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Free-Market Supporters Won’t Go Away Just Because Conservatives Don’t Want Us

by D.J. McGuire

One of the great arguments within the conservative movement revolves around how much it has changed since Donald Trump became a presidential candidate four years ago. This is the year we are finally beginning to see a sorting out – and for those of us who define ourselves as economic conservatives, the music has stopped without a chair.

It began with the heated reaction to Congressman Justin Amash, a founder of the House Freedom Caucus and one of the most articulate proponents of limited and frugal government (indeed, I’ve had my own disagreements with him on foreign policy). Amash lost nearly all of his friends in the conservative movement, to say nothing of the Republican Party, by his decision to support impeachment of President Trump based upon the information in the Mueller report. Aaron Pomerantz provides the details and the inconsistencies in the Bulwark.

The House Freedom Caucus seemed more than able to rally and condemn Amash, but were strangely absent from the conversation about the budget, allowing a series of financial decisions that contradict the very principles of their founding. And not for the first time.  House Freedom Caucus member Mick Mulvaney, for example, wrote in the Wall Street Journal in 2015 that the government couldn’t afford new deficits, and yet completely switched positions two years later when he’d become Trump’s budget director. It seems that “the party line” has become more important than the fundamental principles that are meant to underlie the party itself.

At first, this may have seemed to be a simple case of party tribalism over principle, which is hardly new or unique to Trump. That changed dramatically when Sohrab Amhari decided to redefine conservativism in First Things. Ostensibly an attempt to criticize the political modus operandi of National Review‘s David French, Amhari took the opportunity to redefine conservatism itself. Robert Tracinski has the details in the Bulwark.

In the first sentence of his missive against supposed “David French-ism”—is there anything more Trumpian that reducing big ideological questions to a personal grudge?—Ahmari links to a manifesto published in First Things last March which denounced the “Dead Consensus” of the right.

The First Things manifesto begins with sneering references to “individual autonomy” but then moves on to denouncing “the cult of competitiveness,” “free trade,” “economic libertarianism,” “the demands of capital,” “investors and ‘job creators’ “—note the gratuitous scare quotes—and “warmed-over Reaganism.”

I predicted a few days ago that we were only weeks away from conservatives trashing Ronald Reagan in order to bolster Trump. It turns out I was behind the curve. It was already happening.

The signatories of that manifesto don’t just want to eject the free-marketers. They want to welcome in the nationalists: “We embrace the new nationalism insofar as it stands against the utopian ideal of a borderless world.” They talk about “communal solidarity” and “the human need for a common life.” And who are the bad guys? Here we get a lot of familiar alt-light rhetoric about supposed “jet-setters,” “citizens of the world” who can “go anywhere” and “work anywhere” in a “borderless world.” I’m surprised they didn’t just go straight to “rootless cosmopolitans.”

In short, Amhari is doing more than just providing intellectual cover for obsequious to Trump (for that, seek out Henry Olsen’s recent Op-ed in the Washington Post, if you must). He’s using Trump to redefine conservatism as a new collectivist enterprise replacing freedom with blind faith and replacing persuasion with coercion.

For those of us who appreciate economic freedom – or even political freedom – there is no place, period.

Quite a few on the right have provided the equivalent of the Luke Skywalker response to Amhari (“This is not going to go the way you think”), but they’ve left out one crucial component: what economic conservatives will do once we’re read out of the conservative movement and out of the Republican Party.

People don’t just go away; they react. Thus it will be with economic conservatives, too. To be sure, some will stay where they are and fight an increasingly desperate rear-guard action within the movement and within the GOP. Many more will simply leave both and come to terms with the dizzying reality that they – we – are the new political center.

More than a few, however, will follow me into the Democratic Party on the assumption that partial collectivism – for all its many faults – remains superior to the full-throttle theocracy that Amhari and those like him will redefine as “conservatism.” That’s going to come as a slow-motion shock – and not just to Republicans or to conservatives (however they are defined). Democrats will start to find more robust internal arguments about economic issues.

One can already see it happening today. Contrary to the confused nostalgia of several presidential candidates, the overwhelming majority of Democrats now support free-trade agreements, while barely a third consider reducing trade deficits to be a priority (Pew Research). Democrats in 2019 are already more desirous of their party moving rightward than in 2016 (Pew Research). Here in Virginia, the last Governor to propose a tax increase was…Republican Bob McDonnell in 2013. Neither of his two Democratic successors followed suit (one of them – Terry McAuliffe – even proposed a corporate income tax reduction during his term in office). The leading Democrat for the presidential nomination – by far, albeit for now – was Vice President during the formation of the Trans-Pacific Partnership. Even those who support Universal Basic Income are now doing so not merely as a redistribution policy, but also as a way to dismantle the welfare state apparatus and end government regulation of the poor.

