Good Friday Morning from May! We made it to May! There’s a funny meme going around calling May the 5th level of Jumanji, and it is hard to argue with that. Several states start their economic reopening plans this next week, while the virus is still spreading across the country. The spread is not evenly distributed, which makes reopening possible.
This week, I’m wading into a debate on the conservative side that looks back at the reform conservatism movement. It’s interesting for me because I started writing about Reform Conservatism in college — though I wasn’t following the policy debates people were having at the time. My views have changed since college, reflecting a more in-depth knowledge and appreciation of the thinkers I’ve read since then—links to follow.
- This gem courtesy of Jim Geraghty: “For a woman to come forward in the glaring lights of focus, nationally, you’ve got to start with the presumption that at least the essence of what she’s talking about is real, whether or not she forgets facts, whether or not it’s been made worse or better over time.” Who said that? Joe Biden. September 17, 2018, in the middle of the Kavanaugh hearings, in the Washington Post. Everyone is fighting over whether or not the media is handling these allegations correctly, but all they have to do is judge Joe Biden by his own standards.
- You’re probably hearing a lot right now about red states reopening their economies. The national media has had a field day bashing these states. You’ve probably heard less about the progressive Democrat in Colorado opening their economy, just like George and Florida. Nor have you heard that the New York subways are only now getting cleaned every day to prevent COVID-19 exposure. Reopening may, and it may not, we don’t know. But the freakouts regarding certain states show more politics than objective reporting.
Where you can find me this week
Please subscribe, rate, and review my podcast on iTunes, Spotify, or Google Play — the reviews help listeners and readers like you find me in the algorithms. Make sure to sign up for the Conservative Institute’s daily newsletter and become a subscriber at The Dispatch, where I’m a contributor.
Podcast #34: Biden & #MeToo, Great Testing Numbers, and Reopening the Economy – The Beltway Outsiders Podcast
Reopening the economy into the great unknown – The Conservative Institute.
The inauspicious end of #MeToo – The Conservative Institute.
Reform conservatism didn’t fail, but politics has
Did reform conservatism fail? That’s the latest debate on the right. On one side, Ramesh Ponnuru and Yuval Levin point to Donald Trump’s election as the end of policy-based conservatism. Writing from a kind of self-imposed Yoda-on-Dagobah exile viewpoint, they identify a shift away from public policy and towards the tone of whatever Trumpism represents.
On the other side, Tanner Greer argues that the reason reformocons failed is a lack of vision and answer for the “great awokening.” He points to the rise in culture leftism as the dominating factor in modern life. He argues this is a bigger deal, younger conservatives are focused on it, and because reformocons provide no answer for it, they’ve failed.
Is this true? Or is there something deeper that explains this era? Are these two pieces even that far apart? Donald Trump’s election was seismic. Culture does penetrate every aspect of society. But reformocons, and any other political program, have all failed for reasons other than Trump or culture. The reason for that is politics is the thing that’s broken. Culture is replacing politics. Restoring the sovereignty of politics is the answer.
Reformocons on why reformocons failed
Let’s start with reformocons and why they failed. According to Ponnuru and Levin, the 2016 election offered two takeaways. The first is that the old Reagan-era fusionist policy was weaker than anyone knew. “Republican voters were not just open to something different; some of them were hostile to the old agenda, and many more were uninterested in it.” The “political weakness of the old Republican agenda” caught everyone off-guard. Even though reformocons wanted to update all Republican policy, they were still building off the fusionist foundation.
The second takeaway was that politics shifted away from any policy and towards tone. “What could fill the void effectively within the party was not so much an alternative agenda—something Trump did not really supply—as an alternative tone: an aggressive populism disdainful of elites and mistrustful of institutions but not especially concerned with changing what government does.”
