THE BLOG
08/19/2014 12:15 pm ET Updated Oct 19, 2014

The Rise of the React-o-Cons

The rise of "reform conservatives" has drawn an increasing amount of attention. The wonky right has been treated most recently to a laudatory article in the New York Times, following a critical take by E.J. Dionne in Democracy.  Some writers have gone as far as declaring Republicans the party of ideas. But reform conservatism fails to reach the holy grail of modern conservatism, wedding support of the family with adoration for the free market.

Cracks have already formed in the reformicon facade. There is little willingness to challenge the insanity of the Republican Party, so environmental issues have gone entirely ignored. Attempts to bend a fundamentally flawed theory of poverty into wonky centrist plans have collapsed under the weight of their own absurdity. When foreign policy is broached, and itrarely is, the result is embarrassing. (Conservative writer Scott McConnell worries, "it is more than a little disconcerting to see neoconservatism be welcomed back into the public square under the false flag of Burkean moderation."  The reformicons, if they care about immigration (it didn't garner a mention in their famous "Room to Grow" plan), did nothing to halt recent Republican self-destruction on immigration. The most substantive challenge they appear willing to make toward the party's right-most wing is banalities about inflation.

Instead, reform conservatism sticks to "wonky" economics plans, where attempts to distinguish themselves from centrist Democrats fall away. Had the Obama administration chosen to push for a more progressive plan (which likely would have failed to pass), then the reformicons may well have proposed something very much like the Affordable Care Act. Obama instead chose the conservative route: expand already existing programs and keep the private insurance system broadly in place. The fact that Obama's plan was drawn from Heritage documents and implemented previously by Republicans is inconsequential -- the important point is that it is philosophically conservative. That is, it prefers market mechanisms when possible and expands old bureaucracies (Medicaid) rather than create new ones.

In fact, the Obama administration has shown a consistent preference for conservative policy proposals -- ones that don't throw the baby out with the bathwater but rather leave already existing structures in place, but reform them subtly. His administration has preferred, where possible, to delegate power to the states and to use market mechanisms rather than government decree to reach policy goals. (Witness his recent plan for curbing global warming, which relies on federalisminnovation and market mechanisms, rather than command and control.) His foreign policy has been restrained compared to the naive sentimentality of the previous administration and he has shied away from crusading on social issues, preferring to silently advance transgender rights.

Because of Obama's conservatism, the "reformers" have been forced to take on an increasingly reactionary tone. Yuval Levin, for instance, according to the generous Sam Tanenhaus, sounds rather more reactionary than reformist:
For all [Levin's] temperateness of tone, and for all the meticulously reasoned arguments that he has shepherded into the pages of National Affairs, Levin justly says his ideas are radical. He envisions not just a shrinking or scaling-back of government, but an entire re-imagining of it.

This longing to roll back time and go to a long-gone utopia is not a conservative impulse, but rather a reactionary one. We see this impulse when Ramesh Ponnuru seeks to obliterate the conservative Affordable Care Act on the basis of a radical (and almost entirely unsupported) reading of a single sentence. This is not the attitude of someone who, as Burke might suggest, attends to "the faults of the state as to the wounds of a father, with pious awe and trembling solicitude." Instead Ponnuru resembles the impetuous "children of their country, who are prompt rashly to hack that aged parent in pieces, and put him into the kettle of magicians, in hopes that by their poisonous weeds, and wild incantations, they may regenerate the paternal constitution, and renovate their father's life."

Most reformicon (react-icon?) proposals still hold to the old Reaganite dogma that "the government isn't the solution to the problem, the government is the problem." Instead of "tax cuts," the new right-wing buzzword is "tax credit." Reading their foundational document, "Room to Grow," you wonder whether the reformicons might try to solve terrorism with "tax credits" as well; the phrase appears 21 times in the manifesto, and "credit" 81 times (abortion and gay rights go unmentioned, guns are mentioned once). Given that immigration is the single biggest issue that faces the Republican Party, one would expect a chapter, or even a paragraph, on the subject -- she would be wrong. Sadly, for reform conservatives, the Obama administration has already begun expanding tax credits and has signaled its intent to do more, meaning that reformicons generally substitute real change for the Taco Bell effect.

* * *

From the beginning, "reform conservatism" had deep troubles. For one, its thinkers have made no secret that their goal is to somehow save the odd Republican coalition of social conservatives, foreign policy hawks and business conservatives. These contradictions are most obvious in the conflict between business libertarian conservatives and social conservatives, and expose the deepest failings of reform conservatism.

The most famous and influential reform conservatives all cut their teeth in the culture wars. Ponnuru first graced the national spotlight after calling Democrats the "party of death," and blundering through an interview with Jon Stewart. Yuval Levin worked with Robert P. George who believes marriage can only exist where penile-vaginal intercourse does. (This is not a caricature of his argument). Ross Douthat is known for his radical Catholicism. (He supports allowing businesses to discriminate against gays and compared the contraception mandate to sterilization.) All of them swarm at a chance to rue the rise of single mothers. But their "family-friendly" values are tough to reconcile with the market -- one of the most anti-family institutions (there is a reason the Atlas Society, which exists to forward Randian ideas, harbors an open disdain for the family).

