Since a civil war is about to break out and destroy the modern Republican Party — fingers crossed — let me tell you what grinds my gears.
Young NatCons, many of whom I know and like, seem to be under the impression that they’ve stumbled upon some fresh, electrifying governing philosophy. Really, they’re peddling ideas that already failed to take hold 30 years ago when the environment was far more socially conservative and there were far more working-class voters to draw on. If Americans want class-obsessed statists doling out family-busting welfare checks and whining about Wall Street hedge funds, there is already a party willing to scratch that itch. We don’t need two.
“National conservatism”— granted, still in an amorphous stage — offers a far too narrow agenda for any kind of enduring political consensus. It lacks idealism. It’s a movement tethered to the grievances of a shrinking demographic of rural and Rust-Belt workers with high school degrees at the expense of a growing demographic of college-educated suburbanites.
The “New Right” loves to mock “zombie Reaganism.” Well, the ’80s fusionist coalition, which stressed upward meritocratic mobility, free markets, federalism, patriotism, and autonomy from the soul-crushing federal bureaucracy, was by all historical measures more successful than the Buchananism that followed or Rockefellerism that preceded. Zombie Reaganism was a dramatic success not only in 1980 but also in 1994 and again in 2010 and 2014. The “shining city on a hill” might sound like corny boomerism, but it’s still infinitely more enticing than the bleak apocalypticism of Flight 93.
Too many conservatives misconstrued Donald Trump’s slim 2016 victory as a national realignment. It was a mirage. Trump, a uniquely positioned celebrity candidate, benefitted not only from Obama fatigue but, more than anything else, the cosmic unlikability of Hillary Clinton. Yes, the GOP needed an attitude adjustment, a stiffening of the spine. There is no denying Trump’s presidency achieved some positive results (most of them, incidentally, also on the “zombie Reaganism” front with deregulation and the judiciary), and he made inroads with working-class voters and Latinos. But Republicans have now blown three elections catering to largely incoherent NatCon populism.
There is no one reason or person culpable for the right’s failures in 2022, but there are certain types of candidates who have been finding success. Ron DeSantis, Brian Kemp, and Glenn Youngkin can call out crony capitalism without sounding like Ralph Nader’s comms director. All of them have been highly critical of lawlessness of illegal immigration, but none of them come off like chauvinists. All of them supported heartbeat bills and election integrity laws, and above all, they are competent administrators of government.
The white-collar worker in Virginia or North Carolina, living in a multi-use neighborhood, probably isn’t as preoccupied with drag queen story hour or the intrigues of Big Tech or the Justice Department or Chinese tariffs — as important as those issues might be — as Josh Hawley seems to believe. The suburban voter might be more socially liberal these days, but they are still dispositional conservative. And one strongly suspects they would rather see public school reform, bigger retirement accounts, and lower property tax bills than a commissar regulating the internet or some protectionist policy killing economic dynamism.
Of course, the New Right would like to claim DeSantis as one of their own. Allie Beth Stuckey, like many on the “New Right,” maintains that the Florida governor’s impressive win tells us: “we’re done with the old, corporate tax cuts GOP. We want you to use all the power available to you to crush the entities crushing us.”
That’s a Twitter reality. In the real world, hundreds of thousands of people flock to Florida (and Texas and Arizona) to enjoy an inviting regulatory environment, low taxes, and relative freedom — not to watch the governor teach Disney a lesson. A politician who cuts taxes and opens schools and businesses, despite pressure from the federal government, isn’t “crushing” anyone, he is freeing them. A politician who insists that state-run elementary schools should teach kids math, science, and history rather than identitarianism, myths, and sexuality has a compelling story to tell parents.
DeSantis is also a politician. So he shows up at trendy NatCon conferences, in the same way he used to chase trendy Tea Party endorsements from Club For Growth and FreedomWorks. Despite the left’s claims, DeSantis doesn’t strike me as an ideologue, but rather a champion of normalcy. Maybe incumbents were successful in 2022 because people are sick of drama?
What about J.D. Vance, though, David? Different types of candidates appeal to different regions. No one is arguing that Zombie populism is without any traction. Before Vance, there was Rick Santorum, whose message also had a limited allure. Yes, Vance can win in Ohio. Mike DeWine, about the most milquetoast moderate imaginable, can also win in Ohio, and by a bigger margin. Does Vance win Arizona or Nevada? Probably not. Does Blake Masters win in Ohio? Probably. But Americans are moving to Henderson, Nevada, and Boise, Idaho, not Akron, Ohio.
In the meantime, the New Right’s intellectual movement is a Trojan horse for a bunch of corrosive authoritarian “post-liberal” ideas. If a malleable “common good” means jettisoning limiting principles, well, no thank you. Plenty of secular right-wingers like myself have been defending religious freedom on neutral, classical liberal grounds. Today, the New Right tells me those notions are dead. If that’s true, I wonder who will be left to defend them 10 years from now?
By the way, if you’re under the impression that the New Right think-tankers and technocrats who rail against “elites” and “libertarians” and romanticize lunch-pail unionism are going to send their kids to work in warehouses for minimum wage, I have news for you. That’s reserved for the plebs. It’s no surprise that Compact, the New Right magazine standing athwart the “libertine left and a libertarian right,” employs a Marxist editor or that so many anti-woke socialists feel comfortable allying with the New Right. That’s a Twitter realignment, however, not a real-world one.
Fortunately, it’s highly unlikely that the average Republican with a small business is as antagonistic to the notion of individual liberty as the average First Things editor. The average voter tends not to treat every loss as if it were the end of Rome. It’s bad out there. But people who tell you this is the worst era in history or that we’re facing insurmountable unique problems are just as hysterical as the people who tell you democracy is over. Most Americans realize politics is a grind. I’d love to live in a minarchist paradise, but I’m a realist. There are approximately 3,499,999 million people who think differently. That’s how it shakes out in a diverse, sprawling nation. A national party needs to broaden its message to convince — not just follow the whims — of as many voters as possible. NatCons are headed in the wrong direction.
My friends believe the Republican Party establishment is incompetent and cowardly. Maybe. Thankfully, we don’t have a binary choice. May both factions fail.