Thursday, January 4, 2018

What have reformicons learned?

Ross Douthat has a column called "What has Mitt Romney learned?"  The idea is that Romney's opposition to Trump is praiseworthy, but that he had helped to pave the way for Trump by running as a traditional pro-business conservative in 2012 and making no effort to offer anything to the working class.  It all seemed reasonable until this passage near the end "there is a small caucus in the Republican Party for a different way, for a conservatism that seeks to cure itself of Romney Disease by becoming genuinely pro-worker . . . It basically consists of Marco Rubio of Florida and Mike Lee of (ahem) Utah, plus perhaps Arkansas’s Tom Cotton and a few other figures ..."

Rubio ran for the Republican nomination in 2015-6.  He got lots of media coverage and seemed to be well financed, but didn't get many votes.  Those that he got weren't mainly from the working class, but from "establishment Republicans."  That is, when working class voters were offered a choice between the leading "pro-worker conservative" and Donald Trump, they unhesitatingly went for Donald Trump.  I don't find this hard to understand--if you read the elite media, you knew that Rubio was supposed to be a reform conservative, but in the debates he was just one more guy talking about how conservative he was and how Hillary Clinton would do irreversible harm to the America we knew and loved.  

What would a pro-worker conservatism be like?  Douthat links to a piece by Pete Spiliakos, which says that the problem with the recent tax bill is that its benefits are skewed towards high earners, with too little going to the middle and working classes--in other words, exactly what Democrats are saying.  A reasonable short definition of the difference between left and right on economic issues is that the left is in favor of using the power of the state to help people with low and moderate incomes at the expense of people with high incomes, and that the right opposes that.  So a pro-worker conservatism would have to involve some move to the left, because being pro-worker is a basic principle of the left.  Of course, it could involve more than that--for example, expanding the Earned Income Tax Credit but cutting back on the minimum wage, or reducing occupational licensing--but it can't avoid it entirely.  

However, as I have observed before, both politicians and intellectuals in the Republican party seem to be consumed by the desire to prove how conservative they are, and how strongly they oppose progressivism and all of its works.  With politicians, this means that if someone compromises, he or she is vulnerable to being pushed out by someone who promises to take an even harder line.  With intellectuals, it means that even those who want reform assume that any reform has to come from the right and therefore convince themselves that people like Rubio, Lee, and Cotton might be the answer.  The result is that both establishment and reform conservatism are ineffectual.


  1. David J. LittleboyJanuary 9, 2018 at 2:08 AM

    Sorry to be taking cheap pot shots at you, but you write:

    "The result is that both establishment and reform conservatism are ineffectual."

    IMHO, both establishment and reform conservatism are ineffectual because 2/3 of the Republican base are Trump voters. Trump's approval rating keeps falling, but it's still above 1/3 of the total, which is roughly speaking, 2/3 of the Republicans. This puts anyone who claims to be both conservative and a decent human being in a tough spot (yes, I really do think these are incompatible). And explains why in real life US conservative politicians can only move to the right.

    But your "both establishment and reform conservatives" are nothing more than concern trolls (well, Douthat and Brooks are friggin' obnoxious concern trolls, there may be others who aren't) who are perfectly happy with a Trump presidency, since their policy goals are getting achieved.

    (My "concern trolling" about Romney is that he must be madder than all get out: he got all sorts of grief for "shaking the Etch-a-Sketch" and pivoting to pretending to be a civilized human being for the election and lost, whereas Trump kept on dog whistling (at a frequency so low no one misunderstood) and won. ROFL.)

    1. 2/3 of Republicans isn't very impressive. With good economic conditions and no war (except in the sense we've been at war since 2001) you'd expect a Republican president to have approval from almost all Republicans and a significant number of independents. A move to the center seems like an obvious way to gain support, even from a self-interested perspective. But hardly anyone even talks about that (Brooks is an exception). So whether or not my answer is right, I think there is an important question here.