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Have Conservatives Rolled Over, Or Have They Been Steamrolled?


Over the weekend, Ross Douthat of The New York Times weighed in on the ideological battle sparked by Tucker Carlson’s recent Fox News monologue excoriating GOP elites for slavish devotion to market capitalism and indifference to its negative effects, especially for working-class families.

Carlson’s fusillade provoked a host of reactions from conservatives, some who criticized Carlson for exaggerating the problems caused by capitalism while ignoring its benefits, some who argued he has a point about how capitalism has failed to protect families and create a prosperous working class. “If there is to be a healthy American right, after Donald Trump or ever, this is the argument that conservatives should be having,” writes Douthat, and he’s correct.

Douthat zeroes in on a line from David French of National Review, a critic of Carlson, who wrote: “There are wounds that public policy can’t heal.” Douthat concedes that this is true, but argues it can become “a trap, a cul-de-sac, an excuse for doing nothing.” Too often, conservatives have “leaped to despair without even trying policy.”

He cites a few examples, like the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis and the disappearance of wages that can support single-income households, but then pivots to censorship and prohibition. Douthat notes that the right was once comfortable using public policy to promote private virtue, “But in recent decades, the right’s elites have despaired of censoring pornography, acquiesced to the spread of casino gambling, made peace with the creeping commercialization of marijuana, and accepted the internet’s conquest of childhood and adolescence.”

Douthat’s point is that while public policy can’t cure every social ill, it can be a “corrective”—if conservatives don’t simply throw in the towel.

Trump Supporters Are Looking for Protection

But with some of these culture war issues, have social conservatives acquiesced or have they been trampled underfoot? Is it a lack of courage to retreat on an issue like censoring pornography when a raft of Supreme Court cases have essentially settled the issue? Same goes for gay marriage. So far from pushing for a repeal of Obergefell, conservatives are now simply defending their right not to be forced to bake gay wedding cakes (or gender transition cakes) in violation of their religious beliefs.

Even on an issue like abortion, conservatives now tend to focus on discreet reforms like cutting federal funding for Planned Parenthood, rather than lobbying to overturn Roe v. Wade, which no serious person thinks even a right-leaning Supreme Court will do.

The point is, in recent decades conservatives haven’t simply rolled over without a fight on major social issues so much as they’ve been steamrolled—by the courts, the media, academia, Silicon Valley, and Hollywood. When almost every major institution of public life is controlled by the left, there’s only so much those on the right can do.

That frustration is part of what’s behind Carlson’s diatribe, except instead of lamenting the decline of traditional morality, he’s lamenting the decline of a political economy that promotes families and stable communities. If that’s new territory for a lot of conservatives, it shouldn’t be.

A conservatism so circumscribed it can only defend global capitalism and cheap consumer goods isn’t worth much in the end. As Carlson said, “A lot of Americans are drowning in stuff. And yet drug addiction and suicide are depopulating large parts of the country. Anyone who thinks the health of a nation can be summed up in GDP is an idiot.”

Americans who live in struggling communities understand this. That’s one reason they didn’t mind, and actually welcomed, Trump’s protectionist rhetoric during the campaign. A trade war with China might not bring steel plants back to Pennsylvania, a southern border wall might not raise wages for factory workers in Indiana, but wanting to do something to address those problems is a big reason voters in those places voted for Trump.

In a related way, that’s why so many evangelicals voted for a thrice-married New York secularist: they, too, wanted protection, not from Chinese goods but from an increasingly aggressive left. As our own Ben Domenech noted in early 2016, evangelicals supported Trump not because he’s one of them but because “they believe the culture wars are over, and they lost.”

It’s Time to Rediscover a More Robust Conservatism

Of course, Trump can’t roll back secularization or moral relativism any more than he can roll back economic globalization—just as social conservatives can’t roll back Supreme Court decisions on censorship or gay marriage. But as Douthat notes, that’s no excuse for the right to throw up its hands and do nothing.

Carlson’s monologue struck a nerve, but there’s been space opening up on the American right for some time now to revisit what it means to be conservative in the 21st century—and not just what it means for individuals and families, but what it means collectively, including for public policy.

Both Douthat and Carlson are at least right about this: if conservatives shrink away from this larger critique of our political economy, if they refuse to debate how public policy can support families and communities at a time when government intrusion into our lives has never been greater or more pervasive, then conservatism will wither on the vine just when America needs it most.