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The Smartest Conservatives in the Room? Not Quite

David Callahan

On Tuesday, Tea Party challengers received a drubbing by establishment GOP candidates. And today, a group of conservatives published a manifesto with practical ideas meant to woo the middle class entitled Room to Grow. I guess extremism in defense of liberty might be a vice after all. 

About that manifesto: It's interesting to closely study this and similar conservative efforts (like Marco Rubio's ideas) to address the economic anxieties of ordinary Americans. How often do you hear conservatives saying things like:
Many European countries now have more social mobility and opportunity than the United States. And today a child’s future income depends on parental income  Many European countries now have more social mobility and opportunity than the United States. And today a child’s future income depends on parental income more in America than it does in Canada or Europe.
Not often. And there's more of the same in this manifesto, which was released by the Young Guns Network and co-written by a sharp bunch of conservative policy wonks. The intro to the manifesto, by Peter Wehner, points out that wages have stood still for the middle class while costs for healthcare and college have soared. Amid these trends, the right needs to have better solutions:
Rather than talk about the poor and those Americans receiving government assistance as “takers” or dependents, conservatives need to explain how emphasizing and enabling work and mobility would be better for the poor and better for the country.
Of course, you know this can't last and, sure enough, a few paragraphs later we're told that the American system is: "profoundly threatened today by an assertive progressive ideology advanced by an increasingly radical American liberalism."
Funny, but that's not the way things look from inside the progressive world, where there's been a steady decline in actual radical thinking compared to a generation ago when our side still had a fair number of democratic socialists like Irving Howe and New Left radicals. Please, Peter, point me to today's equivalent. In the meantime, I'm happy to introduce you to a centrist healthcare law that Bob Dole would have loved in his day (along with Mitt Romney), a former Treasury Secretary who's still apologizing for coddling Wall Street, and a moderate president who's 10-year budget plan takes discretionary domestic spending down to Eisenhower levels, while spending as much annually on national security as the U.S. did when Brezhnev ran the Kremlin.
A better starting point for a manifesto focused on solutions might go this way: "Since many elements of the Democratic leadership now favor centrist policies, Republicans can successfully work with Democrats on a number of issues -- as long as we retreat from our extremist stances and migrate to America's 'vital center.'"
Likewise, it's not so helpful to say stuff like: "the Left’s social vision tends to consist of individuals and the state, so that all common action is state action, and it's purpose is to liberate individuals from material want and moral sway."
Hello? Are we talking about same American left? Because while that description of a statist mindset might apply to the left in Europe, it certainly doesn't hold here, where progressives start nonprofits to solve social problems every day -- too many nonprofits you might say. Think of the gazillion community organizations out there meant to help build housing, create jobs, and so on. Oh, and don't forget about that all-important civil society player in the left's universe: organized labor. After organized religion, it's hard to think of a civil society actor that's played a bigger role in American life in the last century -- and a key focal point of progressive politics today is to revive that actor. 
Advice to future manifesto writers: Don't start with straw man arguments. 
A better phrasing would have gone this way: "The American left is unique globally given its embrace of civil society solutions to big problems, and here too we can find common ground." 
And speaking of labor unions, they aren't even mentioned in the chapter on employment as a way to help people into the middle class. That's kind of odd, isn't it? Because the last time the United States greatly expanded the ranks of the middle class -- after World War II -- unions played a decisive role. Basically they did so by turning low-skilled, low-paying manufacturing jobs into a pathway to the middle class. 
And, wouldn't you know it, we once again have tens of millions of workers stuck in low-skilled, low-paying jobs -- while the owners of capital capture the highest share of the nation's income in many decades. You'd think that unions might be part of the solution here -- especially for thinkers who espouse the virtue of civil society solutions. As I've argued in this space before, conservatives should love unions because they offer an alternative to a statist approach to income redistribution. If civil society actors and private business can come together to agree on ways to more broadly share prosperity, government doesn't need to get involved. All the state needs to do is ensure that workers have the international right to freely associate and collectively bargain without fear of retaliation -- which is too often not the case these days. 
Anyway, I could go on, but the point is this: It's nice to see smart young conservatives pulling their movement to more pragmatic solutions, but they need to better understand the left and broaden their thinking in a number of places. After all, their manifesto is entitled Room to Grow.