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What If They Are Both Right?

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Daniel McCarthy at First Things and David French at NRO are having a bit of a throw down.  McCarthy is calling for “A New Conservative Agenda” while French argues it is more about personal choice than economic change.  I look at both pieces and I think, “Come on guys, slow down a little.”

McCarthy’s piece is lengthy, and most of that length is devoted to making the case that there has been some pretty massive social disruption then arguing the chicken-and-egg question about culture and politics:

Cultural, philosophical, and religious assumptions suffuse public life, and in that sense politics is indeed downstream from culture. One can even go further and say that culture, broadly understood, is the riverbed of politics, setting the course along which it flows. But that course is checked and channeled by willful human activity—by building dams and canals, as it were. How this is done turns largely on economic questions, or rather questions of what used to be called political economy. Different kinds of political economy not only produce different dispensations of wealth and power but also profoundly shape family life, individual character, and the civic landscape. A political program therefore has to be an economic program, not just in the superficial sense of dealing with subjects like taxes and regulation but in the deeper sense of relating the nation’s economic way of life to its cultural fabric and the very conditions of its existence.

French, as his military background might predict, hits back hard:

I’d like to step back for a moment and challenge the very idea that there is something fundamentally broken about the American economy or American economic policy. I’d like to challenge the idea that American public policy, especially as  influenced by Reagan’s conservative movement, has “failed.” It has succeeded, magnificently, at its most important jobs. By strengthening the national defense, it has enabled Americans at home to live in peace; by improving the protection of constitutional liberties and civil rights, it has removed de jure obstacles to economic success; and by providing adequate protection for the free-enterprise system, it has ensured that our nation remains a primary destination for people from across the globe who recognize economic opportunity when they see it.

The results are rather obvious. If a person exercises the most basic degree of self-discipline and industry, completes an education, gets married, and has kids, then his or her odds of being poor are vanishingly low. Moreover, poor people who follow that sequence move up the income scale. As I noted in a print-magazine piece arguing for the primacy of individual choice over personal outcomes, “According to a 2017 Institute for Family Studies and American Enterprise Institute study, a full 71 percent of even low-income Millennials who follow the success sequence will attain the ‘middle or higher end of the income distribution by the time they are age 28–34.’”

This is classic Trumpian v #NeverTrump stuff.  Interestingly, also underlying this argument is also some pretty classic divisions between Roman Catholics and Protestants.  I don’t really want to pick on or defend these gentlemen as both are able to speak for themselves and enormously talented and I’m just blogging away out here in the land of abandoned high speed rail projects.   But they are illustrative of the continuing debate inside conservatism.  The illustration their dispute provides is of more than simply the policy issues.  They seem to be picking sides instead of looking for answers.

What bothers me about the debate is the confrontational tone.  What conservatism needs right now is not necessarily a new agenda; however, it is patently obvious the old one is not serving us either.  Some sort of tweak is clearly called for.  If we are to continue to prevail electorally, what conservatism needs right now is a new consensus.  Without it, our divisions will guarantee our defeat.  We cannot let the media driven desire for public conflict prevent us from finding that consensus.  With Democrats turning left harder and faster than any driver in last Sunday’s Daytona 500, we are positioned to make major and lasting gains if we can avoid stepping on ourselves.

How we debate/argue matters as much as what we are arguing about.  So for example, anybody that reads me regularly knows that I agree with French enormously that personal choice and responsibility is a big deal.  But were I French, I would have opened by pointing out that McCarthy has a heck of a point that there has been enormous social and cultural disruption.  Were I McCarthy I would have tried to find a way to frame my arguments without having to say things like, “the deified Reagan,” which is guaranteed to raise hackles all over the conservative world.

It does not take much in the way of powers of observation to note that the quickest way to media attention is to be confrontational.  Some do it dismissively, some not – some sarcastically, some not – some with the language of the gutter, some not, but those are all matters of style.  Unquestionably it is confrontation that “sells.”  We like to think that if we are high-minded and academic enough we are somehow avoiding this media trap, but that is not necessarily true.  Confrontation, regardless of how we do it, divides into enemy and friends, genuine discussion does not.

We try to comfort ourselves that it is just media “show” – like pro wrestling, but also like pro wrestling, it all too often turns real.  I read both of these pieces and found major points of agreement in both.  They both ought to be influencing the way forward for conservatives generally and Republicans specifically.

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