To be fair, the Democratic nominee (whoever he or she is) will almost certainly attempt to run to the president’s left on many economic issues, but not on all of them. In time, especially if the Republicans are as dismissive of us as First Things has become, economic conservatives will continue to move the Democrats toward freer markets and exchanges. That will change both parties, to say nothing of the body politics as a whole, in ways that are not anticipated…

…and shouldn’t be feared.

D.J. McGuire – a self-described progressive conservative – has been part of the More Perfect Union Podcast since 2015. He is also a contributor to Bearing Drift.

No, my fellow conservatives, the regulation rollbacks aren’t worth supporting Trump either

by D.J. McGuire

The standard defense a Trump supporter uses – well, the ones not wholly subsumed by racism or by authoritarian cultism – involves three political issues: the federal judiciary, the 2017 tax “reform”, and regulation rollbacks. I’ve already discussed why the 2017 tax law should bring no smile to a conservative’s face; I’ve also explained how fleeting “control” of the judicial branch really is. That leaves the regulation issue.

Theory versus Practice

In theory, fewer regulations is a standard supply-side economic policy: regulations increase costs on businesses and make it harder to smaller firms to compete with larger ones. In practice, it’s a bit less clear. None other than Charles Koch himself funded a study by Mercatus economist Alex Tabarrok that revealed the effect of regulation on American entrepreneurship to practically nil (Washington Post). Mercatus itself is of two views on the subject (others at the institute came to a different conclusion), but my point is that we’re not talking about something as cut and dried as most Republicans believe.

A Lack of Political (or any) Precision

Of course, most Republicans themselves are not fond of throwing every federal regulation ever written on a massive bonfire. The reason for the regulation also has an impact. Just as those of us who prefer limiting government’s size, scope, and cost take issue with “across the board spending cuts” – which make no accounting to necessary versus unwise expenditures – any trimming of regulations should have some form of precision or priorities. This is not the case with President Trump’s attacks on red tape. There appears to be no rhyme or reason to it whatsoever – save that Trump will go after any regulation brought to his attention. Not only is that poorly thought out, it also exacerbates the influence problem that many Republicans have with excess regulation in the first place: the politically connected game the system. Thus does an exercise in apparent government scope reduction turn into the figurative “swamp.”

The Lack of Staying Power

This fuels the same problem that the “courts” argument has – a lack of longevity. In this case, regulation rollbacks will be even more fleeting than judicial appointments. The next Democratic Administration could reinstitute much of the rollback (as there is little to no change in actual law involved). Even during this Administration, a Democratic House could insist on regulation resurrections in their budgets.

In short, Trump’s moves against regulation are too unpopular and unplanned to survive a change in the political winds (including perhaps one of gale force coming within the next two months). It is yet another false benefit to be weighed against the ever increasing cost to American political and economic health inflicted by this president.

D.J. McGuire – a self-described progressive conservative – has been part of the More Perfect Union Podcast since 2015

To My Fellow Conservatives: The Judiciary is NOT Worth It

by D.J. McGuire

The behavior and policies of the president continue to shock and to dismay – especially for conservatives such as myself (yes, I still use the noun). Freer trade is tossed aside for crippling tariffs amid complaints over “bad deals.” The dynamic information technology sector has become a target for nationalization among screaming heads such as Laura Ingraham. Allies are smeared where hostile tyrants are feted. Yet through it all, a large chunk of right-wing and center-right voters are, for now, staying with the withering husk that is the Republican Party for one reason and one reason alone – “the courts.” This post is my attempt to persuade them why this argument is a profound error.

Today’s Issues v. Tomorrow’s Issues

The first problem with the assertion that control of the judiciary branch is worth the exponentially increasing damage of the Trump presidency is that such control is specious at best. The issues that divide “liberal” (or if you prefer, “progressive”) and “conservative” in 2018 are not likely to be the issues that divide them in 2030, or in 2040, or in 2050. Unlike financial investment, past performance is an excellent indicator here.

