Acton Institute Powerblog

Do we really need another brand of conservatism?

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In his new book, F.H. Buckley offers a vision of a “progressive conservatism” that sure sounds like the traditional Grand Old Party platform. Not that that’s a bad thing. […]

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Sisyphus was the first conservative, Claremont Review of Books editor William Voegeli wryly observes, because the lot of the conservative is one of short-lived, temporary victories. Conservatives certainly have no shortage of examples. The 1996 Defense of Marriage Act didn’t even last 20 years, made obsolete by Obergefell v. Hodges in 2015. Early successes in Bush’s global war on terror eventually turned into foreign policy nightmares in Afghanistan and Iraq. And there is little to show for four years of attempting to “drain the swamp,” with the federal government just as byzantine as ever.

It’s little surprise, then, that so many thinkers have sought to redefine conservatism for the 21st century. A recent “Statement of Principles” published at The American Conservative outlines the strategy of the national conservative movement championed by people like Yoram Hazony and many of those at Claremont, Hillsdale College, the Intercollegiate Studies Institute, the Manhattan Institute, and First Things, among other important conservative institutions. Post-liberals like Patrick Deneen and Adrian Vermeule, meanwhile, have charted a different course, emphasizing not so much a realist nationalism seeking harmony and alignment with the nation’s founding principles but a “post-liberal” order that assumes the Founding was deeply, if not irredeemably, flawed. Such major conservative publications as The New Criterion and First Things feature fusionists, nationalists, and others who (sometimes aggressively) duke it out.

Wither conservatism? And is there any hope of coalescing these divergent currents of intellectual thought and policy proposals into some coherent whole? George Mason University law professor F.H. Buckley makes the attempt, at least, in his new book, Progressive Conservatism: How Republicans Will Become America’s Natural Governing Party. Does he succeed? Or does he simply add more confusion to a conservative crockpot already overwhelmed by inharmonious ingredients?

Certainly Buckley’s criticisms of the left seem well aligned with those of many on the right. He criticizes critical race theory for its adherence to a “single-minded focus on race and the totalitarian’s rejection of liberal principles of fairness and liberty.” He indicts the left for making “love of country seem indecent and republican virtue a fraud.” He observes that “the Left no longer seems to like America.” In many senses, he’s undoubtedly correct: The liberals who dominate America’s elite institutions now condemn just about everything grade-schoolers were, until recently, taught to take pride in as Americans: the Founding; Lincoln’s careful, conciliatory attempt to move America beyond slavery; and the tremendous economic, social, and technological successes of the post­–World War II American order. All that, our media, academia, entertainment industry, and woke capitalists tell us, amount to little more than racism, sexism, and exploitation.

Buckley cautiously praises former President Donald Trump, lauding his promise to “drain the swamp” of corruption and special interests, and his promotion of a self-assured “America First” mentality. Nevertheless, says Buckley, “it’s time to move on. Trump has self-destructed.” Instead of Trump, he proposes we emulate three men he presents as indicative of GOP greatness and representative of what he labels “progressive conservatism”: Abraham Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt, and Dwight Eisenhower. As Buckley makes clear, much of his conservative vision is not terribly controversial.

First, he is in favor of the free market. He writes: “If the Left has given up on America, we don’t need reactionaries telling us that the American experiment was a big mistake. Free market principles have brought prosperity to billions of people, and we can do without the perfect conservative idiot who complains about neoliberalism.” Progressive conservatives, he says, support American free-market economic institutions and are not opposed to change and innovation.

He defends Trump as being more free market than many claim. Trump, says Buckley, objected to “trade treaties that subject American firms to unfair foreign competition, but he didn’t attack free market capitalism.” What Trump was fighting was a “period of stark income inequality” through such measures as tax cuts, an insistence on fair trade deals, and fighting job-destroying regulations. Yet more work is to be done, including targeting wasteful governmental subsidies and tax loopholes that benefit crony capitalists.

Buckley’s thoughts on education should also sound familiar. “Part of the problem is the willingness of America’s left-wing elites to tolerate mediocrity in our public K-12 schools,” he asserts. He bemoans the resistance to school competition, including the refusal of state aid to sectarian schools (this book went to print before the June 21 Carson v. Makin decision regarding Maine parochial schools).

