not going to do anything for you. I’m going to get the government off your back, and then I’m gonna let you do it for yourself.”
This might be better called Ikea conservatism. The parts and instructions are in the box. Do it for yourself. But what if some of the pieces have gone missing? What if (to badly strain the metaphor) you can’t read the instructions and doubt the possibility of finishing the project?
Reform conservatives hold a different definition of the social and economic problem. Government programs can be sadly counterproductive. But government did not create the vast trends of globalization and technological innovation, which require workers to have a level of education and skills that antiquated governmental institutions seem incapable of providing for much of the population. And many Americans are forced to adjust to these disorienting changes just as supportive social institutions — two-parent families, communities that provide mentors and models — are collapsing.
In this light, “do it for yourself” does not seem responsive or realistic. But reform conservatives, in their own reticent and wonkish way, are also manning the same barricades as some tea party activists in revolt against a complacent, centrist, business-oriented Republican Party. They are calling for a conservatism that reaches beyond small-business owners (who are genuinely concerned about regulatory burdens) to address the practical concerns of working-class and middle-class Americans, struggling to advance against swift economic and social currents.
In his essay, Dionne begins with a large error but raises three important questions. He mistakenly sets President Obama’s agenda — particularly the Affordable Care Act — as the definition of political centrism, then judges the sincerity of conservative reformers by how closely they orbit this version of liberalism. By this standard, he admits, reform conservatives are “destined to let progressives down.” Well, yes. One would hope. Because reform conservatism is intended as an alternative to a tired progressivism.
Dionne appropriately asks, while dating himself, “Where’s the beef?” (Quoting Walter Mondale from 30 years ago, who was quoting a television commercial popular at the time.) One regular, quarterly response is made in National Affairs, the journal of reform conservatism. This ideological tendency has been recently distilled into a collection of essays titled “Room to Grow: Conservative Reforms for a Limited Government and a Thriving Middle Class,” featuring distinctly market-oriented proposals to provide universal health coverage, improve access to higher education and redesign the social safety net (among other interesting ideas). The agenda is not fully formed — but it is probably more developed at this stage of the election cycle than either Bill Clinton’s New Democrat agenda or George W. Bush’s compassionate conservatism.
Dionne also asks whether the GOP base, which cheers candidates such as McDaniel, is capable of embracing reform conservatism. Much of the right interprets recent presidential losses by John McCain and Mitt Romney as a function of excessive compromise and moderation. They may not be in the mood for policy innovation, involving a limited but active role for government. The success of reform conservatism will eventually require a Republican presidential candidate who can appeal to conservative populists while employing Reformicon policy nerds and addressing middle- and working-class concerns. That is a conceivable but difficult balance.
Finally, Dionne wonders whether reform conservatism is too timid to confront the serious, structural problems in our country. This is a good question that can be turned another direction. Reform conservatism is promising precisely because progressivism has ceased to be.
The assumption that liberalism has an effective set of solutions for middle-class problems is an amazing failure of self-knowledge. The liberal agenda — a minimum-wage increase for the working poor, higher taxes on the wealthy to fund entitlement commitments, more public subsidies in education, more spending on safety-net programs — is often an attempt to get a little extra life out of outdated institutions badly in need of reform. None of this shows evidence of coming to terms with 21st-century realities of declining human capital and stalled social mobility. It is a vision of the future stuck in 1965. A pre-Clinton Democratic Party. A progressivism that Mondale would find familiar.
In America, both parties need updated governing agendas. At least some Republicans are admitting it.
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