What George Will, Karl Rove Get Wrong about populist conservatism is the difference between Reagan and the Bushes. (Commentary)
Are modern conservatives just unthinking rubes who want to be angry?
That was the tenor of a discussion Wednesday on the “future of conservatism” featuring former George W. Bush strategist Karl Rove and columnist George Will, who announced that he’d left the Republican Party in 2016.
The event was sponsored in part by the Lyndon Baines Johnson Foundation, a curious choice to discuss the future of conservative ideas. Johnson was the architect of the Great Society, the largest expansion of the federal government in our history alongside the New Deal.
Rove said that many of the conservative “touchstones” of the past, such as federalism and limited government, have been diminished and replaced by populists and European “blood-and-soil-style” conservatism.
Will acknowledged that “the Democratic Party used to be the party of the New Deal, [and] now it’s the party of new genders.” But the veteran columnist saved most of his fire for Republicans and the Right.
Will said the country is crying out for Ronald Reagan’s cheerfulness, patriotism, and economic dynamism.
“If that’s zombie Reaganism, sign me up,” he said.
Will later said that viewers of Fox News “only feel alive when they are angry.”
Will also took a shot at my employer, The Heritage Foundation, saying that it is “taking the think out of think tank” because by urging more scrutiny of Ukraine aid packages, Heritage is leading the U.S. toward “isolationism.” (The Daily Signal is Heritage’s multimedia news organization.)
That “isolationism” charge is just lazy. Being skeptical about money and resources that the U.S. sends abroad—even for causes we Americans believe in—isn’t isolationism, it’s prudence.
Aside from that shot at Heritage, Will and Rove launched a more serious broadside at the Right.
First, they charged that conservatives have abandoned the principles and character of Reagan. Second, that the Right is now angrier than in Reagan’s day and angry populism isn’t “conservative” at all.
Finally, Will and Rove advocated returning to a type of court conservatism that they attribute to Reagan, but that actually has a lot more in common with the governing philosophy of former President George W. Bush.
Rove said that many on the Right now sound like the Left because they reject the optimism of Reagan and paint a dark, “dystopian” picture of America.
For those who continually harp on the “angry” tenor of our age in relation to Reagan’s cheerfulness, we should consider a few things. In his own day, Reagan often was ridiculed and denounced as an affable but radical right-winger. He certainly was by the Republican establishment of the time.
“This country needs a new administration, with a renewed dedication to the dream of America—an administration that will give that dream new life and make America great again.”
That wasn’t Donald Trump in 2016, that was Reagan in 1980, making his final appeal to American voters as a presidential candidate that year.
“The populism that we have today … is based on a belief that the whole system is rigged, that the elites have rigged the entire system against ordinary Americans,” Rove said.
Perhaps Rove should consider that the populists have a point.
The daily reality of conservatives across the country is that of fighting an onslaught of powerful institutions, both public and private, arrayed against beliefs that even 10 years ago would be considered basic and foundational.
Today’s citizen has no reason to believe that his news outlets will report the truth, his child’s school will teach anything good about his country, or that any potential legal accusations will be adjudicated without regard to political perspective. He has every reason to be afraid that exercising his constitutional right to freedom of speech by voicing beliefs completely ordinary by the standards of his countrymen—but contrary to the new dogmas of the elite class—will result at least in Big Tech censorship, and if he is unlucky, losing his job or even access to important private services such as banking.
If that’s not a rigged system, what, in Rove’s estimation, qualifies?
Rove said that what the country wants is “what we thought we’d get with [President Joe] Biden—normality.” The hard reality is that “normality” is now dictated by institutions wholly captured by the radical ideology of the hard Left.
So, what would that return to normality even look like now?
The brand of “conservatism” that Rove and Will argue for is one that tacitly concedes that the institutions and levers of power in American society will be free to take the country in an implicitly left-wing and radical direction.
The Left’s long march through the institutions is complete. Defenders of a rote and milquetoast “conservatism” offer no answer to reversing or even slowing down that march into the lives and homes of the American people.
A “conservatism” that has no solution to this crisis other than gauzy appeals to free trade, markets, and the opportunity society is not conserving anything at all.
In Reagan’s day, Super Bowl ads were full of American flags and appeals to patriotism to sell everything from beer to cars. Today, corporate America has become one of the key pillars of institutional wokeness. The most powerful corporations in the world often are in lockstep enforcing left-wing cultural orthodoxy, trusting to the common faculty-lounge politics of most of their competitors’ workforces and c-suites to hold conservative consumers as a captive audience. They often do this in collusion with the federal government, but this isn’t just a government problem.
This left-wing, institutional, hybrid, public-private takeover provides a challenge that hadn’t yet reached its crescendo in Reagan’s time. These new cultural values are ruthlessly enforced internally and externally.
