It was never about small government. That is the bitter lesson many conservatives have learned, as they have seen Republican-leaning voters opt for a candidate who promises mass deportations and protectionism. That’s the bad news.
The good news is that, when conservatives were winning, they were winning less on the basis of small government than on the basis of effective government—limited government that enforced civic obligations. If conservatives want to crawl out of the present disaster, they should look to welfare reform—their last major policy win—and Lawrence Mead’s understanding of a politics of civic obligation.
Writers such as Ross Douthat and Michael Brendan Dougherty have written about the phenomenon of working-class Trump supporters. These people’s lives aren’t a total mess as of yet, but they see social disintegration below them and indifferent elites above them. As families disintegrate, addiction levels rise, and the disability rolls increase, what has this class been offered by the major parties?
The Democrats offer increased government benefits (and implicitly the higher taxes to pay for them), the destruction of energy-sector jobs, and a vast immigration increase in precisely those sectors of the labor market where workers and families are most troubled. The Republicans have offered what Henry Olsen has called a policy of giving the boss lower taxes and more leverage over workers in the hopes that the factory will close a few years later—or maybe the factory will close now, anyway.
Trump has no real answers, but he at least recognizes that what is wrong with American politics can’t be fixed just by cutting taxes for the rich and entitlement benefits for everyone else. Trump has come so far—despite being a reckless political trickster—because the elites of both parties have abdicated their civic obligations.
Both parties want to increase low-skill immigration, even as America’s low-skill population is visibly troubled across ethnic and racial lines. Rather than help this group, both party establishments seek to expand its numbers. Bizarrely, elite Democrats use the language of compassion, and elite Republicans use the language of optimism, even as wages stagnate and families fall apart.
In his seminal book Beyond Entitlement, political scientist Lawrence Mead wrote that the imperative of welfare reform wasn’t about small government or big government. It was about civic obligations. Government should help those in need, but the able-bodied have a social obligation to work. Mead argued that with guaranteed government welfare benefits, “work, at least in low-wage jobs, no longer serves the individual’s interest as clearly as it does society’s. Whichever approach we take, the solution must lie with public authority in some form.”
The solution that Mead preferred (and that Congress eventually adopted) was for converting “welfare” (a popular term for the cash-aid program Aid to Families with Dependent Children) from an open-ended entitlement to a conditional program that included a work requirement and eligibility time-limits.
The result was that the rolls of cash-aid welfare declined substantially. But what is important to remember is that welfare reform started with an assertion of government power and responsibility. Government was willing to provide aid to the needy and establish behavioral conditions for that aid. This is what Mead called the “civic approach.” We all had responsibilities to each other, and some of those responsibilities had to be enforced by an effective government.
Trump cannot get us back to this kind of civic conservatism because his politics is too much a kind of identity politics for older, native-born whites. Trump famously observed that “We either we have a country or we don’t.” That is true. But what is also true is that first- and second-generation Americans are a part of our country. A conservatism that can’t speak to the interests and experiences of first- and second- generation Americans will never reform America’s institutions.
A civic conservatism should have appeal beyond—while also including—Trump’s base. Foreign-born low-skill workers (and their American-born children) are also struggling. Elite Republicanism treats struggling native-born workers as losers who “can’t cut it.” Trumpism implicitly treats foreign-born workers as a threat. We lack a civic conservatism that can appeal to both foreign- and native-born wage-earners on the basis of a limited but effective government.
That means a conservatism that focuses on bringing low-skill workers into the labor market more consistently—which means that both the government and those workers will have to live up to their responsibilities. This will partly involve what Mead called “administrative statecraft.” That might mean wage subsidies, relocation vouchers, and reforming the disability system in order to make work a better deal and dependency more difficult.
There is a lively debate in economics about the effect of low-skill immigration on wages. One side argues that low-skill immigration causes a moderate decline in the wages of both native-born and preexisting foreign-born workers. The other side argues that low-skill immigration has little impact on the wages of the native-born, but causes a large decline in the wages of preexisting foreign-born low-skill workers.
From a civic perspective, it does not matter which economic school is right. From a civic perspective, we should not be using the immigration system to bring down the wages of workers who already have the highest unemployment rate, the lowest labor-force participation rate, and the most unstable families. There is nothing compassionate or optimistic about using the immigration system to (effectively) cut the wages of either our native-born or our foreign-born countrymen.
Mead’s politics of civic obligation would, of course, entail the use of government power. It would mean that the government would offer incentives for people to leave their homes in order to find work, and it would mean forcing some people off of disability.
It would also mean using the government to enforce the civic obligations of the business class. Immigration enforcement and the full integration of wage-earners into American society serve the interest of society more clearly than the interest of individual businesses. Individual businesses would prefer to have lower-wage and lower-leverage workers, rather than paying more to workers who have better options. That is why we need a government that can enforce the civic obligations of employers as well as those of welfare recipients.
Trumpism has been called nationalistic and xenophobic, and there is some truth to that. But Trump is filling the vacuum left by the lack of a civic conservatism. The Republican Party can choose the path of civic conservatism, combining effective and responsible government with lower taxes and spending (lower, that is, than the Democrats might prefer). The alternative is the party’s present condition: a civil war between those who use small-government rhetoric to push a narrow business class agenda and a white-identity-politics–tinged nationalism that is led by charlatans, even as it recognizes the need for effective government.
This should not be a tough choice. But if the recent past is any indication, we can expect that the Republicans will choose poorly.
Pete Spiliakos is a columnist for First Things. His previous articles can be found here.