At any other moment in the past half-century, the statement would have seemed downright obvious. But in the topsy-turvy Trump-era conservative world, it was the stuff of an elaborate manifesto that prompted a noisy insider-class argument.
The document came from an A-list group of conservative writers, scholars and activists who declared that “political freedom cannot long exist without economic freedom,” “the free enterprise system is the foundation of prosperity,” and “the skyrocketing federal debt … is an existential threat.”
It was the right-of-center equivalent of praising mom and apple pie.
But last week’s publication of Freedom Conservatism: A Statement of Principles, with signatories including Dick Armey, Karl Rove, Grover Norquist, George Will and a cross-section of Washington think-tank worthies, made a splash precisely because so many old Republican shibboleths have moved from being stump-speech cliches to being subjects of actual disagreement among conservatives.
And in that debate, a lot of the energy has come from the folks launching once-unthinkable broadsides from the right against “market fundamentalism,” “libertarian dogma,” “Zombie Reaganism” and other alleged vices of the pre-2016 GOP elite. Once derided as a half-baked effort to intellectualize Trumpy applause lines, the nationalistic, market-skeptical right has in short order incubated its own establishment of organizations, major public events and Beltway wonk-world celebs.
Now, after several years of relatively polite debates about the merits of industrial policy or tariffs, it has drawn something that, for political-idea warriors, may be the ultimate compliment: A throat-clearing manifesto of condemnation signed by some of the biggest names in Washington’s conservative ideas ecosystem.
“You have people just graduated from college now, people starting jobs on Capitol Hill, people staffing various policymakers, who are in their mid-twenties and who literally have no experience or awareness of a time before Trump,” Avik Roy, president of the Foundation for Research on Equal Opportunity and one of the organizers of the statement, told me this week. “I think there’s a perception that for a lot of politicians out there, particularly Republican politicians, that the only game in town is the nationalists.”
A longtime conservative health-care policy expert and onetime advisor to Republicans like Marco Rubio and Rick Perry, Roy said he and his fellow signatories felt like they’d been out-organized by a rising cohort of activists promoting heretical views against free trade or for government involvement in the economy, among other things.
Releasing a manifesto of their own, Roy said, is a way of taking the initiative — and announcing that they too are aware of some of the ways GOP orthodoxy has fallen short.
“That coalition of people that represented the Reagan coalition needed to stand up and be counted, to say, ‘Hey, we’re still here. And we’re actually not just still here, but we’re actually a pretty vibrant force in terms of being the idea generators of the conservative movement,’” Roy said. “And that then allows those politicians who are saying, okay, who should I be going to, for a policy agenda? Who should I be relying on to develop the ideas as I run? Obviously every candidate needs help with that. It’s saying that this group still exists and still has a clear stated set of principles.”
Articulating principles, in fact, has become quite the trend: Last year, a very different group on the right put forth National Conservatism: A Statement of Principles, signed by people including Peter Thiel and Michael Anton and containing broadsides against globalization and liberal immigration, support for manufacturing and a variety of culture-war refrains about tradition.
In good intellectual-combat form, the manifesto battle contains both a neat bit of branding (Roy’s group labels itself the “Freedom Conservatives,” effectively implying that its rivals would make life less free) and a nod to history: Accompanied by a photo of the old Sharon, Conn., home of conservative patron William F. Buckley, it’s meant as an updated version of the famous “Sharon Statement” Buckley and a cast of young conservative activists signed there in 1960.
But there’s a big difference: Where Buckley and his cohort were outsiders in an Eisenhower-era GOP that had made peace with big government, many of Roy’s signatories have spent decades in the heart of establishment conservative institutions. (They also spell out breaks with the Buckley-style right on issues including race.)
“I would feel a lot more confident about the project if there were more millennials and zoomers involved,” American Enterprise Institute fellow Matthew Continetti, author of a book-length history of American conservatism, told me.
At any rate, the statement has spent July ricocheting around the Beltway conservative firmament, the subject of op-eds and blog posts and insidery tweets. Just as with, say, the need to privatize Social Security, conservative opinions vary: It was “a group of people finally willing to kind of plant the flag,” Continetti said. “It didn’t actually challenge anything we’ve said,” scoffed Oren Cass, the president of American Compass and one of the leading critics of the free-market absolutists. (Speaking of neat branding, Cass likes to refer to his cohort as the “New Right,” implicitly consigning the bulk of conservative thought leaders to ancient history.)
One place you won’t hear about either the manifestos or the philosophical divide they represent is on the Republican campaign trail. The skeptics have enthusiasts in the Senate, but the presidential contest remains dominated by Trump and his grievances, with occasional culture-war intrusions. Where Democrats in 1992 and Republicans in 1964 got a chance to vote for or against a primary candidate who openly vowed to re-orient the party, the ideological contours of the current primary season are harder to grok for voters who don’t spend a lot of time hanging out at Washington policy conferences.
