Starting Over: The Center Right After Trump – Full Conference Audio and Transcript
Donald Trump has had a hurricane-like effect on the Republican Party. The 2018 midterm elections have forced center-right Americans to reconsider their relationship to the Trump-driven conservative populism that has come to dominate the GOP.
On December 11, 2018, The Niskanen Center hosted a conference to present an important public analysis of this new political reality, featuring conversations with some of the nation’s leading thinkers and activists on the center-right. Panels focused on political prospects for a new center-right, and the policy ideas and ideals that can revitalize the post-Trump Republican Party.
Transcript of Audio
Introductory Remarks from Jerry Taylor
Good morning. I’d like to welcome you to our conference Starting Over: The Center-Right after Trump. My name is Jerry Taylor and I’m the president and co-founder of the Niskanen Center. We organized this conference because we feel that a healthy center-right is critical for American democracy, and that the right is not presently in a very healthy place. What until recently was an ideologically diverse coalition of business-oriented economic conservatives, neo-conservatives, social conservatives, reform conservatives, and libertarians has transformed into an angry, anti-intellectual ethno-nationalist movement that embraces a closed and more fearful society.
Those of us uncomfortable with the path being blazed by the right over the past few years have our work cut out for us. If we are to wage a battle for the hearts and minds of the center-right, we must offer something compelling in its place. What should that be? Is our aim to simply turn the clock back to 2014, before the Tea Party movement aligned with Trumpism? To return to a more responsible, fusionist conservatism as once defined by Barry Goldwater, Bill Buckley, and Ronald Reagan? Or is our aim to give flesh and bones to the stillborn “reform conservatism” promoted by some of the speakers on our program today, who once derided the “zombie Reaganism” that characterized the GOP before Trump?
My own sense is that all of these alternatives to Trumpism faced a serious stress-test in 2016 and were found wanting. Hence, if the broken remnants of the various factions of Trump-skeptics on the center-right are to reemerge as a serious force in American politics, we will need to find common ground and give birth to something new. What that might be is what this conference is all about.
Some are inclined to think that the dysfunctions in the GOP — the political vehicle for the center-right — are so profound that there is little hope in working that soil. While I’m often tempted to agree, I don’t think that small-l liberalism can long last in this country if one of the two major parties is dedicated to its dismantlement. Moreover, a healthy center-right is critical for a healthier center-left, something that also needs our attention. As John Stuart Mill once noted:
In politics … it is almost a commonplace, that a party of order or stability, and a party of progress or reform, are both necessary elements of a healthy state of political life … Each of these modes of thinking derives its utility from the deficiencies of the other; but it is in a great measure the opposition of the other that keeps each within the limits of reason and sanity.
And as we’re all witnessing, the boundaries or reason and sanity in American politics are being increasingly tested.
It’s fitting, therefore, that Maryland Governor Larry Hogan, who constantly polls as one of the nation’s most popular governors, is here to kick off our discussion this morning. Governor Hogan is one of the few politicians in the GOP who has successfully forged a politically attractive alternative to Trumpist governance, and there is a lot that we can learn from him. Last month, Governor Hogan defeated Democrat Ben Jealous to become the first Republican governor to win re-election in that state since 1954, and only the second to do so in Maryland’s history. And this in a state where Democrats outnumber Republicans by a 2-1 margin. Indeed, Governor Hogan received the most votes of any gubernatorial candidate in Maryland state history, a remarkable feat in an election cycle in which Democrats flipped seven governorships, seven state legislative chambers, and more than 300 state legislative seats. He won 51% of the union vote, 50% of the woman’s vote, 48% of the Latino vote, and even 28% of the African-American vote. He did so by promoting a moderate, bipartisan agenda of environmental protection, gun control, tax cuts, mass transit investment, and innovative education and workforce development initiatives.
As Matt Mosk noted last year in the Washington Post:
[Larry] Hogan has two powerful, though seemingly contradictory, things going for him. On the one hand, he was elected by the same category of voters who, from Pennsylvania to Ohio to Wisconsin, would later vault Trump to the White House: a potent wave of disaffected blue-collar and suburban whites. On the other hand, he has worked to create a personal brand that is affable, bipartisan and pragmatic — pretty much the opposite of Trump.
And he hasn’t been shy to part company with the president and party orthodoxy when his conscience required. For instance, Governor Hogan was only one of two Republican governors who refused to send the Maryland National Guard to the U.S.-Mexico border until the policy of separating migrant children from their families is ended. And in the GOP today, that takes real courage.
Accordingly, we are extremely pleased to have him with us today. Please join me in welcoming Maryland Governor Larry Hogan.
Maryland Governor Larry Hogan’s Welcoming Address
Good morning. Thank you, Jerry. It’s an honor to be here with all of you this morning for this important conference at this significant time — not only for the Republican Party but for our nation.
Last week, I was honored to attend the funeral services for our 41st president, George H. W. Bush — a true American hero who represented the very best of America. He showed us the true meaning of public service… of honor, integrity, and strength of conviction… of humility, dignity, and grace.
In 1979, when asked if he was tough enough to be president, he said, “I don’t equate toughness to just attacking some individual. I equate toughness with moral fiber, with character, with principle, with demonstrated leadership in tough jobs where you emerge not bullying somebody, but with the respect of the people you led.”
President Bush is someone whom I have respected and admired my entire life. And as I listened to his son, our 43rd president, deliver a beautiful eulogy for his father, I could not help but think back to last year, when I lost my own dad and had the difficult job of delivering his eulogy.
My dad was honored to serve in Congress with President George H. W. Bush. He served on the House Judiciary Committee during Watergate as the whole world was watching the impeachment proceedings. Despite tremendous political pressure, he put aside partisanship and he made a tough decision.
During his impassioned testimony, he said, “Party loyalty and personal affection and precedents of the past must fall before the arbiter of men’s actions: the law itself. No man, not even the president of the United States, is above the law. For our system of justice and our system of government to survive, we must pledge our highest allegiance to the strength of the law and not to the common frailties of men.”
With those words, he became the first Republican to come out for the impeachment of President Richard Nixon. That decision cost him dearly. He lost many friends and supporters and his party’s nomination for governor that year.
But it was his defining moment, the one for which he is most remembered and most admired. And history has proven that his courageous stand was the right thing to do for our nation.
President George W. Bush and I were both lucky enough to learn a lot about integrity and public service from our fathers. But I chose to spend most of my life in the private sector, founding and growing several small businesses. This is the first elective office I’ve ever held. But I have tried my very best to follow those examples and to govern with integrity, civility, bipartisanship, and moderation.
I ran for governor in 2014 because I was completely fed up with politics as usual. And, quite frankly, I still am — in fact, perhaps now more than ever.
Four years ago, I became so concerned that I decided I needed to step up and try do something about it. Our efforts brought together Republicans, Democrats, and Independents with a unified message that resonated with the majority of Marylanders. And in one of the bluest states in the country, we pulled off the biggest surprise upset in America and I became just the second Republican governor elected in Maryland in fifty years.
And after four years of bipartisan success, last month — in our deep blue state, in a big blue year with a huge blue wave — we rode a purple surfboard to an overwhelming double-digit victory while our party was racking up losses across the country. In our state, which Hillary won by 29 points, I won more votes than any other previous Maryland governor and became the second Republican governor re-elected in the entire 242-year history of our state.
Four years ago, two-thirds of all Marylanders thought our state was way off track and heading in the wrong direction. But after all the progress we have made, now more than two-thirds of all the people in Maryland think we’re headed in the right direction. And an overwhelming majority of Marylanders, regardless of their party affiliation, approve of the job that we’re doing.
There are a lot of reasons for that success. But I’d like to share with you three core principles that have guided my administration.
First, fiscal responsibility and common sense. In the years just before I took office, forty-three consecutive tax hikes had taken an additional $10 billion dollars out of the pockets of struggling Maryland families, retirees, and small businesses, and crushed our economy. Our overall economic performance ranked forty-ninth out of fifty states. We had lost 8,000 businesses and more than 100,000 jobs, and a Gallup poll showed that nearly half of all Marylanders wanted to leave the state.
As a lifelong Marylander, that broke my heart. I pledged to put Maryland on a new and better path. We submitted the first balanced budget in a decade, which eliminated the $5.1 billion structural deficit we inherited. And we have continued to pass balanced budgets every single year. We eliminated 250 fees and 850 job-killing regulations. We cut taxes four years in a row by $1.2 billion, and we put all of that money back into the pockets of hardworking Marylanders, retirees, and small businesses, and back into our growing economy.
As a result, we had the best year for business in Maryland in more than a decade and the best year for job growth in more than fifteen years. We went from losing 100,000 jobs to gaining more than 120,000 jobs. More businesses have been opened and more people are working than at any other time in Maryland history. We have had one of the biggest economic turnarounds in America.
The second core principle has been moderation and bipartisan cooperation. I stood on the steps of our historic State House in Annapolis four years ago to deliver my inaugural address, long before the bitter and rancorous presidential race of 2016, and I said: “To those who would divide us, or drive us to the extremes of either political party, I remind you that Maryland has been called ‘a state of middle temperament.’” I said that “The politics that have divided our nation need not divide our state,” and I pledged to find that middle ground where we could all stand together.
I did not have a crystal ball to foresee just how divided our nation would become. It’s just that I have always believed that, even in politics, compromise and moderation shouldn’t be considered dirty words. I believe that it’s only when the partisan shouting stops that we can truly hear each other’s voices and concerns.
So as I took the oath of office, I promised to usher in a new “environment of trust and cooperation, where the best ideas rise to the top based upon their merit, regardless of which side of the political debate they come from.”
And for the past four years, we have succeeded by doing exactly what we said we would do, from growing our economy and putting people back to work… to delivering record funding for education… being a national leader on the environment… rebuilding our transportation infrastructure… and protecting the health care coverage of Marylanders while reducing health insurance rates for the first time in a decade.
In Maryland, we have risen above the fray of partisan politics and we have chosen to seek commonsense, bipartisan solutions to the serious problems that face us.
The third principle has been to lead with integrity and civility. We have successfully changed the tone of the debate in our state capital. We have stood up for the principles we believe in but have also taken the time to listen to the other side and to find compromise solutions. And we learned to disagree without being disagreeable.
It may seem hard to believe today, but I believe that Americans, in our hearts, are actually hard-wired for civility and cooperation. It’s who we are. It’s part of our identity. And it is one of our greatest strengths.
And a culture of tolerance and mutual respect should extend to those with whom we happen to disagree on politics. Just because someone may not agree with us on every issue, that should not mean that they are our enemies. And I believe that is what’s broken in America today — especially here in Washington, where nobody can find a way to work together and where nothing ever seems to get done.
Ladies and gentlemen, in Maryland we have chosen a completely different path. And we’re proud to be setting an example for the rest of the nation. Despite the wedge politics and petty rhetoric which is often used today to cause division and to incite anger on both the right and the left, I still believe even today that in America what unites us is greater than that which divides us.
Last month, there was a piece in the New York Times which talked about what they called “the exhausted majority.” It found that two-thirds of all Americans do not align themselves with either the left or the right, but instead belong to what I call the majority in the middle. The piece said that at America’s heart is a vast and often overlooked political middle that feels forgotten in all of today’s political vitriol.
One guy the Times interviewed stood out for me. He said, “For the last two years it’s been impossible to go to a bar on a Monday night and not have to argue about politics. Most Americans are sick of that.” He said he thought someone could be elected in 2020 by promising that if they become president, people will be able to just go back to talking about football.
I think he was speaking for that “exhausted majority” of Americans in the middle who are sick and tired of all the angry and divisive politics on both sides. They just want their elected officials in both parties to stop the name-calling and the hyper-partisan politics, and to just work together — as we have done in Maryland — to achieve real, commonsense, bipartisan solutions to the nation’s problems.
Ladies and gentlemen, in spite of the divisiveness we see in Washington, I still remain hopeful about America’s future. And to those who say it’s too broken and can’t be fixed, I would argue that if we can do it — if we can solve problems with civility, bipartisanship, and common sense, and appeal to the vast majority of citizens in Maryland — then there is no place in America where these very same principles cannot succeed.
And I’m encouraged that people like all of you — people who understand that these core values are the most basic of American ideals and that the fight to restore them is a fight worth fighting — are having important conversations like the ones you will be having today.
Thank you for inviting me, and thank you all for caring enough to be involved in this important discussion about the future of America.
Panel 1: Lessons Learned
Moderator: Jerry Taylor
Panelists: Mona Charen, William Kristol, Jennifer Rubin, Peter Wehner
Jerry Taylor: Well, thank you. While this conference is about looking forward, we’re paradoxically going to start by looking back. There’s a good reason for that. The better we’re able to discern how Trumpism managed to win hearts and minds on the right, the better our ability to craft a politically compelling alternative. So, joining me this morning in front of this particular rear-view window are a group of guests who need very little introduction, I imagine, for this crowd. On my far right is Mona Charen, syndicated columnist. Before launching her column in 1987, she served in the Reagan administration and worked as a speechwriter for Jack Kemp. To my immediate right is Pete Wehner, senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center. You’ve probably read him in the New York Times. He writes widely on political, cultural, religious, and national security issues, and he served in the Reagan and both Bush administrations.
Jerry Taylor: To my left is Jennifer Rubin, who writes the “Right Turn” column, or “Right Turn” blog, for the Washington Post. Previously, she worked at Commentary, PJ Media, Human Events, and the Weekly Standard. And speaking of the Weekly Standard, to my far left is Bill Kristol, founder and editor-at-large of the Weekly Standard, where he served as editor for 21 years. He’s a regular on ABC’s “This Week” and on various television shows and commentary programs. He served as chief of staff to Secretary of Education Bill Bennett during the Reagan administration and chief of staff to Vice President Dan Quayle during the George Herbert Walker Bush administration. So, let’s start it out by going right to the heart of the matter.
Jerry Taylor: I’d like to ask each of you your reflections on how deep this problem goes that is now causing dysfunction on the right. Did it begin with the Tea Party? Did the seeds of Trumpism go further back? Did they reach back to Newt Gingrich? Can we go all the way back to Barry Goldwater and the birth of the Reagan movement, if we were to be that ambitious? Mona, let’s start with you.
Mona Charen: First of all, thank you all for having me, delighted to be here. There are very few gatherings in Washington, D.C. where I feel that I am not some bizarre third wheel [chuckle], not belonging, so this is pretty good. Look, there has been a tremendous amount of re-evaluation [on the right], which I actually don’t think is an unhealthy thing; I wish there were more re-evaluation going on on the left. The rise of Trump has caused some conservatives to conclude that, because of what they see today, the entire history of the conservative movement was tainted. The scales have now fallen from their eyes and they see that the whole enterprise was corrupt going back all the way to 1964 and the Goldwater years, as Jerry mentioned, or going back to Reagan, or you name it. There’s a tendency to think, “Well, perhaps the whole thing was wrong.” Then, of course, as we know all too well, there are many conservatives who have said, “No, Donald Trump is just like Ronald Reagan.” And they say, “They underestimated Reagan and they underestimated Trump.” Well, there you go. What other evidence do you need that they’re exactly the same?
Mona Charen: So my goal, just in a few brief moments this morning, will be to say that I do not believe that the rise of Trump is evidence that the conservative critique, or conservative solutions to what was going on in America over the last 50 years, was wrong. Let’s name the issue… What was the left right about and the right wrong about as a matter of policy? Was it rent control, a larger role for the federal government in education, school choice, the whole-language approach to teaching reading versus phonics, the Cold War? The Cold War was an area where liberals really embarrassed themselves and it was a failure, not just an intellectual failure but a moral failure. During that time, I wrote a whole book about this called Useful Idiots… That is something I can return to that later.
Mona Charen:But many on the left, and even in the mainstream of the Democratic Party, developed a rancid hatred for the United States itself. And then, just to check through, were they right about sexual ethics? Were they right about the importance of strong families? Were they right about abortion, regulation, markets? All of those things I think liberals were wrong about and conservatives were and remain right about. Okay, liberals were right about civil rights, but arguably they drank too deeply of the cup of moral superiority and they over-learned the lessons of Selma and Montgomery. They adopted a tactic of accusation and calumny where it didn’t belong, and that turned out to be in way too many areas of American life.
Mona Charen: The left’s creativity in recent years seems to have been confined to the production of new epithets — from “racist” and “sexist,” they’ve added “homophobe,” “heteronormative” and “transphobe,” along with “white privilege.” This is a substitute for argument and for persuasion. And as much as I was not crazy about liberals’ principles, it was even more dismaying to see them throw them over the side for political expedience, which is what they did when Bill Clinton ran into trouble.
Mona Charen:I could go on and on. But the idea that conservatives and Republicans were racist all along… Some obviously were. Trump was able to tap into a certain amount of racial resentment and anger, I wouldn’t deny that. But if we’re looking at the sources of the rise of Trump and the rise of the rancorous politics that we have today — and extremism on the left too, represented by Jeremy Corbyn and Ocasio-Cortez and Bernie Sanders and so forth — you would have to say that identity politics is the core of what caused a backlash. It was only a matter of time, when the left was continually battering white people with identity politics claims, that white people were going to respond and say, “We’re a group too, and we get to assert our interests as a group.”
Mona Charen: I have much more to say, and I don’t want to dominate too much, but I would just say this to close for this part. Civilization is a fragile thing. And the key conservative insight, in my judgement, is that the rule of law and respect for tradition is what keeps us together. A polity like ours that attempts to knit together disparate peoples into one nation has always been slightly unnatural, and it’s not easy. And that is what is in danger now. But it is wrong to say that the whole story was one of racism, sexism, and so forth that has been curdling on the right for 50 years.
Jerry Taylor: Let’s move to Jen Rubin. So Jen, where do you think the right went wrong? Or is it that the Trumpist world is an anomalous phenomenon that is alien to the foundations of the conservative movement as we’ve known it, and it’s some sort of external force? Or is it something that rose up from within it? And if so, when?
Jennifer Rubin: Thank you for having me. I share Mona’s sense of isolation on an island of one at times. So it’s nice to see some fellow islanders here. My own view is that there has always been a segment in American society — not always within the Republican Party — that has been what we think now of as nationalist or nativist. Whether it was the Dixiecrats, whether it was Father Coughlin, if you want to go back to the Depression… That has always existed. And within the Republican Party it has existed, but those people always lost. The extremes always lost. Pat Buchanan lost in the race against the sitting president. What happened is they reached a critical mass, and Trump did tap into something and then expand something. I do not think he would have had success had the Republican Party followed Mona’s view of things and concentrated on the core values, the core human insights that modern conservatism brought. I think it’s fair to say that [conservatism] has stultified, that a platform of small government really had very little constituency in America. An economic policy that was solely based on supply-side tax cuts was going to be a dead end at some point.
Jennifer Rubin: And there have been times of innovation, when people like Jerry, people like the reformicons, have tried to enliven [conservatism] using those principles. It’s obviously conservatism to discard what doesn’t work but to keep what does. I think the discarding was neglected. But [Republicans] really had not conceived, at least at the national level, a process of becoming a 21st century problem-solving sort of party. That contrasts, and has contrasted for a long time, with the states. We heard from Governor Hogan, and you go back to Mitch Daniels in Indiana… We’ve had a lot of really good reformist governors. You can go back to the origins of choice, of welfare reform — these were driven by Republican governors out in the states. But at the national level, not so much.
Jennifer Rubin: I think there is always the possibility in democracy that a demagogue comes along. The surprise, perhaps, is that it was possible in America. And then the surprise, perhaps, was that there were so many people who were, if not amenable to a nativist and xenophobic message, at least not bothered by it. I think that was an endemic problem in the conservative movement.
Jennifer Rubin: Unlike Mona, I think there has been a blind spot on race — not racism, but a blind spot on race. It does go back to the civil rights movement, where [conservatives] were on the appalling wrong side of the issue. And so when it came along with Donald Trump, there was an effort first of all to seek some justification — because there had been a [liberal] identity politics that had gotten out of control. But there was also sort of a moral blind spot, because they didn’t really care about what Donald Trump was ranting and raving about. How many times have we heard from conservatives, “It’s just talk, it’s just tweets”? I think that’s wrong, because I think what he’s actually doing is also bad.
Jennifer Rubin: But the notion that words don’t matter, that ideas don’t matter, that a founding creed doesn’t matter, that suddenly we’ve become a white Christian nation as opposed to a nation built upon a creed of “All men are created equal” — that’s the fault of a stultified and intellectually trapped right in America. I think that had the national Republican Party, which for all intents and purposes has been the receptacle of modern conservatism, done what happened at the state level, Donald Trump wouldn’t have been necessary. He wouldn’t have come along, he wouldn’t have tapped into that.
Jennifer Rubin: And then, of course, we can’t ignore what’s happened since. And this is even more troubling. Because the degree to which so many of our colleagues and friends — or former colleagues, former friends — have accepted this, have tried to rationalize this, have justified this, have applauded this, has really been intellectually, morally, and psychologically devastating to many of us who thought that the party was better than this, that the conservative movement was better than this. This is not what we believe in.
Jennifer Rubin: But the capacity for self-delusion, the desire for access and power, the moral bargaining that one undertakes to get a discrete issue or two, has perhaps surprised us. And as Bill and I and Mona clearly predicted, what has happened is the complete intellectual corruption of the right. And now we are in a far worse position than we were in 2015, before [Trump] came down those gold escalators at Trump Tower. So we’re in a fine pickle right now.
Jerry Taylor: Pete, let me turn to you. If Max Boot were here — and unfortunately he can’t be with us, he’s in a speaking event on the other side of the country — but if he were here, he’d say, that’s all well and good, but Joe McCarthy demonstrated the right was vulnerable to demagogue conspiratorial thinking. And then you had the rise of the John Birch Society, which was critically important in Barry Goldwater getting the nomination in 1964. And then George Wallace comes along and a lot of conservatives defected to George Wallace in the 1968 campaign. And then we had Nixon’s Southern strategy, which locks up that end of the party and brings in all the Dixiecrats and the segregationists into the GOP. And that’s before we even get to Newt Gingrich. So it should be absolutely no surprise that Trump found an audience on the right, although that maybe surprised some of us. You’ve been involved in this world for an awful long time. What do you make of that more critical perspective?
Peter Wehner: Thanks, Jerry, for having me, for having us, and for holding the conference. I think there’s something to [that view], but I think it’s overstated. There’s no question that those data points are relevant. Every party, every movement has its fringe elements. They manifest themselves in different ways. The question, the task, the challenge is for political leadership and political parties to marginalize those movements, to rise up when they assert themselves, and to keep them on the fringe. And I would say that for most of the history of the modern Republican Party — not entirely — that has happened. I think what’s different about this moment is that those ugly strands and strains were not contained, and they finally found their voice, and their face, and their embodiment in Donald Trump.
Peter Wehner: So I wouldn’t deny that those ugly elements existed, but I wouldn’t assert that they were completely dominant. Life is complicated, and different moments bring different challenges and different individuals. What we do know is that something went badly off track and that Donald Trump tapped into something that certainly existed beyond what, at the time, I thought existed. It’s important to remember that really what marked his entrance on the national political stage was a racist conspiracy theory about Barack Obama and his birth certificate. I actually wrote a piece in the Wall Street Journalin 2011, which was hard for me to place because people thought, “Why are you taking on Trump on this issue?” And I said, “A party has to stand up to someone like this and elements like this, otherwise they can spread.” But I had no idea that it would spread to the degree that it has.
Peter Wehner: I think everybody here has to reassess their own sense of what the Republican Party was. I would certainly say now that the racial element was deeper than I thought. And I would not have imagined that somebody with the rank appeals to race, and the demagogic appeals, and the sheer dehumanization that Donald Trump represented would catch on. Yes, I’ve been as critical as anybody of the Republican Party and the leadership for not taking Trump on. But I do think that the more serious malady is that the base of the party has gone. From my conversations with Republicans in office, I think that if left to their own devices, if they had more political courage, they would stand up to Donald Trump. I think really the reason they’re not is that the base won’t allow them.
Peter Wehner: I just want to say one other thing… As you look over the arc of the conservative movement, I think that Newt Gingrich was a much more pernicious figure, in retrospect, than people realized at the time. I think he embodied a kind of revolutionary, almost nihilistic temperament. I think a lot of people on the right rallied around him because he was our revolutionary, our nihilist, and he won in 1994. But there were a lot of elements to him that turned out to be a much more problematic. The last thing I want to say is that I think most of the people here really were products of the Reagan revolution, the Reagan era. Those were, for me anyway, formative political years. And one of the things that captured somebody like me was actually a line from Daniel Patrick Moynihan, of all people. Back in 1981, he wrote a piece for the New York Times, and he said, “Of a sudden, the GOP has become the party of ideas.”
Peter Wehner: In that era, in that decade, what were the ideas and the books that we were talking about? Losing Groundby Charles Murray. The Naked Public Squareby Richard John Neuhaus. The Closing of the American Mindby Allan Bloom. Crime and Human Natureby Jim Wilson and Dick Herrnstein. You had Antonin Scalia and the beginning of the Federalist Society with originalism. And there was an energy and people were drawn to the intellectual side of conservatism. That has been lost. And what has happened is it’s become a party that’s deeply anti-intellectual. And it’s become almost a prideful disdain, I think, on the American right. I don’t even refer to it as conservatism anymore. It’s a disdain for governing. And it’s almost as if the politics of theatrics has overtaken the politics of governing.
Peter Wehner: I do want to say one other thing. I know this is about looking back, but I’ll throw it out there in any event. I do think that 2019, next year, is going to be the year that the Trump project comes crashing down around us, and I think an awful lot of people are going to come crashing down with him. And that I think will catalyze a fascinating period of which I have no idea what will happen. I think something is going to emerge out of the ruin and the ashes. I don’t know what it’s going to be, and I don’t think anybody does, because so many things have been untethered. But Trump — and I was as early as anybody in my criticisms of Trump, and I could go on forever about how pernicious I think he is — he’s not a political colossus. He is weaker than he ought to be, all things considered. He has taken over a party, which grieves me a lot, and it is a more Trumpified party now than it was a year ago. But I don’t think this will last. And I think sometimes viruses create antibodies. Trump is a virus and the antibodies will emerge. But how that plays itself out is something that you all can answer later in this conference.
Jerry Taylor: I left Bill Kristol for last. Bill, you surfed all of this history in your time. You worked for the last moderate Republican president, George Herbert Walker Bush, or at least for his vice president. And then through the rest of your career, you’ve been heavily involved in the trajectory of the party — and memorably involved in cheerleading Sarah Palin in 2008 in that campaign. So you’ve seen the party evolve over this time, and I’m wondering… You have a unique perspective in maybe looking back and seeing where the inflection point occurred, if there was one. Or was it an accumulation of things that just, when aggregated over time, put the party on a path that no one had really anticipated?
Bill Kristol: I have a unique perspective as I was actually there for most of the terrible inflection points of the conservative movement over 30 or 40 years. [laughter] I guess maybe I was there for some of the good things too. I agree with pretty much almost everything that’s been said. I have slight differences, probably we each have slight differences. My only differences with Mona, Jen, and Pete are where they happen to be in error, which is only a few places [laughter]. I of course will graciously not point them out.
Bill Kristol: I’d say movements are complicated things. They make errors, they undervalue certain things, they under-appreciate certain things. They just get certain things wrong. They fight some fights they’re either wrong about or they misunderstand the historical moment and fight them in the wrong way. The Palin thing is an instance of that. I wouldn’t be defensive for one minute about that, it’s just you mentioned it. I wouldn’t necessarily have brought it up; it’s not featured high on my resume. In 2008, I thought [Sarah Palin] would be a bold pick for John McCain. I wrote a column… I totally forgot about this. That was the year I wrote a weekly column in the New York Times, not one of the totally happier experiences in my life but nonetheless worth doing I suppose. And I wrote a column a week before McCain made the pick saying, “You should pick Joe Lieberman.” That that would be the bold pick. It would be the governing coalition. It would really be a gamble — he’d have some problems at the convention — but he’d make it through.
Bill Kristol: They decided they couldn’t go that way. I think Senator McCain expressed regret about that late in life, that he didn’t do that. And then… I had no role in the campaign, but my vague view was, “You gotta gamble. Why not go with the young governor from Alaska,” who was governing pretty well at the time and taking on the oil companies. And I say in my defense, the instinct I had was that you had to have a more populist flavor to establishment Republicanism. And that that flavor should be in the vice presidency, as a subordinate position to a very well-established candidate who frankly wasn’t going to have his own views changed by whoever the VP nominee was. But that would be a way to incorporate a certain kind of populist discontent, much of which, after Iraq and after the 2007-2008 financial crisis, was somewhat justified.
Bill Kristol: And so, the irony is, in a certain way… And who knows if history would have been different if they had won and if some of that populism would have been channeled through a McCain-Palin administration instead of festering outside, and then being in opposition to President Obama for eight years, and people going gradually crazier as they went into the opposition. History is full of these complicated inflection points. Movements are very complicated, as Pete and others have said.
Bill Kristol:I also very much agree with Mona, though. If you step back from the movement —which is really a nebulous and complicated thing, it’s always going to have elements of kookiness and also elements of prejudice and elements of just being wrong about things — and just look at governance, I’m pretty comfortable defending American conservatism in the last half-century, when it was in power, as on the whole moving things in the right direction. On a couple of key issues, especially in foreign policy, it perhaps decisively pushed in the right direction.
Bill Kristol: And even on things [where conservatism] didn’t do a great job, [conservatives were] pretty responsible stewards of the nation. I would say that about the Republican presidents we’ve had in the modern era. Nixon’s a little more complicated, but even there, I would actually make the case. And I would say that about, on the whole, the big policies that were advanced by Republican Congresses until quite recently, and Republican leadership in general until quite recently.
