Conservative media outlets recently played host to a dust-up over conservative political strategy. Writing for First Things, Sohrab Ahmari argues that social conservatives have been too tentative, mild, and deferential in advancing their vision for politics. He calls this political meekness “Frenchism,” after the religious liberties lawyer and National Review writer David French, who is outspokenly conservative and consistently civil to his opponents.
The argument exploded across conservative outlets, including here at The Federalist. There has been a great debate over whether social conservatives are too polite or not polite enough; demanding too little power in the Republican coalition or too much; whether Trump is a “post-fusionist” standard bearer or just another New York elitist. In other words, thousands of words have been written, and not one of them has been about how conservatives should actually govern.
To be clear, Ahmari wants conservatives to wield power in pursuit of the conservative vision of the common good. But in his article, and in the mostly ignored political manifesto he helped write several weeks before that article, actual concrete suggestions for how to govern are quite rare.
Beyond the Ahmari-French dispute, a recent article for Christianity Today by none other than Sen. Josh Hawley (R–Mo.) exemplifies a similar trend: lots of interesting commentary, some fascinating philosophizing, and no actual suggestion for governance. Indeed, the only consistent theme of conservative writing today is that nobody has any ideas for what to actually do with power.
The result is that the Trump administration provokes much controversy while achieving very little. The entire period of unified Republican congressional control was spent dithering over a tax reform that ultimately satisfied nobody besides the CEOs. Yes, two Supreme Court justices have been nominated: one a solid conservative, Neil Gorsuch, and the other the hand-picked successor of Justice Anthony Kennedy, Brett Kavanaugh. If you think Kennedy’s choice will always be a reliable conservative, you may be in for some surprises.
The Trump administration has the worst winning record in court in modern history, mostly due to failure to comply with the basic rules of the Administrative Procedure Act. Even on its signature initiative, illegal immigration, the administration’s track record is of abysmal failure—illegal immigration has skyrocketed to new highs under Trump.
Where Are the Qualified Conservatives Hiding?
This problem has many sources, but there is certainly a critical deficit of experience among social conservatives. Every Republican administration faces a problem when they come into office: how to fill the innumerable appointments and support roles in modern government with people who will reliably advance a conservative vision of government.
There simply are not that many conservatives, particularly social conservatives, with any actual expertise in most government programs. It takes hundreds of people with actual expertise in complicated subjects to staff all the positions in the Department of Agriculture. Where is all that talent supposed to come from?
It’s easy for a Democratic president to fill positions with people who will basically support expanding the role of government, simply by promoting existing bureaucrats. Conservatives face a challenge.
Some administrations just make compromises: they fill positions with people who are mostly conservative or sort of conservative, or at least conservative enough. The result is an administration that is Republican, but not actually conservative. Uncreative agency budget requests reflect administrators who basically have no vision for reforming the state. Initiatives to implement leaner government get bogged down in the slow-walking of unsupportive middle-managers. In the end, the swamp wins.
The alternative is no better. Whenever conservative leaders try to hold the line on filling positions with real conservatives, they end up with disastrously mismanaged governments. There simply aren’t enough social conservatives out there who have any experience or know-how to run a National Park or a Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) grants program. Thus, the positions are either left vacant or managed by career federal workers friendly to prior administrations, or the positions are filled with unqualified people, leading to mismanagement (as the Trump administration has experienced).
A Fundamental Contradiction
But why are there so few social conservatives prepared to run the show at the Department of Education? Is it because conservatives have a fundamental, philosophical predisposition against expertise in government?
This preference for philosophizing about government rather than learning to master government is a very real thing among some conservatives. It’s been vividly on display in the public commentary battles over “Frenchism”—everyone is arguing about philosophy of governance, yet there are no credible suggestions about what should actually be done, given that Republicans do actually control the presidency right now.
While this kind of vainglorious navel-gazing is a real thing among conservatives, it is vastly overstated. State governments and legislatures have no shortage of competent conservative bureaucrats and manage to successfully implement many conservative policies. Even at the federal level, there are places where conservatives have managed to train an extraordinarily deep bench of talent: the judiciary is perhaps the most striking example of this.
Economic conservatives have also managed to produce plenty of talented economists to staff the Treasury Department and perhaps Labor or Commerce. That said, a key point of the Ahmari versus French debate is that social conservatives are finding economic or business conservatives to be increasingly unreliable allies.
