NEW YORK – American conservatives are staring down the barrel of a future that looks increasingly bleak for them due to two major demographic shifts: The country is becoming more ethnically diverse, and younger voters — Generation Xers, Millennials, and presumably whoever comes next — are left cold or even repelled by the Republican Party’s Christian evangelical base and “social issues,” i.e., its obsession over who everyone has sex with. Anticipating their imminent irrelevance, some on the right say it’s time to reboot conservatism by bringing it more in line with the increasingly tolerant tone of most Americans on social issues, and by addressing their economic concerns.
One rightist getting attention these days is Arthur Brooks, president of the American Enterprise Institute, the conservative think tank. He’s out pimping a new book, “The Conservative Heart: How to Build a Fairer, Happier, and More Prosperous America,” which “shares his insights as to how conservatives can reach skeptical voters, smash stereotypes about conservatives and recast the political playing field,” according to The Washington Post.
It’s an interesting read. So are Brooks’ interviews to promote it. But the reason it’s interesting probably wouldn’t please him; what makes the current “conservative reform movement” worth knowing about is that it reaches the very heights of the human capacity for self-delusion.
At its core, conservatism is an ideology dedicated to the status quo. As such, it reflexively resists suggestions that the system is less than perfect, that things could be better, that the leadership caste isn’t deserving, or that there is inherent unfairness or injustice in the current state of affairs. The main thing about conservatism is, it doesn’t have a heart. To conservatives, and I know many of them, those who fail to succeed ought to blame themselves — too lazy, too dumb — rather than structural impediments like racism or endemic poverty.
Parenthetically, the one point even my smartest conservative friends and acquaintances can’t refute is inheritance — how can capitalism be fair if Donald Trump starts his life worth millions, and you were an abandoned crack baby?
Conservatives trying to make their message more palatable to the country furious about the depredations of the top 1 percent, who have stolen 99 percent of national income in recent years, are faced with a set of options, none of which are likely to get them where they want to be, beloved by the electorate.
They can continue to defend big business and its prerogatives, and spin that policy with their traditional “a rising tide lifts all boats” meme. The problem there is, no one believes in trickle-down anymore.
Alternatively, they can embrace a new set of priorities and policies, which put ordinary American workers first. No more NAFTAs, no outsourcing, higher wages, protect the ability to unionize. But then, you’re not really conservative anymore. Even worse, you’ve abandoned your base of support, big business, in order to court a new constituency that will never trust you as much as liberals and progressives.
Boiled down to its essentials, the argument of would-be conservative reformers like Brooks is that it sure would be swell if capitalism could be made fairer. But the thing about capitalism is that unfairness isn’t an unfortunate side effect of this particular economic system. It’s a core feature.
Capitalism without unfairness and built-in inequality isn’t capitalism; it’s socialism. You don’t have to be Karl Marx to have been able to personally observe the tendency of power and money to aggregate into fewer and fewer hands over time, what we call monopolization, and to leverage those advantages in order to gather an even greater share.
Brooks tries to obscure this in an interview with the Dianne Rehm show on NPR. “About 2 percent of the American public considers income inequality, per se, to be the biggest economic problem that we have in America,” Brooks said. “Everybody believes, including President Obama because we have discussed this, believes that opportunity inequality is a real crisis. So what I would recommend to Democratic office holders and aspirants to higher offices that they pivot from their emphasis on income inequality, which is about a 2 percent issue, to an opportunity inequality, which is about 100 percent issue and then we can have a realistic competition of ideas between right and left on how to increase opportunity and mobility in America.”
On this point, I think most people can agree with Brooks: the core of the problem is a lack of class mobility. At this point in U.S. history, it’s harder for someone born poor to get ahead and break into the middle class or upper class than it is in Europe, a continent that many of our grandparents and great-great-grandparents fled due to lack of opportunity.
So how do conservative reformers propose to give the chance to get ahead to everyone?
Brooks: “And the answer is not just the redistribution of income, although that has to happen, such that we can have goods and services for the poor. The answer is for — to find better policies so people can earn their success through education reform, through serious cultural conversations about the predicates of success.”
I give Brooks credit: he admits that “redistribution of income … has to happen.” That is for damn sure.
Education reform? No, that’s never going to do it. Nor will right-wingers agree to the federalization of education that would be necessary to ensure that a kid in Compton went to a school as good as one in Bel Air.
Cultural conversations? Don’t make me laugh.
Redistribution of income. And wealth. That’s the ticket to solving income inequality. When the time comes, however, I’m going to trust my local Communists — who have been pushing for and thinking about it forever — a hell of a lot more than the reform conservatives who think President Ronald Reagan, who trashed the social safety net, was some kind of hero.
Ted Rall, a syndicated writer and the cartoonist for The Los Angeles Times, is the author of the book “Snowden,” the biography of the NSA whistleblower, which will be published on Aug. 18, 2015. © 2015, Ted Rall