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: A few years ago, certain political forecasters claimed that the future of American conservatism belongs to libertarians. Since the 2012 presidential campaign, protectionism has surged in both major parties. Now, in the age of Trump, libertarian's once-ascendant nature seems a distant memory. Would you say that right-libertarian politics have any serious potential under Trump?
Allan C. Brownfeld: Conservatives have long believed that the free market is the form of economic organization most consistent with other freedoms---including freedom of speech and religion. This has, however, been a philosophy expressed largely by those out of power. Once in power, both Democrats and Republicans tend toward expanding the authority of government. Those who seek public office have a desire, it seems, to wield power, not dismantle it. This has resulted in taxpayer bail-outs of failed banks, Wall Street investment firms and auto companies as well as subsidies to agribusiness and other sectors of the economy, what has come to be known as "crony capitalism."
As long as candidates for public office are dependent upon raising funds from powerful interests that have business before the Congress, this seems likely to continue.
Donald Trump never presented himself as a conservative, much less a libertarian. Whether he has any carefully considered political or economic philosophy at all is less than clear. He promoted the idea during his campaign that the reason for growing unemployment among lower-skilled workers was bad trade deals. Since the election, he has promoted ideas such as tariffs on imported goods and has put pressure on individual companies to reverse decisions about where to manufacture their products. This sounds very much like government-imposed industrial policy, really a form of socialism.
To resolve any problem facing society, it is important that it be properly diagnosed. The reason for the very real problem of unemployment may be something far different and more complex than the analysis Trump has presented. It seems clear that robotics and other technological advances are responsible for losses of most jobs, not trade. A Ball State University study of the 5.6 million manufacturing jobs lost between 2000 and 2010 indicates that trade accounted for 13 per cent of job losses and productivity improvements accounted for more than 85%.
The study declared: "Had we kept 2000-levels of productivity and applied them to 2010-levels of production, we would have required 20.9 million manufacturing workers (in 2010). Instead, we employed only 12.1.million."
Donald Trump speaks a great deal about the loss of jobs to China, but he confuses the real problem we face. Douglas A. Irwin, a Dartmouth College economist, notes that Chinese imports may have cost almost 1 million manufacturing jobs in nearly a decade, but "the normal churn of U.S. labor markets results in roughly 17 million layoffs every month." At this point, libertarian economic policies seem to have little potential in a Trump administration. But Mr. Trump has already abandoned many of his campaign promises, so his economic policies may also be altered.
Cotto: More than anything else, why are protectionist economics transforming the American conservative movement?
Brownfeld: To the extent that Republicans are prepared to abandon traditional free market ideas to be in tune with Donald Trump, protectionist policies may be embraced. But supporting the bailout of banks and Wall Street and the regular subsidization of business interests shows that while lip-service is given to the idea of free markets, politics produces a different reality. At the present time, we may do serious damage to our economy and to ideas of free markets by misdiagnosing the challenges we face.
In his book "An Extraordinary Time: The End of the Postwar Boom and The Return Of The Ordinary Economy," Marc Levison notes that Ronald Reagan imposed "voluntary restraints" on Japanese auto exports, thereby creating 44,100 U.S. jobs. But the cost to consumers was $8.5 billion in higher prices or $193,000 per job created, six times the average annual pay of an American auto worker.
Over the long run, automation has clearly been more important in accounting for job loss than trade, says Lawrence Katz, an economics professor at Harvard who studies labor and technological change. No candidate for president in either party talked about automation on the campaign trail. Technology is not as convenient a villain as China or Mexico and there is no clear way to stop it. And many of the technology companies are in the U.S. and benefit the country in many ways. It is true that globalization is responsible for some job loss. Still, over time, automation has had a far bigger effect and would have eventually eliminated these jobs anyway, according to economists Doron Acemoglu and David Autor of M.I.T.
When Greg Hayes, the chief executive of United Technologies, agreed to invest $16,million in one of its Carrier factories as part of a deal with Donald Trump to keep some jobs in Indiana instead of moving them to Mexico, he said the money would go toward automation. "What that ultimately means,"' he said, "is there will be fewer jobs." The Carrier bailout, in which the air conditioner company was given $7 million in tax incentives in exchange for scaling back some offshoring plans, is bad policy and bad precedent. At least 300 of the jobs "saved" in the deal were never scheduled for transfer to Mexico to begin with. Providing Carrier with a $7 million corporate welfare benefit is hardly encouraging.
Protectionism has led to disaster in the past, as with the Smoot Hawley tariffs in the 1930s which led to the Great Depression. it is important to remember that Trump's proposed 35% tariff on imported goods is nothing more than a tax added to the cost of products Americans buy. This will only do serious harm to a dynamic economy. If Republicans embrace protectionism it will be only to remain in lockstep with Donald Trump not because it makes any economic sense or is consistent with what they like to proclaim as their "principles."