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: What do you anticipate is the primary legacy of Trump's election will be, specifically as far as American conservatism is concerned?
Allan C. Brownfeld: It is impossible to predict how the Trump administration will proceed. Some of Trump's most questionable promises----to use torture, to keep all Muslims out of the country, to build a wall across the Mexican border and have Mexico pay for it, to register all American Muslims---were repudiated by Trump's cabinet selections in their congressional testimony, as well as his strange embrace of Vladimir Putin. Will he abandon the very policies which seemed to cause many voters to embrace him? It seems very possible that he will, which would be a good thing for the country. He has promised to "drain the swamp" of Washington, but it seems that the same Wall Street figures who would have come in with a Hillary Clinton administration, now will dominate the Trump administration. The more things change, it has often been said, the more they remain the same.
When it comes to economics, Trump has promised a tax cut that will, by one estimate, reduce federal revenue by $7 trillion over ten years. He has promised an infrastructure initiative that may cost an additional trillion. He has promised to rebuild the military and has said he will not make changes in Social Security and Medicare. And he has promised to move quickly toward a balanced budget. These pledges contradict one another. Columnist Michael Gerson, who served in the George W. Bush administration, points out that these pledges "cannot be reconciled," and declares, "If he knew this during the campaign, he is cynical. If he is only finding out now, he is benighted. In either case, something has to give."
Conservatives have a choice. They can reject Trump policies which violate their principles, or engage in partisan politics, embracing whatever a Republican president proposes. If they pursue the latter course, it may mean that the post-World War II conservative movement is finally dead.
Two reforms which I think would both improve our politics and advance the idea of federalism and limited government would be to (1) get money out of politics so that lawmakers have no incentives to reward and subsidize groups in return for their financial support, and (2) have congressional districts drawn by nonpartisan commissions, not partisan state legislatures, so that most districts are competitive. As long as our current system prevails, government is likely to grow, deficits are likely to increase and crony capitalism, not the free market, will characterize our political life. Conservatives and liberals have been co-conspirators in creating the government we have. They may shout a great deal at one another, but once in power, they act in surprisingly the same way.