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Where Is the Right Going?

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Where Is the Right Going?

A conversation March 18, 2022
Politics and law
The Social Order

Editor’s Note: Elliot Kaufman, letters editor of the Wall Street Journal, Alexandra DeSanctis, a staff writer for National Review, and Saurabh Sharma, the president of American Moment, joined City Journal associate editor Theodore Kupfer for a conversation on the future of the American Right. The following transcript has been edited for clarity and economy.

Teddy Kupfer: I want to start off by thinking a bit about the title of this event, which is “Who’s Right?” The question is an allusion to the tendencies that occupy the right side of the political spectrum: social conservatives and libertarians, neo-conservatives and populists, RINOs and reactionaries. But more controversially, the question could be construed to imply that some of these tendencies may be more authentically conservative than others, or that certain views should take priority in a conservative coalition.

These divisions certainly exist, and we will discuss them as the panel proceeds. But I wonder if they might conceal an underlying unity. Take the issues of rising crime, deteriorating public order, public-health overreach, and the long march of progressivism through the institutions. It’s reasonable to assume that you three are all concerned by these trends. My first question is: Do you think that these areas of agreement can form the basis for conservative politics in the year 2022?

Alexandra DeSanctis: I think that they can. I tend to think that the areas where conservatives agree are a lot more important than where we disagree, when it comes to whom we elect, at least. What they do once they’re in office is not necessarily as simple. But I would point to the campaign of Glenn Youngkin, in particular, as evidence that the things we agree on are more important, because what the Left is doing right now troubles conservatives a lot more than what we ought to do in response.

The Left is going particularly crazy. They’re pushing for things that are deeply unpopular, as Youngkin and the success of his campaign showed. Even though conservatives might disagree a bit about what we should do in response, if we’re in charge we know that pushing back against the Left is more important than quibbling over where we might disagree. I suppose the problems we’ve had with Donald Trump might dispute that a little bit. But for the most part, responding to the Left is the most important thing. And we can do that without fighting over where we disagree.

Saurabh Sharma: I think that if you take the question that you posed very narrowly—In 2022, what should the Right be running on? Ending the disorder in our cities, the racialization of public education, and the general overreach of the Left—that is perfectly fine. But in any other time horizon, it is wholly insufficient. If all the Right can muster in the United States is the idea that after the Left wins decades of victories, we’ll marshal the tiniest response to slow them down a little bit, that’s not a governing agenda. Eventually, permanent political victories or something that looks close to permanent political victories are very possible on the left of center. I look for more than just a reactive agenda that can be held by the Right—one that has something to offer to the American people beyond “we’re not those crazy people over there.”

Elliot Kaufman: I think there’s no reason why there couldn’t be unity, especially now, as Saurabh mentioned. Conservatives are not in power. Opposition usually has a unifying effect in that way. We can agree on what we’re against. On what we’re for, we can agree up to a point. On a variety of issues, unity could be possible. But in many ways, it’s a choice.

If there are micro-movements on the right that would like to spend all their time bashing other people on the right, well, then there’s probably not going to be unity. In many ways, it’s that simple. If we’re going to have an environment on the right in which anyone who has a traditional, post-1945 foreign policy is going to be called a war-monger, or, worse, a war criminal—if we’re going to have a kind of Right where everyone who believes in traditional, small-government conservatism is accused of not caring for the poor—then there probably won’t be unity. That kind of rhetoric—that’s liberalism circa 2005. So, if we’re going to have 2005 liberalism on the right, even when we are in opposition leading up to a winnable midterm election, no, I don’t think unity is in the cards.

Teddy Kupfer: Let’s ground this discussion in some specific public-policy demands. I often hear it said that social conservatives have been the junior partner in the conservative consensus. The foreign-policy hawks got their muscular posture in Europe, the free-marketeers got their tax reductions and privatization, and what did social conservatives get but a string of defeats? Republicans almost stand idly by as abortion rights are entrenched in American life, same-sex marriage is legalized, and raising a family on a single income becomes basically impossible, depending on where you live.

