Story by Joseph Ford Cotto
Nowadays, it can be hard to figure out just what it means to be a 'conservative.'
Does it mean the promotion of limited government ideals such as free markets, minimal immigration restrictions, and wide-ranging privatization? This is what untold millions have believed since the early 1980s, when the modern conservative movement crystallized under the influence of Ronald Reagan and his key backers.
The roots of their philosophy -- though some might say 'ideology' is a better term -- stretch back to what California was in the post-World War II age; a land of industry, a magnet for new residents, and fertile ground for diverse ideas. Amid this constant cultural change, pro-commerce voices competed with labor activists for the loudest bullhorn. Anything seemed possible, though a uniquely Californian brand of optimism, palpable as San Diego sunshine, ruled the day.
Nobody ever imagined the good times would come to an end. Who had the gall to think that Reaganism might give way to the New Left superstructure now entrenched in Sacramento?
That Reagan conservatism proved a flash in the pan, rather than a long-term trajectory, is a bitter pill to swallow for most center-right Americans. None too few movers and shakers still speak the late president's name in an almost deistic context. Nonetheless, his beliefs' lack of societal staying power and the hugely unpopular neoconservative ideology that succeeded them have placed a damper on the Gipper's legacy; especially for the under-40 crowd.
Presently, one must ask if conservatism means something different from what Reagan championed. Does it pertain to the preservation of America's Anglocentric culture, the defense of its borders, and the protection of its economic power from emerging foreign markets?
The new conservatism is actually quite old -- a throwback to what the Taft family, Calvin Coolidge, and Teddy Roosevelt stood for. Its resurgence comes against the odds; internationalism was trumpeted as the Washington Consensus until less than a year ago and there seemed little chance of changing this.
Now, a fierce battle of ideas unfolds over not just which variant of conservatism should triumph, but something far deeper: What matters more -- the transcendent ideals of Reagan or the kith-and-soil campaign of the Tafts, Coolidge, Roosevelt, and Donald Trump?
Allan C. Brownfeld is a veteran journalist who, though specializing in Middle Eastern affairs, has covered world history, religious happenings, race relations, and American conservatism for decades on end. The American Council for Judaism’s publications editor, he played a tremendous role in supporting black conservatism and dedicated much of his youth to active participation in civil rights reforms.
Shortly after the 1980 presidential election, Brownfeld served under Ronald Reagan and, to this day, remains devoted to the Gipper's memory. Few people have witnessed the changes in American conservatism at such close range as Brownfeld has, making him a sort of living history exhibit.
Brownfeld recently spoke with me about several matters pertaining to our nation's center-right. Some of our conversation is included below.
Joseph Ford Cotto: Insofar as the foreseeable future of American conservatism is concerned do you believe that the "alt right" brand is damaged beyond the level of repair for serious influence over public policy?
Allan C. Brownfeld: The "alt right" has little to contribute except divisive rhetoric and what appears to be a contempt for the very idea of government itself. Not only the "alt-right" but others who characterize them as, somehow, advocates of conservatism have embraced a series of apparently non-negotiable "principles" which take it far from the sensibilities of those in whose name they speak. A contemporary "conservative," in their view, must reject evolution, must deny climate change, and must oppose even the most reasonable restriction on gun ownership, even for the mentally ill, and must reject almost any role for government in American society. To reject any element of this virtually religious creed is to be a "RINO" (Republican in name only). What would Abraham Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt, or Ronald Reagan think of such an enterprise?
Peter Wehner, a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, who served in the last three Republican administrations, notes that, "Conservatives are rightly proud of our Constitution, yet many of them are disdainful of our government. But the Constitution created our system of government, and our goal in political life should be to reform government back into one we can be proud of again."
The American political tradition, from the beginning, was not against government, but was against its abuses, and wanted it to be limited so that freedom would be preserved. In The Federalist Papers, James Madison makes this clear: "It may be a reflection on human nature that such devices should be necessary to control the abuses of government. but what is government itself but the greatest of all reflections on human nature? If men were Angels, no government would be necessary. If Angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary In framing a government which is to be administered by men over men, the great difficulty lies in this: you must enable the government to control the governed, and in the next place oblige it to control itself."
Many who now claim to speak for conservatism, among them glib radio and television personalities and partisan politicians, have forgotten, if they ever knew, what it is they seek to conserve. If it is the American political tradition, embodied in our Constitution and the thinking of the Founding Fathers, contempt for government and belief in virtual anarchy is no place to be found. Neither is adherence to a form of political orthodoxy enforced by inquisition-like tribunals. Alexander Hamilton, Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, and James Madison would find little they would recognize as an American political tradition in such phenomenon. Many of those who proclaim themselves most loudly to be "conservative" are, in reality, something quite different.
Cotto: Market-based economics are perhaps at an all-time low in popularity as far as our country's conservative movement is concerned. Do you believe this unpopularity is warranted?
Brownfeld: It is not market-based economics which are unpopular, I think, but the crony capitalism, bailouts and subsidies which characterize today's environment. In a genuine free-market system, the economist Ludwig Von Mises pointed out. "The real bosses...are the consumers. And if the consumers stop patronizing a branch of business, these businessmen are either forced to abandon their eminent position...or to adjust their actions to the wishes and to the orders of the consumers. ..The sovereign is not the state, it is the people...in the market economy, everyone serves his fellow citizens by serving himself."
Under government planning, Mises argues, "A citizen is like a soldier in the army. The soldier...does not have the right to choose his garrison...He has to obey orders. And the socialist system ---as Karl Marx, Lenin and all the socialist leaders knew and admitted---is the transfer of army rule to the whole production system. Marx spoke of 'industrial armies,' and Lenin called for 'the organization of everything---the post office, the factory, and other industries, according to the model of the army."
Sadly, free markets are genuinely embraced most often by intellectuals rather than businessmen. Adam Smith noted that when two businessmen meet the subject of discussion is how to keep others out of the market. All too often, businesses seek government subsidy, bailouts when they fail, and intervention to keep competitors out. Politicians do their bidding in return for their campaign contributions. When Congress acted to eliminate the Civil Aeronautics Board and the Interstate Commerce Commission and open up the airline and trucking industries to real competition, it was the industries themselves that opposed deregulation, for they had found a way to control the government agencies involved in their own behalf. The last thing they wanted was a free market and real competition.
What is unpopular is the system of government involvement in our economy----subsidizing particular business interests, bailing out failed enterprises and the use of political power to reward those who have contributed to political campaigns. A genuine free market economy has not been tried and found wanting. It has not been tried.