The Niskanen Center’s Double Move
Over the past couple of months, the Niskanen Center has been making waves with a series of high-profile efforts to define its distinctive position in the national political debate. Niskanen’s president Jerry Taylor kicked things off with a widely discussed essay entitled “The Alternative to Ideology,” in which he describes how he gradually moved away from doctrinaire libertarian ideology and now embraces nonideological moderation. On December 11, Niskanen held a full-day conference called “Starting Over: The Center-Right After Trump,” featuring Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan and a host of prominent Trump critics — an event that prompted journalist Jonathan Chait to declare, “I have seen the future of a Republican Party that is no longer insane.”
Two days later, we released a long essay by Steven Teles, Will Wilkinson, Samuel Hammond, and me that articulates the new intellectual synthesis, drawing ideas from left and right, that underlies our distinctive policy vision: “The Center Can Hold: Public Policy for an Age of Extremes.” Finally, I wrote an essay for the latest issue of National Affairs entitled “Republicanism for Republicans,” in which I argue that reclaiming the center-right from Trump-style ethno-nationalist populism will require a break from conservatism — and that small-r republicanism offers the most promising vocabulary and intellectual framework going forward.
While all of this activity has received considerable attention and favorable commentary, it has also generated a fair amount of confusion. Specifically, the fact that the Niskanen Center is associating itself with the political center-right leaves some people scratching their heads. Jeet Heer of The New Republic voiced a common reaction when he opined on Twitter, “Yeah, I love the folks at the Niskanen Center but they are the right-wing of the Democratic party, not the left-wing of the Republican party.” Coming from the other side of the political spectrum, Oren Cass of the Manhattan Institute tweeted similar skepticism: “At the risk of sounding trollish, I’d like to ask what I intend to be a serious and constructive question: How does the Niskanen Center’s new ‘policy vision’ differ from the Obama administration’s?”
The confusion is understandable. After all, Niskanen Center scholars have been outspokenly critical of Donald Trump and the party he has at least temporarily reshaped in his image. In “The Center Can Hold,” for example, we characterize the president as “an extravagantly unfit demagogue” and condemn “illiberal outrages and abuses perpetrated by [him] and his enablers.” Such sentiments, of course, put us at odds with the overwhelming majority of Republicans and conservatives. Meanwhile, the public policy work of the Center has thus far focused on reforms —instituting a carbon tax, liberalizing immigration, and enacting a universal child allowance — that currently have a distinctly left-of-center tilt.
The reason we confuse people is that we are trying to do something novel and thus unfamiliar — namely, stake out new, previously unoccupied territory on the ideological and partisan spectrum. This kind of innovation is never easy, but it’s especially challenging in this era of extreme polarization. With politics organized as a clash of two unremittingly hostile tribes, it’s very difficult for people to make sense of actors who aren’t reading from either of the two opposing scripts.
Furthermore, we’ve compounded our difficulties by attempting to innovate along two different dimensions at the same time. Specifically, we are trying to develop and articulate both a new policy vision and a new political vision — two separate and distinct efforts. We see the policy vision we set forth in “The Center Can Hold” as transpartisan: drawing elements from both left and right, it transcends the current ideological divide over the role of government and offers policy prescriptions that can appeal to both the center-right and the center-left. Meanwhile, we are advancing a new political vision of what a decent, constructive center-right could look like — one that offers a clear alternative to the left while rejecting both Trump-style ethno-nationalist populism and libertarian-inflected “small government” conservatism.
Here I want to elaborate a little on these two distinct projects and how we go about pursuing both of them under one organizational roof.
A New Policy Synthesis
We begin with our policy vision, which is the foundation of all our work. Our focus here is on ideas, not politics. In other words, we are concerned first and foremost with what constitutes good policy, rather than advancing the fortunes of this or that political coalition. Our distinctive policy vision grows out of dissatisfaction with the two major ideological alternatives, conservatism and progressivism, and our desire to forge a new synthesis that combines the best elements of both.
For the co-authors of “The Center Can Hold,” this is a project we’ve been working on, sometimes individually and sometimes collaborating together, since well before we all became colleagues at Niskanen. The work-in-progress has gone by a few different names, none easy on the ears: I got the ball rolling with “liberaltarianism” (actually coined by an anonymous headline writer for The New Republic), Will Wilkinson briefly toyed with “Rawleskianism,” and Steven Teles once used “competitive egalitarianism.” Samuel Hammond, meanwhile has sometimes made use of the more widely known (but nonetheless vague and confusing) “neoliberal” label.
In “The Center Can Hold,” we opted to describe our new hybrid approach as “bold moderation,” combining a strong commitment to the values of a free and open society with open-minded empiricism about how best to advance those values. In doing so, we were following the lead of Jerry Taylor, who described his own embrace of postideological moderation in “The Alternative to Ideology.”
