Movement on the right: A conservatism of skeptical reform

This conservatism is oriented, first, around social problems, not government. For many years, conservatives spoke as if runaway government was the only major threat facing the country. Defining themselves against government, Republican politicians had no governing agenda for people facing concrete needs.

But the emerging conservatives begin their analysis by looking at concrete problems: how to help the unemployed move to where they can find jobs; how to help gifted students from poor families reach their potential. If you start by looking at these specific matters, then even conservatives conclude that, in properly limited ways, government can be a useful tool. Government is not the only solution, but it is also not the only problem…

Second, this conservatism is populist about ends but not means. Over the past decade, many Republican politicians have spread the message that the country’s problems would be easily solved if only the nefarious elites would get out of the way and allow the common people to take over. Members of this conservatism are more likely to conclude that, in fact, problems are complex and there are no easy answers, but there is room for policy expertise, and perhaps philosophical rigor, even if it comes from Washington…

Fourth, this conservatism is skeptical in temper, especially about itself. Recently, conservatives have been filled with fervor and conviction, and regarded compromise as selling out. Some recent conservatives have ideologized the Constitution, turning it into a rigid system that answers every political question for us. But the founders constructed a constitutional order that left room for different policy approaches; that was humble before the evolving needs of the future; and that required compromise and coalition building. The founders did not believe in concentrating power in the hands of any group of highly fallible individuals.