Economic nationalism is not enough: cultural and civic revival beats an economic backstop.
The Republican Old Guard needs to adopt new tactics to deal with a rapidly changing society.
Over the past few months, it finally feels like America’s conservative movement has some wind in its sails. As state legislatures and other governing bodies move to prohibit the promotion of critical race theory in the public schools, liberals appear to be on the defensive for once.
Panicked left-leaning news segments and defensive statements from the nation’s teachers unions suggest that the push to prohibit the teaching of woke racial ideas has progressives feeling the heat.
Conservatives have the upper hand in this fight because they have chosen a favorable playing field. While cultural progressives dominate most institutions in America—media, the arts, the universities, and, increasingly, corporate America—Republicans retain a majority in state legislatures.
These legislatures have every right to regulate what goes on in schools that they fund, oversee, and require students to attend. While the details of individual bills deserve scrutiny, there is no credible argument against providing democratic oversight over the ideas that children are taught in public schools; public institutions must be accountable to the public, and elected legislatures are one of the primary vehicles for seeking accountability.
Yet Republicans did not adopt this strategy until the past year, when journalist-turned-advocate Christopher Rufo dug deep into America’s burgeoning anti-racism industrial-complex and unearthed instructional material that was being used in various large institutions to portray whites as oppressors and non-whites as victims. He met with think tanks and lawmakers, and even found an ally in President Trump, who banned woke trainings across the federal government before President Biden changed course.
It is an indictment of what you could call Conservatism, Inc.—the constellation of think tanks, right-leaning publications, consultants, and lawmakers—that it fell to Rufo, a documentarian who only recently began to move to the right (he did not vote for President Trump in 2016) to design their pushback against wokeness.
For too long, Conservativism, Inc. has simply failed to generate any new ideas to tackle the problems of an evolving country. Since the Reagan years, conservatives have coalesced around a narrow set of solutions to every: cut taxes and shrink the size of government. These are certainly important policy goals, but they are not a substitute for a comprehensive worldview and holistic agenda.
In 2017, when conservatives who had spent more than half a decade complaining about the Affordable Care Act were finally in a position to do something about it, it emerged they had no viable alternative to replace it with. South Carolina Republican Senator Lindsey Graham admitted as much during the process. “You’ve been working to overhaul this for seven years. Why is this so hard?” a reporter asked him.
“Well, I’ve been doing it for about a month. I thought everybody else knew what the hell they were talking about, but apparently not,” Graham replied.
Even when the Republican Party changes leadership, it appears to have little thirst for changing its ideas. When Wyoming representative Liz Cheney was removed from her leadership post in the House Republican Caucus, New York’s Elise Stefanik took her place. Stefanik, who has one of the more heterodox voting records among House Republicans, offered an opportunity for some policy innovation, yet her elevation to leadership appears to have done little to alter her party’s approach. “Republicans are going to focus on economic growth and focus on how we are the party of tax cuts and not tax hikes,” she recently told Fox Business, laying out the party’s economic approach. There’s nothing there that wouldn’t have been said during the party’s campaigns in 1986, 1996, or 2006.
Yet the world has changed since those days. The growing fault line in American politics is a college education, with Democrats increasingly becoming the college-educated party and the GOP becoming the party of people with a high school diploma. As the economist Thomas Picketty has found, in 2016 and 2020, the “top 10 percent earners became more likely to vote for the Democratic Party for the first time since World War II.”
This new class divide should reshape the political landscape, but the Republican Party is fixated on the same old agenda, which is cutting taxes on some of the same massively rich individuals and corporations who oppose their values and loathe their voters. They are doing this despite the desires of their own base. A Reuters/Ipsos poll taken last year found that 53 percent of Republicans say that the “very rich should contribute an extra share of their total wealth each year to support public programs.”
There are some signs that some in the party want to change course and come up with new solutions. Senator Josh Hawley of Missouri has introduced a range of legislation that would tackle big social and economic problems with new solutions like breaking up large monopolies in Big Tech. Arkansas Republican Senator Tom Cotton has introduced legislation that would levy a wealth tax on large college endowments, striking at the heart of an elite, progressive power base. But Republican leadership has not endorsed these or most other new solutions to new problems.
Some argue that conservativism should stick to traditional solutions because, unlike progressivism, it does not seek to remake the world along a radical vision. But cleaving to such a narrow path only works when the world is not already changing around you. Who really thinks that cutting corporate taxes is the solution to the collapse of the American family?
Chris Rufo and others in his vein have given conservatives hope because they offered them new solutions to deal with new problems. If Conservatism, Inc. wants to regain its relevance, it must start innovating again and end its reliance on outdated ideas.