It’s frustrating that Daniel McCarthy begins his First Things essay so well, because by the end I was profoundly disappointed. He begins by explaining to us that dramatic change, within American culture and in the world at large, has rendered old political paradigms obsolete. Our politics has “run on autopilot for far too long” and our parties have become sclerotic. Too many citizens’ needs aren’t being addressed. There’s every reason to think, without significant reform, that the problem will get worse. What we need is a conservative agenda that fits the 21st century, grounded in a sober appreciation of both our current circumstances and the enduring truth about human nature. Only that kind of vision of America’s future can give our citizens some hope. All this, in the early paragraphs of McCarthy’s essay, is absolutely true. But by the essay’s end, the limits of McCarthy’s vision are revealed.
McCarthy concludes his clarion call for a new conservative vision by advising our hated elites to “manage discontent” through protectionist trade policies and lower immigration levels. These are key elements of a Trumpian agenda, but if this is really the new conservative agenda, the pathway to a brighter tomorrow is murky. McCarthy speaks very shrewdly of a “palliative liberalism,” which keeps popular discontent at a low simmer with the help of handouts. The poor don’t starve, but there’s no real effort to help them thrive. To my eyes, McCarthy’s recommendations approach a kind of palliative conservatism, focused on stopping the bleeding in the most obvious places, not building a cultural and political agenda to facilitate a thriving working class in the 21st century.
This assessment might be too harsh. It’s not realistic to expect a complete conservative agenda in a single essay, especially one that has already done such a fine job of explaining why one is needed. Still, I’m not confident that the fuller picture would be more satisfying, especially because McCarthy places himself in company with those on the right who have lately been calling for a “new nationalism” as the foundation for future reform. These thinkers—Tucker Carlson now prominent among them—stress the need for American solidarity. They want to achieve solidarity by shielding citizens from disruptive foreign influences (global trade, immigration) while banning whatever undermines healthy community life (drugs, pornography, addictive technologies).
Some of these steps are wise. But a new conservative agenda demands consideration of the cultural implications of this nationalist scheme. Proponents claim it is superior to the alternatives—palliative liberalism or a Reaganite agenda—because it is responsive to cultural change and real human needs. Presumably, the nationalists aren’t just trying to make money or win a few elections. They claim to be reflecting deeply on how people should live in today’s America. But their goal seems to be recreating the external conditions that supported small-town life in 20th century America.
We must do what it takes to supply men of modest education with secure jobs and decent wages, they say. Ideally, these should be jobs which do not require people to move. Once the jobs are in place, other positive developments should arise organically, but we can accelerate the process by curbing—through law, if necessary—disruptive cultural influences. They want to uproot the malign forces that have undermined middle-class American life. We can only hope that regrowth will follow.
Juxtaposed against the current American political spectrum, this isn’t much of a compromise. This agenda will be controversial; it’s centered around the needs and wants of particular sub-groups. Maybe that’s fine, but it won’t be effective as the basis of a re-negotiated social compact, nor is it likely to engender national solidarity. Not everyone sees solidarity and a new social compact among all groups as a priority. But even if this platform were politically attainable, it’s not clear whether it would have the desired effect. Can we really “regrow” small-town community just by subsidizing small town jobs?
The collapse of so many small American towns, particularly in the Rust Belt, has made it obvious that the problem isn’t just detached elites or rapidly-shifting markets. These towns were created by global markets in the wake of World War II, so their vulnerability to new geopolitical shifts is unsurprising. When the factories closed, it was hard for the people to draw on ancient wisdom, because they were never actually perpetuating an ancient way of life. Flint, Detroit, and Gary have faced hard times and we should feel compassion. Still, its residents haven’t been battling for physical survival. And even if they had been, they still could have continued getting married and going to church. If we’re inclined to issue harsh judgments, we should acknowledge that the great majority of us are nearly equally vulnerable, depending on economic and political vicissitudes. But we can resist the inclination to judge while reflecting on the wisdom of taking aggressive efforts to try to restore a social fabric that unraveled so easily. If we acknowledge these admittedly uncomfortable economic realities, perhaps we can find a better way to build up our communities.
Ours is a relatively rootless society. Americans have largely developed our “land of opportunity” through relentless energy, adaptability, achievement, and innovation. It’s true that we’re also known for our strong communitarian spirit, but rootedness has never been our prevailing strength. Isn’t it possible that today’s nationalists are led to look past this reality by an understandable but undue sympathy with those who now seem to be suffering the most? Could we not feel that sympathy without giving up on energy and adaptability as our best resources for building new, thriving communities?
Without forthright acknowledgement that everyone must change and adapt, it will be hard to take any new agenda seriously. Maybe secure breadwinner jobs aren’t going to be the primary ballast of American life in the future. Maybe we need to look for other ways to stabilize families and rejuvenate communities. If this is truly a fulcrum moment in our history, then it’s only reasonable to assume change is coming for us all and we need to prepare. A new conservative agenda should embrace the positives that come with change while working to ameliorate the negatives.
A robust economy may be the best thing we have going for us in America right now. That could be great news, because shifting markets can open opportunities to people at all levels of society. On the other hand, shifting markets are socially disruptive. Looking to the future, it still seems that natural economic development, in conjunction with grassroots-level cultural reform, offers our children the best hope of a bright future. What we need now is to stabilize people who are suffering, ideally in ways that still incentivize productive activity. Think about wage subsidies, child allowances, and measures designed to help people move or re-skill. Invest in public facilities, and try to ensure that kids at all income levels have access to stimulating activities and educational opportunities. The goal should be to keep Americans as busy and active as possible, without stymieing market movements that may be essential to our long-term thriving.
Human beings will always need material sustenance as well as family, community, and meaningful activity. Sometimes, however, we need to change our expectations of how we find those goods. Conservatives shouldn’t cede that reassessment to the progressive Left. The political Right needs to counter the liberals and socialists with its own vision of how a changed America can still be happy and free. Many of us feel that the future is dimming. But often what is vanishing is just the recent past. A new conservative agenda would discern how our new economic circumstances can give rise to new American dreams, and not strain to keep failing social structures on life support. There’s a time and place for mourning what has been lost, but a new conservative agenda should look towards the future.