Conservatism and the American Future

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On this Saturday edition of “The Daily Signal Podcast,” three guests join us to discuss fault lines and emerging issues within American conservatism regarding culture, economics, and how the decline of important institutions continues to roil our society.

Our trio of commentators include Sam Gregg, research director at the Acton Institute; Arthur Milikh, executive director of the Center for the American Way of Life at the Claremont Institute; and Catherine Pakaluk, associate professor of economics at The Catholic University of America.

“We’re not living in the America of the 1980s,” Gregg observes, adding:

We’re living in a society which is arguably more fragmented, more divided, in which things that were unthinkable back in the 1980s—like men pretending that they’re women or whatever it happens to be—were not issues, but now they are.

So I think that the conservative movement [is on the right track], precisely because it’s willing to debate these sorts of issues among themselves, but also in a public way. I think that’s actually going, in the long term, to equip us better to deal with some of these very real challenges.

Listen to the podcast below or read the lightly edited transcript.

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Richard Reinsch: Hello, this is Richard Reinsch. You’re listening to another edition of The Daily Signal podcast. Today we’re talking about conservatism and the American future with Sam Gregg, Research Director at the Acton Institute, Arthur Milikh, Executive Director at the Center for the American Way of Life at the Claremont Institute, and Catherine Pakaluk, Associate Professor of Economics at Catholic University of America. So on our topic conservatism in the American future, there have been a lot of changes, a lot of movement so to speak inside American conservatism on questions of size of government, the use of government, political economy, culture and morality over the last five years. Sam Gregg, this question for you. How do you see the conservative movement today in relationship to the challenges the country overall faces?

Sam Gregg: Well, one thing that I think is very heartening about the conservative movement is that not only does it recognize that there are significant challenges, whether it’s economic, national security, social questions, but the conservative movement, I think, is much more willing, and I think this is healthy, to debate and discuss these issues among themselves. Because if there isn’t a discussion going on about how you deal with something like the rise of transgenderism or how you deal with what’s happening in China, or some of the economic challenges that we’re having, if there isn’t a healthy debate going on, on the right, so to speak, about these issues, then I think you end up with group think. You also end up, I believe, not recognizing that we’re not living in the 1980s anymore. And I think there’s a temptation for those of us who are conservatives to look at the 1980s and say, well, can’t we just be like how it was when Reagan was president.

Well, you can’t. We’re living in the 2020s and there’s different challenges, different world, different personalities. And America itself has changed a lot. We’re not living in the America of the 1980s. We’re living in a society which is arguably more fragmented, more divided, in which things that were unthinkable back in the 1980s, like men pretending that they’re women or whatever it happens to be, were not issues, but now they are. So I think that the conservative movement, precisely because it’s willing to debate these sorts of issues among themselves, but also in a public way. I think that’s actually going, in the long term, to equip us better to deal with some of these very real challenges.

Reinsch: Arthur, I’ll put the same question to you.

Arthur Milikh: I agree with a lot of that. There’s a new sense among conservatives, a more, maybe even dire sense that some of these things need to not only be debated, but certain actions need to follow them. One example of that is, we discussed this a little earlier, DeSantis’s victory over Disney. Just a couple of years ago. It would’ve been unimaginable from either the right or the left that such a thing would happen, but he did it, he won, he had overwhelming support. And so that’s not quite the same as a debate, but it shows a sense among, not just the base, but a broad swath of the public that they are interested in, not just debating, but they know things are wrong and they know that some actions need to be taken to stop them. So I look at that as very encouraging.

Reinsch: Okay, Catherine, I’ll put that question to you too.

