Since conservatism became a movement in the 1950s, the American right has understood itself to be defending not just the written American Constitution but an unwritten one as well — a kind of cultural or social constitution, deeply rooted in our national history, that the checks and balances of our official political system help sustain.
Under this constitution America has three branches of government but a great diversity of power centers — religious and corporate, familial and philanthropic. Under this constitution the most important institutions in our national life aren’t political ones; they’re the institutions of civil society, which have flourished — or so the conservative argument goes — precisely because government has been kept within limits, and the state hasn’t co-opted or crushed all its rivals for influence and power.
Thus when conservatives preach about the virtues of “limited government,” it isn’t just Herbert Hoover’s rugged individual that they imagine themselves defending. They envision a larger communitarian panoply — civic associations, religious denominations, charities and universities and private schools — which needs protection against the jealousy of a centralizing state. And they tend to assume that keeping the American corporation embedded in this communitarian system is a better way to balance productivity and innovation and public-spiritedness than just trying to regulate and micromanage businesses into good behavior.
If you wanted to summarize the intellectual uncertainties of conservatives in the Trump era, you could say that the right is trying to figure out whether the unwritten American constitution it imagines itself defending still exists. And if it doesn’t, or if it’s failing, whether that means that “limited government” as a slogan and strategy is increasingly irrelevant when it comes to shaping the society that conservatives would like America to be.
The latter was the argument that Donald Trump implicitly pressed against his more optimistic opponents in the 2016 primaries. They were defenders of the American dream as conservatives have long defined it, while the dark, conspiratorial tones of their businessman rival raised a set of uncomfortable questions. Is America still a nation of thriving local communities and energetic civic life? Is America still a deeply religious country, with strong churches and growing denominations? Are American businessmen basically public-spirited, eager to compete on equal terms once government removes its heavy hand, and natural allies for a political movement wedded to patriotism and religion?
For years now conservative critics and sociologists and intellectuals have been acknowledging that the answers might be no — that the country’s once-rich associational and civic and religious life is declining and dissolving, that corporate America embraces conservative slogans to keep taxes low and unions weak but otherwise seems post-patriotic and performatively woke, that the “silent majority” of hardworking, pious, culturally conservative blue-collar families is now essentially defunct.
Many of the best conservative books of the last decade, from “Coming Apart” by Charles Murray to “The Fractured Republic” by Yuval Levin, describe an emerging America that doesn’t much resemble the Tocquevillian family-church-community landscape familiar from past conservative descriptions of American exceptionalism. The latest example is “Alienated America: Why Some Places Thrive While Others Collapse” by Tim Carney, a mix of sociology and shoe-leather reporting that convincingly situates the rise of Trump in the context of Middle America’s communitarian collapse.
But while accounts like Carney’s acknowledge the role of economic forces — globalization, trade, deindustrialization — in the dissolution of family and community, they also tend to insist, contra liberals and our new socialist vanguard (and also contra Trump), that this cultural collapse isn’t primarily driven by economic policy decisions and can’t be reversed by public policies or programs. Instead they tend to suggest that state interventions often just replace community instead of strengthening it and cast any communitarian revival as a necessarily local project, in which government can play at best a supporting, don’t-make-matters-worse kind of role.
These kind of arguments are still in continuity, then, with the basic conservative posture of the last few generations. But there are also increasingly partisans of rupture on the right, a loose group of state-power conservatives who hint that if the Tocquevillian dream is dying then the cause of “limited government” is increasingly irrelevant — which in turn would require conservatives to become more comfortable using the power of the state, and more engaged in centralized policymaking that has specific social and cultural ends in mind.
This argument is visible in the controversy surrounding Tucker Carlson’s monologue a month ago, which stirred up libertarian backlash by calling for Republicans to use government policy to make American life friendlier to families, and particularly to single-earner households. It also informs the difference between Carney’s book and the other smart right-of-center volume of the moment, Oren Cass’ “The Once and Future Worker.” The two authors share a certain common ground, but in the end Carney concludes that “our current economic and social ills … cannot be solved or even significantly ameliorated by any president, or by the central government at all,” while Cass’ whole thesis is that wiser policymaking could make a big difference to the unhappy heartlanders Carney profiles.