I wonder if you think this criticism is true, and if it is true, to what extent social conservatives should jettison, or at least be suspicious of, the institutions that presided over this junior partnership.

Alexandra DeSanctis: I think it’s fair to call it a junior partnership. Something that I appreciate about the conservative perspective is that cultural problems are not, first and foremost, something that the government solves. Families, individuals, communities, civil society: those are the first bulwark against cultural problems. The federal government does not need to come in and solve every social issue that we might have. That’s why I would say that, if there’s a junior partnership, it exists at the federal level.

For example, a few years back, we had Republicans in control of the Senate, the House, and the presidency. They’ve been promising for something like ten years to defund Planned Parenthood. Did they defund Planned Parenthood when they were in charge? No, but they passed a tax cut. I’m perfectly happy for them to do that, but Republicans tend to run at the national level on “defund Planned Parenthood” or other social-conservative promises, and then they get in office and forget about it. I don’t think that means that the conservative movement or the Republican Party as a whole doesn’t care about social issues. It’s just at the national level that it’s a problem.

Things like education and defunding the police are social issues. All these things that have been hot-button issues—identity politics, abortion—the Republican Party’s starting to notice, “Hey, wait a minute, as the other side goes crazy like I said before, we can push back against that in a way that resonates with the average American, even if they might not be as conservative as us.” So I see that shifting quite a bit in a way where social conservatives actually have a leadership role to take.

Elliot Kaufman: Part of the reason the position of social conservatism has deteriorated somewhat on the American Right is that it has deteriorated somewhat in America. There are fewer social conservatives in America than there were a few years ago. And you could say that at almost any point in the past several decades.

When I see the renewed aggressiveness from social conservatism, it seems to me that it’s not a sign of a new strength, but a reflection of a new weakness: realizing that things aren’t getting better and our position is getting worse, and therefore we must be all the more aggressive in what we do, in what we say, or else what’s going to happen to us? And the problem with that strategy is that it pushes social conservatives even further into their corner. When they start talking not about winning over Americans, but when they’ve given up on that and say, “We’re going to get power and then coerce Americans into doing what we couldn’t convince them to do,” I see that as a trap for social conservatives, whose causes I very much share.

I also think social conservatives underestimate how much they need other kinds of conservatives. When you think about religious liberty, and who’s doing work in the courts; when you think about school choice, which should be crucial for religious conservatives: libertarians and economic conservatives are actually doing a lot of the work in those areas. Without that alliance, the position of social conservatives will collapse. A coercive, go-it-alone strategy will only make matters worse.

Saurabh Sharma: I think the last example that Elliot gave is a perfect reason to believe that social conservatives have been the junior partner in this coalition—and that they should be the senior partner. Take the example of school choice. For the better part of three or four decades, the conservative movement has worn its yellow scarves one week, every year. It’s gone and stood in front of state capitals and the national capital and proclaimed school-choice week.

We all say that we’re for school choice, but if you look at most of the institutional forces that have been pushing school choice, the traditional arguments they made were culturally secular arguments about efficiency, about making sure that people can go to better schools on the basis of grades or on the basis of the conditions of the schools that they were in. And largely, that movement stagnated.

Why has educational choice—and, really, education policy in general—seen such a resurgence to prominence in American life today? Because the focus went from secular arguments about efficiency to a culturally and socially conservative argument about what can legitimately be called anti-white racism in American schools: the institutionalization in public education of some of the most horrific racial essentialism that we’ve seen in American history. That is an example of social conservatives having much more influence when they’re in the driver’s seat than a more fiscally conservative, a more libertarian, a more culturally agnostic vision of conservatism would have.

More broadly, why have social conservatives been relegated to junior partners in the conservative movement? It doesn’t really make any sense, because on a constituent basis, social conservatives have much less representation vis-à-vis the people in charge in Washington than do primarily fiscal libertarians or foreign-policy hawks. It’s not even close, and I think it’s important to ask why that is and why we should continue to let it be the case when some of the most acute recent examples of conservative victories involve cultural issues that a GOP of yesteryear would not have touched with a ten-foot pole.