Buckley cites the left’s leveraging of public schools to curb the influence of conservative parents, whom they often label “extreme religious ideologues.” This explains the rising chorus of voices on the left opposed to the home-schooling movement, which, especially since the beginning of the pandemic, has blunted the effectiveness of the public school indoctrination campaign. Buckley also notes teachers unions’ attempts to “evade monitoring and competition,” and the intransigence of many upper-class parents who reject school choice “because they’re served by the status quo.” His solution of school choice (vouchers and state aid for parochial schools) aligns with what conservatives have urged for decades.

Nor should Buckley’s thoughts on immigration be surprising. He explains how immigration has largely benefited the immigrants rather than the United States, citing a National Academy of Sciences assessment that “the cost of providing schools, hospitals, the justice system, and welfare to legal immigrants” created a net fiscal burden of somewhere between $43 billion to $300 billion per year. He references the common talking point among immigration restrictionists that low-skilled immigrants serve as competition for jobs and income for low-skilled and poor Americans, citing economist George J. Borjas’ estimate that immigrants redistribute about half a trillions dollars from the American poor to the rich. “In sum, our immigration policies represent an enormous wealth transfer from poor to rich Americans.” Nevertheless, Buckley is not so much a strict immigration restrictionist as one who wants to reform a broken system.

Finally, Buckley complains about the needless complications of federal restrictions and red tape that have stifled growth and encouraged corruption. He cites home regulations that, while improving safety, add over $80,000 to new home prices, effectively squeezing poorer Americans out of the housing market. He argues that many regulations insulate larger firms from competition because potential competitors can’t navigate complicated rules with teams of lawyers, lobbyists, economists, and accountants. There is “too much law, an uncountable number of federal crimes, a humongous set of administrative rules, and a confused tangle of private law rules that transfer wealth to the trial lawyers from the rest of us.”

The book ends with a proposal that conservatives make a new “contract with America” built upon 12 principles. These include protecting American families with tax credits for kids; fixing public education with school choice; reforming academia by refusing loans to students to attend colleges that charge above a specified amount for tuition; reforming immigration by focusing more on economic categories than familiar connections; pushing tax relief for the middle class; eliminating wasteful regulations with a modern regulatory reform commission; and defending democracy with tighter laws that curb voter fraud.

In sum, though Buckley is in certain respects sympathetic to elements of the “new right,” his conservative project is decidedly familiar. Indeed, he expressly repudiates national conservatives and post-liberals. “The progressive conservative doesn’t complain that he’s been replaced in America. He doesn’t care for the immigrant who rejects our liberal traditions, but then he doesn’t have much use for the native-born anti-liberal, either.”

What then is a “progressive conservative”? Buckley says such a person is pro–free enterprise and pro-natalist; opposed to unrestricted immigration; a realist on foreign policy; and suspect of global nation building. He promotes republican virtue and duties to the polis. “I don’t have a theory,” acknowledges Buckley. “I think they’re baloney. They offer a false security and not the nuanced and adaptable answers needed for the multitude of problems life throws at you…. In place of a theory, then, I propose the republican virtue of the founders, the desire to see everyone flourish, the willingness to tackle corruption and love of country.”

Apart from the awkward word construction of that last sentence—what does it mean to “tackle” love of country?—it’s hard not to come away from Buckley’s Progressive Conservatism scratching your head. It’s a proposal for a new and different conservative vision … that is largely aligned with the traditional talking points of the Republican Party. It’s a critique of the other major streams of contemporary conservatism—national conservatism, fusionism, libertarianism—but also an attempt at rapprochement with them. Or, alternatively, it’s conservatism à la F.H. Buckley.

That’s fine, I suppose. Buckley is an intelligent and well-respected voice within conservatism, and no one could accuse him of wildly transgressing the guardrails of acceptable conservative thought. Nevertheless, when conservatives are already split into increasingly acerbic, antagonistic camps unwilling to find common ground, do we really need yet another novel brand of conservatism? The idea of a “progressive conservatism” doesn’t so much push the conversation forward as much as muddy the waters. As we prepare for the midterms and a 2024 presidential election that will be an important bellwether of conservatism’s future, Buckley’s (admittedly useful) recommendations need better marketing in an already oversaturated “whither conservatism” market.

Casey Chalk

Casey Chalk is a senior contributor at The Federalist and an editor and columnist at The New Oxford Review. He has a bachelor’s in history and master’s in teaching from the University of Virginia and a master’s in theology from Christendom College. He is the author of The Persecuted: True Stories of Courageous Christians Living Their Faith in Muslim Lands.