But the fullest case for rupture, for declaring that “the era of limited government is over,” is offered in two recent essays in conservative intellectual journals — Dan McCarthy’s “A New Conservative Agenda” in First Things, and Gladden Pappin’s “Toward a Party of the State” in American Affairs. Both envision a conservatism that is oriented less toward the state-as-enemy or the state-as-danger and much more toward the state-as-shaper and the state-as-harmonizer. For instance, here is McCarthy’s account of how the economic nationalism of Trump can be transmuted into something less inchoate and more effective:
Economic nationalism is not just about tariffs. It is less about “economic” than it is about “nationalism” — that is, it takes account of the different needs of different walks of life and regions of the country, serving the whole by serving its parts and drawing them together. In the past, the challenge was to harmonize farmers, urban capital and labor. The challenge now is to balance those groups with the postindustrial classes as well, and to strengthen the productive economy against the largely fictional economy of administrators and clerks. All of this is for the sake not just of prosperity, in raw dollar terms, but of a national economy that provides the basis for a healthy culture in which citizens and their families can flourish.
Pappin makes a similar argument about how both political coalitions, but especially the right, should adapt to the current challenge from “illiberal” or “post-liberal” forces, both populist and socialist:
Rather than asking the question “What should conservatives/progressives do?” considerable advances can be made through certain purely practical considerations: “How can the integrity of the national political community be assured?” “How can commercial activity and technological development continue to be turned toward the common good, and toward our own strategic advantage?” “What can we do with the reins of power, that is, the state, to ensure the common good of our citizens?”
The likely answers to these “practical” questions, Pappin contends, require conservatives to make practical “use of the administrative state” for right-wing ends, rather than constantly returning to “plaintive, nostalgic and counterproductive calls for its abolition.”
A hostile reader of these essays, libertarian or liberal, might respond that a vision in which right-wing governments seek to reshape culture and mediate between classes resembles nothing so much as early-20th century fascism. A more sympathetic reader would say no, there is plenty of space for more a state-friendly conservative politics in between movement conservatism and Mussolini, and what McCarthy and Pappin are envisioning might be better described as a blend of the American Hamiltonian tradition with a 21st-century update of French Gaullism.
And the most subtle reader might say that they’re trying to provide the theory for a move that the Republican Party once in power tends to make anyway — both of the last two GOP presidents have been, in some sense, “big government conservatives” — but so far without the strategy, seriousness and self-consciousness required to make the project a success.
I have enough of my own skepticism about the efficacy of state power to be uncertain if the project can succeed. But post-Trump conservatives are likely to be drawn to state-power conservatism not just by theoretical ambition but by a sense of political necessity.
The earlier conservative self-understanding, in which the right was defending nongovernmental institutions against the power of the state, tacitly depended on the assumption that many if not most nongovernmental institutions would be friendly to conservative values. But as civil society has decayed over recent decades, its remaining power centers have also become increasingly left-wing.
Already-liberal institutions — universities, Hollywood, the big foundations and the mass media — are now more uniformly allied with the left than even the very recent past. Corporate America happily donates to Republicans because it fears a Bernie Sanders presidency, but on cultural issues big business courts its younger customers with progressive lobbying and propaganda. In religion, Catholicism under Pope Francis aspires (scandals permitting) to ease its way leftward as well, leaving evangelical Christianity as an isolated bastion with little culture-shaping power.
Yet conservatives can still win the White House and the Congress, which means that the one power center they can hope to control is the one they are notionally organized to limit — the administrative state.
If we assume that people tend to seek power, and devise justifications for seeking power, where it can be plausibly exercised and won, then the state-power conservatives may not need the strongest intellectual arguments to change the way the right thinks about the state. Instead limited government conservatism may give way to an attempt to improve on Trumpism with clearer blueprints and smarter cadres for the same reason that changes often happen in political ideology — because the people whose thinking is changing feel that they don’t have any other choice.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.