Catherine Pakaluk: That’s great. Maybe I can just take the position of saying that the thing that’s heartening to me is an attention to, I would say kind of a common sense conservatism, which I think is closely aligned with a kind of conservatism of the household and the domestic. And so I think right now, some of the things that Sam mentioned, that transgenderism, for instance, we’re seeing a lot of the pushback coming from moms, from dads, from people who are saying, look, it doesn’t make any sense. This is outside the realm of common sense. And if this is what it means to be tolerant, to be progressive, well then I’m not on board with that. So I’d like to think about the optimism I see going forward in a kind of domestic conservatism or conservatism of the household, which wants to encapsulate the tensions always present in the conservative tradition by locating them in the goodness of the household and the family.

Reinsch: Thinking about the recent episode of in Florida, that Arthur mentioned with Governor DeSantis removing in effect a corporate welfare provision that Disney had long benefited from being able to be self-governing over its own properties, without any government interaction, and he removes that. It brings to mind though, this sort of position that conservatives, many conservatives, say that politics is downstream from culture. Is this an instance of politics by a conservative governor trying to recreate culture, recreate a culture by a sense of using government to lead corporations like Disney, who are in that business maybe to not be so antagonistic towards what many Americans believe and want to watch and view. And another question too is with Governor DeSantis’ action, there are also potential dangers. Anytime government is interacting in civil society. So maybe we can take that up as well. Sam.

Gregg: Well, I think the Disney situation was a classic case of corporate welfare. They were given special privileges that were not accorded to other companies in order to be able to carry out their particular functions. So removing corporate welfare is something I’m always in favor of. I do worry about the potential for the left to start adopting similar tactics. In fact, they already do in a number of jurisdictions anyway. So I worry about the potential for this to start to escalate on a particular level. But the deeper problem, I think, of course, is what’s happened in corporate America. So much a corporate America having embraced, essentially left leaning, woke ideas in a very unthinking way in many respects, I think. We sometimes think that business people are somehow inherently conservative. Well, they’re not. They go to the same schools and colleges as everyone else.

They’re subject to the same type of cultural influence as everyone else. So I’m not surprised that they’ve moved in this particular direction. I just hope that this is a catalyst for at least some people who are involved in commerce in the United States to understand that maybe we need to get back to what we are supposed to be doing, what the purpose of commerce and corporations are. And to understand that every organization has a TLOs and the TLOs of corporations and businesses is not to engage in political propaganda, it’s to engage in buying, selling goods that consumers happen to want. And that, I think, would go a long way to solving some of these problems so that businesses pursue business goals, religious organizations pursue religious goals, families pursue family goals. And so we have more clarity about what different communities are supposed to be doing in the United States instead of this slippage that we see going on all across the corporate America right now.

Reinsch: Arthur, I’ll extend that same question to you.

Milikh: Well, for a long time, we’ve thought about corporations as entities that are outside of government that are free to basically pursue the goals that Sam just highlighted. The truth is that many, let’s say, every corporation that has over 50 or a hundred employees is subject to anti-discrimination law and disparate impact analysis, which is to say, these are the legal underpinnings of identity politics or woke politics. And in that regard, they are ideologically entities of the state, not fully, obviously, but in that core element, they are. So I’m not so sure that this analysis, that they just need to be freed up and allowed to do what they would by the motives that they ought to do is as open as we like to believe.

Moreover, we talked about this earlier. There are now entities like Google that are immense, have immense power, benefit from American laws, benefit from the American labor pool, keep their money abroad, work with adversaries, and yet actively subvert some of the most important principles in the country, like the freedom of speech. So I just bring this up to highlight that I’m not so sure that just deregulation is enough, just complaining is enough, which is why I point out this DeSantis instance as one obvious example in recent memory of clear success. Now, maybe you’ll say, well, it’s not a success because maybe they will end up after the expiry period of a year, repeal all of those privileges that were handed to them and Disney will still keep going on in the way that it has. So I don’t mean to exaggerate that it’s a success and it’s over, but this line of possibilities that DeSantis opened up is very interesting.

Reinsch: What would you suggest is maybe more granular level detail? What sorts of policy interventions do you want to see? Is this more of conservatives, conservative institutions, conservative governors, actively just pushing against corporations who are engaged in left wing identity politics to let them know there is opposition and they’ll think carefully before they just sort of mindlessly wade into that, or are you envisioning something else?