Bill Kristol: There have been demagogic elements on both sides — on the conservative side, very much so in McCarthy, the Birchers, Wallace and so forth. But ultimately no Republican nominee in the modern era, I would say, can fairly be denounced as a demagogue. I think most of those nominees, the ones who were elected, governed responsibly. And the ones who were defeated would have governed responsibly: Dole, Romney, McCain and so forth. That’s the top of the party and the top of the movement. If you have a Senator McCarthy, say, who does some damage to the country in the three or four years that he’s in the ascendancy, he’s ultimately marginalized. The damage is real and some people are really hurt, and the broader anti-Communist cause (in this case) is somewhat damaged and the political culture is somewhat damaged. But it can be overcome.
Bill Kristol: Governors like George Wallace can be overcome. The Birch Society can be overcome. The reason Trump is unique is that he’s president of the United States. He’s the first real demagogue, the first person who really is not willing to put aside rabble-rousing and anxiety-increasing and bigotry-appealing as president. Other presidents have toyed with it, used it in their re-election campaigns a bit. They’ve had deputies, even vice-presidents occasionally, play in those waters. None of that’s admirable, but that’s kind of what a big democracy is going to look like. Having that person as president constantly making things worse — from the point of view of nativism, xenophobia, bigotry, contempt for the rule of law, contempt for democratic norms and so forth — that’s really an unprecedented challenge. … People say, “Oh, you’re too obsessed with Trump” — it’s a refrain from the movement. But this is an important historical effort. I think that’s why some of us are so obsessed, in the very short term, with what happens with Trump, because that will ultimately change our retrospective view.
Bill Kristol: I’ll just maybe close with this broader point. Politics isn’t metaphysics. Historians will try to disassemble the different parts of the movement and make different parts of it as more or less contributing to this problem. But really it will be very different if this ends up being a parenthesis, or a moment where certain things have to be reconsidered and certain things have to be combated but ultimately we come out of it okay at the other end. Or this is an inflection point where it becomes the culmination or the end of a whole political movement, perhaps of a political party? And then it goes down this path in the future. That’s a very different story. Not to sound too postmodern, but the truth, in some respect, really does depend on what happens. The truth going backwards, you could say, depends on what happens going forward. And I think that really is indeterminate, as Pete suggested.
Bill Kristol: We’re less doomed than some people say in terms of both the party and the movement. The bigotry, the racism, a lot of these things were recessive genes within conservatism and within the Republican Party. It’s perfectly fair to say they were always there and a lot of us didn’t want to look too closely at them. A lot of us kind of just assumed they would recede further as things moved ahead, and you didn’t need to have a big showdown with everyone who had supported George Wallace, or everyone who was indulging in things they shouldn’t, because it was going to be overtaken by the progress of history. Recessive genes are recessive.
Bill Kristol: Perhaps that was too progressive a view of people, too hopeful and maybe a little bit of wishful thinking. But it was important that those genes were recessive and not dominant. That was not nothing, to keep those genes recessive. And to be fair, if you’re going to be blamed for Joe McCarthy, you need to get credit for the Republicans who stood up to McCarthy. If you’re going to be blamed for the Birchers, you need to take credit for Buckley expelling them. If you’re going to be blamed for Wallace, you need to take credit for a lot of Republicans who really fought hard to prevent the party from going there, even within the early Reagan administration, fought hard.
Bill Kristol: You know, Reagan had slight tendencies… I think he was not personally at all bigoted, but he a certain kind of nostalgia for an older states’-rights conservatism. And those tendencies were fought pretty aggressively by a lot of people in the Reagan administration. This is kind of ancient history, but when Bill Bennett was nominated as education secretary in ‘85, we had a huge fight against a paleo-conservative defender of the Confederacy who didn’t like Bennett. Bill was pretty conservative, but he had marched for civil rights in the ’60s and very much supported Martin Luther King. He supported the Martin Luther King Day holiday, and he went out of his way as education secretary to visit the Martin Luther King Center on Martin Luther King Day. And that was not what some of the conservatives who had signed on to the Reagan project had been for.
Bill Kristol: And obviously in the ’90s, I was quite involved in the fight against Buchanan. Buchanan ran a couple of times, that’s true, and he got some votes, which showed, let’s call it the nativist and bigoted underbelly of the party. But he was also pretty much expelled from the party. To George H. W. Bush’s credit, he didn’t try to keep Buchanan in. There were a lot of people telling him in ’99, 2000, “You don’t want him leaving the party and taking votes away from you. You should figure out a way to keep him in the fold.” And he rejected that. And Dole famously in ’96 told the bigots to leave the convention and so forth. And so there are instances of that as one goes forward.
Bill Kristol: The birther thing, as Pete mentioned… I remember Pete’s piece. But it was so ridiculous in 2012. The Trump thing, maybe more of us should have denounced it, but to be fair it was no way part of mainstream Republicanism. Romney and Ryan had no interest in it. It would be interesting to go back and see what percentage of Republican candidates or incumbents in 2012 toyed with birtherism. There were some, I’m sure. We’d find some likely suspects. But surely not most.
Bill Kristol: I remember that one time when I was on Fox, sometime in 2012, I criticized Romney for accepting Trump’s endorsement. You remember, there was some awkward ten-minute thing where Trump endorsed Romney in the primaries and Romney accepted it. It was pretty meaningless and everyone forgot about it three days later. And I don’t recall or believe that Trump had any role at the convention or any role as a surrogate in the general election. It never even came up, I don’t think. I still thought it was giving too much legitimacy to Trump even to stand on a stage with Romney for ten minutes. But it wasn’t a huge deal, and I thought, “Okay, fine, that’s what happens with candidates in campaigns.” Maybe we should have been more severe at the time. But it just seemed so ridiculous and so far-fetched.
Bill Kristol: This would be an interesting empirical study… Maybe someone’s done it. How much did Fox take the birther stuff seriously at 2011-2012? I don’t think very much. I think even the prime-time shows at the time thought that was a bridge too far. They just thought it was kind of nuts, and really off in the fringes of the Internet. What happened between 2012 and 2016? I haven’t really worked this out, but I do think the rapidity of the change in the character of conservatism, or in the relative strength of the different elements and forces within conservatism, changed pretty rapidly between 2012 and 2016.
Bill Kristol: There were elements there all along, in 1964 and 1980. You could find some in 1994 with Gingrich — I won’t quarrel, but that was a bigger moment and maybe I misunderstood that some at the time. But somehow… In 2012, we at the Weekly Standard— and I don’t think we were all alone in this — celebrated the pick of Paul Ryan as Romney’s VP. That was the Republican Party of the future. We were bullish, and they probably didn’t have as much public support as we thought. We had an excessively elevated view of the American public and their willingness to go for the limited government, entitlement-curbing type of platform. But having a slightly elevated view of the public is not the worst thing a political movement can have.
Bill Kristol: Anyway, Romney-Ryan did OK. They got 47 percent of the vote and the Republicans held the House, so it wasn’t a disastrous ticket. But we thought that was the future. If you had said to any of us in 2012 that Paul Ryan, the spokesman for the future of the Republican Party (or so we thought at the time), would be retiring from politics at the end of 2018, and that Donald Trump, this buffoon who had advanced the birther conspiracy in 2012, would be president of the United States — that is just a startling, amazing turn. And I do think there are elements earlier on that contributed, but I think those four years, 2012 to 2016, are the ones which, if I were looking backward and engaged in historical research, I would really look at in a detailed attempt to figure out what happened.
Jerry Taylor: We’ve had our set-piece of opening remarks about how deep the toxins run in the Republican soil. I’d like to have a little bit more of an interactive conversation, so let me toss this out to begin with. Was there any inevitability to this at all? There’s all this conversation about where it began, and this, that, and the other automatically put us on this path. But politics is contingent. If the Republican establishment had fought with more vigor, coordination, ambition, and aggression, and had the Koch network actually activated and gone to war — which they never quite did, though they were never particularly excited about the Trump campaign — things could have been entirely different.
Jerry Taylor: So, why didn’t those events occur? There’s a big, open question of why the Republican establishment and its strongest ally (or at least allied factor) in this race, the Koch network, didn’t bear down. And how did they allow this? Because had they done so, we wouldn’t be having this conversation. We’d probably be talking about Jeb Bush and the return of moderate Republicanism or something like that. But they didn’t. So, I’m just curious… Or am I completely wrong? Is this, “Nah, that would never have happened, and politics isn’t that contingent, and Trump was inevitable”?
Jennifer Rubin: No. Nothing is inevitable. People have agency. People have decision-making. I think that just as we didn’t take birtherism seriously because it was so absurd, all of us were convinced at one point or another that Donald Trump couldn’t possibly win the presidency. Why go to war against someone who’s going to crash and burn? What we didn’t realize was that he wasn’t going to crash or burn. What we didn’t appreciate, and I think we still don’t fully appreciate, was how horrible a candidate Hillary Clinton was to lose that race, to run that race on a status quo as opposed to a change platform, and to make the tactical errors that she did. Talk about history… If she had gotten off her duff and gone to Michigan a few more times, or to Wisconsin a few more times, we also wouldn’t be sitting here. We would be in opposition to Hillary Clinton arguing that there’s a better way forward. So yeah, I think it was not inevitable. And it was, in this case, at that juncture, a terrible political misjudgment by many people (me included) of the potency of his candidacy.
Mona Charen: I think we underestimate one big factor that did not come up in our initial conversations, and that is that in Barack Obama’s term what you saw was an enormous explosion of horrifying terrorism coming out of the Middle East. And that led to an immigration crisis in Europe that had a huge psychological impact here. People being burned alive in cages, Americans being put on their knees and beheaded on video tape. And Barack Obama and the left responded to this by saying, “You know, you’re a lot more likely to die in your bathtub than at the hands of a terrorist. And there are really more domestic terrorism deaths from white nationalists in the U.S. than there are from Middle Eastern terrorists. Fort Hood, that was workplace violence” — when Nidal Hasan was shouting “Allahu Akbar.”
Mona Charen: I think the link between concern about immigration to this country — which is, after all, a bunch of Catholic people coming from Latin America and why do we need to be afraid of them? — is linked psychologically with what people were seeing every night on their TV about immigration into Europe and about the violence coming out of the Middle East. People conflated the two. And I think there was a failure on the part of the Democrats to take it seriously and to say that it was something that had to be dealt with. Hillary Clinton, in 2016, famously said, “Islam has no connection to terrorism.” It insulted people’s intelligence and it diminished their legitimate fears. Admittedly, many people exaggerated the threat to the United States, but I do think that that was part of it. I know, from members of my own family who voted for Trump and were not fans of Trump, that their reasoning was, “At least this is somebody who says, ‘We have to close the borders until we figure out what the hell is going on.’” At that moment, he won over many waverers. And I think that’s just a part of this puzzle we can’t ignore.
Peter Wehner: I’d say a couple of things. It wasn’t inevitable. Not many things in life are inevitable. Of course things could have taken a different turn. But I do think that the picture’s darker than we would like to admit. First, if the establishment had gone after Trump, I have no confidence that would’ve hurt him. If any network had gone after him, it probably would have helped him. Because I think what that analysis misses is the deep, almost nihilistic anti-establishment sentiment within the Republican base. If you were to listen to, say, Rush Limbaugh and Mark Levin in the late 2000s, 2010, 2011, you would’ve noticed something was happening, which was that the traditional bifurcation of liberalism and conservatism had shifted to establishment and anti-establishment. And if you listened to a number of people at that time, you would have heard them as almost as critical of John Boehner and Mitch McConnell as they were of Obama. So that element was already percolating and coming up.
Peter Wehner: So the idea that if the establishment had stood up somehow and challenged Trump in 2016… I was never persuaded. If you go back and read the poll numbers… When [Trump] went down that escalator, within about four weeks he was number two behind Jeb Bush. He then went ahead in the late summer, and he never lost the lead in the public opinion polls. He was never really, truly in danger. And so this was not a hard nomination for him to win.
Peter Wehner: He understood something that the rest of us did not. Trump appealed to something that the rest of us thought would eliminate him. The birther issue showed that he understood something in 2011 and 2012 that the rest of us didn’t. When he went down and made those comments about Mexicans being rapists and all, people said, “That’s it, it’s over.” No, it strengthened him. When he made the McCain POW comments, remember the commentary? All the time it was, “This is it. This patriotic party cannot possibly rally around a guy who denigrates a former nominee who was a POW and a hero.” Yeah, they could. He actually went up. Judge Curiel… He would just go over it again and again and again. So what it meant was that there was some kind of pathology that was going on that he understood, and he was able to tap into it.
Peter Wehner:I’ve always understood the argument — I disagreed with it — of those who said that in the Hillary Clinton-Trump election, they went with Trump because they felt like he would advance policies that were in the best interest of the country. I didn’t agree with it, but I think it made sense. I think the real indictment is that in the GOP primary you had 16 candidates who provided pretty much any flavor of ice cream you wanted. If you wanted libertarian, you had Rand Paul. If you wanted the Ted Cruz version of conservatism, you had that. If you wanted a certain kind of Christian conservative, you had Rick Santorum or Mike Huckabee. If you wanted the reform element, you had Rubio or Bush or Kasich. They were there. They didn’t run perfect campaigns, nobody ever does. But that was an impressive field. And the fact is that at every key juncture, at every important moment, the base of the party went with Donald Trump. And we just can’t shake that. Again, I think it’s an important and interesting question as to why it happened, but that is where we are.
Bill Kristol: Let me offer a word on that, though. I just think it’s a little overstated. I mean, at every important moment when the race was competitive, Trump fell short of 50 percent of the vote. That’s not an excuse for the Republican primary voters. But there’s been a split in the party primaries for a long time between less well-educated and college-educated Republicans. It was split in 2012 with Romney versus Newt Gingrich. It was split in 2008 with Romney and McCain against Huckabee and others. 2016 was the first time the non-college voters defeated the college-educated voters, if you want to put it simply, because they all consolidated behind one candidate early and the college-educated split their votes.
Bill Kristol: And I want to say one thing on that… Trump’s celebrity was a huge factor. Otherwise it would have been Pat Buchanan again. I mean, maybe some people were too complacent. I don’t think I was complacent. I was extremely alarmed from the beginning. You can say, well, Trump had an insight that these techniques would work. But people just knew you shouldn’t go there, because it’s dangerous to go there because those techniques might work. Why were we so alarmed by Buchanan? Not because he was an offensive guy who wouldn’t do any damage, but because he was an offensive guy who could do a lot of damage. Because we know from history that these kinds of demagoguery can do a lot of damage.
Bill Kristol: Maybe you could say in retrospect that [those 16 candidates] were irresponsible not to get out, some of them, or to consolidate. Maybe it wouldn’t have worked anyway. The celebrity thing was just hugely helpful to Trump in the primary because it sort of took the edge off the danger. He’s, like, a mainstream guy on national television — not on Fox, not on Breitbart, but on NBC for 14 years with this show that everyone went on. And he was a fun guest on Jay Leno. It’s a little hard to suddenly say, “This guy is very dangerous,” when everyone, normal voters, are thinking to themselves, “I don’t know, he’s like this bizarre, playboy/business celebrity from New York who’s got a semi-reputable business, but everyone thinks he’s kind of a colorful guy. Is it that dangerous to vote for him?” We didn’t do a good job, maybe, of explaining the danger. But to be fair, the American system, being a nice system full of tolerance and willingness to tolerate a lot of idiocy, had tolerated him for a long time.
Bill Kristol:Two further points… I think Mona’s right. Leave aside how much Obama and the Democrats were to blame for the outbursts of terrorism in 2015 — Paris and San Bernardino. Just the fact of those attacks was very lucky for Trump. And Merkel’s decision to “let in” a million Syrian refugees… I’m not even criticizing it, but the photos of those immigrants, which were wildly overdramatized — that was huge.
Bill Kristol: If you talk to people that were close to the campaign — and Whit Ayres and Mike Murphy and others can talk about this later — the Muslim ban was the key moment where Trump went from a co-frontrunner at 19 percent in the polls to really, whoa, dominating the race. And everyone else said, correctly, “You can’t say that. You can say we should adjust our immigration standards and have tougher standards for some people coming from countries with a lot of terrorism. But you can’t say ‘Muslim ban.’ That’s contrary to the whole spirit of America. You can’t say ‘Mexican judge.’”
Bill Kristol: The conflating of the Mexican and Muslim situations, if I can put it that way, came from the images from Europe. If you ever flipped on Fox in 2015, which I wasn’t doing so much anymore but I did a little bit out of due diligence, it was astonishing the degree to which those pictures said, “That’s America if you don’t close the borders.” It was Cologne, the pictures of New Year’s Eve, and the rioting Syrian refugees.
Bill Kristol: Once again, these things can happen. People get alarmed. But if there’s not a super-prominent demagogue demagoguing about them, in a healthy democracy those issues tend to fade away. People get alarmed and then they adjust and decide, “I guess it’s not that terrible. Look around us. Is immigration really destroying America?” And you go back to a sort of normalcy. But with a president constantly demagoguing it, it’s hard to go back to normalcy.
Bill Kristol: Final point… It is an international phenomenon. I’ll just mention that since it would be silly not to. It’s disappointing that American exceptionalism didn’t succeed, in this case, in exempting us from the problems that everyone else has faced. That’s an interesting question of whether it could have, how much one can count on that. But obviously, it is an international phenomenon, which probably should make us hesitant before ascribing too much to a particular phenomenon of U.S. political history or intra-American conservatism political history.
Jerry Taylor: Well, I want to jump into this, but I know Pete wants to jump in and so…
Peter Wehner:Just two quick points. This is anecdotal… I don’t think I ever heard from one friend of mine, or one person I knew who was a Republican or a conservative, that they were supporting Trump because he was a celebrity. I will tell you what I heard a lot, and I’ve got emails to prove it, which is that he represented for them an anger and a grievance and a resentment. I heard versions of this: “McCain, Romney, and Bush are good people, honorable people, but way too genteel. We need a guy who’s going to bring a gun to a knife fight.” That is what appealed to them. It was precisely the man’s dehumanization and his cruelty that people saw in him and made them say, “Okay, that is a sign of strength, and we’re going to rally.”
Peter Wehner: I’m going to stick with my negative critique here, so let me take an area that I do know something about, which is the white evangelical Christian world. Trump won a plurality of those voters. He didn’t win a majority, but it was a field of 17. So in the early states, this guy won of plurality of votes in New Hampshire and South Carolina. He won 42 percent in Alabama. Now, I’m telling you, if you had said, “These are the 16 other candidates and this is Donald Trump,” and you gave their profiles, there shouldn’t have been one white, evangelical Christian in a million that would have voted for Donald Trump ahead of these other people, if you took seriously any standard they had ever held in their entire political lives. I’m talking about fidelity to the pro-life cause… Trump would have been one hundredth out of 17. If you would have said personal life and morality, he wouldn’t have qualified. If you would have said personal faith, he wouldn’t have qualified. If you would have said fidelity to the conservative cause, he wouldn’t have qualified.
Peter Wehner:So what was it about the man that would override every argument, every core belief, and lead them to vote for him in that field of Republicans? And the answer, in my estimation, is it was precisely the things that are most dangerous about him and most pernicious about him that rallied a lot of people to his side. They saw in him a kind of wrecking ball against the establishment, and they thought that this was a guy that would slash the throats, figuratively, of the Democrats. There was that much anger and that much rage going on. So I continue to think that the explanation for the rise of Trump, while it has various strands and explanations, is a tremendous indictment against the Republican Party and the base of the Republican Party.
Jerry Taylor: Let me try to challenge this conversation a bit, and whoever wants to jump in can. Look, if I wanted to make a counternarrative, I’d say that the Republican Party, after the Civil Rights Act, slowly became the segregationist Democratic party, right? The base of the Republican Party is in the South. It is where the Dixiecrat homeland was, and it now is in the GOP. And the Republican Party is now the national arm of that old, Southern segregationist Dixiecrat party. You can see it with Steve King, who is the congressman of my old district around Sioux City, Iowa — they’ve changed the numbers around, I think it’s the fourth now — who has the Confederate Stars and Bars on his desk. From the state of Iowa! And if the Republican Party is going to become the party of the Dixiecrats and the 1960s Democratic South, is it too surprising that it has glommed onto a candidate who is a New York version of George Wallace? This man — the anti-intellectualism, the racial resentment, the anger, the conspiracy theories, the cruelty, the demagoguery — is that man in 1968. Wallace might have actually become president had he not been shot. But now we see it in the Republican Party. And if the Republican Party is going to become the Southern Democratic Party, should we be so surprised it couldn’t be contained forever?
Jennifer Rubin: Well, I think the issue, at least for me, is that it had always been there, but it had never won. And it was a small segment of the party that we could rationalize: “Well, they never won a presidential race before. These people were always knocked out, and therefore they didn’t have a critical mass, they didn’t color the entire intellectual/political appearance of the party.” And that changed. You can go back to the other candidates and the problems that they had, but it was there. And if I thought it was 5 percent or 10 percent of the party, it turned out to be 35 or 40. And pretty soon, the rest of them collapsed and there was a bandwagon effect. I think you raise a good question which someone else said earlier: Is the problem the base of the Republican Party? And if that’s true, what party could you possibly be that would represent those people? And I made the joke — I think it was a joke, but maybe not — that we need a new base.
Jennifer Rubin: Because you are right. If it’s going to be a Dixiecrat base, that’s the candidate it’s going to get. But I think there’s obviously an alternative, and I think many of us have been making the case for a different kind of Republican Party. But yes, I think that core base came with the civil rights movement, from 1964, when [Texas Sen. John] Tower came forward, that was the turning of the South from the Democrats to the Republicans. I think it’s a disagreeable phenomenon, but also I think it’s sort of factually inescapable.
Mona Charen: I’m not so sure. I’m not convinced. I think, obviously, there are elements within any party that are ugly and have all kinds of disagreeable traits. But look, in 2000, if Colin Powell had wanted to be a candidate in the Republican Party, I believe he stood a very good chance of winning and becoming the first African-American president. He was wildly popular in the Republican Party and also had a lot of strength in the Democratic Party. If you look at the way Republican voters in primaries did a dalliance year after year with the black conservatives who would show up, like Alan Keyes — there was a big boost of enthusiasm for him — or Herman “9-9-9” Cain… There was always somebody that had a little brief moment because Republicans were eager to show that they were interested.
Mona Charen: Look, people do like others that agree with them. so they’re not going to embrace Jesse Jackson, if they’re Republicans. But they did really get enthusiastic about Clarence Thomas and about Colin Powell and about these various other black conservatives. Condoleezza Rice was practically carried on the shoulders of the convention when she gave that wonderful speech talking about how the Republican Party was the only party that would allow her father to vote in Birmingham and invited him to join them. It is just too simple to say that the Republicans have always been the Dixiecrats. It’s not true.
Jennifer Rubin: No. That’s not what we said.
Mona Charen: It was mixed.
Jennifer Rubin: We said that that segment of the Republican Party came from the Dixiecrats and that it now resides within the Republican Party. So the debate is whether it’s 5 percent, 10 percent, or 40 percent of the party.
Mona Charen: Right.
Jennifer Rubin: But factually speaking, they did become Republicans.
Mona Charen: Okay, so let me make your point really briefly. And let me just say that there are aspects of things that Trump does that make my skin crawl, exactly because I think he is appealing to that element, however large it may be. His refusal to clearly denounce KKK support during the campaign, the whole fight with football players in the kneeling — that was clearly an attempt to appeal to a certain kind of racial resentment. I do think that’s a part of it. What I’m not convinced of is how big it is. And there are so many other things going on at the same time. And I would just say that there are a lot of really well-meaning people in the Republican Party who are not racist but who might have voted for Trump for other reasons.
Bill Kristol: Just as a kind of analytical, empirical matter, the big change that elected Trump in the general election was the white working class outside the South. And the South had already moved pretty dramatically by 2012 or so.
Jerry Taylor: Governor Wallace got a lot of support in Wisconsin and Minnesota.
Bill Kristol: Correct.
Jerry Taylor: In the Democratic primaries, he polled heavily in white working-class districts.
Bill Kristol: But clearly, this began in Wisconsin.
Mona Charen: But many Obama voters voted for Trump.
Bill Kristol: Maybe 9 percent or something. But the Michigan, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania vote — I believe it is cultural, it’s probably economically stagnation, and all of that. Some of us turned out not to catch on for whatever reason. But a lot of it was socio-cultural, some of it was race, a lot of it was immigration. Honestly, that’s what the Trump people think. I think the racial dog whistles, they do that too and that’s terrible, but the immigration issue… The polling shows pretty clearly that that was the main thing. And this is common with other countries as well.
Mona Charen: Yes.
Bill Kristol: Immigration does seem to be the perfect storm that brings together economic fears with social and cultural fears about the country: “It doesn’t look the way it did when I was growing up, and it’s going to look ever less like it did when I was growing up. And it’s out of control in terms of the rule of law, and I don’t really like those people much or trust them much to be part of a law-abiding, self-governing society.” Add to that old-fashioned prejudice and bigotry. And it lends itself to demagogic appeals because “they” are often far away. Either they’re not in the country yet or, if they are in the country, they often don’t live in the places that most rebel against them. There’s that fantastic data about how the most anti-immigrant sentiment is in you know, Sioux City, Iowa, which is in no danger of being overrun completely by immigrants.
Bill Kristol: A lot of things come together in the immigration issue. I wouldn’t deny it. And then there’s “the Southern captivity of the GOP” — Chris Caldwell wrote a piece with that title exactly 20 years ago in the Atlantic, a very good piece. And I think there’s some truth to that. And then the actual Southern presidential candidates who ran in 2016 — this is one of these little footnote ironies of history — were an Indian-American former governor of Louisiana, a Cuban-American senator from Florida, a Cuban-American senator from Texas, and Rick Perry, who’s just a sort of a generic grade of Texan — way more a Texan than a Southerner, honestly. I think those were probably the four from the old Confederacy who actually ran for the presidency. And then a billionaire from New York… This is not the first time in history that there are those who appeal to prejudices and resentments. I do think it is a complicated story. I
Bill Kristol: Just on one point that Pete made earlier on “the party of ideas,” the Moynihan comment… It is really important as we go forward… Some of us are focused a lot on the primary challenge to Trump, which I think is extremely important because at the end of the day there are a huge number of issues that have to be addressed on the social-cultural side, on the economic side. But if you don’t remove Trump, it’s very hard to address any of them responsibly, certainly from the right or the center-right. Maybe the liberals could address them responsibly; if they can, more power to them. But we also do need to have the continuation or revitalization of the right. And Jerry, you’ve been very involved in this with Niskanen, in a very impressive way, in rethinking a lot of issues. And some of that rethinking has to be pretty fundamental.
Bill Kristol: We were wrong about some things, out-of-date about some things. Some things we were mostly right about. It’s a question of just convincing people… At some point I get slightly annoyed… “Elites were so out of touch, they didn’t understand.” There was some truth to that. But I don’t know, am I supposed to criticize Jeb Bush for defending free trade? I mean, it really is the right policy. I think it really is good for the country. It really is dangerous to get into the business of trade wars. Could you adjust a few things in the way you describe it? Sure. And could you give a couple of accommodations to some industries? Sure.
Bill Kristol: But at the end of the day, it’s kind of important to defend free trade. It’s kind of important to defend the international liberal order. It’s kind of important not to play too much footsie with protectionism and isolationism and America First. And at some point, if you’re an elite who believes in those things, you sort of have to defend them. Maybe you could defend them better. But it’s not clear to me that the right answer is to pull too many punches in defending them. Sometimes that might work, but sometimes the goal line just keeps moving, and then the next person pulls more punches, and within about three years you’ve forgotten the core arguments that had produced a pretty prosperous and peaceful country, and a pretty peaceful world for the last 70 years with an awful lot of social and economic and cultural progress that we shouldn’t just throw away. I think it is very important to not get so gloomy. We need to defend what really is worth defending.
Jennifer Rubin: I want to say a word about immigration. We have not had a real immigration crisis on the ground for a very long time. We have the lowest number of illegal immigrants right now that we’ve had in years. I don’t want to say it’s not an issue, but it is largely a rhetorical issue. Listen, there is a big segment of the Republican Party, a major magazine — not yours — that for decades has been dedicated on this issue about immigration. I don’t want to say there’s no issue there, but it has been wildly exaggerated. To say that we have an immigration policy that’s gotten worse, that we have a crime epidemic because of illegal immigrants, is factually wrong.
Bill Kristol:I will give you that. But we do have the highest number of foreign-born people living in the country in a century. I’m not against that, incidentally. I actually think it’s good for the country. But it’s going to put strains on people socially and culturally.
Jennifer Rubin: Now, a related issue is that we’re seeing “The End of White Christian America,” to use the title of the great work by Robert P. Jones, and white Christian Americans (that is, Protestants) have become a minority in the country, and that is responsible for a lot of this unease. I think there is a modicum of truth in that. But that’s not strictly speaking immigration, that’s the falling-away of religion and the diversification of America. And if you’re going to defend the Republican Party against the charge that they’re just anti-diversity, you can make the case that what’s driving the unrest is not immigration but religious fears.
Jennifer Rubin: But I think that if there was a mistake on immigration, it was in not taking on those people who have been demagoguing this issue for decades. George W. Bush, to his credit, was the last Republican who really tried to stand up to these people. He said, “Listen, we do have a law and order problem, but the solution is to make a comprehensive immigration reform.” And the proof of the pudding is that the people who are most on their high horse about immigration come from states with practically no immigrants. We’re not talking about Texas, where Hispanic-Americans are really very well integrated and many vote for Republican senators, members of Congress, and presidents like the Bushes. It’s not California, which has now become completely integrated. If physical immigration and its ramifications were really the issue, it would be in the states that really have felt the burden. I would fathom a guess that there are not 1,000 illegal immigrants in the state of Iowa, but this is what motivates Steve King. And so I have to come back to the view that this is a point of demagoguery, and shame on many of us. I’ve been trying, but with very little success, to explain reality, and there’s a reality out there.
