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Reform Conservatism

If reform conservatism’s vision of the Right is spot-on, its vision of the Left needs elaboration.

Senior Fellow and Director, Center for American Common Culture
A US flag flutters at The Lafayette Escadrille Memorial of Marnes-la-Coquette, east of Paris, on November 11, 2013. (THOMAS SAMSON/AFP/Getty Images)
A US flag flutters at The Lafayette Escadrille Memorial of Marnes-la-Coquette, east of Paris, on November 11, 2013. (THOMAS SAMSON/AFP/Getty Images)

The rollout of the reform-conservative policy agenda, Room to Grow: Conservative Reforms for a Limited Government and a Thriving Middle Class, has created considerable excitement, and gained support, among many right-of-center policy wonks, activists, intellectuals, and practicing politicians (including Senators Mitch McConnell and Mike Lee). Room to Grow is an e-book produced by the YG (Young Guns) Network, a conservative policy organization. The ideas in the book, presented by 13 conservative thinkers, cover a wide range of domestic issues, from health care and employment to education and energy. They are eminently sensible and provide practical solutions to real problems facing the American middle and working classes.

Most significantly, Yuval Levin, in an introductory essay, “A Conservative Governing Vision,” sketches out a coherent and compelling narrative of a right-of-center America. Levin demonstrates that reform conservatism offers a “political, moral, and social vision much better aligned with the realities of American life and the character of Americans’ aspirations” than its competition: the liberal welfare state.

The reform-conservative vision is not concerned simply with reducing the size of the welfare state, although this is part of the project. Instead, it emphasizes “creating, protecting, and sustaining” the mediating institutions of civil society, “the space between the individual and the state — the space occupied by families, communities, civic and religious institutions, and the private economy.” At the American Enterprise Institute panel discussion launching the book, National Review’s Ramesh Ponnuru explained that reform conservatism is “not Randian individualism,” and that the Right should not cede the concept of “community” to the Left.

The neo-Tocquevillian vision of reform conservatism is clearly appealing, and its practical policy proposals are solid. We are at the beginning of an extended conversation on the future of American conservatism leading up to the 2016 elections. I will offer here a friendly addendum or amendment. If reform conservatism’s vision of the Right is spot-on, its vision of the Left needs elaboration, if we are to have a clear understanding of contemporary progressivism. My addendum could be called the “David Horowitz” or “Antonio Gramsci/Herbert Marcuse amendment,” as will become evident.

Yuval Levin writes: “The Left’s social vision tends to consist of individuals and the state, so that all common action is state action, and its purpose is to liberate individuals from material want and moral sway.” This is true as far as it goes. However, when the contemporary Left looks at America, more often than not it sees groups rather than individuals. Further, the Left divides Americans into two types of groups: the dominant group (white males) and victim groups (racial and ethnic minorities, linguistic minorities, women, LGBT, and others).

The implicit premise of today’s progressivism is to end racial, ethnic, and gender disparities, to achieve “substantive equality” or parity for groups as groups. Group identity and group consciousness dominate progressive discourse. There are constant references to “underrepresentation,” “protected classes,” “disparate impact,” “diversity,” etc. This progressive discourse may have begun in the universities and courts, but it has spread, and today it permeates the halls of Congress and corridors of the executive branch.

Notice that the group-based focus of the Left is centered on ascribed groups (that is groups that one is born into), not the voluntary groups (families, communities, civic and religious institutions, private businesses) that make up the neo-Tocquevillian civil society of the conservative vision. By privileging ascribed groups over voluntary groups and over individuals, the agenda of the Left is post-liberal and essentially neo-corporatist.

Levin rightly notes that progressives “have always viewed” the “mediating institutions that stand between the individual and the state with suspicion, seeing them as instruments of division, prejudice, and selfishness.” Hence, the goal of the progressives, Levin writes, “is to level the complex social topography of the space between the individual and the government, breaking up tightly knit clusters of citizens into individuals but then uniting all of those individuals under the national banner — allowing them to be free of the oppressive authority of family or community norms while building solidarity through common experience of living as equal citizens of a great nation.”

I would argue that the analysis above fits nicely with the progressivism of Theodore Roosevelt, or even Lyndon Johnson, but not with the contemporary progressivism of Barack Obama and “Pinch” Sulzberger. Today’s progressivism seeks to create a new group-based “social topography” in which previously subordinated groups (minorities, women, etc.) first obtain parity (equal representation for groups as groups) and then achieve “cultural inclusion” — meaning that group-based norms and values trump universal standards.

For example, in 2011, the Obama Defense Department’s Military Leadership Diversity Commission explicitly stated that diversity management “is not about treating everybody the same.” Different ethnic, racial, and gender groups have different characteristics, attributes, and perspectives. Therefore, the commission stated, different groups should be treated differently in terms of recruitment, evaluation, and promotion. In addition, the report made clear that “cultural assimilation” (into a white male standard) was being replaced by “cultural inclusion,” signaling the triumph of group-based norms over equality of opportunity.

Moreover, the contemporary Left does not necessarily seek to unite individuals under the “national banner” of a “great nation” but, instead, places individuals into the group-constraining boxes of multiculturalism. Further, unlike in TR’s or FDR’s time, its adherents are more likely to identify themselves as “global citizens” than as flag-waving patriots.

