In the aftermath of Mitt Romney's defeat in the last presidential election, the political press focused briefly on a network of conservative writers, most of them still in their thirties, who were challenging at least some of the orthodoxies of the Republican Party. "Reformish conservatives," the Washington Monthly called them in one of the first articles to take note of this coterie. In a long and sympathetic group profile published a year later, the New York Times Magazine tagged them "reformicons," and suggested that they might make the Republicans the "party of ideas."
If there was any single theme that defined these would-be reformers, it was their insistence that the GOP needed to stop mindlessly following the agenda of the donor class and start focusing on the increasing economic insecurity facing the majority of working-class Americans. Long before Trump's capture of the Republican Party proved their point, two prominent reformicons, Ross Douthat and Reihan Salam, used the term "Sam's Club" voters to describe a demographic whose members accounted for an increasing majority within the Republican Party, but who were increasingly ill served by, and alienated from, the glib, "free market" ideology peddled by the party's plutocratic elites.
In the pages of journals such as the National Review and National Affairs, many reformicons put forward specific and practical, if rather small-bore, policy proposals targeted at Sam's Club voters. These included measures like "mobility grants," which would provide workers struggling to make a living wage in Middle America with the money they needed to move to the thriving metropolises where the best-paying jobs were. Others, like Yuval Levin, whom the New Republic in 2013 called "the conservative movement's great intellectual hope," offered up gauzier, somewhat contradictory big-think formulations, like his proposal to promote "subsidiarity"--a ten-dollar word for the not-so-new idea of pushing government power as far out of Washington as possible and into the hands of local heartland communities.
Coming into this election cycle, it looked as if the reformicons might actually gain some real power and influence. They had a pipeline into the office of House Speaker Paul Ryan. They pitched their ideas to many of the 2016 GOP presidential candidates, including Scott Walker and Rick Perry. Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio actually ran on a number of reformicon ideas, along with more standard-issue pro-corporate-libertarian fare.
This was, of course, in those antediluvian days before the party was taken over by Donald Trump, whose xenophobia, authoritarianism, and policy cynicism the reformicons generally deplore but have been powerless to counter. Going forward, it is far from clear what role, if any, intellectuals of any stripe will play in the Republican Party. Yet it is still worth hoping that out of this crisis a new generation of conservative thinkers will emerge. If this election proves anything, it's that America badly needs a conservatism that responsibly addresses the legitimate fears and resentments of working-class Americans who are falling behind. Healthy political debate also requires, now as always, a conservatism that sensibly challenges liberals and progressives when they fall into dogmatism and groupthink as, yes, sometimes happens.
What would such a conservatism look like? Let me make a humble suggestion. Going back to the Reagan-era fixation on cutting taxes and regulations isn't going to wrest control of the GOP base away from Trump or Trumpism--not at a time when most Americans know instinctively that something has been fundamentally wrong with the economy for decades and distrust the stories told by elites about how it will all work out great for everyone in the end. Nor will grafting some kind of "compassionate conservatism" on top of that dead paradigm do the trick.
But there is a deeper, and by now nearly forgotten, tradition of "free market" conservatism that speaks directly to the major structural economic challenges faced by the country today. Better than that, it is a tradition that, as history shows, has broad potential appeal not only to those who think of themselves as principled conservatives, but also to many progressives-especially those, and there are many, who are alert to the many flaws of socialism. But to reconnect with this history, we must first break free of a false narrative about how we got here, one that has profoundly corrupted the meaning of terms like "free markets," "regulation," and "conservative."
In his recent book, The Fractured Republic, Yuval Levin tells a story about the evolution of America's political economy that is the received wisdom of most of today's conservative intellectuals, including the reformicons. According to this story line, up until the late nineteenth century America had a highly decentralized, laissez-faire economy. But then, starting in the Progressive Era, the federal government began to grow more powerful, intrusive, and centralizing. Under Teddy Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson, gigantic bureaucracies emerged that had the nominal purpose of taming the excesses of capitalism but that were really about concentrating economic power.
"Although these regulatory measures all took shape in response to the consolidating power of the industrial economy," Levin writes, "they functioned not by pushing back against that aggregating tendency, but by further consolidating American society--in the process often reducing economic competition to increase government control over the economy and expanding the scope and scale of the state itself."
Levin continues to recite the standard story line when it comes to the New Deal. "Most of the New Deal initiatives pursued by Franklin D. Roosevelt's administration to combat the economic collapse amounted to crude, if well intentioned, cartel-building exercises," he writes. "They were intended to protect incumbent businesses and workers while restraining production ... and propping up prices. The result was a highly centralized economy characterized by an unprecedented degree of corporatism."
Still following the standard line, Levin tells us next that the collusion of Big Government, Big Labor, and Big Business continued to consolidate the economy through the 1950s and '60s. "At the core of the postwar economy, as of the prewar economy, was a corporatist, cartel-based approach to regulation," he writes. "Its purpose was to stifle competition to help large, incumbent players and to maintain an artificial balance between powerful producer interests and powerful labor."
Faithfully moving on to the next chapter of the standard narrative, Levin recites how in "the late 1970s, leaders in both parties began to recognize that the consolidation of the economy was itself part of the problem." And then Levin brings us to the big inflection point, explaining how, after Reagan, "a nation of big, powerful institutions ... [gave] way to a nation of smaller, more nimble players competing intensely in a highly dynamic, if therefore also less stable, economy."
So powerfully entrenched is this story line that even many liberals believe large parts of it. Across the political spectrum, received wisdom holds that beginning in the 1980s and continuing today, "creative destruction" has been "disrupting incumbents" and creating a far more competitive economy. When liberals tell the story, they usually don't dispute that American society has become "market driven" over the last forty years. They just bemoan the increase in inequality and economic insecurity, which they see as a consequence of letting markets rule.
But there's a big problem with letting your worldview and policy prescriptions be informed by this...