This relative abundance of state bureaucratic and federal judiciary talent is no accident. Nor is the large amount of economically conservative talent.
Groups like the Federalist Society have been intentionally and painstakingly cultivating conservative legal talent for decades, picking out talented young conservatives during law school and nudging them towards mentors and jobs that will encourage them to develop useful areas of expertise for the movement. The Manne Economics Institute for Federal Judges has successfully nudged sitting federal judges to adopt more conservative positions. Other examples of strategic conservative initiatives to turn the judiciary red abound.
At the state level, enormous amounts of money have been spent by numerous conservative (and libertarian) donors to build up think tanks, produce training sessions for state legislators, and disseminate model legislation for passage. And of course, much conservative policymaking is explicitly targeted towards shifting power to state governments.
We Need A Federalist Society for Bureaucrats
Yet we do little to prepare young socially conservative professionals to tackle the federal bureaucracy. At flagship internship and young professional programs run by the Heritage Foundation, the Koch network (disclosure: I participated in both the Koch Internship and Koch Association Program), and other conservative institutions, more time is often spent encouraging young conservatives to attend the right happy hours than encouraging them to find a mentor who can teach them about actual government programs.
Young conservatives will be told that the most useful things they can read to prepare to roll back the administrative state is Edmund Burke or F.A. Hayek, as if Hayek can help you figure out the most conservative way to structure housing voucher eligibility within the confines set by statute. Few conservative talent development programs make any concerted effort to teach actual government administrative tasks and skills to young professionals. The vast majority of young people in these programs will be deployed to support donor management and fundraising.
There’s a deep disconnect in conservative logic on this front. We talk about the federal government as this overwhelming entity that tramples on rights and liberties and is far too powerful and vast, and then we send young people to fight the federal government armed with nothing but their summer reading list and a few weeks’ experience processing mailers. If conservatives are serious about rolling back the administrative state, we need to be training socially conservative young people to have the skills necessary to step into the Department of Interior on day one of a new administration and actually make a difference.
To drain the swamp, we will need structured mentorships with carefully identified conservative federal bureaucrats, seminars and programs aimed at nudging existing bureaucrats in a conservative direction, cultivation of high-quality masters programs in public policy and public administration, and concerted efforts to identify and groom young conservative talent for federal careers at an early stage.
We need a Federalist Society for socially conservative federal workers, we need MPA/MPP programs staffed and funded with academics friendly to conservative programs, we need existing talent recruitment and internship programs to re-orient their curricula towards actually training people to take on the state, and we need conservative donors to put up the money to support these efforts.
Beyond this, we need conservative journalists to work at agency-specific trade journals that keep federal workers abreast of recent developments and help shape bureaucratic opinion. We also need conservative think tanks and publications to reconsider their hiring choices. Commentary and opinion is good at driving rage-clicks, but not so good at actually turning the ship of state. We need elite conservative institutions to actually prioritize hiring people who do the boring work of untangling complicated programs.
To be clear, there are conservatives who do this kind of work already. Every conservative think tank has a handful of genuine experts. But you can’t staff a presidential administration with a handful of carefully curated experts. You need a legion of competent middle-managers who made their careers nudging the bureaucracy in a more conservative direction, not just a few think tank experts who can parachute in.
It’s not good enough to have a few smart ideas people: government requires an actual team, and that means cultivating a network of social conservatives within the belly of the beast. There are about 4,000 political appointee positions in the federal government, of which about 1,200 require Senate appointments. Many of those political appointees will then hire multiple staffers, meaning that the total political personnel for a new administration can total well more than 10,000 people. You can’t fill that staffing need out of a few think-tanks.
You can’t drain the swamp without first becoming an expert in, well, swamps. If you want to hunt wild boars, you had best bring your spear. One cannot expect to defeat the modern administrative state without an actual mastery of administration.
Until the conservative movement makes a serious, long-term effort to train young people to manage the federal bureaucracy competently until it can be reduced, the swamp will keep winning. Conservative leaders will continue to be hamstrung by uncooperative agencies, tut-tutting middle management, quiet obstruction from the bureaucracy, and repeated defeats in the courts.
But social conservatives can promote administrative and managerial talent for federal bureaucracies as effectively as we have for the judiciary or state bureaucracies, or as effectively as economic conservatives have in their areas of concern. If we’re serious about reducing the power of government in our lives, that’s exactly what we need to do.