Whatever label we or others use to describe our position, the basic idea remains the same: Working within the broad and diverse intellectual tradition of liberalism, we are fashioning a new synthesis that closes the rift within that tradition that emerged over the question of socialism. The coming of mass industrial society in the late 19th century, with its quantum leap in the breadth and intricacy of the division of labor, brought a commensurate increase in the range of externalities and collective-action problems that require the agencies of government to be addressed appropriately. The dramatic expansion in government’s necessary role in supporting and supplementing the market economy precipitated a polarizing split among liberals: On one pole were those who denied the need for more activist government and on the other were those so impressed by the need for more government that they believed it should largely or completely supplant the market economy. In the United States, “classical liberals” made league with a political right generally skeptical of social change, while modern liberals threw in with a left that at its farther reaches sought a radical transformation of the socioeconomic order. Thus was liberalism cloven in two, with its appreciation of decentralization and markets cut off from its humanitarian, egalitarian idealism.
After the end of the Cold War, we were among those who came to see that the old cleavage within liberalism no longer made sense. (Here’s an old blog post by Will Wilkinson that sketches out the argument.) In our view, the capitalist welfare state — rejected by the libertarian right flank as too socialistic and by the socialist left flank as too capitalistic — emerged as the clear winner of the 20th century’s competition of systems. Accordingly, the great liberal project of the 21st century is to repair and renovate that basic model, both by stripping away anti-market encrustations from the left and by dismantling inherited structures of oppression and disadvantage defended by the right. Our ambition, then, has been to provide the intellectual framework for making liberalism whole again.
This backstory of the Niskanen Center’s policy vision makes clear that, from its earliest beginnings, it has sought to transcend the partisan divisions of left and right. This is apparent in our various attempts at labels: I fused left-leaning liberalism with right-leaning libertarianism, Will Wilkinson brought together left-leaning Rawls with right-leaning Hayek, and Steven Teles nodded rightward with “competitive” and then leftward with “egalitarianism.” None of us had in mind a difference-splitting centrism that straddles current left-right divides; our goal has always been to move past those old divides with a new, hybrid policy model.
Given our desire to scramble existing ideological categories, it follows that we see our policy vision as transpartisan in nature. Realistically, that means that we expect some elements of our overall policy program to have more appeal on the center-right, some to attract more support on the center-left, and some to pull from both sides in strange-bedfellows coalitions against a centrist establishment. Optimistically, we can imagine our basic policy model as the object of a broad consensus in American politics, with rival center-right and center-left conceptions of that basic model dueling to flesh out the specifics.
With a transpartisan policy agenda to articulate and advocate, we might be expected to steer clear of partisan politics altogether. Without speaking for other colleagues, I can tell you that certainly would have been my preference. After all, in normal times we would have good opportunities to advance elements of our agenda regardless of which party held the White House or majorities in Congress.
Responding to Crisis
But these are not normal times. In a healthy liberal democratic polity, center-right and center-left parties balance one another and check each other’s worst impulses, ensuring that politics is reasonably civil and stable and that policies hew to a broadly liberal line. “A party of order or stability, and a party of progress or reform, are both necessary elements of a healthy state of political life,” wrote John Stuart Mill in On Liberty. “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.”
Alas, contemporary America doesn’t remotely fit this description. Over the course of the 21st century, the conservative movement, and with it the Republican Party, has fallen ever more deeply under the sway of an illiberal and nihilistic populism — illiberal in its crude exploitation of religious, racial, and cultural divisions; nihilistic in its blithe indifference to governance and the established norms and institutions of representative self-government. This malignant development made possible the nomination and election of Donald Trump, whose two years in power have only accelerated conservatism’s and the GOP’s descent into the intellectual and moral gutter.
Although elements of the left have begun their own lurch to the extreme, we cannot pretend there is any symmetry here: The derangement of the right is much further advanced and has been dramatically more destructive. We cannot have a healthy political system unless both left and right, despite their policy differences, are committed to the proper functioning of that system. That is not the case today: The Republican Party is actively complicit in enabling Donald Trump’s corruption and abuses of power, and the conservative movement has been taken over by a cult of personality that elevates power for its own sake (i.e., “owning the libs”) above all other values.
Under these conditions, our ambitions for policy reform are eclipsed by our fears for the integrity and stability of the republican institutions within which all policy disputes are resolved. It is all very well to root for your team to score points on the field, but when maniacs are on the loose and setting the stadium on fire, you need to turn aside from the game and focus on stopping the arsonists.
And that’s just what the Niskanen Center has done. After the election of Donald Trump, it launched the Open Society Project to uphold the values and institutions of a free and open society in the face of the threats posed by authoritarian populism. Of course such threats are not confined to the United States: This species of right-wing illiberalism has been making inroads on the other side of the Atlantic as well, as more generally liberal democracy is ceding ground to autocracy around the world. Our focus, though, is on the home front. While doing our best to push back against Trump and his enablers in the short term, our long-term goal is to help restore sanity and stability to American politics by building a new, decent, constructive center-right.
