What the new books on conservative reform share is a desire to take economic anxiety seriously. But as every review of every one of those books has concluded, the desire far outpaces the capability, and the books falter when it comes to solutions (I can attest to the truth of that for Frum’s Comeback, and for the articles on which Douthat and Salam’s Grand New Party is based, though I don’t have a copy of their actual book yet). The trouble for conservatism is not that the movement has run out of ideas, but that the moment isn’t providing the problems that transform their ideas into relevant, attractive, solutions.
Whether that strategy succeeds or fails in winning elections, the next few years (or even decades) will probably be something of a liberal corrective to the era of conservative rule, and taxes will creep up and social policy will be repaired and expanded and middle class anxieties will be addressed.
First, I should note that while I don’t the proposed solutions in Grand New Party will satisfy Ezra, I certainly think we were pretty ambitious. Wage subsidies, for example, are pretty expensive. And yet I don’t consider the cost of the proposal evidence of its seriousness. Wage subsidies matter because they target economic exclusion, which is, in my view, a much bigger problem than inequality. The British increasingly talk about “worklessness,” though of course many of the “workless” are in the black economy. The black economy doesn’t allow much room for upward mobility.
My sense is that Ezra and I have some basic agreements about the scale and nature of the problems we’re setting out to solve. One smart — and curmudgeonly — conservative recently argued that the so-called reformist conservatism I believe in is a trap: in a bidding war with the liberal left, conservatives will never win. And I think that’s right: if I really did accept the center-left diagnosis of American discontent and were simply stingier about tackling it through the expansion of government, I wouldn’t be making a terribly compelling case. (That’s one danger John McCain faces, incidentally.) But of course I think the anxieties of the middle class are rooted in a complicated mix of causes, only some of which are susceptible to government solutions.
And in truth, I’m increasingly skeptical about the usefulness of the concept of a coherent American middle class and in turn the concept of middle class anxiety. By defining the problem this broadly, we risk creating solutions that aren’t nearly fine-grained enough to deal with the specific problems facing American families — indeed, we might end up jeopardizing institutions that work pretty well. The anxieties of college-educated professional suburbanites are real, yet they are very different from the anxieties of, say, a lower-middle-class blue-collar couple living in a shrinking Midwestern city. Rather than devise a particular solution for both households, my general tack is to think through how we can make public institutions more responsive to their respective needs and expectations. This is what Danny Kruger meant he talked about the “alchemy” it takes to turn publicly-funded schools and hospitals into institutions that are truly embedded in, and supported and nurtured by, the neighborhoods they serve.