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The Death of Reaganism: The Future of Conservatism in America

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From time to time, American politics undergo realignment processes. The Great Depression with the subsequent FDR’s New Deal, the civil rights movement in the 1960s, and Reagan’s sweep of the 1980s were just a few moments that realigned American politics. These processes change party loyalties in various states, change electoral demographics, and mobilize sectors of voters (ethnic minorities, social classes, religions) from one party to another.

2016 paved the way for a new realignment of U.S. politics. And although it was a defeat for the Republican Party, the elections of past November 3 only deepened this perception: Reaganism is dead.

This article seeks to identify some key points in the future of the Republican Party. Although Joe Biden’s victory is still under discussion in the courts, it seems certain. However, it appears that the Republican Party will hold on to its majority in the Senate, and it gained some seats in the House of Representatives.

The resounding victory that would end Trumpism once and for all did not come. In fact, it reinforced a process that began in 2016: the realignment of American politics and, in particular, the realignment of the Republican platform.

What will be the future of the Republican Party? It can be summarized in two sentences: a multi-ethnic and working-class party and common-good capitalism with one-nation conservatism.

Why did Reaganism die?

Some say this in a congratulatory tone. They celebrate and dance while burying the cadaver of old conservatism, obsessed with macroeconomic stability, and that seemed to value the balance of trade more than the electoral one. That bizarre alliance between southern evangelicals, hawks, and moderates terrified by socialism and seduced by tax deductions is unsustainable or at least insufficient.

For others, it is a painful death. I, too, have my “Reagan/Bush ’84” t-shirt. It is difficult to leave behind beautifully designed tax policies, economic orthodoxy, and the US’s role as the world’s police. Where the classical liberals said “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” and nationalists said “God, country, and family,” Reagan’s conservatism amalgamated them and said, “God, family and free market.”

That was the formula of Reaganism, and that formula led the Republicans to rule in five of seven periods since the first Reagan administration. Why abandon it?

Two electoral defeats against Barack Obama later, it was worth rethinking the future. And that happened with Donald Trump.

He promised protectionism to bring back industrial jobs to the Rust Belt, a trillion-dollar infrastructure package, and US trade agreements’ renegotiation to get fairer terms for American workers.

The result? Trump won several industrial states that Republicans had not won since Reagan or Bush Sr. (Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania) and had lost by more than 10% in 2008 and between 5 and 10% in 2012. Trump was unable to repeat his victory in 2020, but again he got close results in those states and has been the Republican candidate with the best results among ethnic minorities since Eisenhower when over 40% of African Americans voted for the Republican Party.

Reaganism is dead. I am not necessarily one of those who celebrate it, but it is a fact. Old conservative formulas will not make the Republican Party competitive in industrial states and among ethnic minorities. People do not vote to stabilize the fiscal deficit. They vote for a visible improvement in their quality of life and security.

The classic conservative formula did not know how to respond to the Rust Belt’s unemployment crisis due to the free-market consensus of the 90s, much less did the Democratic Party. Financing endless wars made this even more difficult.

Continuing to reject legitimate claims, such as a decent health care system and addressing the average citizen’s predatory debts, will not keep the Republican Party alive; even less so when Republicans defend the dogma of the small state while they bail out banks and big businesses.

Since 1992, the great Democrat narrative is that the Republican Party is the Party of Wall Street and corporations. This was partly true. Now, does the Republican Party still want to be that party?

Does it still want to defend big corporations when they finance Antifa, silence conservative politicians, media, and commentators on social media, and have aligned themselves with the interests of the most radical members of the Democratic Party? It is one thing to defend the free market as a value and quite another to defend the economic elite while getting nothing back from them.

Josh Hawley, Senator from Missouri and one of the rising stars of the Republican Party, said it best: “The Republicans in Washington are going to have a very hard time processing this. But the future is clear: we must be a workingclass party, not a Wall Street party.”

Reaganism aligned the common interests of Christian conservatives and classical liberals. It gave a clear identity to the Republican Party, making it a decidedly pro-life, pro-market, and pro-family party. But it served its purpose. The old conservatives will continue to exist and continue to win votes in Congress, local legislatures, and governorships. But that formula will hardly continue to bring large-scale results for the Republican Party. The electoral demographics of 2016 and 2020 prove it.