Elliot Kaufman: I don’t see how you can talk about the resurgence of school choice without ever mentioning the pandemic—what teachers’ unions did, or when parents actually heard what their kids were being taught. And all conservatives are opposed to critical race theory. It’s not just a social conservative argument, it is a unifying argument—along with what was dismissed as a concern about “efficiency.” That’s a weird way of phrasing teaching your kids well.

Teddy Kupfer: Another thing I hear when I have conversations like these is that the right-wing economic agenda is out of touch with the challenges the United States faces today. As China rises, we hear about the need for maximal free trade and the problems with proposals to build industrial capacity. As drug overdoses skyrocket and labor-force participation remains anemic, we hear about the need for occupational-licensing reform. And as progressives in control of major institutions stamp out dissident views, we hear about how tech companies are very innovative and creating lots of value for their shareholders. Is there something to the critique that what the nation needs is more state action, both to build up the country in the face of its external challenges and to repair its internal degeneration?

Elliot Kaufman: Let’s start with China. Absolutely, the U.S. state needs to be there. It needs to be active. And when I hear about who thinks we shouldn’t confront China and should instead shrink from it, it’s often elements of these new micro-movements that want to use the state seemingly everywhere else. So that confuses me. The Quincy Institute, let’s say, can come together to agree that we should let China off the hook. I don’t agree with that.

Teddy Kupfer: Before you go further, let’s drill down on China. I recently heard a summary of the populist agenda as encompassing hawkery on trade, immigration, border security, and China—but also requiring restraint in foreign policy. This presents an obvious tension that has bubbled over in recent days. Three prominent “realignment” figures called recently on the U.S. to show China “mutual respect for a civilizational equal” and warned against descending into “mindless hawkery.” How should we resolve this tension? Do we show China the respect that it is due? Do we try to check the Chinese economic advance but without standing to military attention?

Saurabh Sharma: My primary concern about the Chinese is the systematic de-industrialization of the United States that has occurred over the last 30 to 40 years, that has largely accrued to their benefit. China and the elites who enabled its rise are a generational threat to American prosperity.

China’s rise was the choice of domestic policymakers in the United States who allowed our industrial capacity to flow to Southeast and East Asia over the last 40 years. That was a choice that was made. It wasn’t the perfidious red dragon encircling the globe choking off our trade lines. And China, as a rational state actor, took advantage of that in order to create an industrial base in their country.

So who should be blamed? I don’t want to have some sort of national animosity toward China because they did what was rational on the global stage and saw a free lunch. I want to hold the policymakers in the United States that made those choices accountable. And then I want to implement policies that would start to rebalance that trading alignment.

The last part that I want to draw scrutiny to is American prosperity, maybe in contrast to American liberty. I am not worried about a million-man swim across the Pacific Ocean by Chinese gunboats looking to invade Los Angeles. What I worry about is the fact that we have basically no native capacity for industrial production, for medicine production, for technology production, or anything else. And so, in a world where political, economic, and state capital is limited, we must focus on the most acute crises. I care a lot more about the fact that we can’t make a silicon chip or a medicinal drug or steel in this country at the rate that we need in order to have some level of national autonomy than I care about putting more aircraft carriers in the South China Sea. That’s how I reconcile it. We need to dwindle and draw down our foreign-policy commitments across the globe.

Elliot Kaufman: I take issue with the idea that the decline in U.S. manufacturing was a choice. Those who have looked at this have found that U.S. manufacturing jobs have declined at the same rate as in most other Western nations, regardless of the degree of interventionist economic policy. There are secular issues at play. For instance, labor advantages: labor is much cheaper over there than it is here. The idea that the U.S. was going to keep the same number of industrial jobs if policymakers just cared more about certain people doesn’t stand up to scrutiny. I’d also point out that U.S. manufacturing has not gone away; output has increased. What’s gone away are many manufacturing jobs. Why? Because of wage advantages. So, U.S. manufacturing has moved up on the value chain where capital plays more of a role, and U.S. productivity is higher.

