President Ronald Reagan once famously said: “The nine most terrifying words in the English language are: I'm from the Government, and I'm here to help.” This sentiment is unserious at best; at its worst, Reaganism created the notion among conservatives that government inaction was the solution to America’s societal issues. With the rise of populism and national conservatism in the post-Trump era, the modern Republican Party is beginning to derive its governing philosophy not from Reagan but from conservative leaders further in the past. Instead of quoting Calvin Coolidge, Ronald Reagan, and George W. Bush, national conservatives are sharing the works of Theodore Roosevelt, Benjamin Disraeli, and Edmund Burke.
Roosevelt, Disraeli, and Burke argue for a more paternalistic form of governance; this means they believe that the government, as well as the more wealthy members of society, should work together to provide for middle and working-class citizens. Disraeli is often touted as the pioneer of paternalistic -- or one-nation -- conservatism. President Theodore Roosevelt’s administration is touted as progressive conservatism, as he utilized economically liberal ideas for socially conservative gains. Burke is arguably the most conservative of the three, as he defended traditional institutions, like the Catholic Church, from efforts to secularize society during the French Revolution.
The resurgence of these ideologies can easily be explained by the various issues plaguing America today. The United States hit its lowest birth rate on record, real wages have remained stagnant for years, and the nation has the most expensive healthcare system among Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) nations despite no evident increase in healthcare quality. This is by no means an exhaustive list of issues that the national conservative movement is identifying, but it does highlight the importance that the movement is putting on the average American’s quality of life rather than free-market fundamentalism. These are important issues that need to be addressed, and I agree with national conservatives and populists that traditional 21st-century conservatism may not be the solution; yet, where do we go from here?
On the topic of healthcare, my colleague Austin Drake proposed that the Republican Party should embrace universal healthcare from a solid Bismarckian perspective. For the falling domestic birth rates, solutions have already been proposed by incumbent Republicans; I made the case for these proposals in a previous article. One of the suggested solutions is the implementation of paid maternity leave, which could also be extended to fathers if the policy was broadened to paid parental leave. Yet, when Secretary Pete Buttigieg utilized paid parental leave for his newborn twins, he was met with fierce opposition by important figures in the national conservative movement; most importantly, Tucker Carlson aired his grievances with the policy during his show.
It is true that Secretary Buttigieg should have informed the American public that he was away from his role during such a significant supply-chain crisis, but the policy of paid parental leave isn’t the issue in this situation. Criticism should fall along the lines of Secretary Buttigieg leaving the American public in the dark during a significant economic crisis; despite this, Carlson said, “Pete Buttigieg has been on leave from his job since August after adopting a child. Paternity leave, they call it, trying to figure out how to breastfeed. No word on how that went.”
Buttigieg’s children were premature, and studies show that a parent’s utilization of paid parental leave provides various health benefits to children in both the short-term and long-term. He did what a present and active father should do, yet the policy itself received criticism from one of the leaders of the national conservative movement primarily because of political convenience and, considering Tucker’s jab at breastfeeding, the fact that Pete Buttigieg is a gay father. If national conservatives want to implement a policy, the worst way of enacting it would be attacking the very implementation of that respective policy.
Another issue facing the national conservative movement is its growing disdain for liberal systems of government. While President Theodore Roosevelt may have been a populist Republican, he was also a fan of liberal democracies. He favored direct democracy, and his 1912 presidential campaign with the Progressive Party called for the direct election of Senators, women’s suffrage, and the implementation of recalls, referendums, and initiatives. Roosevelt was not an opponent of the liberal form of governance; rather, he was its most ardent supporter and called for reform rather than upheaval.
Yet, in an era of increasing political polarization within the two-party system, we do not see populists calling for reforms to our republic. Instead, we see a defense of President Trump’s attempts to overturn the 2020 election and their increasing entrenchment in desiring upheaval rather than reform. Senator Josh Hawley and Representative Paul Gosar are often praised for their decisions to dispute the 2020 election results, and both are seen as major figures in the movement. Labeling January 6th as an insurrection is controversial in the movement; yet, I’d argue that it was. Senator Tom Cotton’s press release from the day of the insurrection captures my mentality perfectly: the violence over the summer was damaging to our republic and so was the insurrection on Capitol Hill. Yet, this sentiment is rejected in favor of Senator Hawley’s and Representative Gosar’s viewpoints.
I’m sympathetic with a significant portion of national conservative ideals, especially the ones that can be traced back to Roosevelt and Disraeli. National conservatives are largely right about diagnosing the issues that are causing America’s societal and moral decline. On more economic issues, I even agree with the policy proposals coming from national conservative organizations like American Compass. Yet, I am deterred from the movement due to its growing disregard for the foundations of our republic and the flagrantly dehumanizing discourse against other Americans. Perhaps this is not representative of the national conservative movement; if this is the case, self-proclaimed national conservatives and populists need to clarify their positions on these matters. Until then, it’ll remain difficult to support national conservative politicians and activists until these concerns are addressed.
This article was published as part of the Forum on National Conservatism that is being held by The District Conservative in conjunction with the American University College Republicans on November 22nd. If you are interested in virtually attending the event, please RSVP here.