Jerry Taylor: But actually, the interesting thing is the dairy farms in that part of Iowa are pretty heavily staffed by illegal aliens. And anyone there will tell you that if Steve King had his way, he’d shut down the whole economy of that particular congressional district. But they’d vote for King anyway. We have 15 minutes left and I want to put one last question out there for you. It might be an uncomfortable one, but I think it’s an interesting one. There was a time, not that long ago, when all of you, plus people like Ross Douthat and Andrew Sullivan, had the commanding heights of the world of conservative public intellectualism. Today that’s not the case. You have all been displaced by talk radio personalities, and performance artists on Fox, and demagogues…
Jennifer Rubin: Displaced? [chuckle] Displaced?
Jerry Taylor: If we were to measure influence on the GOP and the right, I think it’s fair (unfortunately) to say that these actors have far more influence. The base looks to them, not so much to you. And that hasn’t really happened on the left. Now, on the left, there is still the New York Timeseditorial page, which commands a lot of respect. You go to Vox, and there are powerful spokespeople there. So it’s not as if elites in the world of public intellectuals have been displaced across the board. But they have been put aside on the right. Why did that happen? Because it wasn’t always that way. Bill Buckley and George Will, whatever their shortcomings might have been, were serious people who entertained ideas. And the right is not particularly interested in that now. Now they’re interested in anger and resentment and owning the libs and conspiracies. How did that happen? And is it possible for that to be reversed?
Jennifer Rubin: Well, intellectuals don’t do very well in a nativist, know-nothing party. So I think the very things that we’ve been talking about have forced many of us out of the popular sphere of what remains of the party. I would hope that perhaps we have a somewhat broader influence on the general public, if that’s any salvation. But I think that because the party turned nativist and populist, it’s not going to accept public intellectuals in the same way it did, and that’s one of my grave concerns. Not for me — I do fine — but for a party that now is unmoored to facts and reality and objective truth and all the rest of it.
Bill Kristol: I would say that it’s probably exaggerated how influential people like Bill Buckley were. And they never felt they were that influential. There was a brief shining moment when the Bill Buckley conservatives came together with the neo-conservatives and with Reagan, and Jeanne Kirkpatrick joined the Republican Party, and the neo-conservatives joined the Goldwater-Reagan conservatives. I guess that would be the way to put it. And we all in that period, at least the three of us here who served in government, came to Washington to serve in the Reagan administration. There was that brief moment when everyone thought, “party of ideas.” Buckley, Reagan, Irving Kristol, younger people too. That pretty quickly went away. And honestly, most of us probably have supported… Maybe not Pete, he was a Bush person. But most of us have supported people who didn’t win the nomination most of the time in the Republican Party — in my case, from Kemp to McCain to others. So I’m not sure, honestly, how much power there was.
Bill Kristol: Obviously the culture has changed, the media has changed, all of that I wouldn’t deny. I think Pete’s point about talk radio is very interesting and its influence, which I think has faded now, probably was greater compared to other forms of media. A lot of things contributed to making ideas less central to our discourse. I don’t know that that’s inevitable for the future. I do think the rethinking needs to be, as I said earlier, open-minded and fundamental. And one of the things that cheers me up, incidentally… We were talking about Max Boot and the debates among the anti-Trump conservatives about the questions you’ve been raising, Jerry, but also, going forward, Oren Cass versus Mike Strain. Do we want targeted ways to help workers or should we depend on economic growth? And I’ve changed my mind a little bit on that, actually. That’s a legitimate debate among conservatives and moderates and intelligent liberals. And I think that’s very healthy.
Bill Kristol: One of the things I’m asked is, “Is it a problem among you Never-Trumpers that you don’t agree exactly on your analysis of what happened?” Pete and I have some slight disagreement about the relative weights of certain things — but that’s good, not bad. It would be kind of crazy if we all agreed exactly on our analysis of the problem, or our analysis of the different weights to give to parts of the possible solution, or how to deal with the long term or the short term, or the electoral or the cultural. I’m actually heartened that the reaction against Trump hasn’t led to a kind of foolish tribalism on our part, and that we can agree to disagree. And you’ve found this among your colleagues at Niskanen, I think, haven’t you? Honestly, the quality of debate… I’m not so sure it is much lower than it was in the past.
Jerry Taylor: No, I think it’s very elevated. I think one of the healthier things that Trumpism has done is that it has shifted the tectonic plates of complacency beneath conservatism (or at least some wings of the conservative movement) and caused a rethinking, a re-examination that maybe otherwise never would have occurred. And that ice is broken, and so now Max Boot can write about the realities of climate change in the Washington Post, which he never could have 10 years ago.
Jerry Taylor: I want to move it to this side, because you guys, I’m sure, want to jump in. But the story that I have in mind is from 2008, I think it was, or 2009… Believe it or not, I was writing for National Review Online. I was one of the cast of thousands who blogged at The corner. And at the time, Barack Obama was going after Rush Limbaugh, and conservatives said, “This is a disgrace. He’s president of the United States, why is he picking on a talk radio host? This makes no sense, it’s insane, it’s political malfeasance.” And I said, “No, I don’t think it’s political malfeasance at all. According to every poll I’ve seen, Rush Limbaugh is the face of the Republican Party circa 2009, so of course he’s going to go after him. And he’s got a really low Q rating, so he’s the right guy to go after if you’re Barack Obama.”
Jerry Taylor: And that’s all I meant to say. No narrative about whether Rush Limbaugh was Moses on the Mount or a demon from hell. Just an observation. But it was interpreted as an attack on Rush Limbaugh, and that entire crowd of diverse NRO writers turned on me like a pack of wolves: “How dare you challenge Limbaugh? Who are you anyway?” It was startling. And it wasn’t just the performance artists who were writing at NRO at the time, it was also a lot of their staff. I thought: Since when did National Reviewdecide to bend the knee to a talk radio host? It’s the talk radio host who’s supposed to be promoting the ideas of National Review, not National Reviewpromoting the ideas of the talk radio host. So something happened here, and it just didn’t happen overnight.
Mona Charen: Part of it was money.
Bill Kristol: A traditional conservative motivation.
Mona Charen: It’s a conservative value, Bill. [laughter] The conservative commentators were very interested in doing well. People were angling for Fox News hits and for being on the chat shows. And the way to do that was through fierce anger.
Jerry Taylor: I don’t mean to hurt you on this, but how does that make you feel about capitalism if it’s so corrupting?
Mona Charen: Oh, capitalism isn’t perfect. It’s just better than all the other alternatives.
Jerry Taylor: Two cheers for capitalism. [laughter]
Mona Charen: Two cheers, as Irving said. Look, the fact is that the market forces have a role here. People are attempting to advance their own careers.
Peter Wehner:Bill’s quite right in the sense that ideas, intellectual ideas, never fully animate the base of a party. I think what is different now is that the American right has become actively anti-intellectual. That’s a different mindset, and I think it’s dangerous. I think there’s almost a pride in going against ideas. Bill Galston is here, and he can talk about the elements of what populism does and the kind of emotions that it provokes. I’d say that there are some deeper currents that are going on. If you go back and read Neil Postman’s book back in the 1980s, Amusing Ourselves to Death, that was a pretty prescient book. I haven’t read it for years, but as I recall he was arguing that television was corrupting politics and lowering our sights, lowering discourse. He couldn’t have imagined that we would get to where we are. But I do think that there is an element now in which politics has become performance rather than the serious, hard, intricate work of governing.
Peter Wehner: I think a lot of people who were in those vineyards for 30 or 40 years got tired of making yet another argument from the conservative side of why cutting taxes was not a boon to the rich but was supposed to provoke economic growth. And there was something about Trump and the way that he carried himself that appealed to them. But what has really been lost, in my estimation, is an appreciation for what I would say are a troika of democratic virtues: moderation, civility, and compromise. And there is, as I was saying earlier, a kind of revolutionary, almost nihilistic temperament in the right that is different and much stronger than anything that I have experienced before.
Peter Wehner: That’s why I don’t think that the debates coming up in the next year or two or three are going to be central on public policy. And I say that as somebody who’s been involved in the formation of policy for most of my life. What we’re dealing with now is politics on some deeper and very, very important level, and that is the notion of norms and the rule of law and the importance of truth, as against this post-truth moment. And those are really the stakes, including certain qualities like decency and civility.
Peter Wehner: And I would just say that the corrupting effects of Donald Trump are profound. I mean, you are seeing it now. And I will tell you what will happen, which is that when the Mueller report comes forward and you get these Democratic investigations, and it becomes more and more clear that Donald Trump is corrupt from stem to stern, you’re going to see some large part of the Republican Party defend him no matter what, come what may. You saw it even yesterday with Orrin Hatch, who said when he was asked about what are clearly the campaign finance crimes of Trump, “I don’t care.” Or if you listen now to conservative commentators, they refer to “process crimes” — those “process crimes” that really bothered them when Bill Clinton was president but no longer seem to bother them that Donald Trump is president. So a large part of this party and this movement has hitched their wagon to Donald Trump, and he is going to pull them to places that they never should have gone.
Peter Wehner: The last point I want to make is that when I was growing up, one of the reasons that I was drawn to the Republican Party — Bill will remember this because we worked together — was this idea that the Republican Party were champions for truth, for objective truth. That was the argument Allan Bloom made against relativism. And now what you’re saying is this person who is president — who’s not only a liar, he is a pathological liar who is engaged not just in an attack on truth but in an attempt to annihilate the categories of truth and falsity — is one of the most popular presidents in the history of the modern Republican Party. And the base has decided that they are going to defend him, that they’re going to be his sword and his shield. And so for me, as somebody who really cared about those concepts and still does, to see what has happened now is a tragedy. But you have to make the argument, whether it works or not and whether it’s fashionable or not, that there are certain things that are worth defending, certain concepts that have to be stood for. And that’s not just the role of public intellectuals.
Jerry Taylor: Unfortunately we’re at our hard stop moment and…
Mona Charen: 30 seconds.
Jerry Taylor: These conversations can go a while. I’ll give you 30 seconds…
Mona Charen: 30 seconds.
Jerry Taylor: Quick, Mona, 30 seconds.
Mona Charen: The point I was making is that ideas are not what sells right now. What sells for so many lonely people whose families are disintegrating, whose communities are not strong, who don’t have religious faith, is that they need to have that sense of belonging. And unfortunately the way they get it is in the negative sense of hating the other. And so the arguments that people at National Reviewand the Weekly Standardand others make don’t have that same emotional appeal of helping them to hate the other.
Jerry Taylor: I see a little bit of hate served up by some of those journals. But this queues up perfectly because our next panel is a natural point to move from beyond this, it’s called “Beyond Polarization, Republicanism for Republicans.” But before I turn it over to my colleague, Brink Lindsey please join me in thanking the panel today.
Panel 2: Beyond Polarization – Republicanism for Republicans
Moderator: Brink Lindsey
Panelists: Mindy Finn, Pete Peterson, Jonathan Rauch
Brink Lindsey: Okay, we’re going to go ahead and start the second session. Welcome everybody. My name is Brink Lindsey, I’m Vice President for Policy at the Niskanen Center, and I’m joined this morning by Pete Peterson from the Pepperdine School of Public Policy, Mindy Finn from Stand Up Republic, and Jonathan Rauch from the Brookings Institution, although he’s here today in his capacity as a member of the board of Better Angels. The topic for this session is, “Beyond Polarization: Searching for a Viable Center.” Now, the familiar term is “vital center,” but that seemed too optimistic for 2018. We’re not really looking for centrism that’s in the vital pink of health; just centrism that has a pulse would be an improvement over where we seem to be today.
Brink Lindsey: But the question here that we’re going to be grappling with is, in the midst of this sort of replay of Yeats’ “Second Coming” poem — the gyre’s widening, the falconer’s calling out but the falcon’s incommunicado, and the center is not holding — what do we do about it? How, in this age of extreme polarization and toxic tribalism, do we transcend these divisions, or at least back away from them? And I think everyone here has the sense that if there is a viable center, if there is something that unites us more than divides us, it’s located in the commitment to democratic, republican self-government. And it’s located in a creedal version of American national identity, where to be an American is to participate in this open, free, democratic society and to subscribe to the principles that have animated American life — not a blood-and-soil vision of American national identity.
Brink Lindsey: For my own part, I’ve just written an article that’s coming out in the next issue of National Affairs— a copy of it is outside with other reading materials — called “Republicanism for Republicans.” In it, I argue that there is a desperate need to resist this divisive ethno-nationalist populism within the right — not just for opposition to come from outside, from the left, but there is a critical need for internal resistance in the name of a decent, constructive center-right. And I argue that a real, clean break from the increasingly degraded populist version of conservatism is needed, and that the language of republicanism can provide a kind of organizing principle for a morally and intellectually revived center-right.
Brink Lindsey: Each of the folks here is coming from or moving in a somewhat similar direction. Mindy Finn is with Stand Up Republic, which is a grassroots organization to urge people to defend liberal democracy, and it is seeking to find defenders regardless of whether they stand to the left or the right of center. So it’s looking for a center that is based in commitment to democracy. Jonathan Rauch is involved with this very interesting organization Better Angels which is attempting, at the grassroots level, to bring people together across the chasm of red versus blue and to find, again, this common American identity in which we see people who disagree with us not as enemies but as fellow citizens. And Pete Peterson is a co-director of The American Project: On the Future of the Conservative Movement, where the sort of evolution of the project is moving towards something called a “conservatism of connection.” The idea is to move away from conservatism based on dividing, based on us versus them, but rather toward a conservatism that is focused on what unites us and what connects us to our fellow Americans.
Brink Lindsey:So having given that sort of general overview and my reasons for having invited all of you to this panel, let me… Let’s do a little show-and-tell about the organizations and projects that you’re involved with. First off, Mindy, tell us about Stand Up Republic. Tell us how it came to be, what your goals are, and what the status of achieving those goals is as of late 2018.
Mindy Finn: Sure, thanks Brink. I don’t think the mic’s on. Can you hear me?
Brink Lindsey: Yeah.
Mindy Finn: As some people may or may not know, in the last few months of 2016, I joined Evan McMullin to run on what was branded an “independent conservative” ticket in the presidential election. It was late in the game and we were only on a dozen ballots, although we were write-ins on 20-plus more. But first and foremost, the goal was to stand up for critical democratic ideals, norms, and institutions that we worried were at risk of fading away, or that people (certainly on the right) were deciding were not as important or that they didn’t need to embrace, or maybe that the Republican Party didn’t stand for these things anymore. These were things like equality, embracing immigrants to our shores, free speech and freedom of the press, and self-rule, the idea of the separation of powers, the idea that Congress serves as a check and provides oversight for the executive branch. These are the things that with Trump’s candidacy were at risk of fading away and failing to be the core to the Republican Party.
Mindy Finn: So we stood up. And there was (or seemed to be) a pretty strong movement for that across the country. Not enough for electoral success, but we assumed, like many people, that on election night Donald Trump would not be the winner and would not be our next president. And a lot of people think that even he thought he would not be our next president. And as the election approached, we started to talk about this movement that we had built. This is a powerful movement. What is its highest value, what is its best use? We thought it would be potentially reinvigorating to the center-right and would be part of discussions, like there were post-2012, about the direction of the right and the conservative movement and the Republican Party.
Mindy Finn: Well, as we know, Donald Trump won, and it appeared he became the de facto leader of the Republican Party and took it in an ethno-nationalist, populist direction. And so instead, we stepped back and said, “Okay, well, really, what is the highest value now for this movement and using it as a building block to expand and scale?” And it was to unite people from the left and the right around the defense of, or the advancement of, democratic ideals, norms, and institutions. And it was based on a fear that if we don’t build a passionate coalition and a movement to stand up and uphold these ideals in our culture, in our government, then they could cease to exist. And we cannot allow them to become a partisan cause.
Mindy Finn: And that has been… I think we’ve had some very good success with that. It is a challenge, because it’s in Republicans’ best interests now, as a party, to say that those who are standing up for democracy are really just about attacking the president because they don’t like the president. And they claim it’s a partisan cause, and that those who defend democracy are saying it’s analogous with the Democratic Party. And it has been our goal to make clear that we are a republic, and that the values that should unite us are the ones that are enshrined in our Constitution. They are our creed. This is a system of self-rule, with separation of powers, standing for a free press, for liberty, the ability to protest, and all of the things that I think probably everyone in this room cherishes. We now have chapters in dozens of states across the country. We are growing.
Mindy Finn: And the other thing that we have found, and that we’re now building on, is that when people get together around the defense of fundamental American ideals and they start talking, they recognize that maybe they’re not so far apart on some of the policy issues. People often feel these are intractable problems — problems related to solving our immigration challenges and the issues at our border, related to guns, related to the environment, to healthcare, to education. But when people get together they recognize that there’s more that unites us than divides us. It sounds cheesy and corny, but that’s who we are in America. And now there’s opportunity to build bridges on a lot of these policy issues, even outside the core democratic issues.
Brink Lindsey: So, Jonathan, you’ve spent your whole career in Washington as a committed centrist. If a hell on earth could have been invented personally for you, the tribal brand of politics that we’re embroiled in today would have been made to order. So I know that your spirit has been in complete opposition to this all along, and some of us who have been sort of more partisan one way or another, and now look at how our partisanship may have contributed to this toxic stew, have some moral accounting to do. But Johnathan, you’re in the clear. [chuckle]
Jonathan Rauch: I’m blaming you, Brink. [chuckle]
Brink Lindsey: Tell us about Better Angels. This is an organization that is aimed explicitly at bridging this divide. It can sound hokey and hopeless, but you’re a hard-bitten Washington hand and you got interested enough to get involved, so tell us about the service that you do.
Jonathan Rauch: I am not all the way to optimism, but I am all the way to hope, and Better Angels is part of the reason why. I’m surprised to be here talking about it, because it’s… You’re about to hear. I was a skeptic on this project. It took a while to win me over. So here’s what happened… After the 2016 election, a man named David Blankenhorn and a few other people decided to organize a kind of encounter group in southern Ohio between blues and reds. And they discovered real chemistry in the room when people who thought they hated each other learned that they could make a conversation happen. The key here is, it’s a very structured conversation designed by a nationally renowned marriage and family therapist. So people don’t just say stuff to each other. In the first half of the workshop, they don’t even talk directly to each other, they have to listen. But the surprising result of this was that some of the people there were transformed and, in fact, formed these friendships way across the blue-red divide. And the other surprise was that this began to catch on. Lots of people said, “We want to do that.” So Better Angels — www.better-angels.org, for those of you who are more interested — very quickly took off as a national, grassroots, depolarizing movement.
Jonathan Rauch:And remember, this is a new group and it’s totally volunteer. There’s virtually no one paid. We’re working on a shoestring. It’s hard to fund, because it’s in the middle. We have 6,000 members — 130 new ones coming in per week — and 250 workshops so far in 30 states. We have almost 300 moderators trained, and those people go out and train other moderators, so that’s how the thing can spread organically. We’ve begun to raise a significant amount of money in small donations online. We’re also beginning to pilot and spread Better Angels debates on college campuses, which are student-led, truth-seeking debates. And those are also going off like a firecracker with students who, it turns out, want a place where they can have a discussion of issues in a frank and candid way.
Jonathan Rauch: So that’s what Better Angels is doing. I was a carryover from the board of its parent organization, the Institute for American Values, which was doing other kinds of things. And I was a skeptic because I thought, well… I said to David Blankenhorn, who started this initiative, “It’s really sweet. ‘Isn’t that special!’ as Church Lady used to say on SNL. But it’ll never scale. I mean, you’ve got small groups of people in particular towns in these small rooms. You just can’t organize that against the onslaught of deliberately and commercially divisive big media, divisive social media, social atomization, and the collapse of the mainstream religious movements, all of which are fueling what you are up against. So God bless you, have fun.” My attitude changed for a few reasons. First, the thing went viral much faster than I expected. Hands went up all across the country saying, “How can I be involved?” We’re about to have our second national convention. People, all volunteers, come in from all over the country. And the grassroots have taken ownership of this, which is really important.
Jonathan Rauch: Second, what I hadn’t understood going in was that what does scale is the narrative. There is a deep hunger out there on a part of the public to take some control back from the forces which are in many cases deliberately dividing us. And what they’ve discovered is, “Right here in my community I can do something to change the story and break through. These forces of polarization don’t have to control us. They are not necessarily our destiny.” And that change in the narrative does scale, and it scales big time with lots of media impact in all the major outlets all over the country: 60 Minutes, the front page of USA Today, you name it. There’s a real hunger for this change of narrative.
Jonathan Rauch: The third thing that turns out to be very important is what Better Angels is part of, which is an upwelling of groups around the country with names like Bridge the Divide, Living Room Conversations, and of course Mindy’s group, Stand Up Republic. But there are many, many others doing their own take on similar things. And what I think we’re seeing happen is a grassroots rebuilding of civil society where it counts the most. If you look at the country from the top down, things look really bad. If you look at the country from the bottom up, if you look at individual communities and initiatives, things look much, much better. Jim and Deb Fallows just wrote a book about this. And Better Angels has a part in restoring some of those civic connections on the local level.
Jonathan Rauch: I deeply believe that what Mona Charen said at the very end of the last panel is true. Thank you for that, Mona, if you’re still here. What she said is that if you want to see a fundamental cause for this deep polarization, and the extremism and nihilism that has taken over, the most fundamental cause is the breakdown of the civic institutions, the mediators: the unions, the Boy Scouts, the Rotaries, the old-fashioned participatory political parties… All the ways people made face-to-face contact to solve problems and get a sense of efficacy as individuals. To the extent we’re seeing groups like Better Angels begin to rebuild those small platoons, it’s because of Americans’ genius for organizing into civic groups. And that, I think, offers real promise for getting to the cause of the problem and not just the symptoms.
Brink Lindsey: Both Jon and Mindy are involved in organizations that are explicitly oriented towards the center and transcending left-right differences. Pete, your initiative is focused specifically on the right, but it seems to be animated by some similar concerns and by an agreement on the appropriate direction, which is moving back toward the center, moving back toward connection with the rest of the country. So tell us a little bit about how this initiative got up and running, who’s involved, and what’s gestating.
Pete Peterson: Thanks, Brink, and thanks to Niskanen for the invitation to participate. I’m just piggybacking with Jonathan… Mona’s last remarks really are a point of departure for us as well, although it didn’t start out that way. The American Project for the Future of Conservatism is based at Pepperdine’s School of Public Policy in lovely Malibu, California, which has weather nothing like DC’s. It was founded by the late James Q. Wilson and Jack Kemp as a policy school that was focused on things you can’t always measure. And when we launched The American Project in 2016, me and my co-director — Rich Tafel, who helped found an organization called the Log Cabin Republicans — had the idea that Hillary Clinton was going to be the president in November and the Republican/conservative movement was going to be in a shambles. We got one of those things. [chuckle]
Pete Peterson: This project began with discussions between Rich and myself about how we could organize a group of people on the right, using the institution of a graduate policy school that has some connections in history, to further this conversation. So we brought together a group of academics and activists. I think that’s something that sets us apart a little bit, in that we’re bringing together people who are very involved politically across the conservative spectrum, but also academics who are teaching and researching in these issues. And we planned our first gathering on our campus in Malibu in June of 2017. It was the hardest thing I’ve ever done professionally, because although I hope I’m a good facilitator of conversations, I didn’t really know where this was going. In this group of about 30, we had people that were very pro-Trump and people who were very anti-Trump. We had neocons, paleo-cons, and representatives from about six different think tanks here in D.C. and out West.
Pete Peterson: And what began with some arguments about where the future of the Republican Party was going — and which I thought, frankly, after the first day was going to degenerate into just a pro-Trump/anti-Trump argument — resolved at the end of a long weekend with a unanimous agreement that our problems were not political, they were sociological. And our problems specifically were around issues of loneliness and alienation. We concluded that what we had witnessed in November 2016 was really a result of sociological and to a degree economic factors, not so much prompting or furthering them. And so, if the conservative movement was going to mean anything in the future, it was going to have to respond to that.
Pete Peterson: After that gathering and for the next three months, I edited (along with the group of people who had joined us in Malibu) a principles document called “The Way Forward.” It’s a four-page document that defines a concept we’re calling “a conservatism of connection.” We’re making an argument that there has always been a communitarian strain in conservatism that needs to be appealed to, not only rhetorically but also from a policy standpoint. And so that four-page document created in the fall of 2017 has prompted a series of conversations here in D.C., a major conference we hosted back on our Malibu campus last June, and subsequent conversations.
Pete Peterson: Essentially we’re making an argument in this document, and really in The American Project more broadly, that unless we’re able to find these points of connection, affiliation, and belonging, our politics will continue to degenerate, not only on the right but also on the left. I don’t know if anybody saw the Macron speech last night, but really what he’s responding to is a left-wing populism that also has recessive genes here in the Democratic Party in the United States. Don’t let anybody tell you anything different. I wouldn’t call it our project centrist so much as really appealing more on the conservative side to this communitarianism and taking a more sociological approach. The problem with conservatism right now is there are only three conservative sociologists in America. Maybe the most prominent one today, Charles Murray, in 2012 wrote Coming Apart, a book that really was met with a deep appreciation, a lot of popularity, but I don’t think the Republican Party or conservatism more broadly have ever really wrestled with it.
Pete Peterson: And here we are today. There’s a very important book coming out by Tim Carney at AEI called Alienated America, which is going to be looking at some of these issues that Charles raised but overlaying that information over the 2016 election. I think the future of the conservative movement is a communitarian one that is reawakening a set of conversations that happened in the ’90s and early 2000s, looking at policies around the building of social capital, and doing it in a way that relates to a country that is much more diverse than it was even 20 years ago. And — I can say this is as one of the five remaining California Republicans [chuckle] — what we witnessed in the 2018 elections in California has been called “the canary in the coal mine” by the outgoing head of the California Republican Party. We’re going to be looking at ways that we can build not only on this communitarian understanding, but also on policies that come up out of that.
Pete Peterson: When I speak on these issues, sometimes I catch quite a bit of flack on both the left and right. I believe that if we don’t have a nationalism rightly understood, we will have a nationalism wrongly understood. I’m all about fighting a nationalism that’s based on blood and soil, but it cannot be a bloodless nationalism. And I think sometimes where we get ourselves into problems in the conservative movement, especially in the center, is that there’s a certain amount of talk of principles without a talk of identity. And unless we’re going to take on these issues of identity from a political perspective, that is not something that’s going to succeed politically.
Brink Lindsey: Let me pick up on something that was mentioned a couple of times, this issue of getting all the way back to sociology, getting back to personal interconnections. I think it’s fascinating and actually deeply hopeful that the founder of Better Angels comes from a background in marriage counseling. Because I have to say, even before Trump appeared on the scene, the red-versus-blue trench warfare struck me a bad marriage. No doubt that’s because of my personal experiences — I’m on my second marriage now — but the partisanship struck me as two sides that had given up on getting along with each other and were just delighting in making each other miserable. And the rhetoric of these new political initiatives is like what you learn when you’re learning how to fight fairly and fight constructively, which is an indispensable part of a solid, workable, happy marriage. And one thing you never do is you never start a sentence with “You” — “You did this. You made me feel this way.” Because you’re judging your partner and you’re saying that you know better than them what’s going on in their own head. And when you start denouncing someone else, their obvious and natural reaction is a defensive crouch and fighting back. So you’re supposed to talk about “What I feel” and how what your partner did made you feel. Anyway, just extrapolating from that, how much of this marriage counseling background actually makes it into the structure of the dynamics of Better Angels’ work?
Jonathan Rauch: A fair amount. I’m getting vigorous nods from some of our actual Better Angels volunteers here. A lot of it gets in. The designer of the protocol, Bill Doherty of the University of Minnesota, has set it up so there are a few elements of marriage counseling, and counseling generally, in the secret sauce. One is, no “you.” For at least the first half of the meeting, people can’t direct comments toward the other group, which means they have to listen. No eye-rolling! And moderators are quite aggressive about stamping out efforts to make political speeches. Also very important, in my view, is the motto is, “Come as you are, leave as you are.” It’s made very clear that the point of this is not to change people’s minds on ideology or politics. You’re not expected to be convinced of anything. You’re just expected to try to hear the other side. But it turns out that when you lower the stakes that way, that makes it much easier and that in turn builds good will.
Brink Lindsey: Mindy, you’re trying to stitch together people who started out on the right, started out on the left, but are alarmed at the crisis of American politics today. I assume, though, that sometimes there are frictions between them. So what kinds of frictions have you encountered? How do you get over them? How do you actually, in 2018 of all times, construct an organization that’s pulling from both sides of the spectrum?
Mindy Finn: There is a lot happening in current events that I think are defining events, that will require people to line up on one side or the other. Right now a profound one is standing up for the rule of law and the independence of federal law enforcement. Clearly that is an issue that is in the news that gets a lot of press and is on the forefront of people’s minds who are civically engaged. So can we support this idea that the president is above the law? Most of the people that we are organizing fall on one side of an issue like that. For example, they fall on one side of an issue around whether it’s appropriate to call out “fake news” constantly, or to say the press is the enemy of the people. Most the people we’re organizing line up on one side of that. Where there are divisions are where you would expect, across your typical party lines. There are divisions that you would expect among cosmopolitan versus more rural populations. And when it comes to that, I think one of the central divisions that we wrestle with, and that a lot of our constituency wrestles with, is where they see the future of the parties — if they see a future in the parties at all.
Mindy Finn: You have a big portion of the constituency that stands for all the things that I’ve just mentioned, and may even have some kind of negative views on this president, say, if they’re in the Republican Party, for those reasons. But they’re all in with their Republican identity, their GOP identity; they see their future in the GOP. Same thing on the Democratic side. And then you have a fair amount of the constituency who thinks that the duopoly is not the future, and that it can’t sustain a country that is deeply polarized along party lines due to changing demographics, economics, media fragmentation, income inequality, and leaders who aren’t servant-based, who are in it for themselves. And they also believe that those factors end up making us vulnerable to foreign interference, to adversaries who want to exploit those divisions for their own gain. So some people look at these problems and say, “This is a destabilized America and this polarization will only be solved with a third party or something else that can represent the 117 million Americans who are not affiliated with either party.” And frankly that number of independents is growing.