Milikh: Well, I think that it has to be some kind of twofold project. One is pushing those big entities, Amazon, Delta, Disney, into some form of neutrality to the extent that’s possible. On the other hand, I do think that a whole sphere of businesses should be unifying, being created to serve the interests, needs, market demands of red states, red people to create a kind of parallel economy. There’s a lot of, or let me put it this way in the words of my colleagues at the Claremont Institute, buy products from businesses that don’t hate you.

Reinsch: Okay, Catherine, the same question.

Pakaluk: I don’t have a lot to add. I think those are very fine comments. I guess I want to say that maybe I’ll just repeat again, common sense. Politics, this is the art of the possible, and that you look at a problem like Disney and you say, well, what’s possible. But you know the tension is between pragmatism and principle, and it’s important not to undermine the rule of law and set something up so that the next governor who’s left-based, we can say, has a different agenda. But these things will always be there. The only thing I’d like to maybe add to this is that, it’s interesting that when I said earlier that one of the things that gives me a lot of optimism is the way in which families are really kind of beginning to mobilize and push back.

And then the next example was this question about Disney, and I think information is terribly helpful. And when I think about this idea of going back to the eighties or the nineties, I don’t have any nostalgia. I was a little kid in the eighties. So I’m not personally looking to go back to the 1980s or even the 1990s, but something we have as an advantage compared to those times is we have access to more information now. Now it’s a disaggregated information and you kind of have to work harder to find it, but we can discover ways in which corporations can be undermining our values or can hate us. And this is a huge tool to have in our toolkits. So we can know these things, we cannot shop there, we cannot buy there. And we’re seeing more of that. That’s not a bad thing.

Gregg: Disney is experiencing the consequences of this right now. The huge decline in the share value, but also more importantly, the decline in their respectability.

From people viewing it as 70% of Americans saying, yes, it’s great. Now down to 33%. If you are the CEO of Disney, that’s a big problem.

Reinsch: Well, and to Catherine’s point on information, we all got the Disney zoom call where the employees were actively saying how they wanted to put in all manner of characters into Disney programs. Which aside even from the idea there it’s that somehow art, this art is political ideology and that somehow that’s going to be a compelling product in it’s own right. And it’s interesting also to see Netflix tell its employees, you’re going to work on projects you don’t agree with and you can leave if you don’t like that. That’s a change from the Netflix that we’ve had.

Thinking about also American conservatism, what it exists to serve. It seems to me we want to preserve the American constitutional tradition, but that’s easy to state. We have many problems. Seems to me, the biggest problem we have is we are not a self-governing country. That’s informing, I think this discussion, we’re not a self-governing country because decisions keep getting sucked up by the administrative state and by the federal judiciary. And so we can’t actually have clashes and compromises and settlements and people feel like a consent was actually given to a law, so to speak. Is there hope for how would one try to breathe in life into self-governing institutions in American life?

Gregg: Well, I’ll go first. I think that one way is obviously for legislators to stop delegating very important debates and discussions to both either bureaucrats or to judges, that’s clearly a problem, frankly, because it suits legislators, not to have to get involved in these things. Oh, I can’t do anything about that. The Supreme Court has already decided. I’m personally this way, but they’ve decided another way or I’d like to help you, but I’m sorry about, this is something that’s been delegated to the Department of Education to handle, et cetera. So decentralization, I think, has got to be part of the discussion. I’ve noticed that Heritage’s president, Kevin Roberts has talked a great deal about this, particularly not just in terms of, from the government to the people, but even from the federal government to the states. I think there’s a lot of potential there.

