Shadow of Republican Elephant on Capitol Hill.

Two experts look back for the future of American conservatism

7 min read

Harvard’s Goldsmith, UT’s Streeter call for aspirational GOP driven by ideas

For much of the post-World War II era, conservatism in the U.S. was thought of as a movement of ideas. But as the recent turmoil on Capitol Hill has shown, the Republican Party is grappling with an identity crisis over what, exactly, it means to be conservative. Last month, the Ash Center for Democratic Governance and Innovation sat down with the Harvard Kennedy School’s Stephen Goldsmith and Ryan Streeter from the Civitas Institute at the University of Texas at Austin to discuss their new paper, An Aspirational Path for American Conservatism, and their thoughts on the future of American conservatism. Goldsmith and Streeter chose to jointly respond to the questions.


Stephen Goldsmith and Ryan Streeter

ASH CENTER: With the recent jockeying over the Speaker’s gavel in the House of Representatives, the divisions within the conservative movement in the U.S. are on vivid display. How would you characterize the various conservative factions within the Republican Party today?

GOLDSMITH AND STREETER: Our paper on aspirational conservatism defines conservatism in terms of policies that would help more Americans achieve their dreams. We eschew definitions of conservatism by what or who they are against. Therefore, we do not think characterizing today’s factions by whether they are for or against Trump or by the shrillness of their demonization of progressives is all that useful, because they rarely tell you much of anything about a positive policy agenda focused on how to improve the quality of life of ordinary people.

A recent New York Times/Siena College poll offered insights into six different factions within the GOP, ranging from traditionalist conservatives who are wary of MAGA Republicanism to all-out MAGA camps rooted in culture wars and populism. It would be hard to improve on their categories, but what we’re interested in is how to cut across the boundaries of some of them with a positive policy agenda that could steer the party in a more productive direction.

First, despite its flirtation with big-government nationalism, the GOP still consists of a majority of conservatives who want a government that respects its citizens and their rights and freedoms, and who are concerned about the size of government, how it regulates, whether it is effective, and whether it lives within its means. Second, it is possible to have broad shared values on cultural issues while not placing primacy on cultural values such as abortion or the role of religion in public life in a zero-sum way. A third defining characteristic involves recognizing America’s role in the world for what it is — advancing freedom and defending American values as national interests. Cultural conservatives have valid concerns. Not only has the country become more secular, but elite attitudes are often openly anti-religious and condescending toward traditional mores. But today this faction of cultural conservatives has basically given up advocating for reform within elite institutions and has opted for a more war-like approach. Our view is that the apocalyptic view fueling much culture-war furor today is exaggerated, and that there is still a lot of room for positive policy reforms in our governing institutions.

Cutting across these issues, then, is the question of how to define progress — whether it is appropriate in a divided government to accomplish these goals incrementally through compromises. Today it has become fashionable not to compromise, even at the risk of accomplishing less, damaging government’s positive functions, and harming Americans’ financial and physical security. Finally, good old-fashioned federalism has become an important issue dividing conservatives into factions. Those who call themselves conservative while supporting the use of federal authority to overrule state and local decisions with which they don’t agree are not truly conservative. We believe that conservatism requires respect for federalism, not pre-emption, and that in the long run, it’s better for everyone no matter which values and beliefs you hold about important issues.

ASH CENTER: In your paper, you seem to pine for the days when conservatives had well-defined governing and policy agenda. How did conservatives move away from becoming a movement of ideas and what impact has that had on the democratic landscape in the U.S.?

GOLDSMITH AND STREETER: We do not think of ourselves as pining, of course. Yet we acknowledge how distant it seems from a time when the clash around ideas invigorated and improved our government. The movement away from ideas and toward defining oneself by the vitriol leveled against one’s opponents was fueled by several factors. Economic inequality and despair affected many more individuals, particularly white males without college degrees and even those with degrees living in non-coastal areas. Predating Trump, an anti-elitist populism made sense to a growing number of these voters, since they viewed Republican leadership as insensitive to the effects of trade and globalization. The loss of manufacturing jobs changed the nature of working-class jobs and communities, and a condescension toward these communities became more palpable in places like Washington, D.C. Social media and targeted news channels marketed anger and accelerated confirmation bias and pushed their audiences toward an antagonism of one’s “enemies.”

Overarching all of these factors was a feeling by many religious conservatives that elites failed to help and even worse, looked down on them and their values. Our primary system has made it easier for people who play off these concerns — many real and many exaggerated — to shape and drive the party’s political agenda. There was a time in the 1970s when many mainstream conservatives felt that the country’s policy agenda was against their values, and by the 1990s, they had reformed numerous policies in a better direction by making and winning arguments in public about public policy. Today’s GOP needs to learn from those historical examples.

ASH CENTER: You introduce the notion of “aspirational conservatism” as a response to this lack of an affirmative conservative agenda. What is aspirational conservatism, and does it have a specific policy agenda?

GOLDSMITH AND STREETER: Aspirational conservativism starts with the hopes and well-being of the “little guy,” self-starters, and the 30 percent of the workforce who own or work for small enterprises. It believes that a policy agenda focused on their well-being will also by extension benefit employees of large companies and even some larger enterprises, as well. It replaces populist cynicism about government and institutions with a set of pragmatic and hopeful actions to improve the lives of those striving and struggling to achieve the American dream. To us, attacking our own government for ideological — and even conspiratorial — reasons makes it nearly impossible to include reforms in a policy agenda that promote the positive role and effectiveness of government in providing services and functions that set the stage for upward mobility. Thus, regulatory policy should reduce barriers to entry, whether for jobs or housing. It should support families, including childcare, and other important things that support work.

ASH CENTER: How does this vary from the compassionate conservatism agenda as articulated by George W. Bush, which sought to blunt some of the harder ideological edges of conservatism in order to appeal to a larger electoral audience?

GOLDSMITH AND STREETER: Compassionate conservatism concentrated on rallying the “armies of compassion” on behalf of low-income, socially marginalized people, rather than primarily targeting the neglected working class. In contrast, aspirational conservatism focuses on non-elite, everyday people without pigeonholing them into a specific class. For instance, a Main Street business owner with three employees might earn more than someone who is technically “low-income” yet labors day in and out against the headwinds of an economy that impedes upward mobility. In addition, too often policies aimed at those with lower incomes address more immediate needs without considering which policies matter most for longer-term mobility prospects.

Compassionate conservatism did produce lasting achievements: it normalized the rules and regulations around faith-based organizations’ involvement in public programs; created programmatic innovations, such as voucher-based substance abuse treatment; and incentivized a host of new community partnerships across the country. We hope our aspirational conservatism incorporates those ideas while concurrently offering a further-reaching and more ambitious vision that speaks to our times.