A More Perfect Conservatism

Editor’s Note: This essay is part of a symposium on vindicating a prudent politics within the GOP.

It’s not easy to speculate about the future of an “ism” without knowing what the term under consideration stands for in the first place. The future of American conservatism depends largely on how it is defined. What are its main goals? What, precisely, is it trying to conserve? After the tumult of the past four years, is it even accurate to say that the American right is synonymous with American conservatism? Is the coalition that elected Donald Trump a “conservative” coalition? Do the most prominent and forceful defenders of Trumpism self-identify as “conservative?”

Conservatism or Trumpism?

Trump’s emergence reflected a clear and deeply-rooted skepticism about the success, viability, and underlying ideas of the modern American conservative movement. His intellectual supporters repeatedly denounced “Conservatism Inc.,” a pejorative term that refers to the “neoliberal consensus that has dominated the American right,” which finds refuge in major conservative thinktanks and organizations such as the Heritage Foundation or the American Enterprise Institute. The voters who first gave Trump a plurality of the votes in the Republican primary and then a narrow Electoral College victory in 2016 had little sympathy for the other, more established Republican candidates such as Jeb Bush, Marco Rubio, and Ted Cruz.

Trump’s emergence, in short, vividly illustrated the vast distance between the ideas of American conservatism and the interests of those who gave it electoral viability. Though much of his policies—nominating originalist judges, challenging the regulatory state, tax cuts—were entirely compatible with traditional conservative ideas, he represented a shift on the right away from orthodox conservative ideas, and especially from traditional conservative style and comportment. Therefore, the future of the Trump coalition and the future of conservatism may not be identical.

This represents the overarching challenge facing American conservatism. Can it maintain consistency with its own principles while adjusting to the new political reality? Trump revealed the disjunction between the ideas conservatism espoused and the practical realities on the ground in American society. American conservatism simply was not speaking to, or speaking for, the people who served as its base of support. It was an elite movement that relied upon the votes of non-elites who it took for granted. It had nothing to say to the massive number of workers and their families suffering from the effects of globalization.

Policy, Style, and Tactics

This untenable arrangement was bound to come apart at some point, and American conservatism can be better for it. When I worked at the Heritage Foundation (2007-2010), everyone there took seriously its mission statement: “Building an America where freedom, opportunity, prosperity, and civil society flourish.” But in practice, the emphasis was on the first three of those four goals, with civil society receiving mostly lip service. The policy prescriptions were heavy on Hayek, light on Tocqueville.

Adjusting the policies of American conservatism to the new environment is a task less daunting than it may seem. While it would require setting aside ideologically rigid commitments on trade and debt, it is important to remember that Trump embraced most of what defined traditional American conservatism. The real challenges concern style and tactics, not substance.

Regarding style, Trump’s personality defined conservatism for the past four years, for better and for worse. His Twitter feed rallied millions to support him, and alienated millions who may have supported his policies but could not stomach his character. It’s hard to measure the cost and benefit of Trump’s personality with confidence. Trump won in 2016, of course, but he lost the popular vote, and he faced a historically poor opponent. He lost in 2020, of course, but he seemed a likely winner at the beginning of the year, before the bizarre events of 2020 turned the nation upside-down. Could a political party and its leaders connect to Trump’s base, integrating it into the coalition, without embracing his buffoonish style?

In addition to the concerns about style, conservatism must grapple with questions about tactics. Perhaps the central charge that Trump’s intellectual supporters levied against conservatism was that it was not sufficiently aggressive. Conservatives, in this view’s famous metaphor, are “the Washington Generals of American politics. [Their] job is to show up and lose.” They “self-handicap and self-censor to an absurd degree.” Instead of fighting, they cede ground voluntarily, just to get a seat at the table.

Like the claims about style, these criticisms about conservatism’s tactics are impossible to evaluate objectively. To illustrate: Left-wing faculty at my previous university routinely lamented that conservatives dominated national politics during the Obama presidency. (I once attended a faculty dinner party where the main topic was President Obama’s astonishing refusal to fight harder for progressive causes. Alas, they concluded, he was just another conservative in disguise.)

