In his essay on nationalist reform for conservatives in the age of Trump, Christopher DeMuth lays out an innovative and useful framework for understanding the political realignment happening on the right. But his proposed policy solutions do not always match up with what’s revealed by the 10,000-foot lens he suggests we view our present political situation through.
I want to make two observations. First, by way of addition: conservatives need to start talking about how to rid the administrative state of its bureaucrats. Second, in disagreement: while his suggestions are good first steps, DeMuth does not propose adequate policies to truly reform our educational system.
Fire the Bureaucrats
DeMuth is correct to place the blame for atrophy of self-government at the feet of the administrative state, and in particular to point out that the cosmopolitan “Anywheres”—as opposed, using David Goodhart’s terminology, to the more rooted “Somewheres”—have much greater access to the halls of power in an administrative system than in a republic.
The dangers and the extra-Constitutionality of our bureaucracy have rightly been targeted for serious reform by the broader conservative movement, at least for the past few years. The topic has dominated Federalist Society conferences, consuming the career of leading figures like the Claremont Institute’s John Eastman and their Center for Constitutional Jurisprudence, and legal pioneer Philip Hamburger has even started a new public interest law firm specifically to litigate against expanding administrative power.
But one element has gone so neglected that there are virtually no white papers or think tank policy wonks working on the problem: the professionalization and left-leaning bent of the personnel who staff the administrative state.
The problem of a professionalized civil service insulated from political winds of fortune by more than a century of expanding job protections has been thrown into sharp relief by the #resistance within the Trump administration to its “own” policy goals.
Whatever one thinks of the goals themselves, this seemingly-endless battle in the Swamp may dispirit voters when they realize much of the direction of the ship of state remains the same even after monumental “change” elections like 2016.
By contrast, under the reviled “spoils system,” and during times when bureaucrats even had “term limits” placed on their offices, America had some of its highest-turnout elections ever.
Any serious conservative agenda must not resign us to the Swampy fact that much of the leftist administrative state plows on even when we win elections. We must start rolling back the job protections that make bureaucratic defiance possible in the first place.
At least in its initial stages, such an agenda might even garner support from a few centrist Democrats, as the two-year long flowcharts and processes that guide agency dismissal of obviously incompetent and criminal government employees sound absurd to a large majority of the American public. After all, the last major attempt to reform ludicrous civil service laws came from Jimmy Carter!
Demolish and Defund the Left’s Educational Control
On education, I depart from DeMuth’s proposed policy agenda, which does not quite rise to meet the level of his profound critique of conservative ideological orthodoxy.
It is true that education reform solutions are, in DeMuth’s words, “well developed” and need to be “marched into partisan combat.” But the specifics of what he proposes, I fear, are not nearly radical enough and so will not likely accomplish the task. As Rick Hess notes, the education reform sphere—including the charter schools that DeMuth heavily relies upon—has largely been co-opted by and for the Left.
We should be looking at education reform through the prism of how to destroy Leftist control over its institutions. In K-12, that means pushing universal and flexible forms of school choice—education savings accounts for all—and tying that push directly to the progressive takeover of curriculum and values taught in public schools. There is mounting parent backlash against “America was never great” history textbooks and transgender “accommodations” that place six-year-old girls in locker rooms with biological men. But Republicans—in part because of the left-leaning makeup of the reform movement Hess points out—have been afraid to admit that bipartisan education reform has been a failure. They should seize on education choice as not just a lifeline for low-income and minority urban students in schools with poor test scores, but as freedom from Leftist indoctrination contrary to the values many Americans still dare to teach around their dinner tables.
DeMuth recognizes the need for this reframing, but perhaps underestimates the radicalism of the policy tools necessary for its success: every family should fully control the public dollars allocated to its children’s educations. “Public education” should no longer be cover for sending Leftist institutions—which our school system has become, following the lead of our even more radical universities—full funding from the half (or more) of the country that stridently opposes its aims.
William F. Buckley wrote God and Man at Yale seven decades ago. Yet the university system still enjoys full public financial backing as though it had not degenerated from the elevated institution of yesteryear into an archipelago of training camps for Leftist activism. Whether Democrats or Republicans are in charge, Congress continues to increase its student loan investments, the lifeblood that has enabled insane cost increases well above inflation rates, as well as billions in direct grants to universities. DeMuth recognizes this, but only addresses the direct grant piece of the equation, which is the smallest part of taxpayer funding of higher education (much larger is the underwriting of virtually the entire student loan market, which at present stands at about $1.5 trillion).
Why should Republican legislators extend special lines of credit, financed by the two thirds of Americans who do not pursue a bachelor’s degree, to students to study at temples of wokeness? This is a question that few on the Republican side are asking, but more should.
A conservative policy agenda would at minimum freeze these investments and tie them to popular protections for the First Amendment, which universities now flout with impunity despite losing lawsuit after lawsuit in the courts. Threatening student loan backing—or even the charity status of billions in university endowments—would produce a sea change in campus free speech environments overnight. But at present, the Republican Party is treating these ideas as a mere distraction from what it deems more important: creating an economic value matrix for higher education reminiscent of the No Child Left Behind failure in K-12. Despite the overwhelming popularity of the President’s campus free speech executive orders, Senate Republicans reauthorizing the Higher Education Act, like retiring committee chair Lamar Alexander, are ignoring calls to include speech protections in the legislation.
More work will be needed to flesh out policy solutions for problems like these that sit squarely in the culture war center of the Venn diagram between more traditional Reaganite conservatism and Trumpism.
DeMuth lays out a good argument at the ideological level. His policy solutions should be updated with the same unstated purpose: to target and destroy Leftist domination of major institutions that shape both our culture and our political battlefield.