Hobby Lobby, which could be seen as another instance of market relations inserting into family life (the decision of when to begin one), is instead seen as a victory of "religious liberty." This conclusion is not foregone, but rather justified, rather explicitly, as a way to maintain an uneasy alliance between religious radicals and the more libertarian business wing of the Republican Party. As Julia Azari writes:

The religious liberty-contraception question provides an opportunity for three important factions within the Republican Party -- ideological libertarians, business interests, and social conservatives -- to agree on something.

Someone actually concerned about families might worry about Hobby Lobby's policy towards pregnant women, which is certainly not Christian and barely civilized:

When a very pregnant Felicia Allen applied for medical leave from her job at Hobby Lobby three years ago, one might think that the company best known for denying its employees insurance coverage of certain contraceptives -- on the false grounds that they cause abortions -- would show equal concern for helping one of its employees when she learned she was pregnant.

Instead, Allen says the self-professed evangelical Christian arts-and-crafts chain fired her and then tried to prevent her from accessing unemployment benefits.

That is unsurprising: The question at hand in Hobby Lobby was not religious liberty, but corporate power. The goal is not "family," but rather exclusion of certain groups from the public sphere. We don't need to look too far back to find conservatives who understand that the deepest threat to the family is not the government but the market. Marxist conservative Christopher Lasch writes:

The sentimental veneration of motherhood, even at the peak of its influence in the late nineteenth century, could never quite obscure the reality that unpaid labor bears the stigma of social inferiority when money becomes the universal measure of value ... children pay the price for this invasion of the family by the market.

The greatest threat to the civic institutions that the reformicons praise so highly are also threatened by the market: "all that is solid melts into air." Pope John XXIII writes in "Mater et Magistra":

We therefore consider it Our duty to reaffirm that the remuneration of work is not something that can be left to the laws of the marketplace; nor should it be a decision left to the will of the more powerful. It must be determined in accordance with justice and equity; which means that workers must be paid a wage which allows them to live a truly human life and to fulfill their family obligations in a worthy manner.

And yet the reformicon proposal for getting the long-term unemployed hired is to reduce their wages -- further degrading them.

America is one of the only countries in the world that does not offer paid maternity leave. Because of this, paid leave is a luxury in America that is available to all wealthy and most middle-class women but denied the poor. Only 5 percent of women in the retail sector have access to paid maternity leave. A study by Linda Houser and Thomas Vartanian finds that only 11 percent of private sector workers reported paid family leave through their employers, and only 5 percent of women in the bottom quarter of wages report access. The reformicons aren't interested in what almost every other country (and some states) have done: guaranteed paid leave. In the "Room To Grow" essay on work-family balance (the only one, notably, written by a woman), Carrie Lukas rejects the idea of paid leave, arguing that, "Knowing that any worker facing a medical issue could take up to three months of paid leave creates a significant new risk for employers." The reformicon dogma  can be summed up quite simply as "money over everything."

When family and marketplace meet, reformicons will prefer markets. They therefore lack proposals to deal with rampant wage theftscheduling abuse and the massive gender pay gap. The gender pay gap will cost women in retail $381 billion over the next six years, a recent Demos report finds. Given that 40 percent of women in retail contribute 40 percent or more of their family's income, reducing that gap would be a benefit to working families. It'd be great to hear some reformicon proposals -- instead we get decepticon denialism.

The failure of reform conservatism to forward actually family-friendly policies is probably its most glaring deficiency. As Christ once said, "No one can serve two masters, for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and money." I've noted these contradictions before: Rubio and Ryan want to expand opportunity and reduce inequality; the only way to do that (at least the way every other country has done so) is to strengthen government programs. The best way to strengthen the family is to remove the market from family life. It is corporations, not government, that schedule workers and it is laissez-faire that has eroded the middle class for the past four decades. In Dionne's essay, he notes that some of the reformicons have recognized their ideological contradiction, but he summarizes the failure to correct it accurately, "Even when they face up to the contradictions in conservative ideology and acknowledge the market's shortcomings, their solutions rarely challenge the market's priorities ..."

Eventually reform conservatism will collapse upon the weight of its own contradictions. Ronald Reagan, like an unwitting best friend setting up a bad blind date, formed an increasingly unmanageable coalition. The initial spark has died and the elderly lovers are increasingly bickering. Vitriolic hatred of Obama is a weak attempt at coalition maintenance. The dirty fact is that very few policies can make all the parties of this increasingly fractious coalition happy. Reform conservatives have tried to brush these issues under the carpet, but eventually voters will want red meat, something Republicans simply cannot deliver and remain a viable party. Without a symbolic enemy to rally around the coalition will fall apart, which is why the reformicons are neither particularly interested in actually existing policy or conservatism.

Originally published on Salon.

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