Ronald Reagan, patron saint of American conservatism, had a favourite joke. It goes something like this. An incurably optimistic young boy asks his parents for a pony for Christmas, but they decide he needs a lesson in dealing with life’s disappointments. So, when, on Christmas morning the excited lad wakes up and hurries to the tree, he finds only a pile of manure.
To his parents’ surprise, the boy gets even more excited and starts to dig wildly into the pile. “Son,” the mum cries, “what are you doing?” The boy turns around with a smile on his face and replies, “With all this stuff, there must be a pony in here somewhere!”
That neatly sums up the state of mind for many American conservatives today. With Donald Trump in the White House building tariff and border walls, and the Left gunning at them from their towers in academia and the media, conservatives often feel like their movement is dying under a heap of dung. If only there were a pony somewhere in there, they mutter to themselves.
The reality is not so bleak. Fading American conservatism has an excellent chance to renew itself and become again a dominant political force. But to do that, it needs to be a little less distinctively American and bit more like the conservatism found in other Anglosphere countries.
American conservatism differs from the rest of the world’s centre-Right attitudes in two respects: it is distinctly Protestant in tone and policy, and it remains unreconciled to the existence of the modern social welfare state – both of which attitudes are now decisively out of touch with mainstream American thought.
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Vice President Mike Pence excellently encompasses them, however. His acceptance speech for the Republican Party’s nomination in 2016 started: “I am a Christian, a conservative, and a Republican, in that order.” This expression of faith is non-controversial within conservative circles. But fewer than one-third of Americans would be able say the same about themselves.
Pence’s weren’t empty words. As Governor of Indiana, he garnered national attention when, in 2015, he signed a law allowing businesses to cite religious convictions to exempt themselves from anti-discrimination statutes. Staunchly anti-abortion, long opposed to same-sex marriage, and notably religiously observant, Pence is an excellent representative of the evangelical Right’s political movement. He is not, however, an excellent representative of the middle of American political opinion.
Fewer than 40% of Americans attend religious services weekly, and non-believers – or non-Christians – are a large and fast-growing share of the population. Polls consistently show a majority favours a woman’s right to have an abortion, at least in the first 12 weeks of pregnancy. Americans also favour same-sex marriage, and those under the age of 30 favour it by nearly 4-to-1 margins. The only major group in America that still opposes it is white evangelical Christians; in other words, Mike Pence and the core of the Republican Party.
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If Pence’s sincere but ostentatious religiosity is off-putting for tens of millions of Americans, his devotion to conservative economic nostrums dismays millions more. American conservative thought remains opposed to virtually any expansion of social welfare programmes; it has opposed efforts to expand government-subsidised healthcare coverage, regardless of whether such efforts were pushed by Republican or Democratic presidents. Pence enthusiastically opposed both Obamacare and President Bush’s expansion of the popular health insurance programme for senior citizens, Medicare.
This deep-rooted antipathy stems from the very beginnings of the modern American conservative movement. It began in opposition to President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal, which established the first national government regulation of business and the first government pensions (Social Security). The journalist William F Buckley summed it up in an oft-quoted epigram from the mission statement of the magazine that became the bible of the new movement: “It [National Review] stands athwart history, yelling Stop.”
But history did not stop, despite the election of Buckley’s friend Ronald Reagan and then three more Republican Presidents since. It turns out that Americans like big government, even if they prefer less of it than do Swedes or Danes. Every significant conservative-led effort to curtail, reform, or reduce large government programmes has failed spectacularly. Yet movement conservatives remain undaunted. Their biggest domestic priority today is dramatically to reduce spending on Social Security, Medicare, and a government-run health insurance for the poor and the disabled, Medicaid, without raising any taxes to help finance the indebted programmes. As they say in the South, that dog don’t hunt.
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One can only begin to understand the conservative intellectual opposition to Trump in reference to these foundational beliefs. Trump openly said he would not cut Social Security, Medicare, or Medicaid and – to put it mildly – did not strike a conventional Christian pose on the campaign trail. His embrace of tariffs and opposition to free trade struck movement conservatives as heresy precisely because it championed government intervention in markets to help people in need. Yet their caterwauling availed them not; it turned out that even a majority of Republicans had long since ceased to worship at the conservative altar.
Trump’s tenure in office does, however, show how certain longstanding conservative priorities can be part of the new emerging conservatism. Trump’s tax cuts and deregulation of business are longtime conservative priorities. His focus on religious liberty, without the ostentatious preaching of religious belief so common among other Republicans, is proving popular. Trump is even curbing some of the less central elements of the social welfare state. The number of people receiving disability insurance benefits had been rising dramatically for over 15 years, but the number has been shrinking since Trump’s inauguration. Conservatives may not be getting what they want, but they are getting what they need.
Trump’s victory was marred by his casual insensitivity to gender, racial, and ethnic sensibilities: he offended and drove away millions of people who could have rallied to the cause of a new, less doctrinaire conservatism. But he nonetheless shows conservatives something they ought to have seen long before his arrival. Americans may revere the past, but they have no wish to return to it. They live in the present and dream for the future and they want political leadership that shares those values, not one that scorns the present and see the future in the past.
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America remains open to a moderate conservatism, one that is at peace with the modern state and modern morality and seeks only to trim its excesses and preserve core religious freedoms while placing its power squarely in the service of the vast majority. That is what Republicans in state leadership roles have done, and they have consistently won re-election even when more doctrinaire, national Republicans have faltered. In this sense, Republican governors are more like Trump than most care to admit.
This brand of conservatism should sound familiar to non-American readers. It is more like what the British or Canadian Tories, Australia’s Liberals, and New Zealand’s National Party have done for decades, following Edmund Burke rather than Milton Friedman. That brand of centre-Right thinking has its own difficulties. But that does not mean that American conservatives should not look abroad for some inspiration.
American conservatism faces what Reagan called “a time for choosing”. Reagan burst on to the national scene with a 1964 television speech with that title, and told Americans that “there is no Left or Right, only an up or down”. How to move up, towards what Reagan called “the maximum of individual freedom consistent with law and order,” requires choice, and that requires judgment rather than ideology. American conservatism can thrive if it can discard old ideological coats that no longer fit and instead choose new, better-tailored ones.