Mindy Finn: But some people say the real need is to fix the Republican Party. I find that that is one of the deepest divisions and challenges — not so much around party lines, because I think the people we are uniting do feel that they are in common cause, and in defense of creedal America, and in defense of democracy and the ideals that are the cornerstones of democracy. But the division is more around, do they still want to wear that red shirt or that blue shirt for the rest of their lives, or do they think there’s something else? And I’ll just note that on that point, where I come down, and where we’ve come down as an organization as we’ve studied these issues over the last couple years, is that we believe that while there is a great demand and desire for another party, or for something else, the systemic challenges are such that that’s very difficult right now and could be very difficult for a long time. And the answer probably is, in the shortish term, a stronger Republican Party and a stronger Democratic Party.
Mindy Finn: However, you can’t just talk your way to that kind of reform. It’s one piece of it. There are pressures you can put on Congress, and we all have a lot of influence. But a big piece of that is going to have to be bottom up. And there’s a lot of hope in communities for people who are desiring that, who want to work toward it. And by stitching together a passionate constituency of people from center-left to center-right who are demanding political renewal, then all of a sudden that’s a powerful force that’s able to create the necessary competitive pressures to bring the right back toward the center and bring the left toward the center. And it’s big enough that you wouldn’t even need the full constituency wielding their power in order to drive that competition. The real challenge is — and I think Jon actually touched on this in something he said — that polarization is deeply ideological and there’s a moral simplicity in identifying with a party. You’re a red shirt or you’re a blue shirt. Whatever the red team thinks, that’s what you stand for, or whatever the blue team thinks, that’s what you stand for. You know you’re not for what the other side is.
Mindy Finn: So the division tends to be pro-immigration or anti-immigration. You believe in climate change or you don’t believe in climate change. And there’s not a lot of room for nuance. And it’s hard in this nuanced space to derive the kind of passion that you find when you’re using fear and negative incentives like the far right and the far left do in order to mobilize their coalitions. Part of a project that we’re taking on is to, first of all, learn more about the constituency in the middle and what moves them. But we also need to identify how to tap that passion. How do you engage and mobilize people in the center to be active and to wield their political power in the same way and with the same passion as the far right and the far left?
Brink Lindsey: That raises, I think, a critical sort of ambivalence about this subject matter. On the one hand, the clear common denominator, if there is any center and if there is anything that can bring us together, is this love of country. It’s the idea that there’s more that unites us than divides us. It’s the sentiment of country above party. It’s the idea of patriotism rightly understood, or nationalism rightly understood. On the other hand, the purchase of those sentiments on American political life has now been revealed to be very, very fragile. We at the Niskanen Center have been organizers of Trump-skeptical Republicans and conservatives with our biweekly Meetings of the Concerned, and you can see the common denominator there. Especially in the early going, we would routinely hear people say something like, “Boy, I can’t wait until we get back to the days when I would disagree with you about everything.” [chuckle]
Brink Lindsey: But the thing that was bringing everybody together was this notion that the country was in trouble, and that was more important than any partisan priorities. The way I put it, there’s the policy game on the field. You want your team to score a lot of points, and that’s great. But when the stadium — the institutional context within which the game is even possible — is on fire, then you have to turn your attention to putting out the fire. But again, this sort of common agreement appears to be very fragile. For most people, their attachment to liberal democracy appears to be downstream from their partisan and policy commitments. When they’re in conflict, people seem easily driven to choose party above country. And beyond that, I think someone else mentioned that the media dynamics which are tearing us apart are so powerful.
Brink Lindsey: And it all boils down to this issue of differential power of passion. Hate and anger are rocket fuel for political mobilization. What all of your organizations and initiatives are offering is some kind of love: love of country, love of each other, connection. So it’s a pretty stark battle here: Which is stronger? And it feels, these days, like the bright side is embattled. So how do you actually see grounds for real hope? Is it just that, even though hate and anger are incredibly powerful, they burn themselves out? Do you feel like there may be a point at which, even if it seems sort of weak and wimpy to be a centrist, that moment may be coming just because we’ve burnt through this sort of rocket fuel? Your thoughts on the correlation of forces here and the odds that are against us?
Jonathan Rauch: Assuming that’s directed to me, the first thing I’d say is that our model, at least, is not that everyone needs to be more centrist or indeed that America is a country of centrists. It’s not, it never has been. I would reference the campaign of John Adams versus Thomas Jefferson; you all know those stories. Our model is that, as psychologists have shown, if you want to reduce tribal animosities, what works is to get people together. Intermingle the tribe. But not just to say “hi” to each other, because it turns out that just putting people in the same room doesn’t work. But getting them to cooperate on a common project, something that they can do together, does work. “I’ve got a nail, you’ve got a hammer. Look, we’re building a roof!” That creates bonds. And it also turns out that the project around which you bring people together can in fact be the project of depolarization. We’re humans, we can do some bootstrapping here.
Jonathan Rauch: You’ve got these top-down forces that I call polarization for profit, or polarization for power. That’s the Trump model, it’s the Fox News model and so forth. But the reason I get to hope is that we do see in these grassroots efforts a real thirst of actual individual human beings on the quite far right and quite far left to surmount that and to commit themselves personally to that project. I would be lying if I said that I’m standing here confidently saying that the little guys at the bottom of the food chain who are pushing back will win this battle. The constellation of forces against them is as bad as I’ve ever seen. But I’m not giving up, because this thing is catching on and other things are catching on.
Pete Peterson:I like the marriage counseling metaphor — not that I’ve ever been to counseling because my marriage is perfect! [laughter] But from what I hear, one of the things they talk about in marriage counseling is that sometimes the thing is not the thing. And this is another recommendation I would make to political leaders and those pundits in the conservative movement. When we’re talking about immigration, sometimes it’s not about immigration, it’s about identity. Now, there are racial elements within this immigration debate, but there are two other factors. One is economic: people that are really suffering. I can point to examples, especially in California, that because we’re not enforcing immigration policies, those in the lower classes and lower-middle classes are suffering economically because of the policies that are not being implemented. But secondly, I think there’s also, in the discussion around immigration, a lack of discussion of what does make America great. If this conversation is going to be about, “You’re a racist if you’re pushing for the wall,” for example, it’s going to be very hard to find either a sustainable policy coalition or a political movement without allowing that for some in this discussion, it’s not about that.
Pete Peterson: And I would say that on several different issue areas, some of this is being driven by that polarization-industrial complex, right? That is very much about keeping the conversation at the label level. But we won’t find nuance if we’re not going to allow that there might be a good-natured support for policies that are being described as racist and xenophobic. I think it behooves us to go back to that marriage counseling practice of being willing to think things through. Maybe we’re just thinking about things at the label level, and there could be some other reasons why people have latched on to a particular coalition.
Brink Lindsey: I’m going to open up for questions in about 10 minutes. Mindy, this passion gap, how do you deal with it?
Mindy Finn:First, I’ll say I think my next career will be in marriage counseling. It seems like there’s a lot of demand. [laughter] Look, the right and the left… There’s a huge industry with a myriad of institutions that are devoted to keeping a tight hold on people within their coalition —within the conservative movement and the Republican coalition, and within the progressive movement and the Democratic coalition. In order to compete, you need commensurate infrastructure. And there can be some infrastructure — places like the Niskanen Center, for example, or Pete’s project — that are focused more on the right, and people on the right who are looking for more productive politics, who are dedicated to political renewal, who don’t want to remain stuck in ideological camps, who are open to reforms to our democratic system.
Mindy Finn: There can be those institutions that are focused on the right and focused on the left, and there are. And I think one of the areas of hope, post-2016, is… It’s a crisis moment. In a crisis moment, there’s a lot of danger. I don’t think that we’re necessarily out of the danger zone, and so we have to remain vigilant. But there’s also a lot of opportunity. And where people are leaning into that opportunity is creating institutions — like Better Angels, like Stand Up Republic, like the work Niskanen Center has been doing such as this conference, like Pete’s institute — to try to bring people together and create a more organic and loosely connected infrastructure that’s commensurate with what you have on the far right and the far left.
Mindy Finn:That infrastructure is going to have to be bigger than any of us. You mentioned the media piece, which I touched on. The media business model is such right now, particularly in the digital era, that anger and fear and division drive more dollars. I worked at Twitter, actually, in the early days of when Twitter was starting to get more involved in politics. I helped build the Washington office. I’m not responsible for the president getting on Twitter, so I’m not going to take responsibility for that, but I am responsible for other elected officials getting on Twitter. What I saw in Twitter was an opportunity to create more connection between the people and their leaders, and between our representatives and those who they represent. And in a government by self-rule, it’s important to have that communication. In an era when people are increasingly communicating digitally, I thought this would reduce that gap. What instead has happened — and I saw this working at the company early on, and now we’ve seen it in hyper-drive — is that the company made the most money at the times when there was the most gridlock and division in Washington. So if there was a budget shutdown, well then, people are talking more, and the more people are talking on the platform and engaging, the more money the platform makes.
Mindy Finn: That’s just Twitter. The same thing, though, is the Facebook business model. And increasingly what you would consider your mainstream media, the more traditional media, more of their money is being made online and more of their money is being made from at least sensationalism if not division. We’re going to have to break through that at a very basic level. We need more media that is speaking to the disaffected, for lack of a better term. I don’t really like the word “center,” either. I don’t think people all have to be aligned around some kind of utopian centrist agenda. But we need a media that’s dedicated to the truth, to evidence-based policy, to problem solving, to core democratic principles, and that’s willing to tell it straight and isn’t kind of secretly working for the Republican Party or the Democratic Party. That’s part of the infrastructure. Grassroots groups, candidate recruitment, leadership training, think tanks, more policy ideas… All of the pieces that go to fuel this business infrastructure on the right and the left, we need more of that to be devoted to bringing people together. Or at least we need more to be devoted to the constituencies on the center-right and the center-left who are open to talking to those from the other side and having the difficult conversations that we’re all discussing here.
Brink Lindsey: Pete, you had mentioned that this conservatism of connection is going to bring in its train some changes in policy as well.
Pete Peterson: Right.
Brink Lindsey: And just to amplify that, I think we now see a conservatism that is focused on, and animated by, stoking people’s fears and resentments. And so what can compete with that? Right now that’s the culture-war theater. And that seems to be the main value proposition for most Trump voters and supporters: “This guy is fighting and he hates the people I hate. He hates the people who hate me and he gives them grief.” But on the policy side, what is the Republican Party offering its base? Tax cuts for the very rich and reduced funding and access for health care. In other words, they’re offering them absolutely nothing. And so it seems to me a codependence between the donor class dominance of policy and the kind of media-machine dominance of culture war. Those things go together because you can’t win elections based on the Republican policy agenda.
Pete Peterson: Brink, you’re absolutely right. The last panel of the conference that we hosted on campus in June was called “From Theory to Practice.” We had a number of different think tank folks in there and some folks connected to the GOP. And one of the things that grew organically out of that conversation was this awareness that through the ’90s and early 2000s there had been a real focus on how government policy connected to the other sectors that can be used to promote greater social capital. And we all on the panel began to wonder, “Well, what happened?” There were some people involved in the George W. Bush administration who were on that panel too. We came pretty quickly to this historical proposition: What if Osama Bin Laden killed the social capital movement in the United States? That when he brought down the towers and hit the Pentagon and drove down that plane in Pennsylvania, he wasn’t just attacking institutions, he was attacking one of the more exciting movements in public policy discussions that we’ve had in the last 30 or 40 years?
Pete Peterson: That movement was coming out of welfare reform and some interesting work happening in the states in the early ’90s, and into the beginnings of what many people thought was going to be much more. President George W. Bush said at the time, “I’m taking my experience from Texas, and we’re going to be focusing on what states are doing and bringing these ideas together.” And I was in New York on the day when those towers came down. I don’t think we’ve taken a full accounting of what that did to a series of very important policy discussions. So what we’re looking to do with The American Project is in some ways not just to blow the dust off of those white papers, but to understand that conditions have changed in the United States. Coming Apartis real. And we’re in a different place demographically; certainly in the state of California, we see that first hand. But our focus needs to return to that set of principles and policies. To see what Senator Mike Lee has done with the Joint Economic Committee creating the Social Capital Project, I think, is at least a window into some of the movement that’s happening there.
Pete Peterson: I think that’s where our project is going to be transitioning into that policy, building on this communitarianism for the 21st century. But at the same time, we’re not creating things out of whole cloth. I think some people in this room were involved in those conversations in the ’90s and early oughts. Again, those ideas don’t need the dust blown off them, but they do need a reawakening.
Jonathan Rauch: I just wanted to make a couple of points before we go to questions. One is about why I think the people in this room and folks like those in Niskanen Center are especially important in this project. There are problems on the left, but I am a believer that there is asymmetrical polarization. I think the Republican Party is more extreme, more radicalized, more nihilistic, and more dangerous than the Democratic Party right now. And at Better Angels, a problem that we have hit is that it is significantly harder to get reds into the room for these conversations than blues. In fact, blues line up around the block to get there because they’re very comfortable with the sort of therapeutic model. Reds are very suspicious of it. They think they’re going to be dragged into a situation where they’re going to be hammered yet again by the usual people for being backward and racist, so they don’t want to come. One of our challenges is to reach out to more of those people. They become evangelists after they’re in the room. But groups like the Niskanen Center — the center-right, self-identified conservatives — are especially key to this project of bringing others on board.
Jonathan Rauch: I also want to do a shout-out to what I think, 30 years ago, is still the best statement I’ve ever seen of this kind of conservatism that Pete Peterson is talking about and that we’re talking about today. Has anyone gone back recently and reread the famous “Thousand Points of Light” speech by the late lamented George H. W. Bush? It’s beautiful, and it is a wonderful, succinct statement of precisely the ethos we’re talking about in this room. The “Thousand Points of Light,” as he said, are “the many civic and social groups in self-help organizations in communities across the country.” And the point he makes in that speech is that if you don’t get those right, if those aren’t working, nothing else will work.
Brink Lindsey: Okay, we do have time for a couple of questions. Wait for the microphone to come to you. This gentleman right in front.
John Topping: Good morning. I’m John Topping. I’m the president and founder in 1986 of the Climate Institute, which is the first climate protection organization. And I’d like to provide a kind of centrist perspective. A number of the folks here are fellow members of the Ripon Society — Tom Petri, Lee Huebner, Mike Smith, myself. And this was chronicled, of course, by Geoff Kabaservice in his book, Rule and Ruin. This was an effort, largely in the ’60s and ’70s, that resulted in, among other things, promoting the opening to China under the Nixon administration, the abolition of the draft, the launching of the National Minority Enterprise program, the Earned Income Tax Credit… A number of other things came out of this. And…
Brink Lindsey: You have to hold it to your…
John Topping: I think many of us have found that the progressives and moderates have essentially been squeezed out of the Republican Party. And we’ve moved… All the people I mentioned have been very helpful to me in the climate protection, because we’ve sensed perhaps that saving the world is easier than saving the Republican Party. [chuckle] But it strikes me that a transformation of our politics, if it’s going to happen, may not be driven by a lot of abstract principles of moderation. Maybe the driving issue will be climate change, which could be existential by the end of the century and we may find ourselves very imperiled.
John Topping: What we have found ourselves is an ability, here in the current environment, to promote eclectic, multi-generational projects. We’ve got about three dozen young people, grad students and undergraduates who worked on a project for a North American supergrid. Tom Petri was one of the members of the steering committee, and we also had a utility executive, a former university president, and others on the board. And we looked at extensive changes in the energy system that would essentially protect us against threats like EMP attacks and solar storms, but would also de-carbonize the atmosphere. And we’ve looked also at some things that are off the table with the general environmental movement, such as the possibility of geoengineering together with dramatic energy change. And I think climate change is going to be one of the driving issues — there may be others — that are going to summon people to action. And it was remarkable that we found a huge number of volunteer folks in their 20s matched with people who are up to 50 years older, who sense that we’re leaving the world in a difficult position. And it may be that when we start looking at how we put these coalitions together, it’s not going to be around center-right or center-left principles, it’s going to be around these driving issues.
Brink Lindsey: So this harkens back to the point I made earlier, that people’s attachment to liberal democracy is a downstream from their policy attachments. And so while awakening and reminding people of the value of these deep American principles is important and crucial, it may not be enough. What we need is a policy agenda that actually does motivate people and that then can pull them together rather than pulling them apart. I don’t know if you want to expand on that, Mindy…
Mindy Finn: I think you make a good point. Even when I talk about a cross-party coalition for political renewal, part of it is uniting people around potential reforms to our democratic systems: things like ranked choice voting, or different voting systems in order to open up the political process and create more competition at the candidate level and on the electoral level. But the other is a united commitment to evidence-based policy-making and problem-solving, and taking on the modern challenges that we’re facing. If you were just to rely on the current Congress and party makeup, it seems like in particular on the right, to John’s point, they would be happy just to focus on their own personal gain and not really address these modern challenges.
Mindy Finn: Climate change is certainly one of those issues. You also touched on another point that we haven’t really discussed here yet today, which is the generational shift and the behavior of different generations. I have in mind the millennial generation and even the generation behind the millennial generation, because I think a lot of people lose sight of the fact that millennials are almost 40 now. But those behind the millennial generation are deeply committed to addressing climate change. And the idea that anyone politically would not make that a priority or look at that as a problem is anathema to their view of the world and how they understand things. A coalition for political renewal will have to speak to the millennial generation and the generation behind them. I think that’s, again, another potential crisis or opportunity. They are becoming disenchanted with democracy. Some of them have grown up in a time when they didn’t really learn much about democracy and how important it is in America, or around the world, because of the lack of civic education.
Mindy Finn: But more importantly, they’re devoted to reality and to solving problems. They are used to being able to do so much at the touch of their fingertips. They don’t understand why our government can’t do that. And when they wield their political power, combined with some older generations with more experience, on how to move forward these policy issues or policy solutions in a sound way, I think that could be quite powerful.
Brink Lindsey: We have time for one more question. I’m going to give it to someone who has spent his career battling against polarization and the race to the extremes, Bill Galston.
Bill Galston: Yes, you can imagine how efficacious I’m feeling right now. [laughter] Rather than pursuing that rabbit down yet another hole, I’d like to pose a genuine analytical question — I suppose principally to Pete, but perhaps others will be interested. The thesis that our politics is downstream from our culture or the state of our community — that our problems, as you put it, Pete, are sociological rather than political — raises a very interesting question. We’re seeing variants of this same divisive, populist explosion throughout the democratic West. Is it your argument that we’re seeing that in all these cases the problem is sociological?
Pete Peterson: On this panel and in others, when we have this conversation around communitarianism everybody brings up Robert Putnam’s Bowling Aloneas a reference. Not many people bring up a research report that Putnam did in 2006 called “E Pluribus Unum,” which studied civic trust in 40 American cities. And what he found was rather inconvenient. What he found was that in cities with high levels of ethnic diversity there were low levels of civic trust. The thing that I think was most problematic for Putnam was that in cities with great levels of ethnic diversity — like my home, Los Angeles, or Minneapolis or Oakland — even trust within racial and ethnic groups was lower than elsewhere. And what he proposed, after looking at these 40 American cities, was: “America needs to find a new sense of we-ness.” I think that is really the mission of how we understand a communitarianism for the 21st century.
Pete Peterson: To me, that’s a sociological question. And to me, the challenges that are facing democracies across the western world are questions around greater levels of ethnic and racial diversity. How are governments and cultures going to be able to find that new sense of we-ness? I think you find it out of an identity that’s unique to the United States, and that our story is best prepared to respond to. Because in other (especially European) countries, they’ve got real blood-and-soil problems. We don’t really have blood-and-soil problems here. They can be found and they can be generated and spurred on. But the American story, which is the “E Pluribus Unum” story of America, is one that we have to find a way to respond to. And frankly, as was evidenced in the research, the left does not have a good answer for this either. The identity politics of the left — Mark Lilla wrote a great book on this — is not adequately prepared to respond to how we find our Unum out of our Pluribus. And so to me, it is a sociological problem that’s spread across the West, but it’s one that America is mostly uniquely prepared to respond to.
Keynote: Anne Applebaum
Brink Lindsey: Okay, we’ll move forward with the program now with today’s keynote address. I’m delighted and proud to introduce Anne Applebaum, our keynote speaker. Anne is a Pulitzer Prize-winning historian and journalist, and the author of numerous books, most notably Gulag: A History, Iron Curtain: The Crushing of Eastern Europe, 1944-1956, and Red Famine: Stalin’s War on Ukraine. Anne is also a columnist for the Washington Postand a Professor in Practice at the London School of Economics. I think we are focused on our political predicament here in the United States, but it is not a one-off, it is not a unique phenomenon. What’s going on here is of a piece with what’s going on in many other countries around the world. And the struggles that liberal democracy is going through now are not unique. It has gone through struggles in the past. So to bring our current moment into a broader perspective, I can’t think of anybody who can do a better job than Anne, given her unique breadth and depth of perspective on these matters — and a transatlantic perspective, certainly, because she lives a transatlantic life. Anne is a citizen of the United States and of Poland…
Anne Applebaum: And Britain.
Brink Lindsey: And a citizen of Britain too. So a triple club member. That’s good. We’re all looking for Plan Bs. So you’ve got a couple. [laughter] Her Polish citizenship comes by virtue of her marriage to Radek Sikorski, who’s been Minister of Foreign Affairs and Minister of National Defense, among other high posts in the Polish government. She lives in London a good chunk of the year, during her work at LSE, so clearly she has a first-hand European perspective on what’s going on. And I might add that the recent piece she did for The Atlantic, “Polarization in Poland: A Warning from Europe,” is one of the most gripping and maybe most depressing pieces I’ve read in the large and growing literature about what has gone wrong with liberal democracy. Here in the United States we are engaged in this endless tussle: “Is it economic anxiety or is it racial resentment? Is it the bad economy or is it immigration?” And my answer is, “Yes, it’s both and more.” But in Poland, there is no refugee crisis, the economy has been hot, and yet they’re going through the same kinds of struggles that we are. And so perhaps the question isn’t what causes democracies to fall apart, but what causes them to hold together in the first place. That may be the more fundamental question.
Brink Lindsey: In addition to this geographic breadth of experience, Anne brings a historical depth of experience as an historian of Europe’s descent into unfreedom during the 20th century with her chronicling of totalitarian communism. Anne is immersed in the dark side of mass politics and how things can go badly wrong, and so brings this historical perspective to our current struggles with unfreedom. So please welcome Anne Applebaum. [applause]
Anne Applebaum: Oh, thank you Brink. It’s a little distressing to be introduced as the modern Cassandra, bringer of bad news from around the world. I’m afraid some of the news isn’t good, but I might try and cheer you up at the end. I’m really delighted to be here. It’s interesting… I know lots of people in this room, and some of you I’ve known at different phases. I’ve known Brink, for example, since he was at the Cato Institute. I know some of you through libertarian and conservative and other phases. And it’s really nice to see everybody once again focused on the fundamental problems facing us. I know that we’re here to talk about mostly American politics and the Republican Party and the right, and I’ll get to that. But I will spend first a few minutes thinking about something related but broader, which is the decline and maybe the collapse, if we’re not careful, of the institutions and alliances that we have got used to calling “the West.”
Fears about the health of the West are not new. Back in the 1950s when these institutions were still very shaky, I’m sure lots of people feared that liberal democracy in Western Europe might not last, that the NATO alliance might not ever take off, and that a wave of communist revolutions would drain the whole continent into the Soviet bloc. Maybe in the 1970s, with Vietnam, many people once again feared the West would not survive. But I have to tell you, in my adult life, I really can’t remember a moment as dramatic as this. Right now, we really are close, as close as we’ve ever been, to the end of the Western alliance and probably the liberal democratic world order as we know it. And yes, I do think that these two things are related, as I’m going to explain. Look at what’s happening here: Regardless of how you interpret the midterms, they haven’t changed one really important thing, which is that for the first time since the Second World War, we have in the White House a president who is an isolationist and a self-described nationalist, who therefore represents a strain of thinking in American politics that hasn’t had a serious advocate since the 1940s.
Dislike of America’s alliances, dislike of other democracies, is actually one of the very few opinions that Donald Trump has held consistently for many, many years. “America has no vital interest in Europe,” he wrote two decades ago in 2000. “Their conflicts are not worth American lives. Pulling back from Europe would save this country millions of dollars annually.” At his first NATO summit, he refused to reaffirm Article 5. At his second NATO summit, he picked an argument over European defense spending. He’s rude. He goes out of his way to be rude to our allies in Britain and Germany and more.
But look also at what’s happening on the other side of the ocean. As Brink said, I write a lot about Poland and Hungary. I live in Poland part of the time. These are two very successful states where governments have set about undermining their own democratic institutions, the same ones that were put in place after 1989, thus jeopardizing their membership of European and transatlantic institutions.
But I do not think this is some kind of East European problem. In Italy and Austria, political parties that openly prefer Russia to the United States are now part of ruling coalitions. In the last French elections, an overtly anti-American, anti-European, and anti-NATO presidential candidate got 40 percent of the vote, which was an all-time high. She didn’t win. She was beaten by a charismatic centrist. But he is now very unpopular, and maybe next time she or perhaps her far-left equivalent will win.
Nor are these changes superficial, representing normal shifts in alliances or political tactics. We know these alliances are based on shared values and in particular on a shared idea about liberal democracy. For decades, we’ve assumed that this kind of democracy is a one-way street, that wealthy democracies never return to autocracy, that they don’t go backwards.
But is this still the case? Many of you may know the work of Yascha Mounk, a political scientist at Harvard, who recently looked through the figures and found that views about democracy in Western countries are much worse than he expected, across the board. The number of people who believe that it is essential to live in a democracy has now slipped in almost every Western country, and democracy skepticism is rising rapidly among young people. So, just to take a random example of a country we sometimes look up to as moderate and normal, among Swedes born in the 1930s and ’40s, more than 80 percent believe that democracy is essential. Among Swedes born in 1980, however, that number falls to 60 percent. For Americans, the number is much more dramatic, with only 30 percent of people born in 1980 — that’s people who are now in their late 30s — believing that democracy is essential. And indeed a quarter of young Americans polled in 2011 stated that democracy is a bad or a very bad way to run a country. Similarly poor numbers can be seen in countries as varied as Britain, the Netherlands, and Australia. So it’s a pattern across the democratic world. Just so that you know, the numbers aren’t that much more positive about a larger concept of the West across the alliance.
If you ask kind of general polling questions about NATO, you’ll still get a positive response. But when the questions focus specifically, for example, on what NATO should do on the use of military force to come to the aid of allies, which is the whole point of NATO, support drops really dramatically. So only 40 percent of Germans and 45 percent of the British say they would want their armies to come to the aid of a NATO ally in case of a Russian attack. When asked specifically if the U.S. Army should fight back against a Russian invasion of the Baltic states, only 54 percent of Americans say the U.S. should offer support. So there’s still a small majority, but that also means that four in 10 Americans, presumably including Republicans as well as Democrats, would oppose the enforcement of Article 5 in the clearest-cut case. And so we can hardly be surprised that the president of the United States reflects a view that’s held by so many voters. What’s truly extraordinary, though, is the way that these doubts and anxieties are growing so fast in so many countries that have so many different histories and different economic situations and different politics. And that, I think, means that we have to reach rather deeper for explanations
What Brink just said about “Is it the recession?” or “Is it just about racism?” — this is really too simple. I mean, again, he mentioned Poland. He’s right. Poland has not had a recession since 1980. Inequality is shrinking. Every social class across the board has experienced growth. It’s too simple to speak about racism or immigration. There isn’t any immigration there. But also, it’s not a good explanation as a source for discontent in countries as varied as Britain (which actually has a long tradition of absorbing immigrants rather well) or Italy (which doesn’t) or Hungary (which has no immigrants at all). Nevertheless, I do think that across the West, there are some broader links. And so, from my weird perspective as an American who lives part of the time in Eastern Europe and part in the West and has three passports and a confusing identity, let me try to identify a few things that all Western democracies have in common.
For one, in this country and particularly in this city, I don’t think that all of us understand the degree to which we are paying the price for a series of perceived American failures, together with European absences, going back across several U.S. administrations. Some of them are military; we know them. But the Iraq War is now remembered as a disaster — not just a mistake, but a disaster — even in nations like Poland and Britain that supported it. It’s seen as the cause of the current crisis in the Middle East, rightly or wrongly. Let’s not talk about that, actually, because it’s too complicated, but that is the perception. But also the Afghan conflict, which was supported across Europe and had NATO support, is also perceived to have failed.
More recently the Russian invasion of Ukraine and the Russian intervention in Syria, neither of which received much of a discernible U.S. response, also created the feeling that the Western alliance is somehow no longer in control either of Europe’s eastern borders or of itself. In other words, in the most important security crisis of the past decade, the EU and NATO have played only peripheral roles and the U.S. has seemed like a complete bystander.
Even more important were the financial crises of 2008 and 2009. Bill Kristol spoke about how those crises may have caused some populist discontent. No, it’s much worse than that. Those crises really ended forever, or at least for the foreseeable future, the assumption that Western democracies have a superior understanding of economics and markets. In the United States, of course, the financial crisis dealt a blow to the belief that the American economic system is fair. To many people — again, fairly or unfairly — it seemed like bankers were rescued while ordinary people weren’t. In Europe, the European Union and the IMF, also emanations of the Western world order, were blamed for insisting on austerity and recovery programs. In some cases it worked and in some places it didn’t. In Italy and Greece, the blame for an entire generation’s lost jobs is now laid squarely on Berlin, Brussels, and Washington. Some people are beginning to whisper, “The Chinese, with their high growth levels — maybe they know something that we don’t.”