The Left’s vision, Levin notes, is premised on “freeing” individuals from “the undue moral influence of traditional social institutions.” This is certainly true in matters of lifestyle liberalism, such as sex, drugs, and the like. “Expressive individualism,” however, goes only so far. Progressives, whether in government, civil society, or business, are not in practice committed to the personal freedom of the autonomous individual. Just ask Brendan Eich and Dan Snyder.

Brendan Eich was the head of Mozilla. He was forced out as CEO of that leading tech company by progressives in 2014, when it was learned that he had contributed to the pro-traditional-marriage referendum campaign in California in 2008. Eich’s position on traditional marriage in 2008 was the same as Barack Obama’s at the time. Nevertheless, he was deemed unworthy to head a private business in the culturally progressive confines of Silicon Valley.

Dan Snyder is the president of the Washington Redskins, a private corporation that should not be subject to harassment by government officials. Nevertheless 50 Democratic senators sent a letter to the commissioner of the National Football League, Roger Goodell, stating that the Washington team’s name was a “racial slur” and pressuring him to take action because the “Washington DC football team is on the wrong side of history.” President Obama also leaned in, suggesting the Redskins’ name be changed. Last week the U.S. Patent and Trade Office (USPTO) cancelled the Redskins trademark registration, charging that the name “disparaged” Native Americans. A similar USPTO ruling against the Redskins’ name in 1999 was overturned in court. These actions violate one of the historic tenets of liberalism: the existence of a private sphere of life free of political intimidation. The bullying of private businessmen Eich and Snyder is illiberal to the core.

This political bullying is a far cry from the historic liberalism of Tom Paine, which is eloquently elucidated by Yuval Levin in The Great Debate. It is even at odds with Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy’s oft-quoted liberal defense of autonomous individualism in Planned Parenthood v. Casey: “At the heart of liberty is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life.”

In reality, the Left’s version of morality is based neither on the “expressive” or autonomous individual, nor on personal freedom. Instead (as the Eich and Snyder cases illustrate), this continuously evolving “progressive morality” appears to be a group-based morality, focused on causes advanced by activists claiming to speak for marginalized groups (LGBT with Eich and American Indians with Snyder). In this sense, it is reminiscent of the old “Marxist morality,” in which whatever advances the cause of the international proletariat and world socialism is “moral.”

Many conservative intellectuals maintain that both the American Left and the American Right, with their emphasis on individualism, represent forms of historic liberalism, but competing forms — that is to say, a progressive liberalism and a conservative liberalism. To be sure, these right-of-center intellectuals recognize that contemporary progressives are promoting group-based policies in the name of ending racial, ethnic, and gender disparities. They contend, however, that these group-based measures (even if wrong-headed) do not represent the end goal of the progressivism, which continues to be individual freedom (in this case freedom from the constraints of race, ethnicity, and gender). Thus, for these conservative intellectuals, contemporary progressives remain within the historic liberal tradition. They cite a leading academic theorist of liberalism, Judith Shklar, to the effect that the primary goal of liberalism as a political doctrine is “to secure the political conditions that are necessary for the exercise of personal freedom.”

My argument is that the mainstream of the American Left (the New York Times, the ACLU, Harvard University, the Ford Foundation, the Obama administration) has in reality moved from an emphasis on the individual and personal freedom to an emphasis on the ascribed group (on the basis of race, ethnicity, sexuality, or gender); that is, from historic liberalism to historic corporatism. As David Horowitz often reminds us, contemporary progressive thinking with its binary group analysis (oppressor/oppressed, white male/victim) is much closer to the cultural-Marxist theories of Antonio Gramsci, Herbert Marcuse, and the Frankfurt School than to the liberal thought of John Locke, John Stuart Mill, FDR, or Hubert Humphrey.

Progressives often remark that, since the issue of race first came to America when the first slaves were brought to Jamestown in the early 1600s, racial discrimination is not going to go away in the coming decades, as Justice O’Connor once suggested it would. Indeed, the Jamestown reference implies that group-based remedies to deal with race might be needed for another 400 years. The same analysis applies to sexism, ethnocentrism, homophobia, and xenophobia. These phenomena have been with us for millennia. They, too, may need illiberal group-based remedies for an indefinite period of time, perhaps for centuries.

The counterargument that the American Left is, in the final analysis, in the liberal tradition because, ultimately, progressives are, as Shklar put it, attempting “to secure the political conditions necessary for the exercise of personal freedom” has as much validity as the Marxists’ claim that they are anti-statist because their end goal is the “withering away of the state.” In truth, American conservatives today are facing not progressive liberalism but a new form of corporatism.

As a practical matter, this group-based or corporatist progressivism is evident in a range of federal, state, and local laws and in policies followed throughout the Obama administration. These include racial, ethnic, and gender group preferences, bilingual and multicultural education, Eric Holder’s political use of the Justice Department in the name of “antidiscrimination,” and federal “diversity” projects such as the DOD commission referred to above. These group-based measures undermine free association within the institutions of civil society and equal opportunity for the American middle and working classes, and they are an affront to American constitutional democracy.

I am not suggesting that these issues should have been addressed in Room to Grow. That document served a different purpose and has accomplished what it set out to do. Room to Grow is a solid first step in articulating a theory and practice of reform conservatism. I am suggesting, however, that reform conservatism will need to further develop an expanded understanding of the vision of the American Left and counter the progressive group-based assault on American civil society and on the middle and working classes of our country.