As activist-journalist Christopher Rufo has demonstrated time and again, the cult of “diversity, equity, and inclusion” preaches noxious racialism and disturbing, farcical gender ideology behind closed doors at the largest corporate entities in America, and gets paid well to do it.
The Right must confront the power of Google and Amazon while the Left spends its time trying to destroy a small-time Christian baker in Colorado because they worry that somebody, somewhere isn’t going along with the program.
Serious challenges to left-wing control of institutions are taken to be apocalyptic events, worthy of pulling out every stop to counter.
Take, for instance, the current panic about billionaire entrepreneur Elon Musk’s taking over Twitter. Musk isn’t an orthodox conservative by any stretch, and really has committed only to making the social media platform more amenable to free speech without censorship. But that’s apparently a bridge too far.
Not only has the corporate media treated Musk’s Twitter deal as the end of the world, but the Biden administration made threatening statements about “keeping an eye” on “misinformation” from the platform. Half of Twitter’s top advertisers immediately pulled their ads.
That’s the kind of overwhelming institutional grip the Left has on corporate America. Musk may survive that onslaught, but he will do so as the richest man on the planet. What are average Americans, those of us who don’t have billions of dollars, teams of lawyers, and a legion of lobbyists at their disposal, to do?
Will and Rove also repeated the usual tiresome litany of complaints that populist conservatives have disappointed them on issues such as immigration, same-sex marriage, and foreign policy.
Will quipped that “if Donald Trump were ever to build his wall, he would have had to do it with immigrant labor.”
Ah yes, the people stink.
Maybe instead of just calling for replacing unemployed Americans with foreign workers, conservatives’ goal should be to create the conditions where more Americans will seek and find meaningful work so they can strengthen themselves, their families, and their country too.
Just a little over a decade ago, President Barack Obama said he believed marriage should be between a man and a woman. We are now transitioning to an America in which believing that will provoke an investigation by the Justice Department.
The conservatism that Will and Rove are advocating is effectively a return to the foreign policy of George W. Bush, an abandonment of foundational cultural issues, and policies that foster unrestrained immigration. Worst of all, it doesn’t address the radical transformation of our institutions.
This is no way forward. Their nostalgia for the sunny optimism of the Reagan era is built on the false premise that we are living in the Reagan era. But the country and the world have changed, and we do a disservice to ourselves—especially as conservatives—if we don’t acknowledge that.
In Reagan’s farewell address, he spoke about tax cuts and foreign policy but saved his most important message for the end.
Reagan celebrated the new spirit of patriotism in America and the economic prosperity unleashed during his presidency. However, he warned that what we needed was “informed patriotism,” and that the nation was losing its institutional, cultural support for the kind of love of country he had grown up with. The world was changing.
“Younger parents aren’t sure that an unambivalent appreciation of America is the right thing to teach modern children,” Reagan said. “And as for those who create the popular culture, well-grounded patriotism is no longer the style. Our spirit is back, but we haven’t reinstitutionalized it.”
We still haven’t. That’s not Reagan’s fault, but we must acknowledge that it’s why the country is in crisis and why a healthy dose of populism is a healthy counterweight to institutions and an elite that not only have lost their way but are actively harming our society.
Here is Irving Kristol, one of the godfathers of neoconservatism no less, writing in 1985 that “populism” was perhaps the best, commonsense response to the country’s unthinking elites:
“To put it simply: The common sense—not the passion, but the common sense—of the American people has been outraged, over the past 20 years, by the persistent un-wisdom of their elected and appointed officials. To the degree that we are witnessing a crisis in our democratic institutions, it is a crisis of our disoriented elites, not of a blindly impassioned populace.”
Kristol hit the nail on the head as far as where the corruption and failure is coming from in America and in other Western societies. If anything, the corrupted elite has amassed more power and is even less thoughtful today.
It’s the elites who are our age’s Jacobins. They are the ones overturning and perverting American institutions. They are the ones who’ve accepted that America was built on a legacy of “white supremacy” and justify racialized policies under the false idea that the system is “rigged” by institutional racism.
It’s our elites who not only stood by while our history was being torn down by mobs, but also often openly embraced and furthered the project. When the National Archives is reorienting itself to portray celebration of the Founding Fathers as “structural racism,” that should be a DEFCON 1 alert that there’s something fundamentally wrong.
To push back against these forces, a daunting task, requires conservatives—if they want anything decent left to conserve at all—to recognize what is arrayed against us and fight back, not to mindlessly pledge loyalty to the exact program that made sense in 1983 while looking contemptuously at voters pointing out the five-alarm fire in our midst.
A little populist anti-elitism and anger at the destruction of the American way of life may be exactly what our ailing republic needs.
Originally published by The Daily Signal. Republished with permission.
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