More to the point, the combination of all these things is quite powerful. Iraq’s shadow, Russia’s military interventions, the meltdown in Syria, plus the global financial crisis, this means that politicians and businessmen and ordinary people around the world from Shanghai to Rio don’t believe any more that Western-style capitalism is necessarily the most fair and effective, or that Western leadership necessarily creates a more peaceful world. And perhaps inevitably that means that Western-led democracy and Western-led institutions no longer have the cachet inside Western countries, either, that they used to have.
I think technology is part of the shifting mood, too, in a deeper way than we usually think. We rarely think about it, but in fact we’re living through an era of unprecedented change — technological, dramatic change — and of course it affects the way that we work and think. Remember, the iPhone was invented in 2007, which is 11 years ago, and now the entire developed world carries telephones (which are really mini-supercomputers) around in their pockets at all times. And I think we’re all learning that it’s not just that robots can eliminate factory jobs, or that driverless cars will throw millions of people who drive for a living out of work. Computer algorithms may eliminate doctors and lawyers, or at the very least will make those professions change dramatically. And as I know from having lived through the transition to capitalism in Eastern Europe in the 1990s, any sort of change, even change for the better or change for growth, creates enormous anxieties and fears as people are forced to shift jobs and rethink their careers. And yet our political systems seem to have no answer, no comfort, no suggestions.
On the contrary, by contrast with the rapidly changing economy, the institutions of democracy can seem very slow and cumbersome. Voting, campaigning, the formation of coalitions, slow compromises that you need to make democracy work — all of this seems unbelievably out of date in a world where everything else happens so fast. You know, you can press a button on your phone and lunch will appear in half an hour, and yet the Swedish election was in September and they still don’t have a government. And of course, this problem is even worse at a multinational level. Institutions like the EU or NATO find it extremely hard to take fast decisions or to make big changes even when the problems are staring them in the face. You can walk around Brussels and you can say to people, “What are you going to do about Russian disinformation?” They all say, “Yes, it’s a terrible problem, but it’s very complicated to solve and we just don’t have the tools to solve it.” Ordinary people are afraid of the changes technology will bring and they are also afraid, with good reason, that their political leaders are not able to cope with them. Our institutions and our customs just seem out of date.
I think globalization is part of the story too, although not in the simplistic way that many people imagine. I don’t think the problem in Western democracies is that most people don’t like foreigners or foreign trade. Again, thanks to globalization, they’re experiencing a loss of control. They feel their societies, their political leaders, aren’t really that powerful anymore — and they’re right. Nowadays, a decision made by somebody in China can close a factory or a shop in Reston, Virginia, just like decisions made by somebody in Washington can mean the inhabitants of Shanghai pay an extra tax or tariff. Nor is there any clear way out of this situation or easy answers. It was frustration with international trade and the realities of it that led many in Britain to vote to leave the European Union. And since then, the British have learned that actually they’re going to have less control over their trade relationship with Europe, their most important trading partner, not more. The real crisis in Britain is that Brexit looked like an easy solution, a way out of some of these problems, when actually it’s just caused the most complicated constitutional crisis since 1688.
The impact of global trade on democracy is only part of the story. Globalization has also led to a much greater movement of people — and I say “movement of people,” not immigration. We heard something about immigration today. I don’t want to repeat that. But in some parts of Europe, emigration is just as important a part of the story as immigration. Of course, everybody knows immigrants pouring over the borders in 2015 made everybody nervous. But for some, the emptying out of whole villages in rural Central Europe, or indeed rural France, is equally disturbing.
One of the great ironies of the past decade is that many of the most important beneficiaries of the revolutions of 1989 were the young people of Poland, Bulgaria, Slovakia and elsewhere who celebrated their nation’s attainment of integration with Europe by leaving home and moving to Paris. And actually in this, they joined clever people in other parts of Europe and the U.S. who left the provinces and headed for cities. So ironically, meritocracy, upward mobility, and all those things that we built into our system because we thought they were good, have drained parts of the countryside — small towns and cities — of talent as well as of a kind of respect. And this is something happening in every Western country.
The argument that foreigners from abroad, whether from Syria or from Mexico, will take their places and work in the jobs that they don’t want anymore, is not necessarily comforting to nations or populations that now have cause to fear for their own existence. The brilliant Bulgarian writer Ivan Krastev wrote recently, “Don’t underestimate the anxiety that can be caused by people who ask the question, ‘In 100 years, will anybody read Bulgarian poetry?’ Maybe they won’t.” In the U.S., this dynamic is slightly different, but the effect is similar. Cities grow in power and wealth and rural communities feel that their way of life is diminishing — and it is, they’re right.
Alongside and maybe above this technological and demographic and economic change, we’ve also been living through a revolution in political information. We’ve all, including me, talked a lot about how disinformation works and how easy it is to spread it to manipulate public opinion. But there are other really, really important effects, too, to the change in the way in which people get and process political information.
I would say as a side note that at every moment in history when there’s been a change in information technology, huge political changes have accompanied it. The most famous example is the invention of the printing press, which was spectacular and wonderful. People became literate and books moved around the world. But it also led to the Reformation and a challenge to the establishment of the time, which was the Catholic Church. Maybe some Protestants in the room think that was good, but it led to the most profound, bitter, and violent wars Europe had ever known until the 20th century, which were the religious wars that followed the Reformation. It was an incredibly bloody and traumatic period that followed this change of political conversation.
The other great example is the invention of radio at the beginning of the 20th century. The first two people to really understand radio and how to use it politically were Hitler and Stalin. Both of them used it to get power, and it wasn’t until there was a response in the form of the BBC and Franklin Roosevelt that there was a kind of reaction to it. So this has always happened.
There are so many pieces of this subject, and I don’t want to take up all afternoon talking about it. But we were talking a little bit earlier about the breakdown of civic institutions and civic organizations. There’s a relationship, I think, between that and the ease with which people can now find new communities online and also in the way in which our traditional political parties are breaking down in every single democracy.
What was Christian democracy, which was the equivalent of the European center-right? It was a movement that was based on real civic institutions mostly connected to the church. What was social democracy? It was a movement based on real labor institutions, on trade unions. As those institutions decline, people find new identities and they create new relationships online and they create new political parties. And these now feel to them stronger than the old ones, which they’re not connected to anymore because those civic roots don’t exist. And you can again see this playing itself out in almost every country in Europe as people seek new online identities and change the way that politics is done.
Finally, it’s not a small problem that the Internet has undermined the business model of traditional media. We don’t spend enough time thinking about this. The old-fashioned news organizations, newspapers, broadcasters, they were all very flawed. I worked for a lot of them. Nevertheless, many of them had as their founding principle at least a theoretical commitment to objectivity, to fact-checking, and also to the general public interest. We know they served as a filter. They eliminated egregious conspiracy theories, but we’ve paid less attention to the fact that they also created the possibility of a national conversation and a single debate in every democracy.
In most democracies, I would now say, not just ours, there is now no common debate, let alone a common narrative. People don’t have the same facts. One group thinks one set of things is true, another believes in something quite different. We all know this. We understand this now. Social media contributes to the phenomenon. People seek out comforting narratives online. But this phenomenon not only creates hyperpartisanship, it also contributes to the distrust of normal politics, politicians, and political institutions, including courts and police and civil servants. These are invariably portrayed by both sides as having been captured by their opponents. It’s really not an accident that when the Law and Justice Party in Poland and the Trump administration in the United States came to power, they both began making assaults on the civil service and on professional diplomats. These are actually important, core parts of their political program.
At the same time, the loss of a national debate means that political conversation takes place on the Internet, where readers and writers feel distant from another, where they can be anonymous, where they take no responsibility for what they say. It’s not an accident that Reddit and Facebook have become the perfect medium for irony and parody and cynical jokes, and it’s also not an accident that a plethora of ironic and parodic and joke political candidates are suddenly winning elections in countries as disparate as Iceland and Poland and Serbia. Some of these are harmless, some of them aren’t. But it’s true that a generation of young people very often now treats elections as an opportunity to show their disdain for democracy by voting for people who don’t even pretend to have political views. And that, I think, was a factor in our election as well.
This is a very long list and it’s still only partial, but let me add one final idea that echoes something that Peter Peterson said in the last session. Back in 1940, when George Orwell was living through the consequences of a similar rise in anti-democratic movements in Europe and around the world, he wrote a review of Mein Kampf. It’s famous review. He dissected it for his readers and he was appalled and saddened by what he read, but it also led him to another thought. He wondered whether the progressives and the liberals and the democrats of his generation had not underestimated the attraction of war and revolution and violent conflict. “Nearly all Western thought since the last war,” he wrote, “has assumed tacitly that human beings desire nothing beyond ease, security, and the avoidance of pain.” By contrast, Orwell wrote, “Hitler knows that human beings don’t only want comfort, safety, short working-hours, hygiene, birth-control, and, in general, common sense; they also, at least intermittently, want struggle and self-sacrifice, not to mention drums, flags, and loyalty-parades.”
I often wonder whether in our times, which are otherwise exciting, we have not simply grown bored with our democracy, or at least bored with our modern technocratic form of democracy in which arguments are made about economics and statistics, and we argue about how to expand the GDP, that that’s the big project. We’ve ignored this human desire for crusades, for social change, for ideals and idealism. So many political campaigns are now won on negative slogans. But isn’t that partly because there are so few positive ones on offer? I’m sure you can guess what I will conclude with — because yes, it seems to me that this rather gloomy analysis, or an expanded version of it, has to be at the beginning of any conversation about the center-right. Unless we can grasp this change, then I don’t see how we come to terms with it. But I do believe that a positive political revolution is possible once we understand what these problems are. Some of the answers might come out of the new technology.
We’ve all seen how the Internet and social media enable new movements and parties, but there is no rule that says all those new parties have to be extremist. I’ve just recently met the leader of a new movement in Switzerland called Operation Libero, which is a group of online volunteer activists who’ve pooled their forces to fight back against the Swiss populist right. They’ve done it partly by changing the subject, partly by trying to get people not to talk about immigration but the rule of law, partly by creating coalitions, and partly by using humor and jokes. But there’s really no reason why groups set up to pursue narrow causes, whether the environment or civil rights, can’t band together into new political networks. In a number of places, that’s happening. There’s also no reason why these networks can’t be international. And, in fact, it makes sense that since the source of insecurities are international, and some of the solutions are international, that it’s time to have a transatlantic debate about the regulation of the Internet — not censorship, but the regulation or the operation of digital platforms.
Maybe it’s time to have this conversation be part of, and connect to, some of the similar conversations that are taking place in Britain and Poland and other European countries. Maybe it’s time for a transatlantic debate about a joint response to Russian and other malign influence campaigns. Maybe it’s time to reframe NATO, to think of it not just as a narrow military alliance but as a primary source of security for the West: cybersecurity, information security. Maybe it’s time to be more revolutionary in our thinking about institutional reform. Does our voting system still make sense in the 21st century? Does our Constitution still work the same way it’s supposed to? Is it okay that two senators represent the state of Wyoming with 500,000 people and two also represent California with 40 million?
Are there things Americans can learn from European democracies in the way they’re run and vice versa? What about our capitalism? Do we really want 10 percent of the world’s GDP to be in offshore tax havens, where it’s not helping support schools and infrastructure, where it’s being used to illicitly influence politics and policy all over the world? Anonymity is disastrous online, but it’s also a real menace to the international financial system. Our governments are so weak in the West that we can’t crack down on anonymous companies owned by other companies which buy up property in our cities and drive up prices.
Anyway, these are big tasks ahead of us to remake our institutions so they don’t seem out of date, to find ways to make people feel safe and secure even if we’re in a moment of really rapid and violent change, to give people in this country and around the world some reason to have faith in Western leadership again. But above all, I think if democrats are to defeat authoritarianism in the next few decades, we will have to discover once again how to inspire people, how to help them overcome fear, how to help them feel that the West is a joint project, and that we’re doing something together to make something better. We’ve done it before and I’m sure we can do it again. Thank you.
Brink Lindsey: Anne has time for a question or two, depending on how pithy they are.
Q: Thank you for a very good talk. You know, I read your Atlanticpiece and one of the most poignant aspects of it was your description of your relationships in Poland, that you were a part of this band of classical liberals when the revolution happened, or shortly after that, and all of that fell by the wayside when the populist movement emerged…
Anne Applebaum: Half, not everybody.
Q: OK, many of the relationships fell by the wayside and former friends and intellectual comrades had sort of become enemies and stopped talking to each other. A similar experience happened to me in India. But setting that aside, earlier in the first half of this conference, we heard about how rebuilding those relationships around a common set of values and causes and also rebuilding civic society around certain bonds of trust is the answer to the current moment. But if that’s the first thing that fell victim in your experience in Poland, how do you see rejuvenating that as sort of the answer to what we are going through right now?
Anne Applebaum: So how do I solve the problem of populism? [laughter] Look, some of the earlier panels came close to these very similar points. Several things are connected: the decline of civil society as we know it, the growth of the time that people spend online, the trends from real-life relationships to virtual relationships, the change in affinity and loyalty to political parties and political feelings, the growth of new identities, the connections that people make with one another that wouldn’t have happened before. These are all connected phenomenon. I think the really important point is that it’s not going to go back. We’re not going to go back to the previous system. The old party structure in Poland is not going to be the same. In Germany, it’s probably not going to be the same. The world is not going to be divided between a center-right and a center-left as it was before. Also we aren’t going to revive the old-fashioned media in the way that it existed before. Its power is gone. And so the question now is to face that head-on and say, “Okay, what does that mean?” We have these new phenomena.
Anne Applebaum: It happens that the Russians were the first to recognize the negative potential of social media and Facebook targeting. Maybe there’s a positive way to use social media and Facebook targeting. Maybe some of the ideas that Jonathan was speaking about earlier, maybe there’s a way to transfer lessons learned from Better Angels or one of those groups online. Maybe there are versions of that we could try and do. The point is that we need to begin experimenting with what works, how to connect people in positive ways instead of only negative ways, and how to use the moment so as not be caught on the back foot again. The speed of change is such that… I was on a panel in California a few months ago with Ted Koppel, who spoke very admirably and beautifully about the world as it used to be, and how we should have more civility, and how bad cable media is and cable TV is now and how it used to be better. The point is, though, that it isn’t going to go back there. And so how do we use the institutions as they are now? How do we begin thinking about pushing them in a different direction?
36:00 Brink: Okay, time for one more quick one. Soren, in the back.
Soren Dayton: Taking the examples of France and Germany with the way their party structures seem to be changing to something completely… I won’t say completely different, but certainly different although maybe not stable, looking at the streets of Paris right now. Do you see opportunities for analogous changes here? And one, could you describe for the room what you think is happening in the underlying party structures there? And, two, if there are useful analogies here, is there something stuck about our party system? Maybe we don’t need to be a center-right exactly if Europe’s an example.
Anne Applebaum: I don’t have to tell everybody — and this is an audience that knows this — that we have a huge problem with the way our voting system works. It’s first-past-the-post voting, as opposed to proportional representation which European countries find it easier. And by the way, Britain has the same problem we do. You know, the British political system is now completely out of whack. Both parties, the right and the left, are now really extreme versions of what they were a few years ago. And there’s a huge part of the country… The center literally has no political representation, and that’s again because it’s very hard inside our voting systems to create new parties. I suppose it’s very unrealistic to think about changing our voting system, but it’s something that people should keep in the back of their heads. I know that there’s an experiment in Maine with ranked-choice voting. This might be something that we could look at state by state to see if you therefore could get a more balanced range of candidates and so on.
Anne Applebaum: In both France and Germany, what is definitely happening is what I alluded to in my speech, which is the end of the two center-right, center-left blocs. I don’t want to be too nostalgic about those blocs, particularly because in France the right was always a little weird. It was a bunch of different parties with different ideologies. But certainly the center-right and certainly the center-left as we knew it, the kind of trade union-based center-left, is dying if not dead. And politics are moving towards a different construction in which instead of center-right versus center-left, it’s kind of open versus closed. And so the election where that was most clearly clarified was in the French presidential election, where you had a candidate, Macron, who was in a certain sense also a populist and also created a new party from scratch. He destroyed the old right, and you had him running against the far-right in a kind of open versus closed argument. That’s the most clear the argument has been anywhere.
Anne Applebaum: You had that also in Germany. A lot of attention gets paid to the growth of the AfD, which is the German far-right, but the growth of the German Greens is also extraordinary. And they just did really well in Bavaria, which is meant to be this super-stodgy Christian Democratic part of Germany, and actually the Greens do really well there now. And they are also kind of an open, pro-global as well as an environmentalist party. And so you have that party changing. The danger with open and closed is that at some point open will make a mistake and closed will win. And that’s kind of what happened, actually, in Poland when we had that kind of polarization around those two sets of attitudes. When the pro-European party made some mistakes and the closed party won, they immediately began to try and change the political system to end democracy. So it’s a dangerous model that I might want to be careful of.
Anne Applebaum: But we should also be thinking harder about whether our voting systems still serve us. Is this really the way? It may be a little utopian right now, but we should be thinking about whether our voting system and our Constitution work the way we want them to work now. I think that is an important road to go down.
Brink Lindsey: Thank you very much. [applause]
Panel 3: Political Prospects for a New Center-Right
Moderator: Geoffrey Kabaservice
Panelists: Whit Ayres, Juleanna Glover, Mike Murphy
Geoff Kabaservice: As some of you know, I was in Germany over the weekend, trying to do what I could to help plan this conference remotely. I couldn’t even begin to tell you what time my body thinks it is right now. Every time I go to Germany, it seems that I pick up a new word that has some relevance to my life or what’s about to follow. Last time I was there, I learned the term kummerspeck, which is literally “bacon grief.” It’s the food you eat and the weight you put on in the wake of some traumatic event, like a disappointing romantic episode. This time the term I learned was suppenkoma— “soup coma” — which is the stuporous state you find yourself falling into when you are at the first session after lunch of a conference. But fortunately we have the perfect antidote here to the soup coma, which is three of the best Republican political consultants, operatives, gurus that there are anywhere on the face of the Earth
Juleanna Glover: But I don’t consider myself a Republican anymore. [laughter]
Geoff Kabaservice: Former, present, and possibly future Republican gurus, then. So this is Juleanna Glover to my left, Whit Ayres to my right, and Mike Murphy on the far right.
Okay, so the subject of this panel is “Political Prospects for a New Center-Right.” This is where we descend from the somewhat empyrean realms of theory and philosophy into the more practical, Lenin-like question: What is to be done?
Geoff Kabaservice: Those of us on the center-right have not had a pleasant time of it for the last several years — decades, perhaps. I’m not sure how to put it exactly, but it seems that this is a moment of more significant crisis even than many in the past, and this does lead a lot of people to be asking some rather fundamental questions. If you do identify yourself as being on the center-right, is now the time when it’s maybe the moment to think about leaving the Republican Party? Perhaps the Democratic Party is more open to people who are of moderate disposition. Or maybe it’s time to actually realize that the party is changing, the world is changing, and maybe you should change along with it and go for the populism that Donald Trump has been offering Or maybe it’s time to seek a different alternative in the form of an independent third party. And these are all options that we’re going to be going through today, I suspect, in some form or other.
Geoff Kabaservice: But let me throw this one out quickly to the panelists: What do you think is the most significant electoral outcome, the thing for which the 2018 midterm elections will be remembered? Juleanna, do you want to just start us off with that?
Juleanna Glover: It strikes me that it’s going to be remembered as something of a model. You had, of course, House Democrats picking up 40 seats and then the Republicans in the Senate increasing their majority. I feel like both sides came away feeling as though they’d been validated in some way, shape, or form. So I’m not entirely sure that there were a lot of lessons out of this election. But I’d be curious to see what Whit and Mike think.
Whit Ayres: The main takeaway I have from the 2018 election is that the results reinforced and accelerated the patterns we saw in 2016. You saw rural and small-town areas becoming even more strongly Republican. At the same time, you saw the suburban areas which shocked us in 2016 becoming even more Democrat. Back when Mike Murphy and I first met in 1992, during a general election runoff in Georgia for Paul Coverdell — which we won by the way — you built Georgia’s statewide victories on large Republican leads in the two huge suburban counties outside of Atlanta, Cobb and Gwinnett, to the northwest and northeast of Atlanta. Imagine my surprise when I was going over the 2016 election results and realized that Hillary Clinton had won the two largest and formerly most Republican counties in Georgia.
Whit Ayres: And that’s exactly what’s happened. My client was Karen Handel, who managed to win a special election in June of 2017 by four percentage points in that northern district of Atlanta, Georgia 6, a district that Tom Price had won by 23 points only six months before. And in 2018, she lost that district by one point. So what’s happened from a Republican perspective is that we have traded large, fast-growing, vibrant, and more diverse suburban counties for smaller, slow-growing, more homogeneous rural counties. None of that is to denigrate the very real problems facing rural America, and they are real and need to be addressed. But from an analyst’s perspective, from a consultant’s perspective, it does not bode well for the long-term future if you’re trading these large, fast-growing counties for smaller, slow-growing counties.
Mike Murphy: I totally agree. Matter of fact, I bring you greetings from the Republican bastion, now the Democratic bastion, of Orange County, California, where Democrats swept the congressional races in 2018. Elections are a battle between perception and reality. And I think that coming out of this election, the initial perception was that the president did OK because he won the TV show of election night, which we now treat like the Super Bowl. The media, because they’re very obsessed with identity politics, followed a couple of big statewide contests: Georgia, Florida, and of course Beto/Jesus down in Texas. [chuckle] And they all lost.
Mike Murphy: And that looked like a win for Trump. So the psychology of the Republican Party did not respond appropriately to what really happened, which was a crushing defeat. It was not as bad as Obama’s midterm defeat, but that doesn’t mean it was good; it was the worst since the ‘74 Watergate wipeout. We lost, I think, nearly 400 state legislative seats. We lost control of the redistricting process in a bunch of places. We lost every level, essentially, in the Great Lakes states that elected the president. Those were the states where we had the special sauce to narrowly win the Electoral College. And most importantly, we lost a tremendous amount of political power right here in Washington, D.C. Losing the House is not trivial.
Mike Murphy: Whit is totally right about the realignment as well. It is a big deal when your party’s base is the quickest shrinking demographic in the country, because basic compounding math gives you a very bad forward projection. So I feel, looking at these elections, a little bit like Keith Richards’ doctor looking at an X-ray. If you look at the party, you’re kind of amazed it was able to walk in the door today. It’s still got some life yet, but I’m not going to lend a lot of money here unless we change it — which I guess is the purpose of this conference, to discuss those sort of things.
Geoff Kabaservice: You know, Ron Brownstein, among others, has said that this was a realigning election, and that in fact what you’re now seeing is really a stark bifurcation of not just geographic areas and cultural loyalties but also personal identities in some broader sense. What do you suppose accounted for the real loss among the suburbs that once used to vote Republican by steady margins?
Whit Ayres: That’s fairly easy, Geoff. It used to be that there was a strong linkage between economic well-being and presidential popularity. We went into this election with one of the strongest economies of our lifetimes, with a major tax cut which helped to generate the strong economy, with significant deregulation which helped to generate the strong economy, and with (at that time) a record stock market. And it wasn’t just economics. We had defeated ISIS, we had relative peace in the world. So a booming economy, peace and prosperity — and what did we run on? The dire threat of that caravan of desperate people 800 miles from our borders. Donald Trump is a nontraditional president, and Donald Trump has broken the traditional linkage between economic well-being and presidential job approval. People are evaluating this president based on his conduct and behavior in office, which the college-educated women, who tend to dominate the suburbs, found abhorrent. And I don’t think it’s any more complicated than that.
Juleanna Glover: It entirely has to do with Trump, and we are utterly indivisible from that phenomenon.
Mike Murphy: From a standard political calculation, the president was trying to lose. Because normally you have the biggest microphone in the free world as president of the United States, and you try to move the agenda to play to your strengths — in this case, the perception of the economy. Even in polling among people who don’t like Trump, they gave him some credit for improving the economy. But instead of pushing the election to that, which is the sane, normal, last-50-years-of politics rulebook, the president through his narcissism has to make it about him and whatever reality show feud we’re in, fueled by the daily Twitter news cycle. And so we did it, and we have a lot of former congressmen now. The question is, will we learn anything? Most presidents who have bad midterms adjust, but I believe Donald Trump is the atomic clock of being Donald Trump and there’s no change there, which will compound our problems. But it’s an open question I guess. I’m just not optimistic.
Geoff Kabaservice: If the Republican National Committee had a mad scientist division that after election day 2016 had swapped Mitt Romney’s brain with Donald Trump’s, would a finally-pivoting-toward-presidential-behavior Donald Trump, as head of the Republican Party, have overseen congressional losses in 2018? Or would there have been Republican gains if Trump had been a more conventional Republican president?
Juleanna Glover:You know, I feel as though this… Going back and rehashing what happened with the election and our ongoing obsession with Trump, I feel nauseous. I don’t know about the rest of you all, but it’s becoming super painful. As I’m sitting right here I can feel my phone pulsating and freaking out. I just posted a piece on Politicowhich is very, very forward looking. It argues that Joe Biden should learn from John McCain’s regret over not picking Lieberman. He should pick a Republican running-mate and run as a third-party candidate.
Geoff Kabaservice: Politico, which never gives authors their choice of their headlines, seems to have initially titled your piece “Biden-Romney 2020.”
Juleanna Glover: They changed it.
Geoff Kabaservice: That’s good.
Juleanna Glover: Basically, the title is, “Romney Should Run on a Unity Ticket and It Could Work.” I go through exactly why it could work. But my coming to this position is because of utter frustration and being sick of getting screamed at by my teenage children who look at me and ask me what the hell I’m doing about the current political situation. Being in the car with them is exhausting because they turn on NPR and they just start these primal screams of outrage. I feel like that’s a lot what Niskanen’s about, too — it’s trying to figure out what’s in the future and understanding how we got here. Talking about the election is perfectly appropriate, but it’s so hard and heartless and hopeless.
Whit Ayres: A fundamental challenge is adapting to a changing America. We clearly have a rapidly changing demographic situation, and we have a rapidly changing culture. I happen to believe that the country is still basically center-right in its outlook. I believe that the values that I grew up believing in as a Republican — of individual liberty, free enterprise, strong national defense, American exceptionalism, and strong families — know no ethnic boundaries. But it means you’ve got to adapt those values and that philosophy to a very different-looking America. We had an opportunity in 2016. I did Marco Rubio’s presidential campaign and I took a picture of a panel down in Charleston with Marco Rubio (a Hispanic-American conservative), Nikki Haley (an Indian-American conservative), Tim Scott (an African-American conservative), and Trey Gowdy (a traditional Southern white guy conservative). They were all really conservative, but they presented a totally different picture of a Republican Party that is a much better fit for the America of today. But we didn’t go that way. We went almost exactly the opposite way and ran against that new America. But our challenge remains what it was in 2016, which is to adapt a basic philosophy and outlook and set of values to a very different America.
Mike Murphy: I totally agree with Whit on this. We had a fork in the road in 2016, and the primary voters had to decide whether they were going to go with a modernized party and talk about things like income equality and update our appeal to the demography of the future, or whether we were going to do the death rattle and do grievance politics for old white guys. I’m an old white guy, but I can do math and there aren’t enough of us anymore. And I’m not really mad about a lot of stuff. But anyway, grievance won. By the way, things come in twos; there’s symmetry. Grievance had a lot of power in the Democratic Party. Bernie Sanders was a grievance candidate just like Trump, just of a very different flavor. But they’re connected against the zeitgeist because real wages have been stagnant for so long. The American Dream is now a joke to most people.
Mike Murphy: And so when the party had a chance to try to lean forward, our primary voters decided instead to shrink the tribe and defend nostalgia and run a grievance campaign. Now the problems were going to be people tunneling from Mexico to go on crime sprees and take your job, or canny Chinese trade negotiators outwitting the nitwits who work for us. I have a friend who was the U.S. trade negotiator, sub-Cabinet rank, for a long time. I won’t play poker with the guy anymore; he’s got three of my watches and an old car. It’s all a fantasy. Nobody was more surprised by that argument than the Chinese. But, again, perception is reality and Trump was able to do that. So the hard work is to somehow move the party back to a modernized conservatism that will actually have some market appeal. And the saddest thing for me, as somebody who’s been pounding on that drum for more than a decade, is the perception of this last election. Not to replay it too much, but it’s important that it did not change the internal tribal vibe of the Party, at least far enough.
Mike Murphy: Now, maybe Pelosi slamming the gavel for a while and the president compounding his own problems will do that. But we really need a snap-out-of-it moment or we’re going to conduct the experiment again and pay another huge political price. And believe me, in the age of Trump, we can see on a policy basis the danger of the populist right, not to mention tearing down institutions and frankly putting racism back in the middle of American politics. But there’s bad stuff coming on the left, too. We could go from a lost decade of the right to a lost decade of the left if we’re not careful. So this work is important. I hate to be such a downer, but we’re in the middle of a slow-motion experiment here on how the party recognizes political failure, and it may take more than a little while to snap out.
Geoff Kabaservice: In 2013, the Republican Party leadership was reeling from having lost the presidential election the year before, and from having lost the majority of the popular vote in five out of six presidential elections. And so the chairman of the RNC, who ironically enough was Reince Priebus, commissioned the Republican Growth and Opportunity Project, which became more familiarly known as the autopsy report. And the autopsy report said that the Republican Party needed to change course. It needed to stop following such a hard ideological line that was alienating people. It needed to be more welcoming and accepting of minorities, of women, of gays and lesbians. And it just needed to be more of a big-tent party generally. Donald Trump took that autopsy report playbook and burned it, stomped on the ashes, and he won. But do the 2018 election results in any way represent a vindication of the autopsy report’s conclusions?
Whit Ayres: I think the autopsy report was dead on the money. I wrote a policy book following it…
Geoff Kabaservice: 2016 and Beyond: How Republicans Can Elect a President in the New America.