The complaint that American conservatism has been tactically ineffectual is, in my view, overblown. Conservatism has transformed American politics since it emerged in the middle of the 20th century. It has reshaped the federal courts, defeated the Soviet Union, and dramatically altered the nation’s fiscal policy. It has also resisted repeated attempts to transform the nation into a much more radically progressive regime. America is not Canada, France, or Spain, and American conservatism is at least partially responsible for that.

In sum, the challenge facing American conservatism, as it searches for a definition of itself in a new political environment, is less about policy than it is about style and tactics. While some policy adjustments must be made, those adjustments will make both conservatism and the country better.

The choice to embrace bombastic rhetoric and aggressive, uncompromising tactics, however, is both politically risky and—more importantly—threatens to sacrifice real virtues of American constitutionalism that conservatism needs to prioritize. Our political system was not designed for demagoguery and winner-take-all presidential politics.

The counterargument against my call for restraint is, in essence, that the train has already left the station. Look around. Because of a variety of technological, cultural, and political changes, American politics is hyper-democratic and hyper-partisan. In this new environment, the argument goes, rhetorical constitutional restraint is suicide unless both sides disarm. However, the defeatism of this position smacks of irony. If the primary criticism of American conservatism is that it conceded too much ground too easily, it is hard to see why conservatives should give up on such important goods as constitutional norms and restraints.

Wilderness Years Ahead?

If American conservatism can find its way through this challenge, in my view, its future is bright. Historically, when an election post-mortem calls for one side to reevaluate its long-term prospects, it is because that side was soundly defeated. (Even then, such gloom is rarely warranted. Recall progressives’ lamentation over the results of the 2004 elections.) This was not the case in the 2020 elections.

The “country party” benefits from a political system that is “winner-take-all” at the district level rather than based on proportional representation. A coalition that cannot win outside of urban areas where votes are highly concentrated, in this kind of system, will not be able to translate its raw votes into a proportional number of seats in the legislature.

There is significant evidence that this new coalition has electoral strength. Most obviously, Trump received over 74 million votes, 47% of the popular vote, and performed better than previous Republican candidates with minority voters. California’s Proposition 16, which would have restored preferential treatment in public employment and education, was decisively defeated. Its presence on the ballot may have cost the Democrats a handful of House seats.

The hard, illiberal left does not have the support of the majority of Americans. Democrats need senators like Joe Manchin (D-WV) and Jon Tester (D-MT) to give them the thinnest of majorities. The Democrats’ House majority is also extremely thin, and includes moderates who risk losing their districts to Republican challengers if the party moves towards its left flank. Many of the party’s members understand this, and voiced their concerns about the party’s image in moderate districts in a post-election conference call with leadership.

The hard left is not the primary, immediate threat to conservatism. Any party that fully embraces it will not win majority control of our political institutions, at least at the present time. While the left has—and will use—the administrative state and its cultural influence to continue to shape the country, it struggles to win elections and can be checked if conservatism remains electorally viable. The main threat to conservatism is internal, not external.

Conservativism also has a bright electoral future, in part, because of the structural advantage it receives in a system of geographically-based representation (yet another reason for conservatives to defend constitutionalism). The “country party” benefits from a political system that is “winner-take-all” at the district level rather than based on proportional representation. A coalition that cannot win outside of urban areas where votes are highly concentrated, in this kind of system, will not be able to translate its raw votes into a proportional number of seats in the legislature.

This constant source of frustration for progressives led a writer for the The Week, shockingly, to declare that America may soon become “a one-party state” dominated by Republicans! Such statements should, if nothing else, at least give conservatives reassurance that they are not facing a lengthy period in the wilderness. Progressives will, of course, seek to change these rules toward a national popular vote, proportional representation-style system, but they will need the cooperation of moderates who are (thus far) reluctant to employ such “nuclear” options. Conservatives, therefore, should be vigilant about defending the aspects of American constitutionalism that incentivize bargaining and coalition-building rather than pure national majoritarianism.

From a historical perspective, the 2020 election was hardly transformational. The emergence of Donald Trump four years ago, however, has led conservatism to a fork in the road. On the one hand, conservatism may emerge stronger than before if it adjusts its policies to serve the interests of the American people more effectively. To accomplish this will require party leadership that can exercise restraint and embrace the virtues of moderation and coalition-building that our constitutional system is designed to secure.