And I think there’s actually a lot of receptiveness to that as well, because then you’re bringing politics closer by design to the people who it actually affects. Now that’s probably going to result in a lot of different types of positions and policies in different states and that’s fine. I’m sure that’s what we’re going to see. Whatever happens, let’s assume Dobbs goes the right way, I’m sure that’s what we’re going to see in the United States when it comes to things like abortion. But even on economic issues, if you have this decentralization, that if states want to play around with industrial policy, which they already do, but they’ll be able to do so on a bigger level. Fine. I think they’ll fail. But the point is you can have this type of experimentation. At the moment is sort of, you have unelected officials, either judges or bureaucrats, sort of deciding en mass for a nation of 300 million people, that this is going to be the position and there is no other way. And that’s not tenable in the long term.

Reinsch: Arthur, on this point.

Milikh: I think that not that much can be done from Washington. You see what that massively powerful, and in an odd way, competent administrative/intel state did to President Trump. It’s massively competent in preserving itself. It’s expansive. It’s well funded. Nobody’s jobs are ever threatened and they can stimy, they can slow roll, they can undermine, they can humiliate. They can leak to the point that they wait you out for four years. And this is a massive problem that there are solutions to and smarter people than me think about these things. But I think the game is really in the states.

Reinsch: Isn’t this, you mentioned these problems though, yet the Constitution effectively gives Congress the ability to nuke the executive branch, to nuke the federal judiciary, to tell them what cases they could hear even, to limit their jurisdiction. They hold the power to impeach. They could bring, they could have brought if we had sufficient numbers, Fauci himself could have been fired in one bill. A rider to a bill, he could have lost his funding. To my mind, we have these constitutional powers. We don’t have people with the will to do them, but we don’t, from what I have read, I’m not an expert in Congress, the culture inside Congress is not oriented towards making these decisions in law making.

Milikh: I agree. However, in a certain way, it gets worse than that because what you have is massive spending bills passed literally to fund the left and the right votes it in. Never looks under the hood. When they’re told that they’re doing that.

Reinsch: There is no debate on these. They’re announced and then the next day voted on.

Milikh: Right. Yeah.

Reinsch: And they always vote. And so what you have is one side effectively funding its adversaries. It’s really an unbelievable thing. That’s also the reason that I don’t have that much hope there, but a great deal of hope in the states, that the states really can de-wokeify themselves and lessen the powers of the woke institutions there. And there’s a lot of promise because it’s the moms that you talked about that feel what’s happening to their kids, have an actual power when in numbers that their anger has an end in a way that it just diffuses on the way to Washington and then goes nowhere.

Catherine, Arthur’s pretty skeptical of the powers of Congress or the willpower in Congress to be a self-governing body. Is that the final word?

Pakaluk: Is that the final word? Well, I was going to say something maybe even darker in a sense, which, but-

Reinsch: Please do. That seems appropriate in this podcast.

Pakaluk: Sorry.

Gregg: I’m the optimist here.

Pakaluk: I’m going to out pessimist Sam and Arthur. But no, I don’t know. Maybe it’s just a complimentary point, which is that, you led with a question about what it is that we want to conserve and this commitment to constitutional government and self-government. But in the history of this nation, there are some major inflection points that cause people to be deeply, we’ll say scandalized. And by that I mean, they lose faith in whether or not this received tradition is worth preserving. And I think that the era of the civil war was one of those eras and a hundred plus years that hasn’t worked itself out, we are still paying for the way in which we excluded some Americans from the rights to life and property that the rest of us shared. And we should pay for a long time for that. But another one of these inflection points is Roe versus Wade. And so we can say that, I have some optimism that if Dobbs goes the right way, some of this will go back to the states, there can be a lively debate, it can become political again.

Gregg: Legislators will actually have to talk about this.

Pakaluk: Have to talk about what a 20 week or a 22 week thing means and what the characteristics of the unborn are. But I see Roe versus Wade as one of these kinds of inflection points that among other things, it was wrong, but among other things, I think it’s led to a deep amount of skepticism among religious and social conservatives as to whether this constitutional government is worth preserving. They’re not sure that we can use these traditions to work for what’s true and good, and that’s a big temptation.

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