Whit Ayres: I made a policy argument around the basic structure of the autopsy report. No one has repealed the demographic trends going on in this country. You’re going to, at some point, have to adapt. Now, we have an institutional defense in the wonderful system that was set up in our Constitution, where you have those smaller rural states that have as much representation as the larger urban states. That’s something of a defense. But eventually those trends are going to come to the fore. A lot of what happened in 2016 was an establishment/anti-establishment thing, which we talked about in earlier panels. We did a survey of Republican primary voters nationally for the Rubio campaign in September of 2015 and asked, “What kind of Republican nominee would you like: a proven executive with a record of conservative results, a fiscal and social conservative who shares your values, or an outsider willing to fundamentally shake up Washington?” The proven executive with a record of conservative results got 14 percent. [chuckle] I’m sorry, Mike…
Mike Murphy: Yes, I was there.
Whit Ayres: Jeb Bush and $100 million was not going to overcome 14 percent.
Juleanna Glover: For a brief period of time, Jeb was Jesus…
Whit Ayres: Well, among the establishment, but not among the Republican primary electorate. And we knew at that time that there was not a market for what he was selling, even though what he was selling was very attractive to a lot of us. Going on with those survey results, the fiscal and social conservative polled 33 percent, and we thought Marco would have a good share of that. But the outsider willing to fundamentally shake up Washington got 46 percent. That pretty well predicted Trump’s peak in most of the primaries, but it was enough in a split field to get the nomination.
Mike Murphy: The autopsy report was an excellent work product, and I highly recommend Whit’s book because it’s dead-on right. The problem with the autopsy report was that the purpose for it was somewhat cynical. There was a donor revolt post-Obama: “He has the Internet! He has the kids! We’ve gotta fix that.” So they ordered up an autopsy report which was completely right, and then they locked it in a cabinet. The problem is, the RNC can’t lead; it follows. It’s a service organization through either the grassroots of the party (which tends to dominate the committee, the voting members of the RNC), or a Republican White House, or in an open seat whoever the nominee is.
Mike Murphy: Now, we have this war of ideas that’s been going on for a while in the Republican Party that I call a battle between mathematicians and priests. You’ve got mathematicians like Whit and I who are looking at the compounding demography and seeing that we’re shrinking and shrinking and shrinking. You want to know about a party, look at the media channel it dominates. We’re the kings of AM radio with Rush. AM radio won’t be here in a decade. The kids over on the Democratic side have this fancy new thing, the Internet, which might just catch on. So we mathematicians look at this and scream, “We’ve gotta change it up! The demography is going to compound and kill us!” Mitt Romney, his dominant voter group when he ran for president — and it was the same with Trump — was people over 65. So when the Republican Party’s on the march, you can see us coming. If they ever outlaw orange or yellow tennis balls, we’re screwed. [laughter]
Mike Murphy:The priests say, “No, no, no, have faith. Super turnout, magic.” And we mathematicians say, “You priests, you’re predicting that lightning’s going to hit that tree tomorrow if we all just hold our breath and believe it.” And sure enough, in 2016 lightning did hit the tree, and the priests’ candidate won. And we’re all standing around in our academic robes being laughed at, even though we know numbers are still numbers. Whit says you can’t repeal demography. But if you’re a priest, you’re saying to your flock, “Hey, they all laughed, but I predicted lightning, and it struck! Now on to the next miracle.” And that’s part of what Trump has been able to do to the Democrats in the media. They think he’s Rasputin, that he can’t be killed. And he won again on election night in 2018. So we’re a bunch of frustrated mathematicians because we know math is real. But the autopsy, which was a product of all that, has been a little bit discredited by the fact that the thing we said would never work lost by 3 million votes, yet won in the College of Electricians, as they say back in my home town of Detroit. And here we are. So it’s going to take a while to revert to mean here, and I think it’s going to be painful.
Geoff Kabaservice: Do you have any other thoughts about the autopsy?
Juleanna Glover: Well, for the mathematicians, you have 42 percent of the voting populace who believe that they’re independent-minded. 60-some percent of voters would like to see a new party. 82 percent of millennials would like to see a new party. I’ve worked for some of the most remarkable people in the Republican Party, but this is Trump’s toy now. I don’t know the path to reclaiming it. I don’t see a path to reclaiming it. And when you do reclaim it, it’s going to be such a shrunken, shriveled portion of the voting populace that I don’t know what it’s going to be worth. When Trump is done exercising his will over the party, I have no hope that it will be something that I or anyone that I know with a college degree will want to have anything to do with.
Juleanna Glover: So all of my brain power right now — aside from my work, of course; this is what I do to stay sane — is focused on what a third-party run could look like. And this idea of two major elected officials that have big name ID and strong favorabilities… We’ll go out and poll the Biden-Romney ticket next week and see what we get. We’ll poll it in the big, electoral-rich states. My guess is that in a Trump-Pence, Bernie-Kamala election, a bipartisan unity ticket of Biden-Romney could pull a plurality. And if you pull a plurality, you get all the electoral votes in those states. The path to 270 might not be that hard if you start with a Democratic-leaning, top-of-the-ticket state and run to win in California, New York, and the Northeast — essentially Hillary Clinton’s path.
Geoff Kabaservice: Let me ask you all, then… Do you feel that the Republican Party is still salvageable and the best vehicle for achieving the good, decent conservative ends that you have believed in throughout your careers?
Mike Murphy: Well, I say that in 1947, Volkswagen was not in good shape, yet they’re the largest world-wide car company now. Rebuilding does have an upside. But it’s going to be a long-term thing. There has to be a center-right vehicle because there’s a center-right attitude and, I would argue, a center-right majority of opinion. The problem is that the Republican brand, to harness that opinion, has a lot of trouble right now. It’s limited. Trump has backed us up into a cul-de-sac demographically, which isn’t enough to be a successful political party. So a Trump-defined Republican Party is that Keith Richards X-ray: not a good long-term prognosis. But politics tends to be very dynamic and does tend to reinvent itself, so I have some optimism in the longer term that it can be reconstructed. But it won’t be quick and it won’t be easy.
Whit Ayres: Individuals are really important. And we saw that with Donald Trump. We’d have a different world if Marco Rubio had been the presidential nominee of the Republican Party. I honestly don’t know how to answer that question without knowing two things: What’s in the Mueller report and how does the Trump era end? If it ends with his re-election and a reasonably successful second term (at least economically), it’s a very different picture than if he gets impeached and removed from office. And so I really… I can’t get a good bead on it until we know those two things.
Geoff Kabaservice: On the subject of a third party, there has not been a successful third party in America since the Republican Party itself. From a historical perspective, I think it was Richard Hofstadter who said that third parties are like bees: they sting and then they die. That is to say, they seize upon some issue which has been ignored or repressed by the two established parties, they bring it to p ublic prominence, they make a big splash, and eventually one of the two parties (usually the governing party) adopts that cause as its own and the third party goes away. Political scientists believe in something called Duverger’s Law, which says that first-past-the-post, single-member districts structurally favor a two-party system, in addition to all of the various discriminations that are set up against third parties by our election laws. Nonetheless, the idea of a third party is pretty appealing, is it not, to a lot of people?
Mike Murphy: Oh, it’s tremendously appealing. It’s emotionally powerful: “Boy, I can vote against all these jerks and have a utopian choice!” Look, if I thought it was workable, I might be for it. But one of the problems is you get people from the left who want a third party and people from the right who want a third party — because everybody agrees a third party means “not what I don’t like.” And then you put ‘em all in a room together and a riot breaks out. The real problem… How many of you have had Dasani bottled water? Oh, come on, more than that… We all can kind of agree: Dasani bottled water is pretty crappy bottled water, with apologies to whoever’s listening from Dasani. Did anybody ever walk a mile for a Dasani? No! Well, why do you drink it if it’s not very good? Distribution — it’s everywhere. It’s in your hotel mini fridge, it’s at the McDonald’s drive-in window, it’s at the 7-11. You know why it’s everywhere? It’s the bottled water of the Coca-Cola Company; 50,000 trucks delivering a lot of beverages every day. That is the problem with the third party. Our distribution system in American politics is basically set up for Coke and Pepsi. So if we decide, “Hey, we’ve got new, improved third-party soda here,” step one, we’ve got to be on every ballot — and the two parties’ incumbents elect the people who control the ballot process. So our system is incredibly hostile to a third-party candidacy.
Mike Murphy: Now, in the future blockchain, you’re going to be able to vote on this. And when you vote like that, the distribution starts to be broken down tremendously. If you were to vote on this now, Putin would be elected president; in five years it would be Xi. But eventually, we’re going to have blockchain voting, which will allow us to break down some of the distribution. At that point the third-party thing may start to work. Now, I’ve worked all over the world, and I’ve worked for some places that have a multi-party system; be careful what you wish for. I’ve seen elections where the beer brand comes in third. But still there is a demand in the marketplace for more choices, and right now the distribution monopoly — or the moat, I guess, as Warren Buffett would say — makes it very hard to solve the Trump problem. So I’m pessimistic about it as a short-term, workable idea. It could just be a spoiler situation where you split the anti-Trump vote. I can argue that if I were a Trump partisan, I’d say “Bring on a third party! We’ll get all the suburban Volvo-driving moms to vote for somebody — that 12 percent I’ll never get — and we’ll get all the base Democrats all to vote for somebody, and I’ll glide right in there with 43 percent of the vote.”
Juleanna Glover: Mike, what you just said is an admirable, intellectually thought-through argument. But the same exact thing could have been said three years ago about Trump.
Mike Murphy: Oh no, I didn’t make a distribution argument about Trump.
Juleanna Glover: It’s just as preposterous to think about a third party now as it was for us in December of 2015 to be thinking about Donald Trump as president. What I’m suggesting is that the system as we know it is broken. It doesn’t seem to be working the way it was intended. I think we should break it further. I think we should destroy the two-party system. Yes, absolutely, the narrow dichotomy of the two parties has all the power, all the money, all of the systems, all of the history, all of the professionals. But if there was a way to aggregate the brains and the billions behind someone with big-name ID and high favorabilities, there is no structural reason why that person couldn’t get to 270. And not getting to 270 would not be such a bad thing, because right now everybody in this room who believes that Trump should not receive a second term is entirely reliant on the Democrats to get it right in their primary process. I don’t want to take that bet. That is not something that I want to bet my children’s future or my own future on.
Juleanna Glover: However, if, let’s say, you run a third-party candidate and they end up throwing the election to the House — that’s a secret-ballot process. What’s more risky, relying on the Democrats to get it right or relying on a House that is either Republican- or Democrat-controlled to vote via secret ballot on who should be the next president?
Mike Murphy: Well, remember, when they vote in the House you’re asking both parties to vote to put themselves out of business at the presidential level. I’ve been in politics 30 years, and that’s a big ask.
Juleanna Glover: Yeah, but you’ve got Trump in the process.
Mike Murphy: The other thing is, how do you get ballot access?
Juleanna Glover: Which one of these guys would win on a secret ballot? It’s equally murky on either side, relying on the Democrats or relying on the House at this point in time.
Mike Murphy: But to get ballot access you’re going to have to have some states where it’s easy, along with a lot of states where it’s hard. And you’re going to go to that state, be it labor Democrats or Trump Republicans who dominate the process, and say, “Hey, can you let somebody who’s running against your franchise on the ballot help out?” There aren’t a lot of statehouses where I think that’ll resonate. Look, I wish it could happen, but I’m a practical politician.
Geoff Kabaservice: Donald Trump has never been a Republican; I think we can agree on that. He is in effect a representative of a populist party. He chose to take over the Republican Party since he thought that was a better route to power. Had he run as a third-party candidate he likely would have tipped the balance to Hillary Clinton in a big way.
Whit Ayres: I’ve spent my entire career arguing against the possibility of a third party for all the reasons Mike just articulated. After 2016, I’m a little less sure of a lot of things in American politics. And if Bernie Sanders had won the Democratic nomination and the choice had been Bernie versus Trump, there would have been a huge market for something else.
Juleanna Glover: In the middle.
Whit Ayres: Now, the institutional barriers that Mike talks about are very real, but if the Democrats come up with some far left-wing whackjob in 2020, if it’s Elizabeth Warren versus Donald Trump, there’s sure going to be a market for something else.
Juleanna Glover: But we won’t know the Democratic nominee until May or June, and by then it will be too late for a third-party candidate to get on most ballots.
Whit Ayres: Bloomberg looked at that. That was his third-party plan, it was very much predicated on the possibility of a Sanders vs. Trump race in 2016. But his people took a very good look at the machinery, and they concluded that it was just too tough. Now, in the fullness of time, the market will get what the market’s looking for. But in the short-term… Go ahead, I didn’t mean to interrupt, Juleanna.
Juleanna Glover: I was just going to say that we won’t know until May or June of 2020 who the Democrats are going to nominate, and at that point in time it’ll be too late to really stand up an effective third-party candidate. And there’s just too much at stake not to go ahead and build a redundancy in the system now.
Geoff Kabaservice: Jacob Lupfer, who’s here with us and is a consultant to a lot of independent candidates, made the interesting observation that we actually did see the first operations in this last election of a real innovation that could advantage independent or third-party candidates. That was the Maine 2nd District election where, for the first time, you had the possibility of ranked-choice voting. And that meant that, in this case, people who were voting for the independent candidate were not just spoilers, in effect throwing the race to the candidate they liked the least. They could cast their vote for whoever they wanted, but then they also listed their second choice.
Juleanna Glover: They have the ranked choices…
Geoff Kabaservice: And there’s something to be said for that. But a lot of people have pointed to the example of California, where now the Republican Party is actually the third party behind “do not state.” But I’ve always been a little suspicious of independents. There seems to be a large number of independents out there, but a lot of people are independent because they think that the existing parties are too wimpy and they would prefer something much wilder and more extreme. So convince me, if you can, that there actually is a kind of center-right, center-left coalition in the making that could unite behind an independent candidate.
Juleanna Glover: The numbers are transparent. Yes, there is the argument that the 40-plus percent of people who identify as independents do so because they don’t want to be clearly categorized left or right, or they do clearly sympathize one way or the other, and they’re not “true independents.” But the American people have been asked repeatedly in polls for many years now whether they’d like a third party, and in the 50 and 60 percentiles they say they do. The most recent poll among Democrats and Republicans… I think it was a smaller number of Republicans who wanted a third party, while more Democrats than Republicans wanted to see a third party arise. The demand exists. We’re just not meeting market demand for some inexplicable reason. We just don’t have the will, or we think it’s too hard and it has never been done before. But again, Trump — the whole concept of this man as president had never been done before.
Geoff Kabaservice: Let me go back to the autopsy report for a minute. You had said, Whit, that the ideas and the principles of the autopsy report were correct, but you’ve criticized it in your book, saying it didn’t actually recommend any concrete policies. What would you recommend to a Republican Party that actually wanted to reach out beyond its fervent but shrinking and demographically and economically downwardly mobile constituencies?
Whit Ayres: Well, there are some things that need to be changed and there are other things that do not. Reagan, in his farewell address, talked about a shining city on a hill. And he said that if the city had to have walls, then the walls would have doors that would be open to anyone with the will and the heart to get here. I think a very different attitude about immigration is going to be pretty important for a growing, big-tent Republican Party. I think that changing attitudes about gay rights and gay marriage is critical to get any kind of millennial support. On the other hand, on abortion, the entire country basically is where it was in 1973 when Roe v. Wadewas passed. There’s some small group that believes abortion ought to occur in every possible circumstance a woman would want, and another small group that believes abortion should never be allowed under any circumstances. But the vast majority of the country believes it ought to be allowed in some circumstances but not others, and we fight about those circumstances.
Whit Ayres: The idea that Republicans would have to be pro-choice in order to be competitive — I just don’t buy that, because the country hasn’t changed on abortion. But the idea that Republicans can be against gays and against gay marriage is fanciful. If you do a long-term track on attitudes toward gay marriage, it looks an awful lot like the long-term track on attitudes toward interracial marriage. In 1958, 4 percent of the people believed interracial marriage was fine. Today you ask the question and it’s like, “What? Are you seriously suggesting that if a black and a white person want to get married, it ought to be illegal?” The lines crossed back in the ‘60s on interracial marriage, and the lines crossed on gay marriage during George W. Bush’s first term, and you’re not going to go back on those. So a lot of it depends upon the particular issue you’re talking about.
Mike Murphy: Whit made a point in his book that I want to sing harmony on, and which he just repeated. Doing an autopsy is fairly hard because you’ve got to get a lot of smart people in the party to be honest even when it doesn’t reinforce dogma. But the really hard thing — which is the really effective thing — is changing policy. And that’s where no attempt was made after the autopsy report. Policy changes would have ten times the effect of, “Hey, have a mariachi band at the next rally!” — which was the level of Hispanic engagement the party committed to. It would make all the difference in the world. But the problem is that you have the long-term goal of playing general election, future demographic politics against pols who are aligned to their short-term interests. It’s the same reason that in the Democratic caucus, you don’t see a lot of people saying, “Hey, what are we going to do about these teachers unions in public schools?” They don’t have that discussion either because their short-term interest is surviving the next primary.
Mike Murphy: Now, one thing about California, which is a small penlight of hope… We’ve had a reform… It’s not like Maine, but in California basically everybody’s on the same ballot. So the primary election is allied to the general election population, and the top two then have a runoff. Sometimes that means that the Republican tribe will nominate an unelectable candidate, like we just did in the governor’s race, and the Democratic candidate can sleepwalk to a victory. But in a lot of legislative races — and in some congressional races, though not in this terrible wave year — what’s happening is that it boils down to two candidates: the left-wing Democrat and the pro-business Democrat. In some cases the left-wing Democrat is opposed by a moderate Republican, and in some other cases the opponent is a “decline to state” independent hybrid candidate. And that can be a competitive thing. We’ve had some success at that. So these reforms to loosen up the primary grip are pretty important to ever get to the kind of math where the Republican Party can align with the face of the future America. America under 18 is only 56 percent Caucasian. Young voters in time become all voters, and right now we’re only competitive with that 56 percent.
Geoff Kabaservice: Let me get back to what seems a fundamental point here. The Republican Party of the past was a much more heterogeneous party than the one we’ve had for the last several decades since the triumph of the conservative movement. The Republican Party used to say, “Look, we understand that you Republicans who are running in districts in different parts of the country will necessarily need to respond to the different demands of your constituents. Therefore, we will not lay down a litmus test on certain social issues.” And what probably would have happened, absent the Supreme Court’s decision on Roe v. Wade, is that you would have seen a number of pro-choice Republicans in states where abortion was legal and a number of pro-life Republicans and Democrats in the states that chose not to go that route. But instead, the Supreme Court said abortion must be legal in all states.
Geoff Kabaservice: And then, on the other hand, you have ideological Republicans saying, “We cannot permit moderates to remain in this party, an impure and heretical element in our midst.” Do you think it would be a good idea to go back to a more heterogeneous Republican Party which did not have a kind of ideological template of conservatism?
Juleanna Glover: You know my answer on that. [laughter]
Mike Murphy: Look, we’re heading toward being the Congressional party of the gated suburban community in the minority of no political power. Let’s see how we like that. It used to be that there were roughly a hundred members of Congress between the most liberal Republican and the most conservative Democrat. Now it’s like 12. And one thing we’ve done is to invent this great new business of cable TV news where everybody can have a network telling them what they already think is true with a lot of exclamation points, and that is a way to enforce tribal loyalty. We’ve given most of them safe seats, so all they worry about is their primary. The only voters they deal with are super tribal voters. This is very true on the Dem side, too. So that is a disincentive for anybody to move away from the tribal corner, and that clogs things up.
Whit Ayres: We lost many of the most reasonable Republican House members in 2018. We’re going to see how we like that, because they lost to generally very liberal Democrats, which means the House is likely to be even more dysfunctional in the future than it has been in the past.
Geoff Kabaservice: If you were one of those surviving Tuesday Group, comparatively moderate Republicans in the House, what would your advice be to them? What ought they to be doing in the next Congress and beyond?
Juleanna Glover: Change parties. Support a third party.
Mike Murphy: Raise hell.
Whit Ayres: Yeah, raise hell, but they don’t have the power to affect much.
Geoff Kabaservice: So essentially they’re just an impotent minority?
Mike Murphy: Well, they should do the right thing, I believe, and try to make incremental progress. One, all Republicans are the minority now, so they’re all moving to small offices and they’re all in for a whole new life. But I do believe that there’s a moral dimension to politics. They ought to speak up. The majority of them have been slow to do so considering the sins of the party. I wish more people would say something. They all think it privately, by the way. I’ve worked for a ton of ‘em, and so has Whit. I wish I had a dime for every one of them who calls me up and says, “You know, I think Trump’s unfit to be in office.” I go, “I say it every day and catch hell for it every day inside the party. Why don’t you say it?” And they reply, “Well, look. If I were to hold a press conference tomorrow and sound like you, or a Trump critic, I’d feel great. I’d tell the truth! And an hour later, Trump wouldn’t change and I’d have a primary. And then some guy in an aluminum-foil astronaut suit would beat me and lose to a labor Democrat.” [laughter] So I say, “Well, if 20 of you would do it, it would change the world.” And they say, “Great, call me when you get the first five.”
Whit Ayres: I am much more sympathetic toward those Republicans who watch what they say than I suspect many of you in this room are. Bob Corker’s a client of ours. Bob Corker said a couple of minor things about the president, and his “favorable” rating among Republicans was cut in half in two weeks. You don’t solve a lot of problems if you’re not at the table. Rep. Tom Cole, one of the brightest Republicans…
Juleanna Glover: A good man.
Whit Ayres:He told me a story one time that has really stuck in my head. He said, “You know, Whit, I got 73 percent in my district in the last election. Donald Trump got 69 percent. I think if I get in a fight with Donald Trump, he’ll keep his 69 percent and I’ll keep my 4 percent.” [laughter] But there it is. There it is.
Mike Murphy: Tom’s a good friend of mine as well, and he’s a very shrewd political observer. But it used to be they were compromising to avoid the guillotine of a primary against Trump. Some retired, by the way, rather than face that threat of a primary, and that’s one of the reasons we lost the House. But now they’re looking at two guillotines: the Trump guillotine in the primary and the general election guillotine as they watch their friends leave. Don’t think the senators aren’t thinking about this now. Because the plan for this year was to run up our Senate majority in order to take heavy weather in 2020. We got a few gains, but not nearly what we should have gotten based on the math. That Trump headwind cost us the opportunity for more seats. So now they’re looking at double guillotines in 2020. There’s no percentage in being public about this, but underneath the surface the political calculus is changing.
Geoff Kabaservice: I feel like there’s a lot of interest in questions from the audience. I actually want to call on somebody here first. Jonathan Chait wrote an article back in 2012 about the decimation of Republican moderates, and he basically said that you Republican moderates who think that things are going to get better are like Charlie Brown eternally having the football pulled away from him by Lucy. You’re naive at best, and it’s never going to get better. And at this point he sees no reason, I think, to revise his thesis. But Jonathan, why don’t you give your opinion now?
Jonathan Chait: Right. I’ve been following a lot of the work of the Niskanen Center, which I think is actually addressing the most important problem in American politics, which is the lack of a rational, pragmatic, center-right party in the United States. And I have a different solution, I think — that’s why you called on me — than you have on the panel. My solution is that your party needs to die in a fire. [laughter]
Juleanna Glover: That’s happening now, right?
Jonathan Chait: Well, I’ll explain why it needs to die in a fire. It’s because every other major center-right country in the world has some pragmatic relationship with government. Every other major center-right party believes that taxes have to have some relation to government spending. They don’t believe in supply-side economics anywhere in the world except for the United States. All of them believe climate science is real and not a scientific plot, and they believe they need to do something to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. All of them believe that the government has to cover everyone for health insurance because the market simply can’t do it. And no one in the Republican Party believes any of those things. Even the most moderate people, like Susan Collins and Olympia Snowe, who were the most moderate Republican members of the Senate. But when the Obama administration was doing health care reform, they went to Collins and Snowe and asked, “At the end, what can you agree to? Give us anything.” And the answer was, “Nothing. We can’t give you anything. Not Mitt Romney’s health care plan, nothing. No deal on health care.”
Jonathan Chait: And the same thing on taxes. When the Trump tax cut came down, they were all for it. Even Susan Collins said, “This $2 trillion tax cut is really going to raise money for the government. It’s not going to cost us anything.” Even she endorsed this fanciful supply-side economics notion. So I think your project is extremely important at the Niskanen Center, but in relation to the Republican Party, and in relation to other conservative parties in the world, you’re nowhere, you’ve got nothing, nothing to build on. So the only way you’re ever going to get there is if everyone associated with this party is gone — if everyone loses, everyone completely forgets their institutional memory of how the Republican Party of the last generation was synonymous with the conservative movement, and the conservative movement was synonymous with the idea that we can never raise taxes, government is always the problem, and that the government bureaucrats have to be ignored in any context.
Jonathan Chait: So I think if you actually follow what this center has been suggesting as the policy remedies — not saying “We need to get to big government or socialism,” in fact having a lot of disagreements with the left wing of the Democratic Party, but getting to some pragmatic outcomes — I just see nothing in the current Republican Party that can ever get you there. I think you need biblical Sodom and Gomorrah destruction. Burn down everything that’s left. You can’t have just one defeat or even two, but a string of epic defeats. Then you can get to the point where you can, as you say, start over. And that’s very different from the kind of remedies you’re suggesting. So I’m asking that for you to push back on.
Mike Murphy: Well, yeah, let me take one point which is that we have a secret Republican survival plan.
Juleanna Glover: Which is?
Mike Murphy: We do.
Juleanna Glover: No one told me this, Mike.
Mike Murphy: I’ll explain how it works. We screw everything up, we implode politically, the left is elected into power, and we have a lost decade. And then all we have to do is breathe and we’re re-elected as a consequence of that. That’s a very expensive way to run a superpower, though. I think I’m more sympathetic to the creative destruction theory on the federal Republicans than are most Republicans. I’m not leaving the party, at least yet, because I’m a conservative. But at the state and local level, we’re actually having some success. Not necessarily political success, because there was the blue wave. But look at two of the bluest states in America that just re-elected Republican governors because they have their own identity a million miles from the federal show. So there is strength out where we are connected to governing in the states.
Mike Murphy: Now, the federal thing is a mess. I couldn’t agree more. Because we’ve decided to become the Vichy Republicans for Trump, and I believe it’s a moral stain. In addition, I’m a deficit-hating, free-trade Republican, so obviously I have a lot to be unhappy about. But I think you have to look at this in bigger cycles. Remember, there is no room where they meet and say, “All right, here’s the Republican plan. We’re going to do this tomorrow and rebuild everything.” There’s a bunch of politicians trying to survive their federal micromarket of primary voters. And there’s this guy at the top who has done a populist takeover of the party and has a stranglehold on about half the primary vote, maybe even 65 percent of it, depending on the state. So until that equation is broken by big factors, which it probably will be by the president’s own behavior in time, the federal folks are captive in some ways. The state ones, not so much. So that’s where I think the energy for a rebuild could come from. Because the party can never disappear. There will always be something, because there’s always a market for “Not the Others.”
Juleanna Glover: I’m cool with them going the way of the Whigs. [laughter]
Geoff Kabaservice:Andrew, can you address the young woman right here in the center?
Robin Tiner: So just along the lines of the third-party or mixed-ticket proposals that you had… I’m all for independents. I understand that all the parties would fight it, but there’s a desire for that. But there was also something brought up earlier that then kind of has just gone away, and that is that in the 2016 elections it was so much establishment versus anti-establishment, and the most popular candidates out there were Bernie Sanders and Trump, which everybody laughed about and everybody joked about. So if you come up with a ticket that’s the Jeb-Hillary ticket, those are the people nobody wanted. So how do you design a ticket that doesn’t forget the lesson of so many anti-establishment voters? Or how do you learn from the people who say, “I’m not taking money from big donors” — the people who are the ones winning elections now?
Juleanna Glover: It’s an excellent question. I’d love to hear Whit talk about this. But my non-mathematician take on this would be… You pointed out that 46 percent of Republicans believe that…
Whit Ayres: They wanted an outsider willing to fundamentally shake up Washington.
Juleanna Glover: So I view those people as the flip-the-table voters. They want chaos over anything else. They view what they have before them as not working for them. They just want to fundamentally change the environment. Maybe no matter how it ends up there’s a likelihood that it could end up better for them, and they want to run that risk. I think that there are Democrats on the other side who feel the same way. But 46 percent… That’s a significant part of the Republican Party, but it’s not all of the Republican Party. And I’m super keen to test the proposition of whether a big-name, high favorability, third-party bipartisan unity ticket can actually gain support. But the numbers suggest that it could very much happen.
Geoff Kabaservice: Whit, do you want to respond?
Whit Ayres: I think I’ve addressed the third party thing. A lot of it depends upon who it is, what their appeal is, if they can reach across and get some of the anti-establishment people while still speaking to that broad middle that is fundamentally unrepresented. But I don’t know who that is.
Mike Murphy: Politics is not static. It evolves and changes. Opinions change. So there’s this great anti-establishment energy because people think the Washington political class and the Wall Street class, among a lot of other things, have failed them, and they’re looking at their real buying power diminish. But if wages do start to creep up, and we do have good economic growth now, that’s not necessarily an always vote. I’m a believer that people often vote for what they perceive they did not get the last time. And if you look at our presidential cycle… You can really over-simplify it. But you had the incredibly great — and God bless him, we’ve been pining for him for a week — President George H. W. Bush. A world leader, sophisticated, impeccable ethics, war hero. But then people perceived that he had trouble at the supermarket checkout scanner, so we concluded, “He doesn’t understand us.” So we went to the trailer park and found Bill Clinton, who really understood us. But then Bill Clinton might have understood us a little too well, so we went back to the Bush family for Clinton’s opposite, George W. Bush, who was going to bring honor and dignity back to the White House. And he did really well, he was very popular, very connected to people. No more scandals inside the Oval Office.