Dwight Eisenhower selected as Chief Justice one of the most conservative office holders in the Republican Party – California Governor Earl Warren. Known at the time as a strike-breaker and a firm supporter of limited government, Warren’s libertarian outlook was given an entirely different label as social issues and law enforcement matters crashed into the public realm in the 1960s. Ike’s own Vice President became one of Warren’s top political critics. Nixon replaced Earl Warren with Warren Burger, who became one of the five Republican appointees to the Court to side with the majority in Roe in 1973The author of the dissent in that case was Byron White – the lone appointee of John F. Kennedy. Thirteen years later, Berger would change his own mind on the subject (yet another sign that ideological consistency on the Court doesn’t survive the passage of time).

The intervening decades have seen similar acts of temporal confusion. Donald Trump spent his campaign praising the late Antonin Scalia – the justice who cast the fifth vote that declared burning the American flag to be constitutionally protected speech. While Bush v. Gore has become a bete-noir for much of the left in America, it’s not remembered that half of the Democratic appointees to the Court agreed to invalidate the Florida recount on which Gore’s last gasp depended (although none agreed with the smaller majority that insisted there wasn’t enough time to conduct a more proper recount there). Five years later, conservatives were thrilled when President Bush appointed John Roberts as Chief Justice. He was considered a sure-fire conservative…who cast the fifth vote to declare that the Affordable Care Act was constitutional – over the objection of “moderate” Anthony Kennedy.

What issues will drive conservatives in the 2020s and beyond? We really don’t know. As noted above, the right seems much more willing to regulate cyberspace today than even five (or two) years ago. Any attempt to nationalize Google will likely run into trouble from the very conservative court appointments that the right champions today. If the president attempts to exit trade deals without Congressional agreement (and largely in violation of the law), conservatives eager to rebuild Fortress America will find Bush and even Trump appointees in their way.

In other words, past and present “betrayals” of conservatives came not merely from judges and justices changing their minds (although that does happen), but also from electorate redefining what “conservative” means. Thus we find Reagan appointees invalidating laws against marriage equality in California and allowing charges against Paul Manafort to go forward (to conviction) in Virginia, among other things. I am all but certain Trump appointees will disappoint future conservatives, in part because they will take positions that would make present conservatives (myself included) blanche.

The one exception to this may be the abortion issue. Indeed, nearly every conservative who still calls themselves a Republican cites it as the one reason they stay in the GOP. There is a problem with that, however.

Reversing Roe/Casey is a defeat disguised as a victory

As I was a politically precocious teenager, I’m in an increasingly unique position among any American under 50 – I remember what it was like when the judicially-imposed right to an abortion appeared to be coming to an end. It was after the Webster decision of 1989 weakend Roe, but before Casey v. Planned Parenthood reaffirmed it. Keep in mind, this was less than two decades after Roe, when the status quo ante was a real memory for most Americans.

For pro-lifers, it was a disaster. Pro-life Republicans were vanquished in 1989 elections, and pro-lifers in both parties were banged up in 1990 (as an example: a pro-life Democratic Governor in Minnesota was defeated by a pro-choice Republican challenger who had only been on the ballot nine days). Conservatives ran to the safety of economic issues in 1991 (and recovered nicely in the 1989 states’ legislative elections). George Bush the Elder went from 53% of the vote in 1988 to 38% in 1992 (and his two opponents – Ross Perot and Bill Clinton – were not pro-life by any stretch).

A quarter-century later, there are far fewer voters who remember the pre-Roe era, let alone look forward to it. Even if the Supremes reverse Casey, far fewer states will attempt to ban abortion than people realize. If anything, pro-choicers vocalizing their worst fears (albeit understandably so) are providing pro-lifers with their most perverse hopes. Odds are, both are wrong. For too long, abortion opponents have focused on changing a Supreme Court decision instead of saving children. The rest of the country has noticed, and is not happy.

The Benefits of “winning the courts” are ephemeral, but the cost is sure to be permanent.

Is this truly worth the damage Trump has wrought, my fellow conservatives? Is the chance to be disappointed by judges who change their minds (or by those who don’t when you do) truly worth the rupturing of our alliances? Is the erection of damaging barriers to trade really an acceptable price for the opportunity to be caught completely flat-footed due to forty years of political atrophy and neglect on the one issue that you claim is so important?

Before you answer, consider one more piece of historical evidence. The most politically charged Court decision of the 19th century was Dred Scott v. Sanford.

How well did that turn out for the victors?

D.J. McGuire – a self-described progressive conservative – has been part of the More Perfect Union Podcast since 2015