The Reagan Coalition Is Dead. What’s Next For Conservatism?

Ronald Reagan swept to two landslide victories on the strength of his famous three-legged stool—economic conservatism, social conservatism and an internationalist, hawkish foreign policy. But the elements of the Reagan coalition have been drifting apart for some time, and the alliance now appears to be irretrievably fractured.

I was talking recently with a friend I hadn’t seen for a while, and when the conversation turned to politics, he said something along the lines of, “We Republicans need to drop the social conservative stuff. Gay marriage, abortion, those issues are killing us.” Over the years, I have probably had several hundred conversations along the same lines with conservative businessmen. Social conservatives aren’t paranoid: many in the party’s business wing have been yearning to dump them for quite a while.

The problem, of course, is that advocates of smaller government, lower taxes and less onerous regulation do not represent a majority of voters. In most states, it is hard to see how Republicans can win without the votes of social conservatives. Moreover, social conservatives commonly supply most of the energy and volunteer manpower that fuel the Republican Party.

Social conservatives, for their part, are fed up with Republicans who don’t share their views on the social issues, or don’t give them the same priority. Social conservatives often refer to economically-oriented Republicans as the party’s “elites,” and we have seen in this election cycle in what esteem these alleged elites are held by the party’s rank and file.

For decades, the glue that helped to hold together these wings of the party, and of the conservative movement, was foreign policy. As long as the Cold War lasted, conservatives were united, more than anything else, by anti-Communism. But once the Cold War was won, unanimity on foreign policy began to erode. The terrorist attacks of September 11 renewed a hawkish consensus for a while, but as the years have gone by, conservatives’ foreign policy views have increasingly fragmented.

First Ron Paul, and then his son Rand, mounted frontal challenges to the Republican Party’s internationalist and (relatively) interventionist consensus. But over time, as the intractable issues associated with Islam have replaced imperial Communism as the central focus of foreign policy, dissenting views have gone mainstream. Today, it is far from clear that a majority of conservatives subscribe to the hawkish orientation of George W. Bush, which was essentially carried over from the Cold War.

Just as a muscular foreign policy has lost much of its sway over those on the right, devotion to economic conservatism, as manifested pre-eminently in the Reagan era in the form of tax cuts, has lost a great deal of appeal. This is due primarily to the fact that most Americans pay little or nothing in income taxes. The worm that was in the bud of the tax cuts of the 1980s, as well as those that occurred during the George W. Bush administration, was that every time taxes were cut, the quid pro quo was that the tax code became more progressive. Today, the United States has the most progressive personal tax system of any developed country. There are precious few voters who feel a strong personal interest in lower taxes, and a great many who see federal spending, for them, as a profit center.

Even as consensus on these basic questions has faded, new issues have arisen to drive the elements of the conservative coalition apart—above all, immigration. Most rank and file Republicans (and Democrats, too) correctly perceive that the current torrent of legal and illegal immigration is hurting them economically and damaging America culturally and environmentally. At the same time, much of the business community welcomes the flood of cheap labor and is happy to wink at constant violations of the immigration laws. This, more than anything else, poisons relations between former allies on the right.

The issue of trade drives a similar wedge. Through most of the postwar era there was a bipartisan consensus in favor of free trade, with dissenters, until recently, almost entirely on the left. Today, misgivings about the effects of international trade have become common on the right as well. The benefits of free trade are indisputable, and as consumers we all welcome cheap smart phones. But the perspective of millions of Americans who do not aspire to become app designers or investment bankers, and who see little place for themselves in the global economy, is both understandable and sympathetic.

The politics of every era is dominated by its own issues. The concerns that animate most voters today are no longer the ones that Republicans rode to victory in past decades. Fundamental principles abide, of course. The guiding star of American conservatism has always been liberty. But it may not be quite so easy to apply first principles to today’s issues as it was in the 1980s, and it may be harder to obtain consensus among those who call themselves conservatives.

Pretty much all Republicans claim to be heirs of Ronald Reagan, much as all Democrats purport to be in the tradition of Franklin Roosevelt. But in 2016, the presidential candidates who most clearly tried to re-create Reagan’s three-legged stool, like Marco Rubio and Scott Walker, fell by the wayside. I don’t want to join those who hail Donald Trump, after the fact, as a genius, but it must be acknowledged that more than anyone else, he tailored his candidacy to the new issues landscape. The subjects he emphasizes the most, immigration and trade, are the wedge issues of the day. He is no foe of big government, and never talks about tax cuts, as far as I have noticed. He advocates a modest foreign policy—which, to be fair, George W. Bush also did as a candidate, pre-9/11—and rips Bush’s interventionist policies as viciously as any liberal. On the social issues, he is mostly silent.

I, and many others, have said repeatedly that Trump is no conservative. He is, however, pro-America. His slogan, make America great again, resonates with conservatives of all stripes. On the other hand, it is anathema to liberals, who believe that America never was great, and certainly don’t want her to start being great now. And Trump, like no one else, pushes back against the Left’s efforts to suppress free speech, which usually go under the too-generous rubric of political correctness.

A new conservatism is, to paraphrase a long-dead crank, struggling to be born. It will not emerge between now and November, but the next six months should shed considerable light on the shape of the conservative movement in a post-Reagan era.

One more thing: if the conservative alliance of the last 40 years is fragmenting, the liberal coalition is in far worse shape. More to come on that subject.

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