Obama’s victory in November reflects an important trend. Our political culture is now being shaped by liberals. That’s not because their ideas are sound. They’re often not. But conservatives largely don’t have ideas, or at least not ones that can animate national campaigns.
This is evident in foreign policy. We face the relative decline of American hegemony. Our limits became visible in the Iraq war. Meanwhile, China is ascendant and will continue to assert itself. Rapid economic development will give other nations new geo-political weight. Liberals have a plan. They want to construct international institutions in accord with human rights and democracy. We’ll prosper within this international system, and our elites will take a prominent role in running global institutions. Or so they promise.
I don’t like this plan, not the least because it’s self-serving for the liberal nomenklatura that is in many cases already transferring its loyalty to NGOs and global institutions. But it’s a way of thinking about the future that, if tempered by realism, may not be ideal but will be workable. What’s the conservative view? “American greatness.” That’s a sentiment (one I’m sympathetic to), not a policy.
I’m not saying that there aren’t smart conservative foreign policy experts. There are, and they have some good ideas. What I’m saying is that the Republican party does not have a functional public rhetoric that deals with the relative decline of American hegemony. The Romney campaign had no visible stance on foreign policy other than to attack Obama’s supposed lack of commitment to American greatness.
A second point. Globalization provides tremendous economic opportunities to certain segments of society, but not to others. Obama-era liberalism is willing to face up to the economic realities of globalization, relying on a straightforward progressive response: redistribution. The winners in a competitive global economy will subsidize middle-class life. That’s the basic model of New York City, where a great deal of subsidies get funneled through government employment.
There’s lots to criticize in this approach. But it’s a policy or set of policies. Conservatives? Romney ran on economic freedom: More entrepreneurs lead to more jobs. True, perhaps, but that’s a theory about economic growth in the long run, not tomorrow. Ramesh Ponnuru, Ross Douthat, and others have been pushing for a robust set of tax subsidies and programs to support middle-class families, but they go unheeded. That’s because these ideas violate the anti-government commitments that are so powerful on the right today.
A third point. The sexual revolution has social costs. Middle-class America is sliding toward under-class social mores and dysfunctions. These dysfunctions exacerbate—severely—the economic decline of the middle class. What to do? Liberals have policies to intervene and remediate. In some cases they want more government programs: childcare for single mothers and so forth. They also want to alter social attitudes to make us more “accepting” of sexual freedom and “family diversity.” They promise that political correctness will reinvigorate social solidarity in new ways.
Again, much to criticize. Progressives always seem to dissolve culture without being able to rebuild it. They spend social capital; they don’t create it. But conservatives today? We denounce these changes—or we ignore them if we’re trying to cozy up to free-market libertarians for purposes of political advantage. The Romney campaign had no visible stance on marriage and family.
I don’t think the Romney campaign was out of character. Today, what remains of the Reagan coalition has difficulty speaking broadly and with confidence. That’s not surprising. It’s been thirty years since Reagan, and it’s the nature of political coalitions to age poorly.
Perhaps the clearest sign of the superannuation of the Reagan coalition has been the confusion of means with ends. Altar-and-throne conservatism held on to a view of an integral society in which divine and human authority are coordinated and all-defining. By contrast, modern conservatism affirms modernity. We are citizens, not subjects. Political authority is secular, not sacred. However, to this basic affirmation has been added profound concerns about dangers of political life unhinged from the sacred, which is why the essence of modern conservatism has been a commitment to limited government.
The diminishment of modern American conservatism has come about as the Reagan coalition focused on limiting the size of government: taxing and spending. This is indeed a means for limiting government, but it is not the end itself. For example, the regulatory function of government is very inexpensive to fund, requiring little in the way of direct taxation, and yet it can, and in many ways has, become a Leviathan.
Rousseau once said, “Every country gets the government it deserves.” Only a healthy political culture can succeed in limiting government. Such a culture needs social forms that are more primitive than government—marriage, for example—that limit government from below, as it were. Conservatives are thus kidding themselves as they currently flirt with accepting gay marriage. They can of course do so to win elections, but gay marriage foreshadows government redefinition and control of reproduction and family life. As the personal becomes political, the political expands.
Patriotism is another pre-political power that limits government by holding accountable those who hold power. That’s even more true when it comes to religious faith. A national culture that has strong religious currents pinions the Leviathan of the modern state from above. As Henry VIII discovered with St. Thomas More, religious conviction is perhaps the most powerful limitation on government: You may command my body, but you will not have my will.
American conservatives need to return to first principles. Tax rates are not irrelevant. Restraining government spending may be good policy (and a fiscal necessity). But our goal is limited government, not limited taxation. The sign of success is a free people capable of self-government, not government spending as a certain percentage of GDP. We’re not going to have anything compelling and engaging and effective to say about the challenges we face until we restore clarity about what we want to achieve.
R.R. Reno is Editor of First Things. He is the general editor of the Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible and author of the volume on Genesis. His previous “On the Square” articles can be found here.