On foreign policy, what we are talking about is not Chinese gunboats coming for us, but first for Taiwan. And if that happens, then our Pacific strategy is shot. The rest of the countries in the region will have no choice but to rally to the Chinese side. And then we’re facing a real juggernaut, including on economic terms, with the resources that China will be able to summon.

Even if you are only worried about China as a sort of economic threat, rather than a threat to American liberties, I think we have strong reasons to increase U.S. military spending, which is at 3 percent of GDP now, down from the Cold War peak of 7 percent. It could be 4 percent, it could be 5 percent, and it would be worth it.

Alexandra DeSanctis: I think that’s very well said. It’s not mutually exclusive to build up U.S. manufacturing, and also to acknowledge that China is our No. 1 enemy that wants to destroy us. They didn’t just step into this vacuum that policymakers created—they intentionally exploited our weaknesses because they hate us, they want to destroy us, they’re a human-rights abuser. And so while we can focus on whatever problems we might have at home, it’s important to keep that in mind as well.

Teddy Kupfer: There’s a certain moral authority that comes when members of a political elite can claim that their views are not just the provenance of Washington, but are authentically held by the common man, the median American. I’ve seen graphs by Lee Drutman passed around suggesting nobody’s actually a libertarian. I hear talk about the Middle American Radicals, who don’t actually oppose receiving federal health-care benefits.

But these are not the only analyses of American public opinion. Folks like David Hackett Fisher, Matthew Walther, and others have identified a “folk-libertarianism” that runs deep in the American fabric: from the Scottish borderers who came to the backcountry in the 1800s, to the Barstool Conservatives who today like legal gambling and watch porn but are against cancel culture and for free speech. And the most popular directionally anti-left figure in the country is a DMT-evangelist-bodybuilder-libertarian-comedian. Libertarians catch a lot of flak in Washington, but isn’t there a folk-libertarianism woven into the American fabric? Doesn’t that mean something as both a political and policy matter?

Elliot Kaufman: Absolutely. It has to. Anyone who doesn’t think that there’s an impulse in this country to say to the government, “hands off,” is not paying attention. Any conservative movement that would surrender hold of that impulse is doomed.

This goes back to something that you asked me before. Okay, new challenges, right? Shouldn’t this be the time to drop our default suspicion of government action, of state action? I think this would be the worst moment to do that. We are in the midst of unprecedented restrictions on Americans’ liberty, the pandemic restrictions. People have been forced out of their livelihoods, forced out of society; kids have been forced out of schools.

We have seen an unbelievable overreach by the state ignoring people’s rights. There was a crisis, so people will say, “I guess you have to do something.” But people are waking up right now. I think we are seeing this folk-libertarianism reassert itself in a strong way.

Alexandra DeSanctis: I don’t consider myself a libertarian, so I’m happy to criticize things about the libertarian point of view. But I think libertarians have a natural and important home on the right, and civil libertarianism is essential to conservatism. It’s essential to being an American. It’s deeply politically unpopular to suggest that there’s no room for individual rights or we need the state to do everything for us. That’s a Democratic tendency, right? So, as much as I agree that there are places where libertarians go too far in the individual-rights direction, certainly on social issues, in my view, that is not a reason to say that they don’t belong on the right. All conservatives should have a vision of the human person that necessitates respect for individual liberties.

Saurabh Sharma: I love folk-libertarians. They’re great. Here’s the thing, though. Let’s take the context of the pandemic. Folk-libertarianism implemented in public policy will get you a lifting of municipal mask and vaccine mandates. But when people still have to wear masks, and show vaccine cards in airports or in businesses, those same folk-libertarians are very happy when Ron DeSantis bans private institutions from implementing mask mandates, or vaccine mandates. Folk-libertarian Republican voters have no problem when you tell them that we should regulate Facebook, Google, and any other institution they believe is censoring conservatives into the dirt. That does not trigger their libertarian priors, because they see it as an infringement on the spiritual principle of liberty when the largest technology conglomerates in the country conspire to ensure that right-wing political speech is subordinate. There is a clear distinction between folk-libertarians and the kinds of people who populate this town, whose goal is to enshrine Section 230, or implement capital-gains-tax cuts, or open our borders for some faux-libertarian reason; between folk-libertarians, with the things that they want to preserve in the American way of life, and the libertarian priorities of policymakers in this town. They’re almost two entirely separate universes.

