Of Jeb Bush’s many gifts to the Washington echo chamber, one of the least predictable and most interesting is his reintroduction of “reform conservatism” to the political debate. As Reihan Salam has observed at Slate, major media outlets are looking for a way to capture how Bush differs from his brother, and one possibly fruitful way of doing it is in reference to the rising role of “reformocons” on the right.
Rather than a Republican answer to the relatively moderate New Democrats, writes Salam, or “clever marketers trying to rebrand Reaganism for the 21st century,” reformocons are “garden-variety free-market conservatives”—who just happen to insist “that government can do a lot of good, provided that it sticks to doing a few things well.”
This may have once been a not-so-controversial posture in the GOP, but today it provokes sharp disagreement, and occasionally outright disdain. Breitbart’s John Hayward, for instance, portrayed the nascent movement as nothing less than a “capitulation to liberalism” tricked out with newfangled distractions. Conn Carroll, Townhall’s White House Correspondent, recently chided reformocon Ross Douthat that “tax credits for favored constituencies is Big Government progressivism no matter who is doing it.” In the eyes of much the freedom-loving base, a reformocon is either a canny nerd lacking in principle or a clammy adherent to European-style Christian Democracy.
Reformocons aren’t really either of those things. But the confusion that surrounds them cannot be helped by an ever-deeper dive, a la Romney, into the policy weeds. For the reformocons to succeed, they need to get personal. In addition to letting their individual character show through, they should illustrate how their dedication to an agenda beyond tax cuts links up to the human predicament we Americans find ourselves in.
Here’s an example. Salam is a good messenger for reform conservatism because he is recognizably human. “I feel pretty confident in talking about the reformocons,” he writes, “because I’ve been one of them from the beginning. In 2008, I co-authored Grand New Party with Ross Douthat. Oh, you haven’t heard of it? Let’s just say it never became a publishing phenomenon on the order of Fifty Shades of Grey.” Few people can pivot effectively from that kind of lightness to, say, a careful case for expanding the child tax credit.
But one challenge the reformocons face is that they’re not enough of a cabal, the occasional co-authorship notwithstanding. It’s hard to get a bead on exactly what kind of person they are, and how their identity expresses (in the sorts of ways we all expect) the political philosophy behind the policy chops.
A deeper look into this apparent problem, however, reveals a surprising solution—one reformocons ought to tap into for maximum effect. I feel pretty confident in talking about this because I was mentioned in David Brooks’s 2008 column praising Grand New Party and the “young and unpredictable rightward-leaning writers” who, along with Douthat and Salam, were making conservatism interesting again.
Oh, you haven’t heard of it? Well, at the time, we weren’t exactly household names. But today, Yuval Levin, Daniel Larison, Will Wilkinson, Julian Sanchez, Megan McArdle, Matt Continetti, and Ramesh Ponnuru have a slightly higher profile. Yuval edits the journal National Affairs (where I recently wrote on freedom and friendship); Daniel advances paleoconservative realism at The American Conservative; Will writes for The Economist; Julian is at the influential Cato Institute; Megan, at Bloomberg, recently wrote the book on how failure redounds to success; Matt runs the Washington Free Beacon, a warmongering Kate Upton blog; and Ramesh can be found everywhere from National Review to The New York Times.
Beyond the bio lines, however, is the good stuff. Instead of circling the wagons inside the Beltway, we’ve scattered to the winds. For every heterodox ‘08er who stayed in DC, there are two who roamed—to New York, to Chicago, to Chattanooga, to the West Coast. The Washington Post’s Radley Balko, another alum of the era, went to Nashville. Conor Friedersdorf, another, beat me to Los Angeles by a year or two. The list goes on.
In part, the mobility and dispersion of the heterodox right-of-center is proof of the kind of privilege that comes with being in the right places at the right times. But in larger part, it is a dramatic reminder of what the free pursuit of happiness means in the dreams and lives of Americans in general. And that’s where the reformocons ought to come in.
In order to effectively advance reforms, as Salam puts it, “that will prove durable because they address the underlying problems that people actually care about,” reformocons should be crystal clear about what those problems are. That means looking beyond data and polling and into our shared American character. In fact, one of the biggest problems with the GOP establishment is that it has lost touch with who we are as a people. Reformocons have a golden opportunity to ameliorate this problem. And so they should.
Here’s how. By a sort of creeping, well-intentioned ignorance, too many Republicans have fashioned their party into a cult of upward mobility. Although slogans like Jeb Bush’s “Right to Rise” have roots in Abraham Lincoln’s view that our natural right to productive flourishing must not be impeded by capricious and arbitrary rule, they come off as the cult’s latest incantation. Although economically-minded refomocons like James Pethokoukis often counsel growth-obsessed politicians to curb their enthusiasm, Bush and other possible reformocon allies remain obsessed with proving that stagnation and decline are, in the words of Charles Krauthammer, “a choice.”
There is something deeply wrong with the establishment GOP’s vision of upward mobility as the purpose of policy—something much more misguided than a belief that the wealthiest should always have lower taxes. All the nerdery in the world cannot comprehend that the American dream pertains far more to horizontal mobility than vertical mobility. As a people, we do not want an endless ascendance through bigger houses, better cars, and more entitled offspring. We want enough in the way of material things to range freely through space and time, unfettered by the burdens of the past—no matter how uncertain the journey, no matter how unknown or impermanent the destination.
Pioneers, not climbers, we Americans experience life through the lens of pilgrimage. If the reformocons take the time to contextualize their wonkery with some plainspoken anthropology—that is, explaining to American voters that they understand what their hopes and hardships actually are—they can speak with a newfound power to the feeling of hopeless fatalism that vexes us most today.
This isn’t some abstract project. It’s actually already underway in the heart of the conservative Beltway. At the American Enterprise Institute, president Arthur Brooks is leading a renaissance in anthropological thinking about happiness and the American character. Through a beguiling mix of social science, personal narrative, and syncretic spiritualism, Brooks—a former professional French horn player—is hard at work reorienting political minds away from the cult of upward mobility and back to the truth about our human, American situation.
If the reformocons link up their policy chops to the reformation in conservative thinking that Brooks is leading, yesterday’s political heterodoxy could well become tomorrow’s social consensus.