A New Model for Conservatism
In thinking about what a Donald Trump-led government might do, we might begin by studying the early moves of British Prime Minister Theresa May. Differences abound, but it is nevertheless striking how similar are the situations faced by these two leaders.
May could emerge as the most consequential political leader in Western politics in a generation. Yet, her situation differs from those encountered by past conservative leaders, who have typically entered office with agendas focused primarily on cutting spending, slashing taxes, curtailing regulations, and rebuilding the nation’s international strength. Margaret Thatcher, for instance, confronted a moribund economy and a collectivist Labour Party. By contrast, May enters office in an age characterized by the dissipation of the national, civic, and relational institutions that shape citizens within a contextual bond of meaning and shared purpose. May’s prudent insistence, in her recent Conservative Party Conference speech, that rebuilding these institutions must be a priority strikes the right note politically.
While Trump partially fits the slash-and-cut mold of conservatism, his election was about much more. Arguably, his appeal throughout the last 18 months has been vaulted by a similar breakdown in familial, economic, and political institutions that now require careful mending.
The so-called “Trumpxit” holds a range of potentialities for restoring American prosperity and may even create space for constitutional principles to reemerge. But, if not held in check by other elements of the Right, Trump could use his core of support to embrace a traditional type of populism, swiftly leaving behind prudence and restraint. The Trump administration would do well to take stock of the manner in which May has articulated themes of citizenship, political independence, and economic mobility. Though not without problems of its own, May’s approach nevertheless strikes the appropriate balance between disdain for cultural liberalism and a recognition of the economic insecurities and patriotic identities that have been dismissed for too long by the converging elites of both parties in her country — thereby neutralizing Labour’s traditional advantages with the working class.
May must counter the economic and political conditions that Tony Blair helped bring about. In a perceptive Guardian essay, “Does the Left Have a Future?”, John Harris describes Blair as having sought to teach Britons about the unforgiving global economic realities shaping their lives. He quotes Blair’s statement to Labour Party members in 2005 to the effect that, “The character of this changing world is indifferent to tradition. Unforgiving of frailty…It has no custom and practice. It is replete with opportunities, but they only go to those swift to adapt, slow to complain, open, willing and able to change.” What Blair did not consider was the degree to which those without the requisite high human capital, or those formed outside of elite educations, might find such prospects daunting, even debilitating. Moreover, could any political order that embraces the extension of endless change without any corresponding comprehension of identity and continuity of meaning long survive without convulsive eruptions?
Contrast Blair’s remarks with May’s speech last month to the Conservative Party Conference: “The referendum was not just a vote to withdraw from the E.U. It was about something broader, something that the European Union had come to represent. It was about a sense — deep, profound and let’s face it often justified — that many people have today that the world works well for a privileged few, but not for them.” May spoke of the dividing line of the financial crisis, which further separated the top economic tier from the working class — the latter having experienced its effects most directly and continuously. The change, then, is not just about Brexit or even economic growth, but the restoration of Britain, “a country built on the bonds of family, community, citizenship.” While May lauded economic growth in the speech, she added that “we also value something else: the spirit of citizenship,” and that “means a commitment to the men and women who live around you, who work for you, who buy the goods and services you sell.” Her coup de grâce was a direct shot at the globalist religion of contemporary Western elites: “But if you believe you’re a citizen of the world, you’re a citizen of nowhere. You don’t understand what the very word ‘citizenship’ means.”
The Left in Britain recognizes that May — cognizant of the opportunities before her — is playing for the whole board. Labour is down. (That’s what happens when your membership elevates an unreconstructed socialist to party leadership.) May aims to keep them down. She’s called them “The nasty party,” a phrase that surely resonates with the millions of Labour voters who do not identify with the ideology of multiculturalism and political correctness that animates Labourites. Commenting in the New Statesman, George Eaton notes that “[May’s] intent and ambition alone should terrify Labour. It is a mark of the party’s plight that it may not.”
It is telling that the Prime Minister has called for a rejection of “the ideological templates provided by the socialist left and the libertarian right.” As Allister Heath has observed, her approach is, in this sense, as “emphatic a repudiation of the Thatcher-Reagan economic worldview as it was possible to get without actually naming them.”