Teddy Kupfer: Ideological movements have long been prone to infighting, and American conservatism in 2022 is no different. Populists have complained that legacy institutions are more interested in policing the boundaries of conservatism than in defending the principles that they allegedly exist to conserve.

But is this tendency to gatekeeping limited to these legacy institutions? Shortly after Election Day in 2020, the editors of another think-tank-aligned magazine published an article not only calling on Republicans to fight the result but also calling out their “weak sisters on the right.” Do you worry that various right-wing factions are sometimes more interested in sharpening their elbows and defending themselves against internecine enemies than in trying to expand their coalition?

Alexandra DeSanctis: I worry about that a lot. At the political level, that kind of thing makes a lot more sense, especially in the primary context. There are important distinctions, when we’re talking about voting, to be made between particular political platforms on the right. But since I’ve gotten into conservative journalism, when Donald Trump was marching toward victory over Hillary Clinton in 2016, I’ve seen an absurd level of fighting among conservatives at a time when unity would much better serve us. And the things we’re fighting about are not actually that important. The distinctions between one conservative flavor or another are not so vital compared with what we’re dealing with on the left. A lot of it comes from an oversaturation with social media, people looking for attention and trying to elbow to the right—perhaps to be the true conservative—and getting people to pay attention to you.

I think that sort of thing is really damaging. If someone said to me, I think abortion is wonderful, but I’m for tax cuts, I’d say, “Okay, that’s fine. That’s a conservative policy. I don’t really want the conservative movement as a whole to be pro-abortion, I don’t love that about you, but you’re welcome to consider yourself a conservative.” There are ways in which we can say what our main mission ought to be without ostracizing people who agree with us on one issue but not another. But a lot of it comes down to personality, to people trying to suck the air out of the room for their own personal attention.

Saurabh Sharma: No one opposes The Conservative Case for Writing Essays at Each Other Until We All Die more than I do. I’m a big believer in convincing young people to get involved in substantive policy questions and to delete their Twitter account. We do so in our programming at American Moment. However, I will say the ability to call for unity is a luxury of power. You get to call for unity when you are the dominant faction on the right, or in any ecosystem that’s being described. It’s the same thing with an appeal to true conservatism. Part of the reason why I don’t really hyphenate my conservatism is because I think that the ability to determine what is true conservatism is a luxury of power. Why not fake it ‘til we make it? I’m willing to call the whole set of policies that I believe in “true conservatism,” and we’ll see if I end up being correct.

There’s how the Right approaches politics and how the Left approaches politics. The distinction is ultimately to the Right’s detriment. The Left believes in a kind of tactical ecumenism. They will never punch to their left, and often they kind of wink and nod and say, “whatever you’re doing that’s crazy on the left is fine.” Kamala Harris encouraged people to donate to bail funds for rioters in Kenosha, Wisconsin, or wherever that particular riot was. Can you imagine the equivalent of it from a right-of-center vice president? It just wouldn’t happen. Or it would be met with enormous scorn: editorial pages would heap scorn on any vice president, or president, or any other major official who did so.

You can have fulsome, aggressive disagreement within your own faction while also recognizing that the goal is to move in a particular direction. And if we want a fusion consensus to be the center—the mainstream of policy and American life—guess what? There necessarily has to be a bunch of stuff to the right, and a bunch of stuff that some will probably disagree with, because the cultural forces that exist are deeply encouraging to leftward trends and very discouraging to rightward trends.