To that end, we have organized and hosted biweekly “Meetings of the Concerned” since February 2017 to facilitate networking and information-sharing among prominent opponents of Trump on the right. In December 2018, we organized the day-long conference mentioned at the start of this essay, “Starting Over: The Center-Right After Trump.” We are planning another day-long conference, this time on the virtue of political moderation, for February 25; among the confirmed speakers are Tony Blair, David Brooks, and Andrew Sullivan.
Reimagining the Center-Right
Moderation is a stance that encompasses both the center-left and center-right, but we seek specifically to foster moderation on the right. It is our goal to make the case for a principled center-right in American politics today that is distinctly different from either movement conservatism or its degenerate, populist offshoot. These days, it is widely assumed that conservatism affords the only principled position on the right; moderation, by contrast, is seen as a catch-all category that brings together people who make this or that pragmatic exception to conservatism. Moderation, in this view, represents a retreat from principle, not alternative ground for a different principled position.
We reject this way of looking at things as badly myopic. If the entire terrain of all possible political positions can be divided into just two sides, left and right, it follows that those sides must be extensive enough to make room for widely divergent points of view. It is entirely possible to uphold core principles that are generally shared by parties of the right — limited government, free markets, fiscal prudence, a strong national defense, the importance of family and faith — while advocating policies and programs that reflect new and distinctive conceptions of those principles. There is plenty of room on the right for principled and decent alternatives to conservatism, and we aim to explore and settle it.
In an article for the current issue of National Affairs, I have attempted to map out one possible alternative — small-r republicanism. The republican political tradition, with its central commitment to popular self-government, was largely subsumed within liberalism after the American and French Revolutions. But its distinctive themes and priorities are perfectly suited to the pressing needs of the present moment. Rallying to a republican standard immediately concentrates attention on the central crisis of our time: the declining health and stability of republican self-government, not only here but around the world. Republicanism’s stress on civic virtue as the necessary foundation of self-government is timely as well, as it pulls us back from the win-at-all-costs tribalism that is now tearing our country apart. And the republican devotion to government in the public interest provides a useful intellectual framework for championing energetic but limited government, in contrast to the reflexive anti-government hostility so popular with GOP donors and wildly unpopular with everyone else.
We fully recognize the daunting challenges that confront our political project. At the present time, the Republican Party and the conservative movement remain lost to the dark side of Trump and Trumpism. Either a catastrophic collapse of the Trump presidency or repeated electoral thrashings at the hands of the Democrats — or perhaps both — will be necessary before there is any real chance for a change in thinking and direction on the right. And should this opening occur, there is no telling whether a center-right alternative to conservatism can really develop a mass following that coheres into an organized movement. After all, it has been decades since any concerted attempt was made to define an explicitly moderate position on the American right.
But the stakes are too high not to try. History shows that liberal democracy is stable and sustainable only when there is buy-in from the parties of the right. In the United States, that buy-in is shaky and getting shakier. It is therefore no exaggeration to state that the continued integrity of the world’s longest-running experiment in self-government is on the line. All we can do is to imagine the change that is needed — by developing, in exile as it were, the principles and programs a morally decent and intellectually sound center-right would advance upon its restoration. Whether we prevail or are swept aside by the right’s continued degeneration, we cannot shrink from making the attempt.
It should be clear enough, then, that we have considerably greater confidence in our policy work than in our political efforts. In our view, the evidence is compelling that the combination of market-based economic dynamism and robust social insurance provides the basic blueprint for inclusive prosperity and widespread opportunity in the 21st century. By contrast, it is anybody’s guess whether the American right can be redeemed so that it once again contributes positively to the nation’s governance.
Accordingly, we see our policy and political projects as two separate and distinct undertakings. Even if both grow out of our commitment to the ideals of a free and open society, they aim at different problems and can be expected to appeal to distinct if overlapping constituencies. We therefore welcome center-left interest in our policy vision and are eager to work with Democratic policymakers who wish to advance this or that element of our agenda. We likewise welcome the assistance of all those who long for the return of a decent, constructive center-right, regardless of whether they are on board with our favored policy approaches.
For all those whose interest in the work of the Niskanen Center has been piqued in recent months, I hope this essay helps to dispel understandable confusion over what we’re up to. It’s simple, really: Our prevailing policy models are broken, our politics are broken as well, and we have ideas about how to fix both. Have we bitten off more than we can chew? Perhaps, but we take comfort in the words of the anthropologist Margaret Mead: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; it’s the only thing that ever has.”
Brink Lindsey is vice president for policy at the Niskanen Center.