The Postliberal Future of the Republican Party: A Conversation With Gladden Pappin

“Republicans for the most part have not had a positive governing agenda. I think it’s essential to consider what they would do with power”


The Republican Party and American conservative politics are at a crossroads and there’s an increasingly influential group of thinkers with some clear answers on what the future GOP should look like. Gladden Pappin, associate professor of politics at the University of Dallas and co-founder of American Affairs, is one of the leading figures of the “postliberals” who think Republicans shouldn’t fear the use of power even if it increases the role of state; likewise, they cannot accept hawkishness as the one and only paradigm of American foreign policy.

Mr. Pappin has also become famous for encouraging U.S. conservatives to pay special attention to Central European countries like Hungary and Poland where strong conservative governments have not only stood strong for the true values of the West but have been able to show positive and successful policy models. We sat down to talk in Budapest, the Hungarian capital where Mr. Pappin currently researches as a visiting senior fellow of the Mathias Corvinus Collegium.

A week ago you appeared on Tucker Carlson Tonight in a wider report on Hungary. You said that many things the United States used to take for granted are still present in Central Europe. What did you have in mind?

There’s been a lot of interest in Hungary and Central Europe in America, which has increased since the 2020 election. American conservatives have been looking for some good news and some signs of normalcy.

When you come to Central Europe where conservative governments are strong and have been leading countries like Hungary or Poland for years, you see many signs that life is simply normal. Conservatives tend to be portrayed as having extreme views, authoritarian or even fascist. However, it’s normal to have a strong concern for your national identity or the integrity of your borders. Men are still masculine and women are still feminine. Families are important and defended. Central Europe is a great reminder for us that certain things in a society have to be taken for granted.

Still, it’s quite surprising that the most-watched political commentary show in the U.S. dedicates a longer segment and even a short documentary to a small Central European country.

If one thinks about it a bit, it’s actually not that strange on the left. Throughout modern history, there have been small countries that are emblematic of something. Cuba on the periphery of the United States is one of the greatest examples. 

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The increasing attention around Hungary can be explained by the shock after the defeat of Trump on the American right when many people also thought the election had been stolen. This real desperation and the need to look for places where those things conservatives value and want are still present. I believe it was partly that also that drew Tucker Carlson’s attention to Hungary. The country has had a conservative government for 12 years and therefore there has been some time to see what policies could be implemented and to take the measure of those. 

Did you move to Hungary six months ago to prove or disillusion the hopes of the American Right?

I came to Budapest with my wife and two children as a visiting fellow at the Mathias Corvinus Collegium, which is a large educational organization devoted to promoting the native talent of the region. Budapest indeed has become a kind of center of conservative discourse throughout the West and it’s great to be a part of it.

I can give you an example: we got used to it in America that politics approaches social questions in a modern liberal way. This approach treats people only as individual consumers. What’s the alternative to that? Nothing else than the family as the nucleus of society. 

You wrote extensively about Hungarian family policy far before visiting the country.

It’s been very inspiring to see what Hungary has been doing in the field of family policy and it ought to inspire many Western leaders as well. For instance, before getting into policy measures, the new Constitution of 2011 made the importance of the family central to society, laying down a firm basis for future plans. It’s not only about creating measures and strategies but creating a mindset for further decisions.

I think people have experienced how true it is even more during the pandemic, and when they returned to their families became more aware of it as the ultimate battleground. I see it as an issue conservatives can offer something around positively. It’s not just the restrictions of abortion which, of course, I support but a positive mission for which a lot of ordinary people can stand up.

Some also criticize you for promoting such ideas in the U.S. as Hungary’s family policy, which requires much more state control than the American public could accept.

There’s a difficulty in U.S. politics: the Left focuses only on socialistic measures on society as a whole and the Right is more individualistic. This made America the place of the ‘American dream’ where you can go and become rich through your own enterprises. 

But throughout Europe, and Latin America too, social conservatism has a long tradition and means of public support for people or families in need, and it’s definitely not something you should avoid as a conservative. Over the last few years on the American Right though there’s been a discussion that the American dream might not be enough. This draws more attention to models like Hungary. 

Apart from this, it seems there’s a difficult atmosphere for promoting the family even in general. The younger generations are taught the dangers of overpopulation or to remain childless to save the planet.

These are elite ideological trends pushed by some groups of the climate change industry. To me, in a simple way, economy goes back to the household and to the family as the original word in Greek literally means “household management”. Every large economy has to decide where it’s going to put its fundamental resources.

A society that is not focused on the family is an aging society where there are incredible intergenerational tensions as the growing population of the elderly puts more demands on the shrinking population of the young. It doesn’t sound so healthy to me in any way, even from a purely economic standpoint. At the same time, an increasing number of people realize that they’ve been told a lie about the joys of single life and the dangers of having children. 