My problem with the idea that we can’t be fighting is, it results in the status quo: where anything to the right of a certain incumbent mainstream consensus in the conservative movement is Hitler, and anything slightly to the center-left of that is good-faith disagreement that must be contended with, and the people responsible for that slice must be welcomed into the conservative movement with open arms.

Elliot Kaufman: You said that one advantage that the Left has is that it doesn’t punch left. That’s not an advantage that I want on the Right. There are racists to my right. I don’t want them on the team. I think that including them on the team will end up hurting us more than anything because the media, and the Left will say, “That’s all of them.” And I think we make their job easy when we refuse to punch right. I’m proud to punch right when we’re dealing with truly bad people.

By the way, people in some of these conservative micro-movements criticize other conservatives and punch right all the time. From my point of view, American Moment? All it does is punch right. But that’s your prerogative.

Saurabh Sharma: You are welcome to scroll through the Twitter feed of American Moment. I think you’d be surprised. We exercise pretty serious institutional discipline. What’s on my Twitter feed, I don’t feel the need to put “opinions are my own,” but it’s entirely separate. I don’t really care about that particular criticism.

What I will say, however, is that the Left told Mitt Romney he was going to put black people back in chains. It doesn’t matter how genteel or how kind you are, how tightly you police the borders of your own faction. You can nominate the most demure, august leaders for any political movement. The Left will apply the same smear to everyone from Bari Weiss to David Duke. To them, they are all racists, or suspected white supremacists. The question is, how do you operate in political life recognizing that that label is going to be used to tarnish most of your political faction?

Elliot Kaufman: The Left will call us racist no matter what, but it matters to me whether they’re right or they’re wrong. And it’ll matter to other Americans, too.

Teddy Kupfer: It may be a mark of our youth that we have managed to go through a discussion of conservative politics without saying the name Ronald Reagan. But if you will indulge me, close your eyes and think about the 1970s.

Conservatives are either out of power or struggling to do anything while they are in power. There are many factions. National Review expresses a hardline anti-welfarist politics and a hardline anti-Communist politics. Traditionalists prefer communitarianism to capitalism and look fondly to the Southern Agrarians. Neoconservatives in the cities seek to both counter radicalism and advance pragmatic reforms to the welfare state. And a “New Right” takes a populist line, gaining appeal in the Midwest and on the West Coast, criticizing its competitors for not fighting hard enough.

All these factions clashed at times. Then they were eventually unified under one leader who managed to incorporate elements of each tendency and help all feel represented. So how do today’s conflicts rate in the history of the American conservative movement? And can you imagine a figure—you don’t have to say a name—who could reach this synthesis among all the various conservative factions once Trump leaves the scene?

Saurabh Sharma: One of my favorite Bible verses is Ecclesiastes 1:9: “There is nothing new under the sun.” I believe the same is true about internecine right-wing warfare. This is part of the reason why you will never hear me use the term “New Right.” One, because that’s exactly what the National Review crowd called themselves when they were the insurgents fighting against an incumbent entrenched bureaucracy on the right that saw them as ridiculous radicals. And two, because I also believe there is nothing new about the ideas that there should be sanity in our immigration policy, our foreign policy, our trade policy, and that we should take cultural battles seriously. Those ideas have been championed by patriotic, decent people for the last half-century.

Internecine battles on the right are very common. Perhaps there is a roadmap we can look to in the past on how these things can be reconciled. This is where the whole three-legged stool thing gets very interesting. It is a perversion of the idea of what the coalitional right was toward the end of the twentieth century: that the conservative operator in a place like D.C. is someone who is simultaneously a foreign-policy hawk, a cultural conservative in private matters, and a social conservative in the few government areas of abortion and religious liberty, and also an economic libertarian. That political consensus was the process by which different parts of a faction came to compromises that were embodied in particular politicians and rank-ordered in legislative agendas. They were never meant to be embodied in all people all the time.

That is the roadmap for what a consensus would look like today—recognizing that there are legitimate primary threats that each of these factions sees and finding ways to negotiate, in accordance with how they’re represented in the electorate, a new conservative consensus that takes seriously the challenges of today, much like Ronald Reagan did as president.

