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Column: The thing both conservatives and liberals want but aren’t talking about

BY   July 20, 2016 at 9:31 AM EST

Photo by Abbey Oldham

What does it mean to say that the Republican Party is on the “right”? The GOP, long defined (at least in theory) by its faith in an unbridled free market, the politics of personal responsibility, and a sort of Christian traditionalism, is no longer easily plotted on the traditional left-right spectrum of American politics. Under the stewardship of presidential nominee Donald Trump, the Republican Party appears to be morphing into a European-style ethnonationalist party. With Trump’s open disrespect for minority rights and the Bill of Rights, the GOP can no longer be considered classically “liberal”(not to be confused with capital-L American Liberalism). This is a new kind of party, an explicitly illiberal party.

These developments, of course, further constrain Republicans’ appeal to minority voters (I haven’t yet met an American Muslim willing to admit they’re voting for Trump, but they apparently exist). This makes it all the more important to distinguish between conservative values and those of this latest iteration of the Republican Party.

There are some aspects of Burkean conservative thought – including aspects of what might be called civic communitarianism – that could plausibly strike a chord in the current cultural landscape across “left” and “right,” categories which, in any case, are no longer as clearly distinguishable as they once were. (Take, for example, British Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn’s Euroskepticism and that of his opponents on the right, or the populist anti-elitism and trade protectionism that are now the province of both Republicans and Democrats).

Everyone seems angry or distrustful of government institutions, which, even when they provide much needed redistributive fiscal stimulus and services, are still blamed for being incompetent, inefficient, or otherwise encouraging a kind of undignified dependency. After the Brexit debacle, it seemed odd that some of the most Europhobic parts of Britain were the very ones that benefited most from EU subsidies. But this assumes that people are fundamentally motivated by material considerations and that they vote – or should vote – according to their economic interests.

Under the stewardship of presidential nominee Donald Trump, the Republican Party appears to be morphing into a European-style ethnonationalist party.

If there’s one thing that the rise of Trump and Brexit – and the apparent scrambling of left-right divides – demonstrates, it’s that other things may matter more, and that it’s not a matter of people being too stupid to realize what’s good for them. As Will Davies put it in one of the more astute post-Brexit essays, what many Brexiteers craved was “the dignity of being self-sufficient, not necessarily in a neoliberal sense, but certainly in a communal, familial and fraternal sense.”

The communitarian instinct – the recognition that meaning ultimately comes from local communities rather than happiness-maximizing individuals or bloated nanny-states – transcends the Republican-Democratic or the Labour-Conservative chasm. In other words, an avowedly redistributive state is fine, at least from the standpoint of the left, but that shouldn’t mean neglecting the importance of local control and autonomy, and finding ways, perhaps through federal incentives, to encourage things like “local investment trusts.”

The communitarian instinct – the recognition that meaning ultimately comes from local communities rather than happiness-maximizing individuals or bloated nanny-states – transcends the Republican-Democratic or the Labour-Conservative chasm.

Setting up local investment trusts, expanding the child tax credit, or introducing a progressive consumption tax aren’t exactly a call-to-arms, and various traditionalist and communitarian-minded philosophers have, as might be expected from philosophers, tended to stay at the level of abstraction (authors armed with more policy proposals are more likely to be young conservative reformers like Ross Douthat, Reihan Salam, and Yuval Levin). Douthat and Salam want to use wide-ranging tax reform to alter incentives in the hope of strengthening families and communities. This is a worthy goal, but realizing such policies requires leadership on the federal level from the very legislators who we should presumably become less dependent on.

This is the reformer’s dilemma, regardless of whether you’re on the left or right. If your objective is to weaken a centralized, overbearing state and encourage mediating or “middle” institutions, then you first need recourse to that same overbearing state, otherwise the proposed changes are unlikely to have any significant impact on the aggregate, national level.

The fact that few people seem interested in talking about any of this in our national debate (we instead seem endlessly intrigued by Melania Trump’s copy-and-paste speechwriting) suggests that we’re likely to be stuck for some time to come. Incidentally, however, the Hillary Clinton campaign slogan of “Stronger Together” has an interesting communitarian tinge to it. I doubt that was the intent, and it’s only in writing this column that I even took a minute to think about what the slogan might actually mean.  I, as it happens, have been much more interested in talking about – and worrying about – an unusually fascinating and frightening man named Donald Trump.


Editor’s note: The PBS NewsHour is hosting a series of columns to run during both of the 2016 national political conventions.

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