Also, the terror most conservatives have of wielding power when they have it, shows the need for Reaganism to die. Under the guise of the small state and not using power so that they cannot use it against you, Republicans ended up watching from the stands as the Obama Administration passed proposals via executive order and took to the court what it could not get through legislation.

Nor have they been afraid to use their Silicon Valley Philosopher-Kings as the last knowers of truth and unofficial censors of the Democratic Party. Not to mention the politicization of the judicial nomination processes where Republicans constantly gave in to appoint moderate judges while the Democrats changed the rules, falsely accused conservative judges, refused to accept nominations, and so on.

It seems that with Trump’s arrival in power, Republicans lost their fear of exercising power. However, this balance is delicate. It is one thing to stop being afraid of exercising power, but it is quite another to stomp institutions. And that is where the line has to be drawn and where the Republican Party must leave behind some of the rhetoric of these past four years.

The formula changed. Call it what you will: populist conservatism, post-liberal right, Trumpism without Trump, or look for a more elaborate name like ordo-conservatism, but one thing is clear: Reaganism is dead. Under the old conservatism, the Republican Party became the “No” Party: No to public health, no to environmental regulations, no to immigration reform, no to tax increases, no to regulating interest rates; no, no, and no.

In an excellent piece of opinion for The Daily Wire, the now youngest Congress member at 25 years old, Madison Cawthorn, said, “On things such as health care, the environment, and other key issues, our leadership has aggressively attacked ideas from the Left but has failed to force consensus around the best ideas from the Right.”

Do not get me wrong. Some of these “no” are necessary. But, on the whole, they demonstrate a lack of creativity and a great disocciation from the people’s problems.

What could this new formula be based on?

Common-Good Capitalism

Marco Rubio, a member of the Senate’s Tea Party Caucus, was one of the first to notice this issue. In December of last year, he published an article in the National Review called “The Case for Common Good Capitalism.”

Rubio said that what ensures a prosperous and just society and economy is when businesses and workers’ rights and mutual obligations are upheld. Workers and businesses are not competitors but partners: businesses have the right to earn a profit. Still, they also have an obligation to reinvest those profits productively to benefit workers and society as a whole.

There, Rubio attacked large corporations for ceasing to be drivers of productive innovation while focusing purely on increasing shareholder’s income. In the last 40 years, profits sent to shareholders increased 300%, while reinvestment in the company’s production and its workers fell by 20%.

That this is not a problem and is simply the normal course of the market only fits into the mind of a member of a dogmatic think tank. Trump understands this. This is why it is not surprising that, in 2016, over 200,000 people in Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin supported Bernie Sanders in the Democratic primary and then Trump in the presidential election. These votes represent more than twice the margin by which Trump won these states.

The solution, according to Rubio? Common-good capitalism: a free enterprise system where workers receive the benefits of their labor, and businesses enjoy their right to make a profit and reinvest enough to create highly productive jobs. Reduce the tax burden on the middle class and small businesses to promote savings, property ownership, and entrepreneurship.

What is more efficient for the market is not necessarily what is best for citizens. Under this logic, the United States became dependent on China for rare minerals and industrial production sectors. Under pure market logic, it is difficult to justify parental leave payments and tax credits for families for each child they have. Still, under political and human logic, it is sheer common sense.

Who will the Republican Party continue to bet on? Corporations that have embraced the progressive ethos and outsourced their production to China, or the working families who vote from their pockets and not from their identity, as the Democratic Party wants?

And Rubio closes the article with a devastating phrase, which he repeated recently in an interview with Axios: “the free market exists to serve our people. Our people don’t exist to serve the free market.”
This brings us to the next point.

One-Nation Conservatism

Let me introduce a term from British politics to describe the fundamental cultural aspect of this new Republican Party identity. The then Mayor of London, Boris Johnson defined this form of conservatism in 2010: “I’m a one-nation Tory. There is a duty on the part of the rich to the poor and to the needy, but you are not going to help people express that duty and satisfy it if you punish them fiscally so viciously that they leave this city and this country.”

The first to use this term was Benjamin Disraeli in 1845, about two decades before becoming prime minister. He saw that rich and poor were completely ignorant of each other’s ways and habits as if they were inhabitants of different planets. Thus, he proposed mutual obligations between the members of a nation and, in particular, from the elites to the underprivileged. The fulfillment of these mutual obligations allows for the maintenance of such a cohesive society.