Indeed, May emphasizes the need for some government intervention in “dysfunctional markets,” such as the housing market, that do not perform well for ordinary Britons. Unfortunately, she does not acknowledge the layer upon layer of existing regulations and restrictions that are inhibiting the efficient functioning of this particular market. She has also attacked Blairism for its attempt to partially privatize the National Health Service, indicating that she would bolster its services, instead. This is a move in the wrong direction. Also problematic is May’s language of “stakeholder rights,” as opposed to shareholder rights, in corporate ownership and governance. Stakeholder theory aligns with corporatism by allowing the manipulation of firms on behalf of state interests. Shareholder rights, by contrast, protect what Milton Friedman termed a company’s first and only responsibility: to make money for its shareholders, which should redound to the benefit of its workers. The more direct path to helping ordinary Britons is to remove the tax and labor policies that make it needlessly difficult for companies to hire workers.
Other aspects of May’s leadership are more helpful, such as her focus on economic immobility. Britain, like America, is a society currently characterized by immobility. As George Mason Law Professor F.H. Buckley argues in his recent book The Way Back, data from the Pew Economic Mobility Project of 2011 ranking countries on an immobility scale indicate some unsettling facts:
Denmark has a ranking of 0.15 and is relatively mobile, while an immobile Britain has a ranking of 0.50. Surprisingly, the U.S. comes in at a relatively immobile 0.47. To put this in dollar terms, imagine a father who earns $100,000 more in income than the average family. Danish children will earn only $15,000 more than their peers, but British children will earn $50,000 more and American children $47,000 more.
The data call for change if class stratification is going to be reversed. It is therefore unfortunate that May’s critics have paid little notice to her appeal for a more competitive system of schooling to challenge underperforming government schools. Her call for new grammar schools to open in England is almost revolutionary. And here May joins policy to politics. Her indictment of an egalitarianism resistant to the proliferation of educational choices undermines the Left’s moral authority, underscoring how that ideology hampers ordinary citizens’ legitimate desire to choose for themselves. Here, too, May firmly places her stylish heels on the throats of her opponents.
Politically, May is racing towards the center from the Left and the Right simultaneously, daring her opponents in Labour and the UK Independence Party to meet her there. She senses that they can’t.
Could a Trump-led conservatism, responding to its own set of unique circumstances, attempt something similar? Trump’s electoral victories have revealed that Reagan’s legacy no longer resonates much beyond the rightist tribe. Peter Thiel underscored this in his recent National Press Club speech where he called for a conservatism that went beyond Reaganism. The falling of the Democrat’s vaunted “Blue-Wall” in the electoral college offers new electioneering life to a Republican Party whose state-by-state reach had been static, if not shrinking.
Trump’s success has been rooted in the promise of reviving middle-class work, alleviating economic stagnation, repealing Obamacare, and a more restrained foreign policy, based on national interest. But another way to characterize Trump’s appeal is that he articulates a politics relevant to the actual lived experiences of America’s middle- and working classes. As reform conservatives have argued, merely advocating for slashing taxes and regulations is the old Republican swing, and it doesn’t mean a thing unless you also reach out to voters whose concerns don’t rest on the ideological platform of shrinking government. Ironically enough, it may be Trump who offers the vital connecting thread that so-called “reformicons” need for their agenda.
To many Americans, who pay little or even no federal income taxes, a preoccupation with reducing income and investment taxes must come across like a late-night infomercial, as irrelevant as it is annoying. As Trump has shown, Republicans would do better to focus on health care, education, and flat incomes. The failure of conservatives even to show up to these debates has led many voters to favor progressive policies because they are the only real options put before them.
That brings us back to Prime Minister May’s focus on relational institutions even as she pays regard to the primacy of individual freedom. Britain is further to the Left of America on most measures of government welfare and social policy, but both countries share the belief that government must not enclose the individual in an inescapable web of rules. That makes May’s rhetorical coda near the end of her Conservative Party speech all the more interesting. She ties together individual freedom with the relational and social nature of the human person, giving independent status to each:
There is more to life than individualism and self-interest. We form families, communities, towns, cities, counties, and nations. We have a responsibility to one another. And I firmly believe that government has a responsibility too. It is to act to encourage and nurture those relationships, networks and institutions.
If our individual freedom and relational responsibilities are each aspects of human personhood, fully revealing of our social nature, the common good cannot be defined solely by the politics of a small government. This is not because small government is necessarily bad, but because it might not be capable of speaking to the many facets of a social and political reality that, by nature, does not admit of template solutions.
A politics of conservative individualism does not address the current weaknesses of civil and relational institutions — the “middle layers” of society — that must be aided and rebuilt in careful ways. Government has a role to play here, implementing policies that empower these institutions to act as crucial buffers between individuals and the state. May has come to terms with this; it’s time American conservatism did likewise.
Richard Reinsch is the editor of Law and Liberty.