Mike Murphy: And then, wait a minute, W’s speeches seemed to stumble. He wasn’t very eloquent. Who is this guy? Is he smart? It’s perception, not reality. Then what did we do? We went to the law professor, the brilliant speaker — the opposite again. But then people thought, “Maybe he’s weak. He’s drawing red lines that people are dancing on. There’s no strength there.” So then we wound up with the tough guy from TV who fired Gilbert Gottfried. Trump was the guy who would fire you if you didn’t sell enough frozen yogurt on a game show in a cardboard set designed to look like a boardroom with celebrities who were paid to pretend to work for him. The question is, do we do that again? Or do we go for another opposite: competence, no drama? That, I think, is the big turning-point question of politics. It will be how mad the middle class and the working poor are. Will they want to vote again to blow things up? Or will they vote for something different in tone and style and capability that could very well be the opposite of what we have now?
Whit Ayres: Yep, good point, Mike.
Geoff Kabaservice: Let’s take that question in the corner back there. And I’m actually reminded of the Onionheadline back around the time of George W’s inauguration: “My fellow Americans, our long national nightmare of peace and prosperity is finally over.” Go ahead.
J. Lyman: I want to touch on one thing you haven’t gotten at directly. Juleanna knows I ran the third-party vice presidential campaign last cycle [for the Libertarian vice-presidential candidate, former Massachusetts Gov. Bill Weld] when we were at 13 percent of the polls. My guy was number two to the dope-smoking guy who didn’t know about Aleppo. We got tens of millions of dollars dumped on us in August, which led us to drop to 4 percent and not make the debates. That strikes me as structurally inherent. So I hear about providing something that the market wants, but your analogy to Coke and Pepsi, I think, is exactly right. The Republican Party… I happen to accept your premises on the far side of the room about what I would think of as the Book of Revelations future for it. But I have a different conclusion, which is that instead everyone deserting the Republican Party, people should join it. If you can change your gender, you can definitely change your party registration. [laughter]
J. Lyman: There is a near perfect correlation between sitting presidents who have faced primary challengers in their own party and have lost. Five faced challenges, and four of them lost. Seven didn’t, and they all won. One faced a challenge and won, and that was Dick Nixon in ‘72, but he cheated. I have the same premise you have, Juleanna, but I favor the vehicle of a Republican Party primary challenge, because that overcomes the barriers to entry that a third-party candidate would have to face. So what is the profile of someone who would cause people to come into the Republican primary? This is not a general election strategy, it’s a primary strategy; 58 percent of Republican delegates are selected in primaries that are either open or allow same-day registration.
Geoff Kabaservice: Let’s start with Juleanna.
Juleanna Glover: I don’t know the answer to that. I think anybody who runs against Trump is going to run into a buzzsaw. We don’t know how Mueller is going to turn out. But if things continue apace, based on what we know now, Trump will beat a primary challenger and he could very well win the White House again. So that’s the limit of my knowledge there. I don’t know of any Republicans at all who can challenge and beat him.
Whit Ayres: Are you talking about a primary challenger who could defeat Trump in the primaries, or just one that could weaken him like Pat Buchanan weakened George H. W. Bush?
J. Lyman: Like Pat Buchanan, Eugene McCarthy, Ted Kennedy… Every single one of them lost the nomination, but the incumbent (except in the case of Pete McCloskey and Nixon) then lost the general election. I’m a little less interested in what the outcome is. I think it’s much more interesting to think who is likely to do that.
Mike Murphy: I wrote a thing in Politicomagazine about eight months ago about this: How do you primary a president? First, I’d say Mike Bloomberg is trying to do that to some extent in the Democratic Party, and God bless him. I think it would be great for America if they nominate him, because it’d be a grown-up. As far as the Republican primary, here’s the problem — and I think John Kasich is probably thinking this. You go to New Hampshire, where Kasich did pretty well. Let’s say he beats Trump there. Would Trump then be so overwhelmed with shame, like LBJ, that he drops out? Well, the shame weapon doesn’t work on Donald Trump. We’ve acid-tested that idea. [laughter]
Mike Murphy:You’ve got to get somebody who’s in there and slugs away. And your analysis is completely right. The incumbent president holds the nomination even if challenged, but they’re weakened. I think we are only halfway through the story of who Donald Trump will be a year from now entering the primaries. And if he’s weak enough, he’ll get several primary opponents. If he’s not weak enough, he may have one symbolic one where it’ll be the same result: the primary will not make him stronger, it’ll make him weaker. And it’s almost irrelevant who it is as long as it’s a credible candidate.
Geoff Kabaservice: Okay, Andrew, can you bring the microphone all the way up here? Shikha Dalmia…
Shikha Dalmia: I work for Reasonmagazine, so I can’t completely agree with Jonathan and the outcome he wants for the Republican Party. But I do agree with him that the Republican Party will have to burn in a fire before it can be reborn. And let me present a scenario to you where this could happen. You mentioned the autopsy report after the 2012 election, but Sean Trende at that time also did another analysis where he pointed out that in that election there were 6 million missing white voters who did not come out. And he suggested that there were two routes for the Republicans to win. One was the route that the autopsy report presented, and the other one was to get these missing white voters out. And his analysis was that the latter would allow the Republicans to win elections for the next several cycles, after which they would hit the demographic wall that the autopsy report pointed out.
Shikha Dalmia: He said in the interim, however, something along the lines of what Trump later would do would work: a soft restrictionism and an emphasis on the entitlement state, boosting Social Security and Medicare. Then Trump came and used a script that was what Trende suggested on steroids. Now, at this stage, it’s very difficult for the Republican Party to pivot from what Trump has opened up. There will be political entrepreneurs in the Republican Party that will run with what Trump has shown them. And so the only way to prevent that from happening is if there is hell and hellfire on the Republican Party and it burns down. So then the question becomes: How does one make it happen so that when the demographic shift happens there is a Republican Party that can actually be standing and take advantage of that? What are your thoughts on that?
Whit Ayres: What precisely is the question?
Shikha Dalmia: The question is, can the Republican Party pivot without first burning down?
Whit Ayres: I’m one of those optimists who think the answer to that is yes, with good leadership and the right people at the head of it. As I’ve said before, I think we’d have a different world today if Marco Rubio had gotten the nomination rather than Donald Trump. Sean’s analysis, I think, said that there were 3 million white voters who didn’t turn out, and Mitt Romney lost by 5 million, so that wasn’t the way you did it; the way you could do it was by changing which white voters turned out and voted for him, which is exactly what happened in the Great Lakes states. But let’s keep in mind, Trump got 46 percent of the vote; he didn’t come close to winning a majority of the popular vote.
Whit Ayres: In the election we just had, Republican candidates nationally for the House won 45.4 percent of the vote. That is not a coincidence that we’re stuck right there in the mid-40s. Now, you develop a strategy for winning the Electoral College again while losing the popular vote by millions of votes… good luck with that. Trump managed to pull it off. I like Mike’s analogy, lightning striking the tree, and it struck that tree. But I don’t know any strategist in their right mind who would plan to lose the popular vote by millions of votes and yet still win the presidency.
Mike Murphy: Yeah, we give Trump a lot of credit for winning, but it was like a calculus win; it’s in a range. If four butterflies had landed differently in Michigan it might have popped the other way. We’ve only had five of these elections in the modern era where the popular vote doesn’t align to the Electoral College vote; it never happened in the 20th century. It has happened twice in the 21stcentury, in 2000 and now with Trump, and it happened three times in the 19th century. By the way, do you know who invented the Electoral College? Alexander Hamilton. That’s one song that didn’t make the musical. [laughter]
Mike Murphy: It is very hard to draw to an inside straight like that again. And you can actually do a computer simulation now where you take the exit poll results… And there’s a margin of error, so don’t bet your life. But you take what happened on election day where he did win, and you apply it to life insurance actuarial tables of who’s not with us anymore — our base — and who was 17 or 18 or 19 and is now old enough to vote. And Trump loses, just based on demography. Now obviously we don’t know who his 2020 opponent will be. God bless the Democrats, they are our survival policy. [chuckle] So there are many factors we can’t count in. But I’m not at all sure, particularly looking at the Great Lakes in this election. Michigan, my home state, where Trump did really well in 2016, did not so well for Republicans in 2018. So we will see. But Whit’s right, nobody who does politics for living and has done so successfully looks at that card trick and says, “Easy to repeat.”
Geoff Kabaservice: Last question here, over there on the edge.
Neil Munro: My name is Neil Munro and I work for Breitbart. So I want to ask you the emergency national disaster question: When all else fails, what would you give the voters in terms of immigration, labor, wages, to vote for a candidate you guys prefer? That’s it. What are you going to give the voters? Are you going to make any trade with Trump’s voters to get them on your side?
Mike Murphy: I’d give them wages instead of racism.
Neil Munro: And how would you do wages?
Mike Murphy: Oh, no, look, I’m not there yet, but I’m coming around to some of this Nick Hannaman stuff about what happened in Seattle when they voted for the minimum wage there. All my free enterprise instincts didn’t like it, but it kind of worked. It’s kind of a Model-T argument: You pay people a little more, they can buy the product they make.
Neil Munro: Okay, so if you do the…
Mike Murphy: So I think… Let me finish. I think… And this will be the first time I’ve ever been quoted by Breitbart… [chuckle] I’ve read a couple of interesting articles about me there, but I’ve never been called by Breitbart.
Neil Munro: Perhaps we are still waiting for your return call.
Mike Murphy: I think the Republican Party… And again, will it happen in the short term? I doubt it. But we definitely need to be in the higher real wages business, no doubt about it. Because Trump takes that energy… Yeah, but what does Trump to do? Does he raise wages? No. He starts a trade war that’s throwing people I care about in Michigan out of work in manufacturing plants.
Neil Munro: So with that wage point…
Mike Murphy: Yeah, the point is that as policy, not as cheap rhetoric, we’ve got to offer a middle-class economic agenda and make people think the American Dream is back, and that anybody can get ahead in America, and that’s the side we’re on. Also fixing public institutions, so if you go to a public school in America you’ve got a shot no matter where you live. But we tried that agenda with a guy named Jeb Bush and a guy named Marco Rubio, and the primary voters didn’t want it. But we’re going to try again and again and again, because we’re right.
Neil Munro: Higher wages, fair enough.
Mike Murphy: Yep.
Neil Munro: On the higher wages, our readers, many Americans, do not believe you can raise higher wages by bringing in an unlimited number of migrants to pursue jobs because, hey, we trust in the one thing that’s always true, supply and demand. So how are you going to raise wages unless you give in on cheap labor migration?
Mike Murphy: Well, look, we can get into an economic debate, but we don’t have a lot of time. I’m due at the White House for my job interview in five minutes… [laughter]
Neil Munro: This will be very useful.
Mike Murphy: It’s not a simple supply-and-demand thing, because the labor market is stratified by skills. And a flood of unskilled labor is not the biggest wage problem. The biggest wage problem we have for semi-skilled labor is productivity increases: robotics, computers, all the things we’ve done that have been good, but we have not figured out how to retrain people to keep having an economic value later in life.
Neil Munro: A coherent answer, but perhaps other people would disagree. Mr. Ayres, would you go so far as to say raising wages in the marketplace?
Whit Ayres: I think I agree with Mike that the major threat to people who do not have college degrees comes from automation and robotics and a global economy, rather than the lower-wage workers working in the fields and working in the chicken plants. I just don’t believe that. I agree completely with Mike, we’ve got to solve this middle class wage problem, and that is a very, very challenging problem in a global economy.
Geoff Kabaservice: I have sworn up and down to Mike that I would actually get a hard stop at close to this time…
Neil Munro: But no, now you’re being sexist, because Juleanna was about to…
Juleanna Glover: I have to answer this.
Mike Murphy: Yeah, no, come on, Breitbartwants to get the details right.
Juleanna Glover: So I have the supposition that if there is a third-party, unity bipartisan president, that that president would govern based on what Congress they were given. Right now we live in an environment of entrenched, illogical partisanship where we only pass legislation when a majority of a majority of either party supports it. What if we had an environment where you could actually pass legislation on pure majorities or 60 percent of the Senate? And what if we had a president that would move forward with that type of agenda, and have an opportunity to really address some of the deep structural inadequacies that we all know need to be fixed sooner than later? They might be fixed in a way that might not be perfect, but at least the deficit, Social Security, the environment, trade issues, and wages would actually be addressed rather than just talked about. Because right now, Mike and Whit, those are great answers, but in a partisan environment where a Democratic Congress is never going to work with a Republican president, it’s all words.
Mike Murphy: I want to say one thing just because it’s been in my craw for a year. Andrew Breitbart was a friend of mine and he’d be ashamed of a lot of what you guys print. There, that felt good. Thank you. [applause]
Geoff Kabaservice: Well, Mike, good luck with your White House job interview. I would like to thank our panelists for being here today and for such a stimulating session. Appreciate it.
Panel 4: Beyond Small Government – In Search of a Governing Center-Right
Moderator: Will Wilkinson
Panelists: Oren Cass, David Frum, Megan McArdle
Will Wilkinson: All right, let’s begin our fourth and final panel of the day. Thank you for your grit and perseverance, those of you who’ve toughed it out the whole day —not that you need to tough it out at a riveting event like this one. Our panel is “Beyond Small Government: In Search of a Governing Center-Right.” I’ll start out by introducing our panelists, and we’ll get right into it about where we go next. I’m Will Wilkinson, vice president for research at the Niskanen Center. Here we have Oren Cass of the Manhattan Institute, Megan McArdle of the Washington Post— you change your affiliation so often I almost got it wrong — and David Frum of The Atlantic. So what we want to talk about in this session is where the center-right needs to go from here. The theme of the entire conference is “starting over.” If we start over, what should the recipe be for moving forward?
Will Wilkinson: For years, the GOP has been very tightly identified with something you could call movement conservatism, which has a particular formula; sometimes it’s called fusionism. There’s a libertarian aspect of it: you’ve got a commitment to free markets, small government, open free trade. And that’s combined with social conservatism, which is mostly conservatism on family, sexuality issues, national identity. And then a little bit of relatively hawkish foreign policy. Those things combined are the traditional Reagan formula. Trump seems to have blown this up a good deal with his economic nationalism and nativism. He doesn’t seem to be particularly interested in small government at all, but neither do the latter-day adherents of the Reaganist formula. Paul Ryan is leaving his post as the Speaker of the House, leaving the national debt much larger than he found it. There doesn’t seem to be a small-government party. And one of the things we want to ask is: Should there be?
Will Wilkinson: So the first question I want to put to the panel is maybe a slightly provocative one. At this point in time, it often feels to me that if you’re in favor of social insurance programs that ensure that everybody is indemnified against the downside risks of a dynamic market economy, and if you’re in favor of the government provision of basic public goods, and if you’re committed to a fiscal system that’s going to pay for these things (and they’re not cheap)… If you’re in favor of those things these days, does that just make you a Democrat? Because it almost seems like it does, in a way. If you really care about social insurance, public goods, and a well-functioning system of public finance, why are you on the right at all? So take it away.
Megan McArdle: I don’t really see a lot of evidence that the Democratic Party, where it is… Oh, sorry. Is my mic not somehow… What? It is on. Sorry, I could just talk really loud.
Will Wilkinson: It’s on.
Megan McArdle:Oh, and there it goes, that seems to have fixed it. So luckily I also have a loud, penetrating voice, as people who sit near me in restaurants are frequently fond of commenting. I look at where the Democrats are headed for in 2020… I’d love to see an Amy Klobuchar kind of Midwestern, sensible moderate as the Democratic presidential nominee, and I don’t really see that that’s where the Democratic Party seems to be heading. So I would ask, if you are someone who thinks that you need to pay for your commitments, do you have a party in America at all? Because I honestly… I look at who’s becoming influential on the left, I look at the academics that are becoming influential on the left, I look at the power that the University of Massachusetts Amherst Economics Department seems to have suddenly gained in the debate. They are, for those that don’t know, a heterodox department that does not follow the general Clinton pay-for-what-you-buy sort of…
Will Wilkinson: You can magically mint money.
Megan McArdle: Right, exactly. They’re really big into the [notion that] you can magically mint money because we print our own currency. So I think that the real question is: Is there a party for either of those groups? Because that doesn’t… What I see on the left is wanting to have massive expansions of the welfare state without paying for it, and what I see on the right is wanting to have massive tax cuts without paying for it — or cutting the welfare state we already have, which is large and about to grow larger. And so I think that that’s actually a bigger question than: Is it the right or the left? Are we just headed for a fiscal crisis? Because both parties are kind of making each other worse. There’s this sense in which, “Well, if they’re going to be like this, then I can be even worse,” and each party can come up with an excuse for why their little stuff is different.
Megan McArdle:You talk to Democrats about the legendary increase in the national debt under Obama, [and they say] “Well, there was a recession.” Yes, there was, but not for eight years. You talk to Republicans about tax cuts, [and they say] “Well, spending money isn’t the same thing as giving you back your own money.” But the deficit’s still there! We still have to pay for this eventually. I think both parties are headed off into fantasyland on that side of stuff.
Will Wilkinson: Well, David, Oren, do you think there’s a possibility for the GOP to be that relatively moderate, responsible party? Not necessarily a party of small government in the sense of cutting spending to the bone, but being a party that governs responsibly, that is committed to providing these basic goods, and is also committed to having a system that adequately finances them?
David Frum: In Karen Hughes’ memoir, she tells a story that I’ve often thought about in the years since. She had taken an interval of leave from the Bush White House, for a vacation, for a rest, and she was walking along the beach near her home in Texas. She saw up in the air a plane pulling an advertising flier that said something like, “Jill, come back! I’m miserable without you. Jack.” And she thought, “Bad message, Jack. Too much about you, not enough about her.” [laughter]
David Frum: And this is a pervasive vice in politics. People with strong political ideas talk about what they care about, what Jack cares about — and there’s not enough about what Jill needs. So why was small-government politics attractive at all, ever? And the answer is, well, because between 1975 and 1982 we had a severe crisis in the New Deal order that was bequeathed by the previous generation to the present generation. We had a breakdown… You had inflation, you had oil crises, you had a collapse in productivity. You had a series of very real-world problems to which Thatcherism and Reaganism (and their milder versions in Germany and Canada)… They were responses to real-world problems. So I think we have to think about all this from Jill’s point of view and start with: What are the problems today?
David Frum: So, in no particular order… Americans are dying. Life expectancy is going down. On the present trajectory, China will overtake the United States in life expectancy by about 2040. By then, Americans will be the only developed country in which the average age of death is below 80. Americans… And that is driven by this tremendous problem of drug addiction. Meanwhile, the country has chronic fiscal problems. So you have a series… I won’t elaborate the list. You have a series of collective problems that demand collective solutions. And then as you address those problems… And different people have different biases and prejudices. So for those of us who tend to believe that markets work, who are skeptical of economic redistribution, who believe that the American past, for all its many faults, contains greater good than it contains faults… Those biases, those instincts — they’re not your platform. But they are guidelines, for when you address the issues that concern Jill, that tell you which way you ought to go.
David Frum: And I think… Although party systems can become obsolete, from the point of view of the problems of the time, I think Gilbert and Sullivan were right when they said, “Every child born alive is born either a little liberal or else a little conservative.” [laughter] And so we have our instincts, and we sort into, depending on the rules of the game, two or more parties. But what has gone wrong with conservatism as some of the older among us knew it in the ‘70s and ‘80s is that long after we solved a bunch of problems, we wanted to take victory laps and solve them again. And it remains true that if there’s inflation, conservatives know just what to do. The problem is that they know what to do so well that they keep insisting that there is inflation when there isn’t.
Will Wilkinson: Thanks. Well, let’s take up the theme of addressing the actual problems, and I’ll address this to Oren. One of the clear things from the last two elections is that there is a very stark divide between the bases of the two major parties in terms of city versus country. There’s basically a city party, a multicultural urban party, the Democratic Party, and a relatively homogeneous white, exurban, small-town, rural [Republican] party. And that is really the line on which partisan polarization is breaking — it’s basically on population density. Now, that problem is exacerbated by the fact that these are two different economies, and those economies are drifting further apart. So economic production is increasingly concentrated in large cities. And smaller towns, smaller cities, rural areas are stagnating in relative terms. And the people in those places — the Republican base — is older and heavily reliant on Medicare, Social Security, Medicaid, and Social Security Disability. And one of the reasons it seems the Republican Party took a bath in the midterms is because the entire Republican Party went on the record voting to get rid of what became a relatively popular social insurance program that’s known as Obamacare.
Will Wilkinson: And it seems that if the Republican Party is to have a hope of holding on to power over the longer term, it has to address the problems of its own base: the relatively homogenous, white, rural, small-town, smaller-city part of the population that is really struggling economically. So, Oren, what do you think the GOP ought to do to address the people in these places and the specific problems that they’re having?
Oren Cass: Well, I guess I would argue for broadening the question just a little bit to what the GOP (or whatever we’re going to call the future of the center-right) should do to address the problems lots of Americans are having. There’s this concentration that you just described in rural areas that raised its head up a little higher than usual in 2016. But Trump also did way better than Romney with minorities in 2016. The same problems that we are now worried about in these rural communities are really a metastatization of problems that have been afflicting inner-city and exurban areas for 40 or 50 years. So I think the right way to talk about it is to say: What are the big problems, period? And there the divide is a little bit different. There the divide is really college or no college, for lack of something better. And I think we’re better off analyzing the question, not in terms of what did the exit polls tell us in 2016, than what are the actual major divides we’re going to see in the country?
Oren Cass: And if that’s the dimension, that really you have a (roughly speaking) college-educated population that’s getting ahead and a non-college-educated population (more than 50 percent still don’t have even an associate degree) that’s not getting ahead. Sure, there are lots of folks in that second group who are minorities and didn’t vote for Trump, but that doesn’t mean they’re not potentially center-right voters some days.
Will Wilkinson:But that’s dividing more on partisan lines as well. Whether or not you had a college degree didn’t have much of a partisan valence in the past. But now having a four-year college degree is tilting voters pretty heavily Democratic. And [Republicans are] losing vote share with people with a college degree, and have lost basically everyone with a professional or postgraduate degree. So I agree that’s a fundamental divide in the economy, but that’s also taking on a partisan…
Oren Cass: It is, and I think… And part of what has compounded that, I think, is that you saw Donald Trump speaking about problems more in those terms as opposed to in the big government/small government fight that we were historically more used to. So I think that’s how we should define the problem. And then I think we ask: Well, how does the center-right define a response to that? I really like the way David described it. Look, the premise of being center-right isn’t that you have a particular set of voters or a particular demographic, it’s that you have a particular set of ideas and a way of approaching the world. And the question is: How do we take that set of ideas and address that set of problems? And that’s going to be the formula.
Will Wilkinson: So what are those ideas? Because part of what I was trying to ask is: Why aren’t we just Democrats if we want social insurance and public goods? What is distinctive about the approach on the right to solving these problems?
Oren Cass: I think historically the idea has been, well, if we just let markets do their thing and we get enough growth, all of the problems will solve themselves. I don’t think that is a very good answer. And so I think part of the “starting over” question should be: OK, what else can you say besides that? And so in my view the question comes down to a question of how the labor market operates. And what is it about the conditions our labor market is functioning in that has caused it to leave essentially half the workers behind for 30 or 40 years now?
Oren Cass: We can talk very concretely about policy areas. But it means, for instance, in education, that our education reform platform can’t be: How do we make this a mechanism of opportunity that gets everyone through college? I understand the political appeal of that. But if you state it in the abstract, the idea that, “Gosh, we have all these people with different aptitudes, different starting endowments, different families. You know what we need? We’re going to build a building in the middle of every town, give it a budget bigger than the Defense Department’s, stock it with 3 million union employees, and they’re going to correct for all of the problems in people’s lives” … That’s not actually a conservative solution at all. I think we need to go the other direction and say, “Actually, we have folks who are on very different trajectories in their lives, and how do we build pathways that meet people w here they are?”
David Frum: Well, maybe a way to think about this is to look at it from the other side of the hill. In this day and age, with socialism dead, what is it that makes you a person of the left? And what are the kinds of things that you would believe that would draw you that way? And one of the… I would think one of things you believe if you’re a person of the left is that human nature is not very important to human outcomes, that most of the things that happen in the world are the product of human design. So if men and women lead different lives, that’s not a product of something inherent in them, it’s a product of something imposed by society. You believe that society is very malleable, easy to change, that smart people with good plans can consciously design better outcomes than dumb luck and blind nature. You believe that the guilty chapters in American history are bigger and more important than the chapters in which you take pride. You believe that success in life, whether economic or otherwise, is more a product of luck than it is a product of effort, and so people who succeed have a pretty weak moral claim to keep the benefit of that success.
David Frum: You can just go through a series of those things. And those are the habits of mind that if you have them — and a lot of people do, and they’re not stupid — then you belong in one way. If you don’t happen to have those habits of mind, then you belong somewhere else. What will happen is we… You’re sometimes presented with pretty hyper-technical problems, and then at that point if you believe in the provision of some social goods, you have arguing around the edges and you get into technocratic debates. But in a way, we’re being disrespectful of the commitments that people on the left have if you think that if you’re a moderate conservative who is unhappy with Trump that you will be ever comfortable over there. Because they just see the world differently. And that’s what makes ballgames. It’s good that people see the world differently.
Megan McArdle: I think that’s fundamentally right, that there is a set of beliefs… And I would also add that because we are talking about policy we are focusing on economic issues, but this goes way beyond economics. I think one way to put this is that if you had told me ten years ago that gay marriage would mean that Christian bakers would be legally required to bake cakes for gay weddings, I would have been like, “That is some sort of crazy conservative propaganda. That’s nuts.” And I think six years later, that was where you saw the split between center-left people and center-right people who had both favored gay marriage. Center-left people were basically OK with that and/or cheerleading it, and the center-right people were just like, “Whoa, what did I just support?” One way to put it is that most on the left see very little between the state and the individual: “On the one hand, there is the individual, and we want radical liberty in a lot of spheres that the state is just not allowed into at all. And on the other hand, there is the state, and everything that the individual isn’t doing is the state.”
Megan McArdle: And conservatives see a lot more intermediate institutions — the family, churches, etc. — that they perceive to have rights independent of the individuals within them, and which the state is also not allowed to intrude on. One of the things that has been interesting to me, following the religious liberty debate, is the extent to which nice center-left people don’t get what people are talking about when they talk about religious liberty. To them it is like a hobby, and it’s sort of like saying, “I can’t bake you a cake because I am a golfer.” They literally just have some sort of perceptual blindness to the way the right sees those institutions as being fundamentally important in a way that golfing is not. I hope there are no golfers in the room; if there are, I apologize. [laughter] And so those senses are where I think there are still a lot of stopping points to joining the Democratic coalition, in part because as the parties have cleaned up, as they have become more ideologically sorted…
Megan McArdle: There’s this fascinating article on an abortion rights woman in Missouri trying to get the Democratic Party just to say it’s okay to have pro-lifers in the coalition — not to put anything in a platform saying, “We support this,” just to say, “You can be a Democrat and still be pro-life.” It lasted ten days and then an activist went nuts and made them take it out. And on the other side too… This is not me criticizing Democrats, this is fundamentally where the parties are. I should say that the Republicans nominated Trump, and I don’t really think he’s pro-life. But in general, these litmus tests are, “Either you’re with us or against us. Everything for the state, nothing outside of the state.” And these are really fundamental differences in how people see things and how they see people on the other side. So I don’t know that you can just neatly switch parties until the parties have changed quite a bit.
Megan McArdle: I will add one more thing… Right after Trump was elected, I saw someone on Facebook — a nice guy, a libertarian, I’m very fond of him — say, “Great, maybe now we can finally get a party for all of the educated people.” And I was like, “Are you kidding? That would be a national disaster.” If you were to stick all of the college-educated people in one party… First of all, we’re a minority. And second of all, politically that is not a good place to be. But I think that a lot of people think it is a good place to be. A lot of people want all of their college-educated buddies all voting the same way. And I think that that dynamic is actually where we are headed, and I think it is politically poisonous and headed for a political disaster
Will Wilkinson: One of the things that I think is really clear about our politics right now is that the health of our country depends critically on there being two healthy political parties, at least in this system where it’s going to always sort out into two major parties. And right now, the Republican Party seems to be not a healthy political party.
Megan McArdle: I’m not sure I would define having all the college-educated people as healthy, but…
Will Wilkinson: No, no, no, but I think that is a leading indicator of problems within the right, that they’re losing college-educated voters that for years they held onto. So one of the things you’re seeing in some of the exit polls… As you know, traditionally there is a pretty strong association between higher incomes voting for Republicans, partly because Republicans are the party for cutting your taxes. But that association is getting weaker and weaker because income is heavily correlated with your education level, and education is starting to predict being Democratic. And now it’s almost just a push in terms of income. And I do think it’s a disaster for the Republican Party if it basically loses all of the educated voters and also loses the wealthier voters who have the biggest stake in the health of the economy.
Megan McArdle: Well, I guess I would turn that around. Why is it not a sign of profound un-health in the Democratic Party that it’s losing all of the uneducated white voters? They have done something to push those people out, even as Republicans have obviously done something to push college-educated voters out. Why are we privileging educated voters as if they are the metric of what the good party is?
Will Wilkinson: Well, I don’t think it is. But I do think one of the interesting things is that the… You talked about the sorting on ideology, and that the parties are more sorted on it. It’s not clear that the parties are more sorted on ideology, because most voters aren’t very ideological. Most voters have a lower level of information — they don’t engage very much with news — so their views on particular issues are all over the map. The movement of white working class voters toward the Republican Party has all sorts of strange bases. My favorite illustration of low-engagement voters, and how deep the low level of education goes, is in Michael Tesler’s book, Post-Racial or Most-Racial?He shows pretty clearly that the flight of less-educated white voters to the Republican Party is largely because in the past they just didn’t know enough about which party was the pro-civil rights party to align themselves with their views. Once Barack Obama became the head of the Democratic Party, that sent a clear signal that they couldn’t miss, even though they weren’t paying much attention, that the Democratic Party was the party that was in favor of civil rights. And nothing about their views changed, they just shifted to the party that better aligned with their views in the first place. So some of the sorting is just having to do with aligning relatively nonideological voters with some fairly basic things that they weren’t aligned on before.