In this new Republican party, “the policy agenda in this era has been largely stalled, and the Right has been focused on more-theoretical debates.” That leaves the policy-minded out in the cold. Why this shift to tone? They don’t really say, but they do point out that without an ideological grounding, the conservative movement is open to any direction the next leader takes it. It’s conservatism intellectually unmoored, driven by tone, not thought.
Remember the point on “tone.” We’re going to return to that.
The “Great Awokening” theory of reformocon failure
Tanner Greer writes that reformocons failed because a focus on policy blinded them to the real issue: culture. He says, “the defining event of the last decade was not the election of Donald Trump but the revolution in morals and manners now dubbed the ‘Great Awokening.'” Everyone is forced to follow the tune of woke culture, in public and private. Government policy is not a driving force, “Social pressure, not federal tyranny, keeps the young woke.” He continues:
The problem posed by the Great Awokening to the American Right … is not “How do I stop the government from interfering with my way of life?” but “What should my way of life be in the first place?”
The left answers this question with identity politics. Factions of the right have started engaging it, from integralists to “the evo-pysch-infused ‘classical liberalism’ of Jordan Peterson and the Intellectual Dark Web, the meme-based machismo of the Internet alt-right, Thiel-inspired techno-futurism, or the integralist’s Benedict Optioning cousins, these movements all share a key feature. They are oriented toward resisting not leftist politics but leftist culture.”
He faults reformocons for lack of vision. “Reformocons argued for the centrality of community without endorsing any concrete vision of communal life. They described the need to build new institutions without committing themselves to any specific institutions.”
Tone and Culture as touchpoints
The two pieces aren’t far apart. Donald Trump is a cultural President. Trump’s focus on tone is a feature, not a bug. Trump caught everyone off-guard because culture is filling a vacuum left by politics, not by choice, but necessity. As the parties move towards opposing poles, it’s harder to get things accomplished. The weakness of parties is also readily apparent. These are, however, broader symptoms of a deeper political malaise that was a choice.
Church, family, education, politics, culture, and business are all distinct spheres of influence. Humans live and interact with each one. If one of these spheres falters, another will fill the vacuum. For example, conservatives have long pointed to the government’s disastrous attempts to fill the gap for families. The government cannot parent. In the case of politics, as it has faltered, culture has filled the void.
You can see this, towards the end of the Obama Presidency, as Republicans frustrated any legislative ambitions, he moved to executive action and cultural impact (for example, see Vox: “Barack Obama was the perfect pop culture president“). Trump, seeing this lesson, cranked it to eleven and governs primarily as a cultural President, though the coronavirus pandemic is forcing him into a more traditional role. That’s why he tweets so often as an observer of government conduct, instead of the leader of it.
It’s not just the Presidency, however. Congress has followed suit. Representatives and Senators focus more on their cultural impact, or television hits, than the job of legislating. They shouldn’t be begrudged for this shift. James Madison said of the federalist system, in Federalist 51, “Ambition must be made to counteract ambition. The interest of the man must be connected with the constitutional rights of the place.”
There’s little power in politics right now, but our politicians still retain ambition and must channel it somewhere. That somewhere is culture, as Barack Obama and Donald Trump found out. On Obama, it’s worth noting how the left struggles to assess his legacy. He is both personally and culturally beloved, but determining whether or not he was “successful” on policy is another matter. Will the same be true for Trump?
Politics and our political system
It is common to take Andrew Breitbart’s famous dictum, “Politics is downstream from culture,” as fact. Admittedly, there’s significant truth to it. However, it’s gotten inflated beyond that into the belief that culture can supersede politics. This is wrong. But there’s a reason it holds sway.
Our political system is paralyzed, and culture has filled the vacuum. This is an inversion of the natural order. Culture was never meant to fill the role of politics, or vice-versa. Culture may inform politics, but it cannot govern. But while paralysis seizes politics, culture fills the gap and enforces its own morality. Four areas have gives us Greer’s “great awokening,” where culture claims the power of politics and wields it haphazardly. Former Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan put it this way:
The central conservative truth is that it is culture, not politics, that determines the success of a society. The central liberal truth is that politics can change a culture and save it from itself.