That’s a pity. Look past the clown show and it’s actually a fascinating moment for the American right, a period of generational battles that are freighted with real-world implications. Should the Republican Party retain its half-century identity as the party of global, finance-dominated neoliberalism — or embrace impulses associated for the past century with the left, like inviting government into the economy to help an industrial base that’s been hammered by global competition, or pour money into left-behind regions of the country?
And where chewing through some of the elements of the New Right quickly brings you into toxic culture-war territory (“We are citizens of Western nations who have watched with alarm as the traditional beliefs, institutions, and liberties underpinning life in the countries we love have been progressively undermined and overthrown,” the National Conservatism manifesto ominously begins) the meaty policy book Cass and American Compass released this summer invites reasoned conversation.
Among its several dozen proposals are calls to establish a 50 percent local content requirement on a wide variety of manufactured goods, ban corporate stock buybacks, forbid jobs to require college degrees and guarantee workers a right to organize (though they’d stop unions from making political donations). There’s plenty in there to displease contemporary progressives — Cass isn’t big on immigration, environmental regs or programs designed to help working mothers — but it’s hard to paint him as a lickspittle of the plutocrats.
“There’s been a fairly blind faith that markets will deliver the best outcome, and the role of policymakers is to get out of the way,” Cass told me. “Market fundamentalism has a real ends-means problem. … You’re not supposed to actually assert any values or suggest that they have any role in policy. Whereas we would say, No, actually, for conservatives, having a view of the common good and recognizing that markets are a means to that end has to be a starting point.”
That’s a statement that anyone on the left, other than an active believer in communist revolution, would agree with, too: A democracy should harness and control markets to reach big social goals.
Just what those goals are, of course, is where a lot of modern-day Democrats would bail out. Once you move past money, Cass and his ilk talk like China hawks and social traditionalists. When we spoke, he was worked up about the Biden administration’s requirement that beneficiaries of the CHIPS Act (which he likes) provide workplace daycare (which he doesn’t). The arguments for big government lean more on nationalism than justice. “I think conservatives are much more comfortable with and have a much stronger sense of the importance of nation as an economic entity and as a unit of solidarity,” he said.
Maybe. Still, it’s unusual, and oddly touching, to hear anyone in politics today use words like “solidarity.”
Michael Needham, the former Heritage Action leader and a member of Cass’ board, offered a different, historically resonant bit of vocabulary to explain his newfound skepticism. “I’ve become a lot less libertarian, as I’ve been mugged by reality,” he said.
In fact, the driving animus in Cass’ Rebuilding American Capitalism: A Handbook for Conservative Policymakers seems to be against establishment conservative intellectuals. Which brings us back to this month’s manifesto battle. Scott Winship, one of the AEI policy mavens called out by name in the book, was a signatory of the Freedom Conservative manifesto. When I called him this week to ask about it, he was complimentary to Cass as an intellectual entrepreneur (picking fights with established big names is an old tactic of thinkers looking to establish themselves) but pushed back against the idea that folks like him were stuck in a time warp, given that they’ve also been grappling with some of the evident failures of the system.
The market skeptics of the right are “essentially using arguments that the left has used for the better part of 10 or 20 years,” he said. “I tend to think that the answer revolves around shifting the focus of conservatism to opportunity and upward mobility.”
But the real argument involved taking issue with the idea of a nation hollowed out by trade and finance. “The fact of the matter is that the earnings of the median male worker are at an all-time high. The median female worker median household income is an all-time high. Poverty is at an all-time low. The sorts of jobs that American Compass and some national conservatives have this nostalgia for around manufacturing — they’re never coming back. And that’s because Americans have chosen cheap manufactured goods that we import.”
Winship said he’s glad, in a perverse sort of way, about the hostility to 21st century culture that appears in a lot of the New Right: “I have occasionally thought, thank God that this culture war is happening, because otherwise there would be this alliance on economics between the national conservatives and progressives and that would result in, from my perspective, a lot of bad policy passing.”
For all the divides on economics and culture, though, there’s a lot of overlap between the highest-profile combatants, the kind of history that makes civil wars so emotional. Winship and Cass overlapped at the Manhattan Institute. Cass and Roy did stints with Bain & Company and Bain Capital, respectively. Roy advised Rubio, but Needham spent several years as his chief of staff.
Alas, even with a Cain and Abel element, it’s the sort of debate that’s not destined to capture the broad public imagination in Trump-dominated 2023. Nearly two weeks after launching, the Freedom Conservative manifesto had more signatories (149) than the associated Twitter handle has followers (146).
Which is not to say it’s useless outside the rarefied world of conservative panel moderators. According to Roy, a big part of the work is about swaying the generation of lower-level grunts who will staff the next GOP administration: “Personnel is policy. I think that’s why these conversations matter. Because these debates do have an effect on the people who staff administrations and staff Congress, but also on the principals. … So I hope that, in a way, we’ve at least done a service.”
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