Megan McArdle: Musa al-Gharbi at Columbia strenuously disagrees with this thesis, as I think you know. I mean, you have to explain counties that went for Obama twice and now went for Trump, right? You can’t just say that all of the sorting is about race, because obviously some of this is not about race. Or it is about race in some very complicated way which is just not like, “I don’t like black people voting”? There are rural counties that went for Obama twice and went for Trump. I think this is about something a little different from that. I think this is about a way in which for all people, the less you have economically, the more attached you are to the cultural ties that support you, the cultural communities that support you. And this is true, I think, of all races, all people at lower income levels. And in some sense the educated class has their own culture that supports them very well and makes sure that they get the lion’s share of the economic benefit that has accrued in the last five decades.
Megan McArdle: But you have to think about… This is a revolt against the cognitive elite that has managed to in some ways — some of it is natural but some of it is not natural — rig the economy so that all of the returns within the economy accrue to people who have college degrees. I look at my grandfather, who barely finished high school and had a successful small business and lived a very good life in a small town. That is not a life path that is open to people anymore who are born in this country. And we don’t care. We kind of shake our heads and say, “That’s sad,” and then we go back to not caring and not doing anything about it. Now, I think trade restriction and immigration restriction are not the right way to do it. But the answer to what they were saying for decades was not, “You’re stupid, you don’t understand anything, and I’ve got a squash game at 2:00” — which is functionally what we did.
Will Wilkinson: Well, let’s talk about that, because I think there is a widespread perception both on the left and the right that the economy is rigged, that it’s unfair. Trump got a long ways with that. Bernie Sanders was basically running on “the economy is rigged.” And there’s good evidence that, in a lot of ways, the economy isrigged. It’s not working for everybody really well. Now, populist backlashes are often a response to the sense of the distributive inadequacies of the basic system. They’re often also a response to the perception of endemic corruption. The current iteration of the Republican Party doesn’t seem to be doing great at anti-corruption — and I want to talk about what the prospects of that are as a basis for starting over. We’re in a period of existentially threatening corruption at the level of the presidency. It seems that key tenets of foreign policy are being traded or kind of being bought, more or less, and that’s extremely dangerous. But I don’t see many significant figures on the right putting forward an anti-corruption agenda. That’s going strong on the left: Elizabeth Warren has a pretty good bill that she’s introduced into the Senate that tries to make a level effort at making sure that there isn’t this sort of endemic public corruption. What do you guys think about that as a prospect for moving forward?
David Frum:Well, among the G7 countries, the United States is definitely one of the less honest. I would say it’s harder to buy an outcome in Germany, Canada, and Britain than it is in the United States. It’s probably a lot easier in Italy and probably somewhat easier in France. And just generally, in the Transparency International perceptions of corruption, I don’t think the United States is ever in the top 15. The reason bills like Elizabeth Warren’s miss the point is that this is a problem that is at its most intense in local government, next most intense at the state level, and then at the federal level more intense on the legislative side than on the executive side. We spent a lot of effort trying to make the executive branch more honest, and after the spectacular Trump years I assume there will be another effort.
David Frum: Why is the United States so much more corrupt than the others? The answer is because of the structure of the American government. The United States doesn’t have a civil service the way other countries do. Elected figures make more decisions than their counterparts in other countries. Elected figures need money for their campaigns, but they also have a weaker career path. They are more likely to be fired, to lose their positions, than civil servants are, and they have a weaker sense of esprit de corps and purpose. That makes them more willing to think about bending the rules.
David Frum: So this is a point that is not my observation — the progressives of a century ago made it. They said, “If you want a more honest government, you’re going to have a less representative government.” It’s also true that in Britain and Germany and Canada, it’s harder for 20 people who get together with a grievance to have an impact on the state. And the exact same things that make it harder for a businessman to get a zoning decree in his favor make it harder for disaffected people who don’t like where the state is putting the airport to have an impact on that. So maybe the United States is due for another round of that. And indeed, one of the things that I think the Trump episode may prefigure…
David Frum: I think a lot of these discussions we have now are a little bit premature, because we are in a real moment of flux in the party system — like maybe 1968 to ’74, when there was a lot of musical chairs going on. One of the things that is going on, I think, very much in the Trump years — and #MeToo is the point of the spear, but I don’t think it’s the whole of the spear — is that we are at one of those points where the historic American Protestant conscience flares up, as it does at intervals, and as it did in the 1840s over issues of abolition and temperance and women’s suffrage, as it did in the early years of this century, and as it did in during the Civil Rights era.
Will Wilkinson: A kind of Great Awakening which we seem to have over and over again.
David Frum: Yes. And it’s complicated. Sometimes it produces results that modern people… I think generally the temperance movement doesn’t get a good press; maybe it deserves a better one than it gets. The people who were doing temperance thought it was completely consistent with their abolition commitments; they saw them as one and the same. Modern people tend to give a gold star to the abolition movement and less to the temperance people. But it flares up, and I think it’s sort of flaring up now. And it’s usually led disproportionately by women, and that’s happening now. So I think we may well be moving into a more moralistic period in American life. The table’s being reset. But sometimes what happens in politics is you just have to let the wave of water come in from the sea and sweep aside all the detritus on the beach, and then look at the new beach. So when we look at this six years from now, what we are going to see… We’re going to have, I think, one of the moral waves. We’re going to have Trump meet whatever outcome he meets. And then we’re going to have, along with this wave of moralism, a wave of liberal activism. Some of it may work out, much of it will be wasteful and expensive. And then we’ll have a new set of issues. And then people with those eternal center-right impulses are going to confront new kinds of problems.
Will Wilkinson: I want to stop for a second. There’s a lot that’s really tantalizing in the moralistic wave. But first I wanted to thank you for making a brief for a professional civil service. This is actually, I think, one of these overlooked issues. And it’s a real issue on the right: What do we think about executive branch agencies and their relative autonomy? If you look around the world, the thing that seems to matter in terms of outcomes — whether you want to measure it in terms of economic freedom (as the Cato Institute measures it) or the social progress index which measures things like life expectancy, health, inequality (so it’s a more left-leaning index) — the main thing that predicts good outcomes is quality of government. And the thing that really is the core of quality of government is anti-corruption, and that goes along with having a professional bureaucracy.
Will Wilkinson: But one of the big elements in the right’s narrative, especially among the sort of Claremont Institute types who have been… Insofar as Trumpism has any sort of ideological source, the Claremont Reviewguys have it. And the idea is that American constitutionalism faltered at the point at which progressives tried to root out corruption, when instead of selling patronage positions, they installed a professional civil service. So that’s actually under attack from the right now. Is that bad?
Oren Cass: Megan said I could attack you on this first. I don’t want to do the meta “What is this panel about right now?” thing, but I’m going to anyway. Like civil service reform, cake-baking to a degree is fine. It has nothing to do with the question of what has happened to the center-right or what has happened with the rise of the Trump administration. What we actually have to grapple with is that 40 years of free-market religion has failed to produce what we said it would, which was a rising tide lifting all ships. And we now have this problem of: What are we supposed to say now? What is the center-right view on behalf of the people who have not gotten ahead economically for a long time and only see decline ahead of them? There will be many other political skirmishes, but the existential crisis we have is that.
Oren Cass: And we have a whole bunch of folks within the center-right who think the answer is, “No, in fact, economic growth is all we need. Tax cuts and deregulation are great. Look at where we are in the business cycle. We just have to let this Trump thing pass and bang, we are going to be right back on the Reagan horse.” That’s one option. But there had better be something else. If you guys disagree and think this other stuff is more important, I’ll be quiet, but I really think we have to grapple with this question of what is the center-right perspective of what you do with an economy that in fact is not working for everybody.
Will Wilkinson:Let’s talk about that. But I don’t think they’re unrelated.
Megan McArdle: Can I now disagree with both of you?
Will Wilkinson: You can disagree with both of us, yes.
Megan McArdle: I’m second to none in my love for a well-functioning civil service, but I will point out two things. The first is that the U.S. has lots of civil services. None of them work the way the ones abroad do, and I think that part of that’s federalism. But part of that is also just the American system. We don’t trust our government, we trust each other. In some parts of the country the civil service is awesome, it’s fantastic, it’s responsive. In western New York, where my mom is from, it’s terrific. I remember I got my driver’s license up there so I wouldn’t have to deal with the New York City bureaucracy. And then you go into cities and other places that are low-trust… In the South, for example, state and local government is almost invariably awful. Scandinavia, long before they had a professional civil service, in the 18th century had abnormally low levels of corruption compared to other places at the same time. If you look at the annals, in the 18th century they had something like 58 corruption cases in Denmark in the entire century. So that’s one thing.
Megan McArdle: And the second is that it’s not that I disagree with you, Oren; I think that the structure of the economy is really bad for a lot of people and that’s a huge problem. I think that some of that is changing cognitive and skill load in the economy, and that we just have an economy that demands more; we’re automating away a lot of those medium- and low-skill jobs. But I also think that there’s a huge number of artificial barriers. If you’re not good at college, if you’re not good at sitting in a classroom and taking in information that way, good luck getting a job that’s stable and well-paid. And that’s a huge problem. That said, I think that there is a tendency in Washington to focus almost exclusively on the economy because that’s something that we have a lot of data on. It’s easy to define. We all agree what money is, we all agree what it means to have money and not have money, and we have good measures of it. And so we’re like that drunk proverbially looking under the lamppost for his keys because it’s easier to see there.
Megan McArdle: I do think that all of those things are important. I also think that often when you look at presidential elections, if you run in a recession year you’re not going to get re-elected. At the same time, I look at the record turnout in the midterms, and I don’t really see that as being about Medicaid, honestly. I don’t see, in either talking to voters or in the polls, that everyone was just running to the polls to vote on Medicaid. I think they were running to the polls to vote on Trump. And I think that fundamentally we can’t rule out all of the culture war stuff, all the “bake me a cake” stuff. I talked to a lot of evangelicals who, rightly or wrongly, felt that they were under the existential threat from the left of literally not being able to run their schools or have any job better than a janitor. And their argument about Trump was, “Yes, he’s a boor, he’s not religious, and he’s fake pro-life. But he’s not going to do that to me, because he depends on me and Democrats don’t.”
Megan McArdle: So we can’t rule that stuff out. I think that some of what we talk about when we talk about policy ultimately is going to have to address those things. That is what the fusion of the social conservatives with the market conservatives and the hawks in the old regime, the Reagan coalition, was about. Whatever the new coalition is, those issues are going to come in and they’re going to have to be seriously discussed, because people really do care. It’s not like a fake issue that they pretend to be thinking about when they’re really talking about the economy.
David Frum: So, just to pick up on Oren’s question… Will, you stressed that the rewards are less for the noncollege types because of restrictions, occupational licensing, things like that. Megan stresses that some of the jobs are just getting more intellectually demanding, or they may demand social skills or pleasantness that fewer people have. Oren, you may agree with this… I think it’s just inherent in the nature of a more globalized economy. I wrote an article years and years ago that made this point. The most famous American architect of the 1950s was a man named Gordon Bunshaft. He designed just one building outside the United States. He made a very good living and became a quite well-to-do, affluent professional. But he didn’t become rich-rich.
David Frum: Meanwhile, people like Frank Gehry and Norman Foster now design buildings all over the planet, and they get rich-rich. They get tens of millions, maybe hundreds of millions of dollars. Because if you’re Gordon Bunshaft, you had one country with a population at that time of 200 million to sell to, and if you’re Frank Gehry, you have a planet with a population of 7 billion to sell to. If you own any kind of globally-traded asset — a prestige office building or a share of Facebook — you have a planet full of potential customers for your unique skill or your unique asset. But if you don’t have anything unique, you have a planet full of competitors. And so it’s not surprising that a global economy produces higher returns to skill, higher returns to assets, and lower returns to undifferentiated labor.
David Frum: So that’s the headwind that you’re sailing into. And one of the questions is: What are we going to do about that? President Trump says, “Right, the answer is: end the global economy.” He never says it as bluntly as that, but that’s the tendency of his thought: bring back the Gordon Bunshaft economy. If you think that’s unworkable, or not worth doing, or not worth the price, then you’re in a position of asking, “Well, how do I defend the global economy?” And we have had a series of answers. In the 1990s, we had a center-left version of this with the Clinton and Blair solution, which was to tax the winners and then redistribute some of the proceeds to the losers. The problem that they overlooked was that the winners not only have money, they also have political power, and they do not agree to be taxed. So that gives you a very different problem, and that’s why these changes are likely to come in a more spasmodic way. Because if you want to preserve the global economy against Trump, Corbyn, Mélenchon in France, and that type, and if you accept that the Clinton-Blair solution is probably going to not work all that well, then you have to wait for the coming crisis to give you a new chance to defend what is good and find a new way to compensate those who are victims of it.
Oren Cass: Can I jump in on that?
Will Wilkinson: Please.
Oren Cass: Well, first of all, I want to say that I agree with Megan. I didn’t mean that the cake-baking issue isn’t important to people. I meant that I think we roughly know where the center-right is going to be on that question. Maybe that’s more open, but I think we at least have a sustainable starting point on some of those issues. I disagree with David, though, on his characterization of what went wrong with Clinton-Blair. The problem with Clinton-Blair was not that we didn’t tax and redistribute. Redistribution shot up, and in consumption terms all of those folks being left behind are doing better than ever. The problem is, that is not what people want or need, and it’s not what their families and communities need. They want and need to be productive workers who can support themselves and their families. And a global economic model in which that is no longer going to be viable should be a nonstarter. I realize other people disagree with me on that, and that’s a debate for us to have. But if you would posit that an inevitable outcome of our global economic model is that a whole bunch of people are just going to have to rely on redistribution, then I think the question is: Well, why is the global economic model our starting point?
Oren Cass: Now, I think it’s possible to do both. I think we can find a global economic model that would also work for people of all skill levels. But I think we need to flip the order of that and say that our first commitment has to be the idea of an economy that structurally is going to work for people of all types, and now let’s talk about how you build a global economic model that does that. It shouldn’t be, “Well, obviously we have to have globalization, now let’s go figure out what to do for the people left behind.”
Megan McArdle: I’m going to push back a little bit here. Look, I think that what we’ve seen in the last ten years is somewhat to do with trade, although I also think it’s in very complicated ways somewhat to do with Chinese demand for oil, which rocketed through the economy in ways that were not favorable to people who were not already pretty skilled and benefiting from that China trade. But ultimately, I believe David Autor’s work that suggests that there was a real shock there for people, especially in manufacturing communities. If you did something that was exposed to trade, you were hurt by it. But I also think that China was a one-off. It could happen with India, but it just seems unlikely for a bunch of reasons, including the fact that the Indian government doesn’t have enough control to do that kind of massive industrial policy on the scale that China did within a very short period of time. Also they hadn’t deliberately impoverished their population, leaving it with a lot of rebound growth.
Megan McArdle: But other than India, there is no other candidate for having that kind of shock on manufacturing and low-wage workers. We had a one-time shock, and it was a bad shock for those workers, but I don’t see how it could be repeated. Usually what happens is that countries develop slowly, or they develop rapidly but they’re not that big. There was a lot of paranoia about Japan in the ‘80s and ‘90s, but in fact there’s just not any evidence that Japan did anything to any workers in the United States. The big problem for manufacturing workers at that point was their companies relocating to the South, not relocating to Japan. And so I actually think that while, yes, the China shock is a thing that happened, I don’t think it’s a thing that’s continuing to happen. I actually think that that really was a one-time deal.
Megan McArdle: The problem with that, though, is that those workers who were displaced don’t feel that way. Because the shock, first of is all, is still going to be working through the economy for a while. There’s hysteresis, and if you’ve had structural change in your industry, it’s very hard to get back into the labor market. I think the bigger story is, honestly, automation and the change towards services. And it’s not clear that dudes are good at service work in general — present company excluded, but in general they have a harder time with it. I think there’s also a status thing.
Megan McArdle: David said that the people with money also have political power, and they’re not going to agree to redistribution. I don’t actually think that’s the problem. I think it’s that the people with status have political power, and they’re not going to agree to a redistribution of their status. I know I’m going back to all of these touchy-feely things that are really hard to do policy about, so maybe this is not productive, but ultimately I think a lot of this is a battle over status. And a huge amount of what I was hearing from my readers wasn’t about the economy, it wasn’t about trade, it wasn’t about anything practical. It was about, “You guys look down on us, and to hell with you.”
Will Wilkinson: I trained as a philosopher, so naturally I think everything is related to everything. But those cultural issues and those anxieties about status seem clearly exacerbated by relative economic stagnation in the nonurban parts of the country.
Megan McArdle: Right, because in America work is about status. Work is how you get status.
Will Wilkinson: So they’re connected. You have big, long-term demographic change, which affects people’s sense of who is central to American national identity, and those things coincide with the relative stagnation of smaller-town and rural economies. I live in Iowa most of the time; I grew up in Iowa. And in the ‘80s in Iowa, there was just this huge crisis about the collapse of the family farm. That wasn’t happening because of global competition, it was just automation — the tractors got better. And since then, agricultural employment has just basically gone to nothing. Now the combines literally will drive themselves; you just set them and let them go. The combine doesn’t even need anybody in it; you can just program it. So nobody works on farms anymore, but still there is this huge pool of little towns all over the country that were there as depots for services, education, and retail for agricultural communities. What happens to the people who live in those places once they actually serve no economic function whatsoever? What do we do about those things?
Will Wilkinson: And clearly the people in those places, if you go out into rural America, really are deteriorating. It’s just recession all the time. And so if that’s the way the economy looks to you, you’re going to be anxious about everything. You’re going to have a zero-sum mentality. So you’re going to be worried about national identity, about losing your status as a man. All of these things, I think, get inflamed because of inadequate attention to the economic question.
Will Wilkinson: So let’s go back to that for a second. As you said, Oren, on the right there was this free-market gospel that growth forevermore would raise all boats and then we’d be fine. But it didn’t happen. So why didn’t it happen? One reason is because we don’t have a good enough public administration. Public programs have to be administered, right? If you want to do a wage subsidy, somebody has to make it work. So we have to care about government actually working well if we’re going to have even pro-market reforms that are going to be successful, don’t we?
Oren Cass: I mean, we’ve run Social Security since the ‘40s. I’m pretty sure we can swing that. I want to say two things about that. First, this story about automation is something nice that those of us with status tell ourselves to absolve ourselves of what has happened. To your point about things we have good data on, Megan, we have very good data on productivity growth over time. We know the rate at which automation is happening. It is not happening faster than it used to. The most recent period of time is the worst gain in productivity we have seen on record. At no time have we seen long-term productivity growth above 2.5 percent — that’s through the industrial revolution, electricity, all of that. We have done things at least as impressive as the technology coming online now. And when you take something like Iowa… Iowa went through a hundred years of mechanization. At no point from 1880 to 1980 did its population even decline. So we had no problem maintaining communities in all of these places, despite automation at rates that were faster than it is happening right now. That’s point one.
Oren Cass: Point two, to the question of what did happen and what do we look at in something like a wage subsidy… Again, this I think will be the fundamental divide on the center-right: Do we take a functioning labor market to be the non-negotiable starting point? Because we’ve seen what the left is going to do with universal basic income and baby bonds and a job guarantee: “Surely government can take care of it.” There will be a right-of-center contingent that says, “We have to do more redistribution than we did in the past, but that’s just how we take care of that.” And the alternative is to say, “No, the non-negotiable starting point actually is an economy where workers of all aptitudes in different geographic settings can actually support their families.” And if that’s the non-negotiable starting point, even at the expense of some efficiency in some cases, even at the expense of top-line growth in some cases — although I think you’ll actually get more top-line growth in the long run if you take that seriously — then you’ll come back to things like fights about education. Investing in the college pathway is just not where our focus or our public funds should go. It’s the half of Americans who are not going to college who deserve our focus and our resources.
Oren Cass: You actually do have to look at trade and immigration. Certainly on low-skilled immigration, whatever our personal commitments or values are, adding a lot of less-skilled immigrants to a labor market that is struggling at the low end does not make sense. I agree that we’re not going to have another China shock, but one thing we should be asking is whether that means that we’re committed to permanent, hundreds-of-billions-of-dollars trade deficits. Not that everything that went to China is going to come back, but what is the recipe… It’s not clear to me why we don’t manufacture electronics in this country. There’s nothing about comparative advantage or whatever else, especially if you believe in automation accelerating, that doesn’t make this a great place to make stuff.
Oren Cass: And then I think we have to talk about something like a wage subsidy. If we are going to do redistribution, it can’t be the safety net that we built in the 20th century. It has to be a system of redistribution that’s actually tied to work, that puts money in people’s paychecks when they are working. And that is what the labor market center-right would look like. But certainly that’s not what everyone else thinks.
Will Wilkinson: That’s great, that’s really helpful. So there is an outline of an economic agenda that’s focused on optimizing labor markets for people on the bottom, in a way, making sure that everybody has a decent job that has dignity, that gives them a sense of productivity. And for Oren, that seems to entail some skepticism about openness to trade, openness to immigrants, and even willingness to trade off some of that growth. So what do you guys think about that as a final…
David Frum: I don’t think you can be both skeptical of trade and skeptical of immigration. I think emotionally they’re congruent. The people who are skeptical of trade tend to be skeptical of immigration, but I think economically, they’re trade-offs. If you have more trade you can have less immigration, because the person who would grow the sugarcane grows it at home rather than coming here to grow it for you. So I do want to preserve the open international trading system.
Oren Cass: Can you just elaborate on why you can’t grow sugarcane here with people who live here?
David Frum:Because if you’re going to do that, you’re going to bring in a lot of low-wage workers in order to do it. And I think that the social consequences of bringing…
Oren Cass: Is that the only way? I mean, in a world of automation, is there no better, higher-productivity way?
Megan McArdle: Sugarcane is incredibly horrible to grow and harvest. I don’t think anyone is mourning the loss of that.
Oren Cass: I agree. I’m just asking if, in this world of technological change, there are no higher-wage ways to do it.
Will Wilkinson: In my state, a very high percentage of the agricultural employment that remains in Iowa is done by immigrants, partly because it is very, very hard to get locals to take these jobs.
Oren Cass: Okay, but why can’t we make them better jobs?
Will Wilkinson: Right, but somebody still is going to be doing the work with the soybeans and the corn. Somebody’s going to have to do it. So there’s a question about how we’re going to…
David Frum: The reason there is an Iowa is because people moved to Iowa for economic opportunity. That’s why Iowa’s there.
Megan McArdle: Well, the land was there before, Dave.
David Frum: But if the economic opportunity dwindles, I don’t think it’s a shocking thing to say that just as your grandparents came to Iowa for economic opportunity, now you need to go to California for economic opportunity.
Megan McArdle: Have you ever done agricultural labor?
Oren Cass: Not very much.
Megan McArdle: I think Will and I have both done a little bit of it. In my family, my grandfather got off the farm and then, at the age of 50, decided that he wanted a two-acre garden. So the grandkids got shipped up every year to be the stoop labor. And the weird thing was that my great Aunt Dorothy, who was 50 years older than me, was the best berry-picker of all of us because she did a lot of it as a kid. She didn’t just come up and do two weeks in the summer. She was really good. She could strip a bush in three minutes while the rest of us were like dying, swatting the flies… We were finding excuses to sit down, and here’s this little old lady just going pick, pick, pick, pick.
Megan McArdle: It’s in some sense not skilled work, because it is not a rare skill. But in fact if you haven’t grown up doing it… Tasseling corn is something that high school kids can do, but the more fundamental work of picking and actually working on a farm is hard to learn to do. Families start teaching their kids when they’re young and they get productive around the ages of 12 to 14. So yes, in theory Americans could do it, but they’ve… Actually, when Alabama shut down its immigration into the state, they tried to hire Americans to do it and they lasted three days. It’s physically miserable, it is grueling, and it has to all be done in these huge bursts. So raising the wage doesn’t make up for the fact that after hour twelve, if your body is not used to it, you are in terrible pain and would rather pay them money not to have to do that.
Oren Cass: I don’t know, bully them. We’re getting a little off track, but this is actually… I think this is important to test.
Will Wilkinson: I think this gets us to the core of the debates that you have to have.
Oren Cass: I mean, why isn’t the answer not to double folk’s wages, but to say that for every half hour on you also have half an hour in an air-conditioned tent? Why is the model that we have to run our farms the way that we run them with low-skilled immigrants?
Megan McArdle: Well, in part because it’s hard to put in air conditioning…
Will Wilkinson: It’s just terrible work, nobody wants to do it. That is the bottom line. I was the last generation of white native Iowan kids who detasseled corn and rogued the soybean fields. Farms can’t get the kids now. That’s partly because the education system is good and kids are doing stuff for college prep, so they go off to college and they don’t want to take these jobs. So the workers have to come from somewhere. I agree with you that we need to make sure that our labor markets are working for everybody.
David Frum: Oren initially said that his core commitment is a kind of a labor market. This is very much like a German Christian Democrat, dignity of labor argument, and if it means a trade-off of efficiency, you’re willing to do that. And I think that that is going to be a powerful tendency throughout the developed world. I call the Trump age the era of revealed preference, because you discover what your most fundamental commitments are. I would say, without gainsaying any of the importance of the dignity of labor concerns, that my fundamental commitment is the neoliberal idea of an integrated world market leading to world peace, and that trade restrictions mean war.
David Frum: I believe that very strongly. And sooner or later, trade restrictions create states that see each other as rivals and therefore enemies. And, like the old nineteenth-century liberals, I want to preserve a world of peace, and that means free trade. And that also means that we think, “Go back to the coalface that Clinton and Blair failed to successfully mine… How do we find some way of acknowledging the realities of the power of the wealthy to make a better deal?” And so where I would spend the money that you, Oren, would spend on wage subsidies is with nonmonetary social insurance programs, especially health care. That makes one of the early policy challenges squeezing health care providers, so that it doesn’t cost so blinking much to deliver worse health care than everybody else gets in the rest of the developed world.
Megan McArdle: In all of these areas that are deindustrializing, or the rural economies that are failing, where are the good jobs? They’re high-paid, stable, steady jobs in health care. And those are the wages you’re going to have to squeeze. Because it isn’t just the cardiac surgeons. Yes, those guys make ridiculous amounts of money, but it is a fact that everyone in our health care system makes more than they would elsewhere. The nurses make more, the radiation techs… there are like nine times as many of them as there would be in any other country. All of these people make a ton of money with stable, well-paying jobs that are supporting these economies that failed. So if you squeeze the health care system in order to provide social insurance, you’re going to be squeezing the only thing that the people that Oren is talking about have left. Basically this is the only market that they can go into in order to sell their services in what is a very high-paying, relatively prestigious job that doesn’t require a four-year college degree. And that’s something that people aren’t grappling with, which is that we have poured all this money into the health care system.
Will Wilkinson: That’s a great point. We are just about out of time. Clearly, this is a complicated morass. This is just the beginning of the conversation, not the end. I would love to take just a couple of questions before we wrap up.
Steve Caulkers: My name is Steve Caulkers. In Europe, after the fall of communism, the fiscal conservatives moved to the left in opposition and the social conservatives came to the median voter boundary. The socialists collapsed and then they came around. So why is a center-right in the U.S. going to be different? Why is it going to be on the right and not on the left? Because it seems to me that the fiscal conservatives today are organically on the left.
Will Wilkinson: Before we begin, who wants to field that?
Megan McArdle: I think fiscal conservatives today are standing there with a stunned look on their faces, asking where everyone else went. I don’t see any appetite for fiscal conservatism on the left. I think whenever your party is out of power, you get a huge appetite for fiscal conservativism because you want to stop the other party from doing anything they plan to do. Other than that, there’s a bunch of wonks like us sitting around, and we’re totally like, “No, dude. You got to balance the budget, etc. etc.” But it’s us and five people at the Committee for a Responsible Federal Government. The political energy isn’t there. And outside of very narrow economic policy people, no one else is interested either. It’s just not a big seller. People want to spend a bunch of money on either their tax cuts or their social programs.
Will Wilkinson: Let’s have one more and wrap it up.
Q: I wanted to ask your opinions about cutting defense spending and then also the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act
Megan McArdle: Appalling.
Will Wilkinson: I would love to cut the defense budget. I’m ambivalent on the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act.
David Frum: I think the corporate component of the tax cut was good. I think the rest was very, very bad and was just a barbecue and a giveaway. But I also admit that even though I favored the corporate tax cut, I’m a little disappointed by some of the results that were obtained from the corporate tax cut. Nonetheless, I tend to believe that a lower corporate income tax decreases gamesmanship and makes for more rational planning. On the defense budget… In international affairs, I’m a Keynesian. I don’t think the world system balances itself; it is balanced by American power. And on defense spending, I would always rather have the feeling, “Gee, I wasted some money by spending a little bit too much” than feel that I threatened world peace by spending too little.
Megan McArdle: I fundamentally agree that the U.S. is hegemon, but I don’t think we needed the defense increases. On the tax cut, structurally, I actually like the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act, mostly, except for the really, really dumb pass-through provisions on the S corporations. But the rates were way too low. It was appallingly irresponsible. There’s no excuse for it in the middle of an economic boom. And the Republicans who voted for it should be ashamed of themselves for creating a deficit that there’s just no excuse for.
Oren Cass: I don’t know anything about defense spending. I would agree strongly on the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act that lowering the corporate tax rate would be a good idea. Spending $1.7 trillion on it, over ten years, was crazy and violated every commitment our elected representatives should have. I don’t know how we get back to fiscal discipline. There’s no political appetite for it anywhere. But ideally, it would be a starting point for the future center-right, because it’s going to have to be someone’s starting point at some point.
Will Wilkinson: We have just a couple of concluding remarks from Brink Lindsey, so please thank our panelists and thanks so much everybody. Appreciate it. [applause]