A New Conservatism

The prospects for conservatism as a political force in the United States are arguably grim. The GOP’s electoral prospects may be on the verge of drying up due to demographic shifts, particularly the growth of the Hispanic vote — the kind of shifts that, in the past, have driven major political parties into extinction.

There are serious problems with the youth vote as well. Some commentators insist that the GOP must begin distancing itself from moral issues such as abortion and gay marriage, that it must put on a more “socially progressive” face if it is to win this demographic. But President Obama didn’t win the Christian vote because he was pro-choice, or tolerant of gay marriage, or because he favors gun restrictions. If anything, he won it in spite of those positions, because Christian voters in the 21st century, for better or worse, place other issues (like the economy) higher on their priority lists.

The current economic crisis may have shifted the economy more decisively to the foreground this past election, but opinion polls going back further than the most recent election cycle show that economic and foreign policy issues consistently outrank abortion and gay marriage on the American voter’s priority list. While one or two polls is no reason to change political strategy, patterns in recent history ought to be.

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The good news is that the low priority Americans assign to moral issues important to conservatives, and to us as Catholics, may end up working to our advantage.

Those of us who wish to remain faithful to the teachings of the Church and support a pro-life, pro-family, pro-marriage agenda are faced with a number of political options. The first is hardly tenable: to accept the prevailing status quo within the GOP and the conservative movement. If the movement’s leaders and its intellectuals remain committed to its current ideological course, it will fail spectacularly, and drag the Catholic social agenda down with it.

A second option is to build a socially conservative, pro-life wing of the Democratic Party. The demographic shifts we are facing may make this possible in a way it simply could not have been before, with millions of immigrants from a different culture playing a role in the shaping of American politics.

But a third option may be our best: a conservative movement with a revamped economic philosophy that is neither laissez-faire nor welfare-statist, but which comes much closer to Catholic social teaching. With the publication of Pope Benedict’s Caritas in Veritate, there is no better time for conservative Catholics, following in the footsteps of those who drew inspiration from Rerum Novarum and Quadragesimo Anno, to rethink the way in which they talk about economic ideas and begin to develop a new socio-economic vision.

The idea has caught on in other Western nations. Conservatives in Canada and the United Kingdom are coming around to “Red Toryism,” a refreshing mixture of tested conservative values with bold new economic proposals. One of its leading spokesmen, Phillip Blond, explains why conservatives ought to find it appealing in his article “The Rise of the Red Tories” (bear in mind that, in the British context, “liberal” means what “classical liberal” means in America):

Conservatives who believe in value, culture and truth should therefore think twice before calling themselves liberal. Liberalism can only be a virtue when linked to a politics of the common good, a problem which the best liberals — Mill, Adam Smith and Gladstone — recognised but could never resolve. A vision of the good life cannot come from liberal principles. Unlimited liberalism produces atomised relativism and state absolutism . . .

[I]f Conservatives are to take power . . . and give it to the people, they must develop a full-blooded “new localism” which works to empower communities and builds new, vibrant local economies that can uphold the party’s civic vision.

Blond writes of “re-capitalizing the poor” as well as four other crucial economic goals that American conservatives could adopt: “relocalising our banking system, developing local capital, helping normal people gain new assets and breaking up big business monopolies.” The Red Tories propose not only to teach a man to fish, as the old saying goes, but to give him the rod to do it.

Can these ideas gain popularity among conservative American politicians? Few may realize that a conservative Republican congressman, Dana Rohrabacher, proposed the “Employee Ownership Act” back in 1999. The act would have established a new type of corporation known as an Employee Owned and Controlled Corporation (EOCC) and provided tax incentives for those who start them. The EOCC would be defined by the following characteristics:

· Employees would own at least 50 percent of all voting stock in the form of an employee trust. At least 90 percent of employees who worked more than 1,000 hours a year would have to be allowed to participate in this trust.
· Employees would be allowed to vote on all corporate issues, including board elections.
· Distribution and valuation rules would correspond to existing Employee Stock Ownership Plan rules.

The bill stated, “It is the policy of the United States, that by the year 2010, 30 percent of all United States corporations are owned and controlled by employees of the corporations.” It had co-sponsors from both parties and a diverse array of typically opposed ideological positions: Liberal Democrat Dennis Kucinich, conservative Republican Tom Tancredo, and even independent libertarian Ron Paul were co-sponsors of the bill.

Unfortunately, the bill was never debated or voted upon. Still, that it came up at all — brought forward by a conservative Republican, no less — and that it was ambitious in scope are hopeful signs of what might be.

In the same way a soul needs a body, conservative values need social structures that embody them in the world. That is the first and best reason for a radical shift in economic philosophy toward one that actively seeks to promote local economies though various cooperative mechanisms. At its worst, the competitive labor market, in the words of Pope Pius XI, is a “grave evil which is plunging all human society to destruction” (Quadragesimo Anno, 83). Even at its best, however, it does little if anything to reinforce and promote the integrity of family and community. Where worker ownership thrives, the sort of competition among producers that benefits the consumer can also thrive, without threatening the economic security of workers and their families.

The GOP’s current economic philosophy has alienated the majority of voters, including and especially my generation, the “millennial generation.” The state-managed economy envisioned by some Democrats cannot be successfully countered with the standard laissez-faire rhetoric — but it can be countered with a communitarian, cooperative vision in which the state plays a supporting role.

The fruits of such a shift will hopefully include a greater receptiveness to the social and moral issues important to conservatives. In Caritas in Veritate, Pope Benedict expresses his dismay with “the arbitrary and selective determination of what to put forward today as worthy of respect,” and goes on to say that “insignificant matters are considered shocking, yet unprecedented injustices seem to be widely tolerated.” (75) From where some of us sit, the modern American conservative movement has not done enough to acknowledge and address the unprecedented injustices in the economic sphere, including the great global and social inequalities that are criticized more than once by the pope in his encyclical. Without making a sincere effort to do so, how can we ever expect those outside of the movement to acknowledge the seriousness of other injustices that we point out, such as abortion on demand?

At the very least, political priorities being what they are, those less inclined to fully embrace our positions on life issues may accept them if they are also presented with an economic program that they can get on board with — as they have done for secular liberals in the Democratic Party.

Joe Hargrave writes from Phoenix. He blogs at A New Catholic Paradigm, Vox Nova, andAmerican Catholic. 



  • Joe Hargrave

    Joe Hargrave is an adjunct professor of political science at Rio Salado Community College in Tempe, Arizona.

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