Conservatism and the American Future

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.

Sam Gregg, research is part of our trio of commentators. director at the Acton Institute; Arthur Milikh (executive director of the Center for the American Way of Life, Claremont Institute); and Catherine Pakaluk (associate professor of economics, 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 believe that the conservative movement should be embraced. [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.

Richard Reinsch: 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. Concerning our topic, conservatism and the American future, there has been a lot happening in American conservatism over these five years. This question is for Sam Gregg. What do you think of the conservative movement today and the challenges facing the country?

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. America 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 many of those points. 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. This was just a few short 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. This is what I find 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 not 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: I was thinking about the recent episode in Florida that Arthur mentioned, with Governor DeSantis taking out a corporate welfare provision that Disney has long benefited from being self-governing over its properties without government intervention. This brings to mind the fact that many conservatives believe that politics is downstream of culture. Is this a case of a conservative governor trying create culture, recreate a cultural environment by using government to direct corporations like Disney. These corporations may not be so hostile towards what many Americans believe, want to see and watch. And another question too is with Governor DeSantis’ action, there are also potential dangers. Any time government interacts in civil society. Maybe we can also take that up. Sam.

Gregg: I believe the Disney case was a classic example of corporate welfare. They were granted special privileges that were not afforded to other companies to enable them to fulfill their respective functions. So removing corporate welfare is something I’m always in favor of. However, I worry about the possibility that the left will adopt similar tactics. They do this in many jurisdictions. I worry about the potential for this situation to escalate at a particular level. But the deeper problem, I think, of course, is what’s happened in corporate America. I think that corporate America has adopted, essentially left-leaning ideas in a very unthinking fashion in many aspects. We often think that business people are somehow inherently conservative. Well, they’re not. They attend the same colleges and schools 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 hope this will be a catalyst for some Americans involved in commerce. Maybe we need to rethink what commerce and corporations are meant to do. 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. This, I believe, would help to solve some of these problems so that businesses can pursue their business goals, religious organisations pursue their religious goals, and families can pursue their family goals. So we can see more clearly what the different communities should be doing in the United States, rather than the slippage we see all over 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. In that sense, they are ideologically entities and agents of the state. 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.

We also discussed this earlier. Google is one of many entities that have enormous power and benefit from American laws. They also benefit from the American labor market. They can keep their money abroad, work alongside adversaries, and actively subvert some important principles of the country, such as the freedom to 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: Would it be possible to provide more detail at a higher level? What kind of policy interventions would you like 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: It has to be a two-fold project, according to me. One is pushing those big entities, Amazon, Delta, Disney, into some form of neutrality to the extent that’s possible. On the other, I believe that a whole range of businesses should be unifying, and being created to serve red states’ needs, market demands, and create a 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. Those are great 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. 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.

The next example was the question about Disney. I think information can be very 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 an eighteen-year-old child 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. This is a great tool to have in your toolkit. These are the things we need to know. We can’t shop there, and we can’t buy there. And we’re seeing more of that. That’s not a bad thing.

Gregg: Right now, Disney is feeling the effects of this. The massive decline in share price, but more importantly, their respectability.

From people viewing it as 70% of Americans saying, yes, it’s great. Now it is 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.

It is important to think about American conservatism and the purpose it serves. It seems to me we want to preserve the American constitutional tradition, but that’s easy to state. There are many problems. My impression is that we are not self-governing. 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 any hope? How can one breathe life into self-governing American institutions?

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 ruled. 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. Decentralization must be discussed, I believe. 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 you can still do this type of experimentation. It is currently that unelected officials, whether judges or bureaucrats are deciding en masse for a nation with 300 million inhabitants, that this is the best way to go. And that’s not tenable in the long term.

Reinsch: Arthur on this point.

Milikh: Washington can’t do much, I believe. It’s amazing what this massively powerful and, in an odd way competent administrative/intelstate state did for 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 even let you down for up to four decades. This is a huge problem that can be solved by smarter people than I. But I think the game really is 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 have the power to impeach. They could have brought, they could have brought, if we had enough numbers, Fauci could have been fired in one act. He could have lost funding if he was a spokesman for a bill. These constitutional powers are available to us, according to my understanding. 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. It gets worse, however, because you have massive spending bills that were passed to fund the right and left votes. Never look beneath the hood. When they’re told that they’re doing that.

Reinsch: These are not up for debate. They’re announced and then the next day voted on.

Milikh: Right. Yeah.

Reinsch: They always vote. So what you have is one side funding its opponents. 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 last word?

Pakaluk: Is that it? I was going to say something darker, but-

Reinsch: Please do. This seems to be a good 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. They lose faith in the value of this tradition. 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. For that, we should be responsible for a long time. Roe versus Wade is another inflection point. We can conclude that I believe that Dobbs will be successful if he does the right thing. If there is a lively debate, it could become political again.

Gregg:Legislators will need to actually talk about it.

Pakaluk: We need to discuss the meaning of a 20-week or 22-week thing and the characteristics of unborn babies. 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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