One-nation conservatism has inscribed in its core a profoundly clear idea: common good is made up of substantive goods that tend to a mutual interdependence between a society’s members. Under this vision, the common good is not a pipedream; it is not merely procedural, nor is it reduced to democratic processes. It is something tangible, and its attainment smoothes out social tensions.

Therefore, it seeks to preserve the traditional principles of a country within the framework of a democratic system with an economic and social policy to benefit ordinary citizens. This has a clear purpose: allowing society’s organic development rather than revolutions or social engineering.

As pursued by the Democratic Party, identity politics seeks to weaponize the working class and ethnic minorities to fulfill its ends. Continuing to repeat the old conservative formulas and prioritizing big business paves the way for the more radical wing of the Democratic Party.

One-nation conservatism connects well with common-good capitalism. In this realignment of the Republican Party as a working-class party, it is clear that certain social policies should no longer be demonized.

A good example of this: Donald Trump won Florida with the largest percentage difference in 16 years and had one million more votes than in 2016. Meanwhile, the citizens approved a minimum wage increase to $15 per hour. Would this be possible if the Republican Party in Florida, with Ron DeSantis and Marco Rubio at its head, continued to operate under the Reaganite logic? Hardly.

What should be the future agenda of the Republican Party under this logic? Darel E. Paul answers in his recent article for First Things: “maintain Trump’s tough trade policy with China and bring about job training for industrial and skilled trades; greater regulation of Silicon Valley and Wall Street; stronger private-sector unions, paid family leave, child allowances—and the taxes to pay for them.”

Paul proposes that such an agenda can move primarily at the state level. With the current level of fiscal deficit and the more than unlikely bipartisan collaboration at the national level, it seems difficult to implement substantial change at that level. However, regional legislatures can expand Medicaid, as Nebraska and other Republican states have done, and also increase access to community colleges, as the very Republican Tennessee did.

The Republican Party captured more minority and working-class voters by starting to move away from economic orthodoxy.

A multiethnic, working-class party

That the key to Trump’s victory in 2016 was the white working class in industrial states is well-known. What few expected in 2020 was his success among racial minorities. Support among African Americans, Hispanics, and Asians increased by 4%. among minorities without a college degree, support rose by 7%. Among working-class whites, Trump scored notable differences over Biden: 27% in Pennsylvania, 22% in Nevada, 20% in Michigan, 16% in Minnesota, and double-digit differences in Maine and New Hampshire, even though Biden won all these states.

It seems crazy that a candidate painted as a racist has improved his support among Hispanics in Florida by 12% and in the most Hispanic county in the country, Starr County, Texas, where 99% of the population is of Latino origin, by 28%. 20 Texas counties with a majority of the Hispanic population turned to Trump by more than 10%, and he had 40% support among Hispanics in Texas.

The fact is that although Democrats want all Latinos to vote based on their “identity,” and under the perception that the Republican Party hates them, many do so from pocket and security. Identity politics, emerging from the Media and College classrooms, hardly connects with an overwhelming majority of Latinos.

This makes it even clearer. The future of the Republican Party is different from its past. No matter how much socialist rhetoric it has, the Democratic Party has become the party of urban elites and Woke capitalism. With Trump, the Democratic Party lost the narrative it had held for 25 years: the Republican Party is the party of Wall Street and crony capitalism. From there, the narrative revolved around Trump himself. With the president now out of the way, Democrats lose a powerful narrative to attack the Republican base.

Trump was needed to awaken the Republican Party from its Reaganite delirium and its worship of the ashes of small-state dogmatism. A small state and a free market economy are no excuse for giving away political space and setting aside citizens’ legitimate interests without providing innovative solutions.

With Trump and his anti-institutional rhetoric out, the Republican Party can make a clean break: to stop worshipping the ashes of old conservatism and embrace a post-liberal project that gives way to a multi-ethnic, working-class coalition based on a free enterprise system that puts the interests of citizens before those of think tanks and hedge fund managers. A Republican Party that understands that the most important battle is the cultural battle and not the battle for the small state. That is the way.

Edgar is political scientist and philosopher. He defends the Catholic intellectual tradition. Edgar writes about religion, ideology, culture, US politics, abortion, and the Supreme Court. Twitter: @edgarjbb_ // Edgar es politólogo y filósofo. Defiende la tradición intelectual católica. Edgar escribe sobre religión, ideología, cultura, política doméstica, aborto y la Corte Suprema. Twitter: @edgarjbb_

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