Politics is sovereign, or at least it should be. In his magisterial book, Things that Matter, Charles Krauthammer writes in the introduction that “Politics is the moat, the walls, beyond which lie the barbarians. Fail to keep them at bay, and everything burns.” He said he wanted his first collection of columns and essays free of politics but didn’t succeed.
For a simple reason, the same reason I left psychiatry for journalism. While science, medicine, art, poetry, architecture, chess, space, sports, number theory and all the things hard and beautiful promise purity, elegance and sometimes even transcendence, they are fundamentally subordinate. In the end, they must bow to the sovereignty of politics.
We ignore politics at our peril. Krauthammer’s dictum was “decline is a choice.” The subordination of politics to culture is also a choice. If culture reigns over a political system, the question is: why did we let it happen?
If you question whether politics is sovereign over culture, look abroad. Is it possible to say that China is ruled by its culture, or is the political system dominant? China has a social points system, but that cultural system is enforced through state power. You can look at any number of countries beyond China; Russia, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and various European countries. Culture is subordinate to the political system — it’s only in the free democracy where culture even has a chance to rise to the top.
Moynihan and Krauthammer were right, politics can dictate culture. When we see culture ascending above politics — we should question institutional health. We’re experiencing an inversion of the natural order, especially troubling for a federalist system that depends on ambitious political factions.
In his most recent book, The Decadent Society, Ross Douthat argues that all modern politics is at deadlocks; everyone is playacting their roles. Groups like Antifa, the alt-right, and others have adherents, but still far from the original versions of the early 20th Century. We’re a decadent society, idly slipping through time with factions playacting their roles for cultural fame and power.
If politicians are playacting, channeling ambition into culture, then perhaps there’s a way out of the political malaise. Perhaps we can reinvigorate our politics, return ambition, and restore the sovereignty of the political system. It may not fix culture, but it could disperse the power of culture enough to reduce the impact of the “great awokening” or “woke Marxism.”
Where politics failed and how to fix it
Now we determine what went wrong and how to fix it. Four areas have needlessly kneecapped politics. If you have other ideas, post in the comments. The four needed reforms are:
- Campaign finance reform
Return to regular budgetary order and restore earmark powers
To reinvigorate political ambition and power, you have to start with the most essential tool in the Constitution: the purse. Congress has this power, but alien observers would be shocked to know that. Since the Great Recession, we’ve not had a regular budgetary order where Congress debates, amends, and passes a budget. We’ve live on omnibus appropriation bills — promises to avoid government shutdowns. Everyone from the Brookings Institute to the Heritage Foundation agrees that returning to budgetary normalcy is vital. But it also gives politicians their most crucial tool back.
The second mistake was removing Congressional earmarks, aka pork-barrel spending. Earmarks are not and never were a driver of the national debt. Pork barrel spending is a natural part of negotiation politics. There’s some evidence that earmarks even keep Congress on a regular schedule and budgetary order.
Bringing both tools back restores power to Congress. The primary way for an ambitious Representative or Senator to achieve fame is bringing home the bacon for their districts. Ironically, earmarks allow them to channel federal resources to local communities — the very height of federalism. An elected official should make these decisions instead of unelected executive branch agencies. If an earmark is truly awful — that’s what elections are there to answer.
Under the current system, we’re relying on politicians to decide every vote on “principle.” And then we wonder why every single aspect of our politics is hyper-politicized. Men are not angels, and we should not arrange our laws or institutions in ways that depend on angelic behavior. We’ve encouraged hyperpartisanship by stripping essential tools away from politicians, which leaves them little in politics but much in culture.
Make politicians politick again!
Eliminate campaign finance reform
McCain-Feingold campaign finance reform single-handedly nuked political parties. Limiting the money going to parties and candidates has only starved parties while inflating third-party influence. Political parties should control their own war chests rather than get subjected to the whims and desires of outsiders. Joe Biden was as broke as a college student eating ramen noodles, and still kept a zombie campaign presence until South Carolina saved him because of Super-PAC money.
