I want to say something big, quickly and broadly.
This week I talked with an intelligent politician who is trying to figure out the future of the Republican Party. He said that in presidential cycles down the road, it will be a relief to get back to the old conservatism of smaller government, tax cuts and reduced spending. I told him what I say to my friends: That old conservatism was deeply pertinent to its era and philosophically right, but it is not fully in line with the crises of our time or its reigning facts. As Lincoln said, the dogmas of the past are inadequate to the present: “As the cause is new, so we must think anew, and act anew.”
Here is how I see it:
The federal government will not become smaller or less expensive in our lifetimes. There is no political will for it among elected officials in Washington, many of whom privately admit this. Nor is there sufficient will for it within the Republican or Democratic party, or among the majority of their voters. Even if there were such a will, both parties in Washington have trouble working together on such big things.
But beyond that fact is something bigger. America needs help right now and Americans know it. It has been enduring for many years a continuing cultural catastrophe—illegitimacy, the decline of faith, low family formation, child abuse and neglect, drugs, inadequate public education, etc. All this exists alongside an entertainment culture on which the poor and neglected are dependent, and which is devoted to violence, sex and nihilism. As a people we are constantly, bitterly pitted against each other, and force-fed the idea of America as an illegitimate, ugly, racist and misogynist nation. Even honest love of country isn’t allowed to hold us together anymore.
America to my mind is what Pope Francis said the church was: a field hospital after battle. We are a beautiful and great nation but a needy, torn-up one in need of repair.
All that takes place within a larger historical context. You can’t see all the world’s weapons and all its madness and not know that eventually we will face a terrible day or days when everything will depend on our ability to hold together and hold on. Maybe it will involve nuclear weapons, maybe an extended, rolling attack on the grid, maybe bioterrorism. But it will be bad; there will be deep stress and violence. The great question in those days, under that acute pressure, will be: Will we hold together? Will we suffer through and emerge, together, on the other side? Which is another way of saying: Will we continue as a nation, a people?
My belief is that whatever helps us hold together now, whatever brings us together and binds us close, is good, and must be encouraged with whatever it takes.
If these are your predicates—America in cultural catastrophe, and hard history ahead—you spend your energies on a battle not to make government significantly smaller, but to make it significantly more helpful.
That would mean a shift. Republicans should stand for a federal government whose aim and focus are directed toward conservative ends, a government focused on concerns that have to do with conserving. They should do this not furtively or through strategic inaction but as a matter of declared political intent, in a way that is driven by moral seriousness, not polls and patter about populism.
What would a large government harnessed toward conservative ends look like?
Judging by what its presidential candidates are saying on the campaign trail, the Democratic Party intends to aim its energies in a progressive direction—global climate change, free college, reparations for slavery. A conservative path would address the immediate crises Americans on the ground see all around them.
On domestic issues this would include the following:
• Whatever might help families form and grow.
• Teaching the lost boys of the working and middle classes, black and white, how to live. The infrastructure bills floating out there are good because we need better bridges, tunnels and roads, and the pride that would come from making them better. But also because they could provide a stage for a national mentorship program in which men teach boys how to do something constructive. Heck, they should go out and recruit in the poorest neighborhoods, drag teenage boys out of the house and integrate them into a world of dynamism and competence.
• Resolving the mental-health crisis. We need a vast overhaul of services so families can get the help they need. We deinstitutionalized sick people and closed the hospitals in the 1960s through ’80s. Liberals pushed it for reasons of ideology and conservatives accepted it for reasons of savings. It marked a great denying of reality: We need hospitals for the mentally ill.
• Helping immigrants become Americans. However the illegal-immigration crisis is resolved, or not, there are tens of millions already here. Who helps make them Americans? We used to have settlement houses for the great waves of immigrants who came in the early 20th century. Why not now? They need instruction on the meaning and history of America. Here it should be noted that we have some of the best immigrants in the world, who work hard and have no hostility to American religious culture. In fact, they’re part of that culture. Help Americanize them in other ways.
• Help revitalize small towns. Whatever will help, do it. We lose a lot when we lose those old shared ways and values. We can’t all live in cities and suburbs; we need diversity.
• Protect religious freedom. The threats are real and will grow. Americans may not always be breaking down the doors to go to church, but they respect religious life and don’t want to see it under siege.
Really, the point of conservatism is to conserve.
Here we degenerate into mere practical political advice for the GOP.
Americans would respect the Republican Party if it gave the impression its leaders are actually noticing America and have a farsighted sense of its real plights. If the government is going to be large, people might be inclined to see sober-minded Republicans as the best stewards of it. It is still only the GOP that can perform the fundamental mission of protecting the system that yielded all our wealth and allowed us to be generous with the world and with ourselves—free-market capitalism. Only the GOP can do this, because Republicans genuinely love economic freedom. You fight hard for what you love. Progressives do not love it. They just accept it.
Republicans will be expected to foster and encourage the economic growth that can at least make a mild dent in our deficits. When you are understood not to be hostile to all spending you have greater leeway to see it coolly, and go after waste and fraud in spending. Republicans naturally enjoy that.
When you think like this—we are in a crisis, it will get worse, we must accentuate what holds us together and helps us muddle through—it helps you prioritize. These are my priorities as a conservative.