The Texas Monthly published a portrait of you a year ago. You described there a future successful Republican Party with the following characteristics: economically populist, culturally conservative, multiracial, cautious about the use of military power and comfortable with the exercise of state power. Let’s start with the latest which seems to me the most sensitive. To what extent could you imagine increasing the role of the government in U.S. politics?

I do talk about the role of the state in American politics for a simple reason: Republicans for the most part have not had a positive governing agenda. I think it’s essential to consider what they would do with power. In modern decades the Republican Party has been focused on reducing taxes, reducing bureaucracy…

Reducing the role of the state?

Yes, reducing the role of state and regulations. They’ve been successful in a lot of that: taxes were largely lower in the 1980s or we could mention the recent corporate tax reform Trump has pushed through. Republicans have also opposed the coronavirus restrictions in large parts of America.

However, this strategy has proven to be more comfortable in opposition and it doesn’t really say anything about what to do with power. There’re a lot of signs that after Trump the Republican Party is moving in a new direction. What’s the positive way to build up American industry? What’re the positive ways to affirm the American family? All of those are areas where there’s still a long way to go but much of the new thought entering the party is pushing in that direction.

An equally controversial issue is the use of military power. The New York Times has just published an op-ed you wrote together with Patrick Deneen and Sohrab Ahmari explaining through the tensions in Ukraine how the U.S. should leave behind some Cold War orthodoxies and define its role in international conflicts in a non-hawkish way. Wouldn’t the competitors assess such a strategy as a sign of weakness?

American influence is more brittle than ever before. It’s able to project its military power throughout the world but once it has that in place difficulties arise in filling in the other parts of its influence. When American conservatives view the world through the lens of hawkishness and pure confidence about our military power they make a mistake in understanding how influence can really be expanded and the country defended. First, in order to defend ourselves, we have to have much better control over our industry. We need China’s assistance in getting some of our industries back here. Therefore, a purely hawkish approach cannot be effective towards Beijing. 

Isn’t that naive to look at China as a partner with whom the U.S. can cooperate at any level?

Many conservatives are still living in a Cold War dream believing that America is the one and only superpower and we’re able to dictate terms to the rest of the world. In 2022, it’s not even remotely true. The same Republicans who call for hawkishness toward China are the same who raised little or no objection when our trade policies outsourced most of our manufacturing to Chinese territory. Because that happened we’re dependent on China right now.

If we want to not be dependent on them then we need to focus on American domestic manufacturing. In so many ways hawkishness toward China is like an opiate for the conservative mind. The hawkish think-tanker still wants to believe that with military means we’d be able to frighten the Chinese regime and push it to democratization. It’s completely absurd. 

So, what to do then?

I do support the idea that the U.S. should be influential in its geostrategic sphere which is the Americas. China has become much more influential particularly in Latin America through investment, and we have to compete with them there. 

That’s what I mean when I say American influence is sometimes brittle: we can project our military power but we have almost nothing to compare to the Belt and Road Initiative. I’d support an American Belt and Road Initiative in which we help to build up industry broadly within our sphere of influence. 

The article doesn’t only criticize the use of military power but the public diplomacy machinery behind it filled up with progressive ideology. The problem is with the intensity of the machinery of its messages? So would you favor an American public diplomacy based on conservative and Christian messages?

It’s hard for me to imagine this. Many of America’s cultural institutions are now firmly leftist or left-liberal and this is another reason why it’s time for some cultural retrenchment at home before we would project an image abroad.

Going back to the future of the GOP, multiracial is a term that is more timely than ever. Just looking at the ongoing shift within the Latino population there’s a chance that there’ll be much more Republican voters among them. 

I think it’s one of the greatest hopes of the realignment of the Republican Party that more family-oriented and culturally conservative Latino voters will help to shape the new Republican politics. Many people expected Texas or Florida to turn purple or even blue and everything happened quite the contrary.

The story of Latino influence in the history of the GOP is just starting to be written but, God willing, it’ll be a story in which these voters demand of the Republican Party a more positive policy that ties traditional American social services to conservative, family-oriented cultural goods. If this happens, it will be a very powerful force in American politics. However, if it remains wedded to the individualistic approach of the Cold War-era then it could all fall apart.

The term “postliberal” would have been a swear word in US politics even 10 or 15 years ago and now a group called “Postliberals,” of which you’re also a member, is getting increasing attention and serves as an important workshop of new ideas for the American Right. Do you think these “postliberal ideas” can become dominant in U.S. conservatism in the near future?

We’ve just launched a new Substack called The Postliberal Order to draw attention to the fact that there’s an open competition for the future. The liberal international order is much more like a disorder as it’s founded on disordered views of the human person, the family, and the community. That’s why it’s coming apart. People don’t want to make sacrifices for it but they only want things from it.

With our work, we want to point to a coherent order. We believe that we need stronger forms of classic concepts like the relationship between family and society, culture, politics, and religion. We need to flesh out those concepts and make it clear how they can help structure a better order of society in the future. I’m sure there’ll be a lot of discussion around that in the years to come. 

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