McCain-Feingold didn’t remove money from politics, it weakened the party system and created a thousand more special interest parties. The parties are more beholden than ever to these groups. We can vote for who holds office, or even who controls political parties. You can’t vote for people in the media or Super-PACs.
Campaign finance reform works about as well as the Fixed Term Parliament Act in the UK. The FTPA stripped parliament of a fundamental electoral power that helped bring the entire system to a screeching halt when the meteor of Brexit hit. Boris Johnson’s leadership plans to get rid of it, having learned the lessons of that idiocy. We should learn too.
Returning to Tanner Greer’s piece for a moment, he made a very astute observation regarding “what is good?” or “What should my way of life be in the first place?” These are questions that conservatives should know because every philosopher since Socrates thought about it. In Plato’s Republic, in fact, some of the people in his republic are explicitly taught what good is and how to achieve it.
Conservatives often talk about the need for better civics education or a deeper understanding of our founding history. But history and civics don’t, by themselves, create the kind of citizens a republic requires to continue its legacy. Public education should, at a minimum, produce citizens who buy into the promise and idea that is America. A cursory look at public universities shows that’s not happening.
It’s not enough to talk about problems of free speech on campus. On some level, these institutions, because they are directed by state and local governments receiving federal funds, have to produce citizens that perpetuate the vision of the Founding generation. That’s the very explicit goal of some homeschoolers and private schools. The left has long had aims in shifting culture and society through education, and the right should do the same.
None of these proposals will fix the culture war. The purpose of these proposals is to bring political ambition back, break culture’s influence, and remove the incentives for politicians to engage culture only. Draining culture of its power over politics means destroying the dams that have prevented political power from moving. In short, restore the sovereignty of politics.
The problem with our system isn’t policy debates. We have more wonks per capita in Washington DC than ever before and fewer results. The problem is that we’re like the meme of the guy who sticks a pipe through the front tire of his bike and then blames someone else for wrecking. As a result, culture filled the vacuum left by our political system, making politicians no different than other celebrities or Instagram influencers.
Restoring Congress should end politicians-as-play-actors and return governing leaders who have direct impacts on their communities and country. Fixing politics opens multiple avenues for ambition and power to flow, instead of everyone piling into culture. Reformocons didn’t fail because of policy or Trump. They failed because of politics. We should fix that.
Links of the week
Coronavirus Disease (COVID-19) – the data – Our World In Data
CNN’s Chinese Propaganda – Jack Butler, National Review
Tara Reade allegations rattle Biden’s VP search: ‘The job of being the vice-presidential candidate is always hard and now it’s just harder because of this. But they don’t really have a choice,’ said one Democrat. – Politico
We Don’t Know Whether Perot Cost Bush in 1992 – Sean Trende, RealClearPolitics
Flight 39 – The worst pro-Trump argument of 2016 has become the worst anti-Trump argument of 2020 – Varad Mehta, Arc Digital
‘Nothing more valuable today’: Justice Department official warns China aims to steal coronavirus vaccine research – Jerry Dunleavy, The Washington Examiner
Twitter Thread(s) of the week
Satire piece of the week
U.S.—The nation’s men have urged their state and local governments to end their respective lockdowns before their wives start any more massive home improvement projects they’ll inevitably have to help with.
Projections indicate that for every week the lockdown continues, your spouse will start an average of 17.5 new DIY home improvement projects, from painting a room or refinishing an old dresser to putting up shiplap or barn doors.
“This is a crisis. I’m basically living in an HGTV show now,” shouted Los Angeles man Edgar Willis as his wife, Heather, operated a circular saw. “She knocked down a wall yesterday. I’m not even sure she knew why. She just wanted to knock something over, I think.”
Thanks for reading!