The Believers, or Why we need reform conservatism

Andrew takes Ramesh to task in this blog post, and I honestly don’t get it. As far as I can tell, Ramesh is trying to explain to small government conservatives in his audience that they are at odds with a large majority of American voters. That doesn’t mean that small government conservatism is wrong or misguided — my understanding is that Ramesh is in fact very sympathetic to small government conservatism — but rather that conservatives need to pursue an incremental program of change, one that will address the concerns of voters who do not necessarily adhere to small government conservatism but who might, on some discrete issues, embrace more competition or more transparency, or other reforms that will advance small government goals while also deliver higher quality public services.

Andrew calls this “an exhausted excuse,” and in this regard he is allied with those voters Marc Ambinder aptly referred to as the coming Republican minority.

Looking to the future, a large majority of Republicans say the party needs to “move more to the right and back to conservative principles,” while an even larger majority of all voters say, it should move to the “center to win over moderate and independent voters.”

At the same time, these same voters believe things that are at odds with Andrew’s worldview:

Two-thirds of Republicans say McCain has not been aggressive enough, but a majority of voters think they have been too aggressive.


Over three-quarters of Republicans say Palin was good choice, while a majority of the electorate says the opposite.

Threading this needle will be difficult. My sense is that Andrew believes that supporting Palin is wrongheaded at the very least, if not dangerously deranged. But many of the voters who agree with him feel the same way about a rigorous adherence to small government ideology. Politics is certainly about ideas, but it is also about weaving together a coalition. Obama, I’ve been led to understand from people close to him, believes that compromise and consensus is good for its own sake — there is a value to the deliberative process of building democratic agreements. So while Ramesh could argue for small government conservatism and let majority-building be damned, he wouldn’t be participating in the hurly-burly of democratic politics.

Or Ramesh could stick rigorously to small government conservatism and use what Jacobs and Shapiro call crafted language to deceive voters into going along with a program that, when described forthrightly, wouldn’t prove very popular. I think that would be a shame.

Andrew asks:

When will Ross and Reihan and Ramesh start asking what they believe in, rather than what coalitions can be built around policies? They are not Rovian; but they breathe the stale, acrid, cynical air he has been exhaling for eight years.

I’m not much of a believer. My normative commitment is to the plain vanilla bourgeois democratic order that I think most people ranging from moderate libertarians to moderate social democrats basically agree with. Jeremy Waldron’s Law and Disagreement is one of my political bibles. This basic commitment doesn’t tell me anything about how we should organize, say, social insurance. I weigh arguments over how we should organize social insurance by considering the evidence I draw from a variety of sources, and I reserve the right to revise my view in response to new evidence. I hardly think that’s a problem.

Do I “believe” in consumer-driven healthcare, or do I “believe” that every society in which government consumes 40 percent of GDP is less free, open, and tolerant than one in which government consumes 35 percent of GDP? No. It depends. I’m for consumer-driven healthcare if it delivers better outcomes. I’m for smaller government if it delivers more real freedom. America today is freer than America in 1950 for many reasons that go beyond the end of Jim Crow — we’re freer because of labor-saving machines, among other things. The world is complicated.

There’s been a debate over the content of “reform conservatism,” and I tend to agree with Yuval Levin=:

I think that is actually the meaning of reform conservatism, as I understand it at least: it is a case for applying conservative principles in practice and arguing for a governing vision that offers people a particular sense of what it would mean to elect real conservatives again. It’s not about changing direction, it’s about proposing ways of actually moving in the direction we’re facing.

Yuval is reluctant to use the term reform conservatism

Reform conservatism, if that is what I must call what I’m arguing for, is NOT a move away from Reaganism, it is a call for Reagan’s kind of instincts and attitudes applied to contemporary problems, and especially the concerns of middle class parents, who are the source of America’s economic, cultural, and moral strength.

and with good reason. But let me explain why the term is useful: reform conservatism is, as Yuval suggests, just conservatism — a program reform that is designed to preserve what is best in our enduring institutions. Unfortunately, conservatism has become, for some, a rigid ideology: something one believes in regardless of changing circumstances rather than a rough guide to unfamiliar terrain. Hence the modifier, which will hopefully fade away over time.