A movement older than the Tea Party, the nebulous coalition of conservative wonks now commonly referred to as reform conservatives has gained an increased public profile of late as the smart set with ideas for the Republican Party and an active response to the reactive Tea Party and passive party establishment. Not to be confused with the homonymous Austrian political party, reform conservatives, in as much as they are a unified whole, believe the current GOP electoral slide cannot be arrested without positive reform. As Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry summated in Forbes, “in order to win sustainably, Republicans must put forward policies that are credible, conservative and directly address the day-to-day concerns of lower-middle Americans.”
That entails a host of specific policy advances and directives, something Ross Douthat addressed and defined in a May column. It is an attempt to not merely stand against things or to be conservative without advancing an alternative. Instead, reform conservatives want to be for people, and for things that are for people. This is the strategy Arthur Brooks set out in the first of the American Enterprise Institute’s “Vision Talks” on social justice; indeed, Ramesh Ponnuru, who chairs the talks, is considered a key figure among reform conservatives. They don’t claim to be a conservative movement in opposition to any others, but rather attempting to provide direction and a tent to come together under. It won’t be easy, especially with regards to libertarians, with whom they seem destined to clash on first principles.
By promoting the concerns of the lower-middle class, reform conservatives are striving to recognize and respond to what is popular without descending to populism. While semantically they often use the term “populist” to describe many of the social and even fiscal measures they call for, and while those policies are often supported by the populist conservative base, their system calls for the championing of the popular to subsume the populist. In the case of gay marriage, that means general acceptance that state licenses are inevitable, while promoting policies incentivizing the traditional nuclear family. It’s an embrace of populists without cheek-kissing populism.
Some reform conservatives see their work as jumping back to Edmund Burke; Yuval Levin wrote a book tracing the right-left political debate to Burke and Thomas Paine. Ignoring whether that is an incredible oversimplification, it sets the stage for reform conservatism’s coming fights with libertarians. Burke’s pre-enlightenment conception of prejudice, understanding that word to mean not bigotry or anti-reason but rather reliance on the received reason of tradition—meaning literally pre-judgment—is one of the best tools in the reform conservative box for defending the kind of social measures they advocate. Pre-judgment says families are good, kids are good, marriage is good, job security, strong community, health insurance, fiscal solvency, skilled immigration, are all good.
The libertarian case is often based on radical individualism and skeptical reason, bringing a rehash of the Paine-Burke debate, with libertarians ultimately coming down on the Paine side. Reformed conservatism’s best asset right now is its nature as a non-system. There are practical applications of the principles it represents, but the movement will be strongest if it does not represent a series of bills, but a set of principles, prejudices in the finest sense. Gobry’s call for credible policy requires clearly communicated conservatism and justice that mandates meeting the concerns of “lower-middle Americans.”