These are trying times for conservatives. Revered institutions are facing existential challenges: the family and church by cultural transformation facilitated by policy and legal decisions; the nation by globalization and the power of supranational institutions led by a technocratic elite that holds little regard for sovereignty; and markets by the growing administrative state and an expansionary fiscal policy.
What should be done?
I don’t believe leaders like Donald Trump and Boris Johnson, who spearheaded the successful Brexit campaign in June, have the answers. They believe they own some kind of time machine, capable of turning back the clock to the 1950s, when social mores were very different and America and Britain were less pluralistic societies capable of succeeding economically from positions of relative isolation.
Instead, conservatives need to accept that we live in an interconnected world where goods, capital, and human beings will continue to move somewhat freely and fewer people will share their traditional values. In that context, the institutions that matter should be protected and a thoughtful defense of them articulated to the public.
They are as important in this era of high technology, globalization, cultural liberalism, and demographic transformation as they always have been. Adaptation to the 21st century is essential.
Let’s take the nation-state first. Many Brexiters supported the United Kingdom’s membership in the European Union when the organization was merely a single market, designed solely for the free transnational exchange of goods and capital. Immigration, of course, was a sticking point for many others, but I believe there still would have been a comfortable majority for “Remain” if not for the thousands of meddlesome regulations crafted by unaccountable EU bureaucrats to manage and homogenize the everyday lives of European citizens.
The lesson is that people want extensive interaction between sovereign and autonomous nations that share classically liberal values like natural rights, the kind of world imagined by intellectual fathers of this country such as John Locke and Adam Smith.
Trump is wrong to interpret Brexit sentiments — and, although polls are all over the place on this issue, I believe the views of most Americans — as consistent with his desire to scrap trade deals like the Trans-Pacific Partnership and build a wall to effectively shut out the rest of the world.
Trump is correct, however, when he says markets are not currently working for the average person. He has won popular support by claiming the system is rigged and resembles a “cronyocracy,” not a meritocracy.
Some economic sectors, firms, and individuals are subsidized, and others enjoy exceptions from regulations, for reasons that can be explained only by politics. Conservatives need to communicate that, as Milton Friedman eloquently argued, markets are the most democratic and efficient mechanism for distributing resources when they are permitted to incentivize risk, generate productivity, and deliver economic growth.
We need greater transparency in our economy and to reward strategic investment, work, and talent. “Simple rules,” to quote the title of libertarian law professor Richard Epstein’s book on the topic, will provide the public with greater confidence than multiple layers of complex and uneven regulations they must navigate.
When regulations are light, brief, clearly visible, equitably applied, and derived from broadly accepted underlying principles, markets work.
Next is family. It is difficult for many conservatives to adapt their traditional understanding of this institution to the huge cultural and attitudinal shifts American society is currently experiencing. But they can recognize that government presents a greater challenge to the nuclear arrangement than same-sex marriage.
A library of research demonstrates children are better off, physically, intellectually, and emotionally, in a two-parent stable family than in other arrangements. An admittedly much smaller but nevertheless growing literature reports same-sex couples can deliver similar gains to their children.
Many current tax and welfare policies, however, penalize marriage at a time when economic and cultural pressures on the institution are, as demonstrated most spectacularly by the experiences of the white working class, rising to intolerable levels.
Such a recalibrated defense of nation, markets, and the family is not just good policy rooted in core conservative values. It makes sense politically.
Trump has virtues, not least his ability to energize white working-class voters. But, in the face of an extraordinarily unpopular Democratic opponent, he has also revealed the limits of assembling a coalition attracted more to the policies of 1956 than 2016.
If Republicans want to govern, they need to welcome Americans of all demographic types — so long as they are virtuous, hard-working people who see the value in ideas like American exceptionalism, free enterprise, and the family unit.
By adapting the institutions that have delivered the country its freedom and prosperity over the past 2 ¼ centuries, the party can permit them to do the same for 2 ¼ more.
Andy Taylor is a professor of political science at the School of Public and International Affairs at N.C. State University. He does not speak for the university.