Who could do it? You took Trump off the table, but I will say, tonally, it looks a lot closer to Donald Trump than it does anyone else in the Republican party. At this point, things are dire. When Ronald Reagan was elected, conservatives enjoyed a silent majority in the broader populace. They enjoyed some level of cultural power such that people were able to get movies occasionally suppressed for lewdness or anti-American sentiment. They definitely had the power of corporate America behind them. And they were able to win elections.

What is it that the Right’s looking at today? Total loss on the cultural level, an unclear consensus in the mass of the American people, because most people acclimatize themselves to whatever the prevailing consensus is. Most people are going to lean left because that’s where it seems like most of the power is. The Right has lost corporate America, and the Fortune 500 list is full of some of the largest donors to civilizational enemies of the Right and of the country that you’ll ever find. Occasionally, we’re able to win elections, but when we do, we don’t do much to address these power imbalances.

I do not blame people when they look at someone like Trump, who actually fights the disempowerment that the Right feels by sticking it to cultural forces, by telling the biggest CEOs that they can go screw themselves, and certainly by talking to the permanent ruling consensus in D.C. with utter contempt. Tonally, it is an approach of combativeness on policy. But it is a consensus that recognizes the premier threats that face us today.

Alexandra DeSanctis: I’ve been reading recently about the 1980 primary campaign among Republicans, and it was as nasty as anything I’ve seen going on lately. It was heartening to see that this has been happening forever. But the situation that we’re facing as a country is new. We’re in a very different place than we were then, particularly in terms of where the Left has gone since then, what they’re standing for now, especially in cultural terms. And the world has changed: globalization, digitization, social media.

We need a different type of candidate. And I think Saurabh was right, too, that there was something about Trump that was appealing. As much as I didn’t like him, there were certain things that he did that other politicians hadn’t done, and where he was successful. But there was something about Reagan that people loved, and Reagan managed to unify the Right very successfully. He won 49 states, by the way. Can you imagine a Republican doing that now? It would take a really outstanding person—someone of good character. And by that, I don’t mean someone who is polite all the time. I mean a good, decent person who Americans respect, regardless of which side of the aisle they’re on. That really matters, and we shouldn’t give up on that, even though the other side, and the world, I guess, has gotten quite nasty.

Elliot Kaufman: It’s not hard to understand why people talk a lot about Ronald Reagan. He was incredibly successful.

I saw an ad recently from Blake Masters, who’s running for Senate in Arizona. I’m not a big fan of his, but he started it off by saying, “Why is it so difficult to support a family on a single income?” And that may be a New Right framing, but it’s a good one—a good question, certainly. “Well, three important things have gotten more expensive in America.” And he named them. You could, too: housing, health care, and education.

What’s been happening in each area? We can’t build homes, so of course the price is going to rise. We can’t build homes because of all these regulations: he focused on environmental regulations, because that’s a more popular issue, but as we know, there are many other regulations—zoning, for example. Government regulation is stopping that market from operating. On health care, Masters said that you can’t find health-care prices. Without prices, market mechanisms don’t work. And finally, education. Masters said that universities are expanding bureaucracies to raise costs, and they can get away with it because of government subsidies and student loans. Once again, the government is doing it.

I thought about the message: a New Right diagnosis of the problem with small-government solutions. That could be a powerful message. I told this to my friend, Sam Goldman, and he said: “That’s what Reaganism was.” Reaganism was a merger of populism and conservatism in a way that didn’t make it seem extreme, which Barry Goldwater’s conservatism sometimes did, but in a way that made it seem like the most common-sense thing in the world.

Think about those problems of the 1970s: inflation, stagflation, crime, welfare, national dishonor. Stagflation we don’t have today, but four out five? Not bad. When I hear people saying that Reaganism has gone stale, I think they don’t understand what Reaganism was, and they don’t understand our present moment, either.

Photo: Lisa-Blue/iStock

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