The great American conservative thinker Russell Kirk once observed that some disasters are so catastrophic they require a re-examination of first principles. On Election Day 2012, the Republican Party suffered such an existential shock.
The corporate wing of the GOP was decisively rejected by the voters because it offered nothing but obsolete ideas driven by a bankrupt libertarian ideology that would actually exacerbate the problems America is facing. It cravenly serves the interests of the rich through an agenda composed of tax cuts for the wealthy, deregulation for large corporations, crony capitalism, and climate change denial coupled with attacks on the existing social contract. These outmoded, unappealing, elite-friendly policies are marketed to mainstream Americans mixed with a toxic stew of nativism, misogyny, racism and fear.
The time is ripe for a new alternative: progressive conservatism. Progressive conservatism would offer a fresh perspective — a synergy of populist economics, social justice, environmental stewardship, communitarianism, and traditional values that addresses the concerns of the common people.
The re-establishment of a progressive conservative voice in American politics within the GOP would create a true opposition capable of keeping the Democrats honest, the rest of the Republicans sane, and the plutocracy firmly in check.
Although many are loath to admit it, a class war has been raging in America for decades. The rich have been the aggressors and, so far, they are winning. America’s working and middle classes have been the victims of an unprovoked assault — a massive wealth and power grab fueled by boundless greed. As a result, our economy has been looted and hollowed out, our environment imperiled, our civil liberties curtailed, and our political process captured, by a rent-seeking elite whose only concern is to increase its own take from, and special privileges in, an increasingly rigged and corrupt system.
Today, income inequality is growing even as economic opportunities and social mobility are constricting. Meanwhile, large swaths of the country have been transformed into a post-industrial wasteland. Factories that once stood as symbols of our strength and vitality, and which offered decent jobs and a path to a better future for thousands of Americans, now sit empty and abandoned. Our public infrastructure- including our roads and our schools- that was once the envy of the world is crumbling.
After three decades of trickle-down economics, the only things falling are tears.
Thankfully, the outlines of a modern progressive conservative reform agenda addressing these problems are already apparent. It includes tax reform that benefits working families and ends the special treatment of income from dividends and capital gains, preferences for domestic manufacturing, securing the social contract, classic Theodore Roosevelt-style trust-busting, enhanced regulatory oversight of the financial sector, a return to the old Glass-Steagall Act restrictions separating commercial banking and securities trading, measures to control the spiraling costs of post-secondary education, strategic investments in public infrastructure, action on climate change, campaign finance reform, and the tireless defense of both civil and religious liberty.
Taken as a whole, progressive conservatism offers a positive vision of a limited, but vigorous, federal government promoting the interests of America’s working families and communities.
Finally, on social issues, progressive conservatism would move beyond culture war divisiveness in a number of ways.
As conservative author Rod Dreher has recognized, same-sex marriage is an accomplished fact; continued opposition to it merely serves to alienate allies needed to craft a broader coalition, including younger voters. Conservative concerns about its impact can be addressed by pushing for broad protections for religious entities that object to it on doctrinal grounds.
Abortion is a different story. The 2012 elections have ensured that Roe v. Wade will not be overturned in our lifetimes. Under these circumstances, the best way to address abortion is to attack its root causes while advancing reasonable restrictions on the practices that enjoy broad support, like parental notification laws. In other words, abortion must be transformed from a question of personal righteousness, into one of social justice, and then nested in a broader web of policies that consistently recognize and protect the dignity of every human being.
Writing during the 2012 Republican presidential primary, David Brooks observed that “[i]f you took a working-class candidate from the right, like [Rick] Santorum, and a working-class candidate from the left, like Senator Sherrod Brown of Ohio, and you found a few islands of common ground, you could win this election by a landslide.”
Progressive conservatism is Brooks’ common ground. It can win elections for Republicans and, more importantly, move our country forward.
Michael Stafford is a Cagle Cartoons syndicated columnist. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org