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: In the future, how might free trade be revived in a manner so movement conservatives will find it to be palatable?
Allan C. Brownfeld: I don't know how people who call themselves "conservative" can be intellectually convinced of the merits of free trade if they view this question through the lens of partisan politics and feel the need to embrace whatever their party leaders support. But if they look at economic reality rather than politics, a much different picture might emerge.
Donald Trump and others are right when they complain about the unfair trading practices of China and other countries---pirating our technologies and patents and counterfeiting our goods. But, argue economists Stephen Moore and Larry Kudlow, "Clapping Trump's punitive tariff on imported Chinese goods will hurt Americans at least as much as it does Beijing." Many voters may have forgotten that Trump's proposed 35% tariff on imported goods is really a tax added to the products Americans buy. "Not only would it be the biggest tax increase on U.S. consumers in modern times," write Moore and Kudlow, "it would hurt the most vulnerable people in our economy. Walmart has been one of the greatest anti-poverty programs in world history, and it has achieved the 'everyday low prices' that greatly benefit the poor and middle class in part through low-cost imports."
How much support would there be for the tariffs Trump proposes after prices at discount stores rise sharply and we faced store closings, widespread layoffs and a weaker economy? Last year, Harvard's conservative economist Greg Mankiew reported that a panel of 51 leading economists of differing ideological views were asked to respond to the statement: "Adding new or higher import duties on products such as air conditioners, cars and cookies to encourage producers to make them in the U.S. wouldc be a good idea." He notes that, "Of these economists, 100 per cent said they disagreed with the statement."
Conservatives have always agreed with Milton Friedman's belief that, "Free trade is in the best interests of the trading countries of the world." Donald Trump's rhetoric on this subject sometimes is completely unrelated to reality. He recently threatened GMC with punishing taxes for importing Chevrolet Cruze cars from Mexico. As The Wall Street Journal reported, "The truth is the Detroit automaker uses a factory in Lordstown,,Ohio to assemble most of the Cruzes it sells in the U.S."
Conservatives can either follow their traditional principles or embrace Donald Trump's confused economic prescriptions. The path he proposes has been widely criticized by many conservative commentators. Washington Times columnist. Don Lambro, for example, wrote: "Micromanaging businesses by imposing higher taxes on employers and pushing consumer prices through the roof is no way to run a dynamic economy."
Cotto: The politics of division are very much in demand right now----on both left and right, more than anything else, what does this mean for American conservatism?
Brownfeld: The politics of division, promoted by extremists on both right and left, bears little relationship to the reality of the American society. The real story is not one of division but how we have become increasingly inclusive. Donald Trump's campaign message seemed to be that the sky is falling and that society is in decline. The reality is far different.
Those of us old enough to remember when a large part of America was segregated by law know how much things have changed. When I was in college and law school, I lived in the segregated South. I wrote a law review article and later a master's thesis on Virginia's law against interracial marriage. I never went to a school with a black fellow student or had a black teacher. When I was a student, if you told us that we would live to see a black president, we would have found such an idea impossible to believe.
Later, when I moved to Washington and worked in the Congress, I saw the city in flames after the assassination of Martin Luther King in 1968. We had martial law and a curfew. I remember the military patrolling streets on Capitol Hill. The progress we have made is remarkable. This is not to say that we do not have continuing problems and divisions. Of course we do. Any human enterprise always will. But today's America, despite what the "alt right" and groups like Black Lives Matter may say, is far less divided than it has ever been. Today, any American, regardless of race or gender, can go as far as his or her ability will allow.
America remains something unique and positive. In 1904, British author Israel Zangwill wrote a now famous passage, as relevant to our diverse population of 2017 as those of his time: "America is God's Crucible, the Great Melting Pot, where all the races of Europe are reforming. Here you stand, good folk, think I, when I see them at Ellis Island, here you stand in your fifty groups and your fifty languages and histories and your fifty blood-hatreds and rivalries. But you won't long be like that, brothers, for these are the fires of God you've come to---these are the fires of God. A fig for your feuds and vendettas---German and Frenchmen, Irishmen and Englishmen, Jews and Russians, into the crucible with you. God is making the American."
American conservatism has understood the uniqueness of our society. The divisiveness which some promote is nothing new. We have seen such efforts in the past and have always overcome them. I am confident that we will do so in the future as well.