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Column: The Right’s Most Interesting Idea Factories

For The Washington Post
Published: 1/6/2019 10:15:12 PM
Modified: 1/6/2019 10:15:14 PM

You’d be forgiven if you thought “conservatism” consisted of 30-somethings’ snark or racism masquerading as a fetish for border security or pro-Russian foreign policy or determined expansion of income inequality. If conservatism used to be distinguished for erudite writing and intellectual energy (e.g. The Weekly Standard, the American Enterprise Institute), it’s now dominated by bootlicking from state TV, climate change denial, “blood-and-soil” nationalism and economic illiteracy.

That does not mean, however, that there are no ideas, no intellectual energy and no depth coming from those on the right.

Rather, it means these are from outcasts, struggling to sprout in a field of anti-intellectualism and rank dishonesty. Who are these people? What are they saying?

Far and away the most interesting ideas factory on the right these days is the Niskanen Center, a sort of haven for lapsed libertarians who’ve discovered that simply shrinking government or disabling it is not a moral good. It’s put out two of the most important pieces on the future of the right, The Center Can Hold: Public Policy for an Age of Extremes and Republicanism for Republicans.

The latter, written by the center’s vice president for policy, Brink Lindsey, postulates: “In the republican worldview, all Americans are ‘real Americans,’ because we all pledge allegiance to ‘one nation under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.’ As Lincoln said in his first inaugural address, ‘We are not enemies, but friends,’ because we are all members of one, all-embracing body politic. We’re all in this together.

“This civic conception of patriotism stands in stark contrast to the blood-and-soil conception increasingly evident on the conservative right. Conservatives today all too frequently distinguish between ‘real Americans’ —  white, native-born, Christian, and disproportionately rural —  and the rest of the country, vowing to ‘take their country back’ from fellow citizens they regard as the equivalent of foreign occupiers.

“Such attitudes and rhetoric are utterly poisonous.”

Lindsey suggests a new political foundation based on devotion to democratic institutions, to “the public interest, or the common weal — the values that we share across ethnic, regional, sectarian, and class lines and that require collective action for their advancement,” to constructive governance (“shrinking government just to make it smaller is not the goal, (but) hostility toward corruption and wastefulness does push toward making government simpler and more transparent”) and to resisting concentrations of power and wealth: “The basic intuition here is that freedom requires a level of personal independence among the citizenry, and that in turn requires a broad middle class and limited extremes of wealth and poverty. In the republican view, excessive imbalances of power and status undermine government in the public interest because both the rules themselves and their administration will end up slanted in favor of the powerful.”

This becomes something new from Trumpian illiberalism and libertarian indifference to the public good:

“Opposition to domination leads simultaneously toward a deep appreciation of markets and the recognition of a vital supporting role for government. Competitive markets are a bulwark of independence because they encourage a proliferation of options; they are an important check against arbitrary power because they subject market actors to accountability at the hands of their customers. But for market competition to operate as intended, government has a few big jobs to do. First, it must provide and enforce rules that structure and sustain competition; second, it must secure the broad enabling conditions that allow people to participate successfully in the market system and protect them from the hazards of life when their participation goes awry.”

Then there are conservatives and defenders of the rule of law striving to remind us of four core conservative principles: free trade, robust legal immigration, defense of the rule of law and opposition to aggressive authoritarian regimes, including Russia.

An umbrella organization dubbed Defending Democracy Together takes on tariffs, anti-immigrant exclusionism and assaults on the Constitution and democratic norms. The group also urges Republicans to return to American leadership in the world and defense of free peoples:

“These four principles used to be assumed as central to modern conservatism. Now they are under assault from self-labeled guardians of the right. While many aspects of GOP policy of the past few decades (especially outright hostility to government) aren’t worth saving, these four clearly are, for they nurture a free and diverse citizenry, promote innovation and social mobility, and adhere to the vision set out in our founding documents.”

Republicans, ex-Republicans and independents should not give up these principles simply because the GOP has abandoned them and become enamored of statism, authoritarianism, xenophobia and Russian toadyism — impulses inimical to anyone who had a passing familiarity with the sort of conservatism practiced by Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., and Govs. Larry Hogan of Maryland, John Kasich of Ohio and Charlie Baker of Massachusetts. That half of the people on that list have passed away and one is leaving office tells you how lacking we are in decent center-right leadership.

Let’s face it: The conservatism and the GOP we once knew are gone. In the spirit of actual conservatism, it’s time to rescue what is worth rescuing — and then experiment, innovate and cultivate what is needed for 21st century America.

Jennifer Rubin is a Washington Post columnist.

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