Jonathan Askonas recently wrote a piece for the conservative think tank, American Compass, praising Josh Hawley’s latest book, The Tyranny of Big Tech — an expostulation on the “modern-day robber barons” that “revive[s] the spirit of trust-busting exemplified by Teddy Roosevelt.” As “conservative” as Senator Hawley or American Compass supposedly are, let’s not forget that Teddy Roosevelt is widely regarded as the first progressive president.
Besides forming the first “Progressive Party” in the United States, Teddy’s policies were the foundation for the progressive policies of the presidents that succeeded him. Teddy’s “Square Deal” led to Woodrow Wilson’s “New Frontier,” Franklin D. Roosevelt’s “New Deal,” Harry S. Truman’s “Fair Deal,” John F. Kennedy’s “New Frontier,” and Lyndon B. Johnson’s “Great Society.” Teddy may be the only Republican in the aforementioned list, but party affiliation alone does not make one a conservative. Much of what’s being called “conservative” nowadays would not only seem strange to a conservative living in the 20th century but would seem downright progressive.
So, for those not familiar with the terminology, what distinguishes conservatism from progressivism?
One heuristic often used by conservatives to distinguish between the two political philosophies is G.K. Chesterton’s “fence” in his book The Thing. The progressive, or “more modern reformer,” finds a fence and does not understand the fence’s purpose, so the progressive decides to tear it down. The conservative is the “more intelligent reformer” who, upon seeing the fence, attempts to discover the fence’s purpose before deciding whether the fence should be torn down or not. The progressive is depicted as stupid and reckless, whereas the conservative is more intelligent and prudent. Both, however, are reformers.
But is that heuristic accurate? Aren’t there conservatives who are not reformers? After all, to be a conservative is to conserve something. And can’t conservatives be just as stupid and reckless as their progressive counterpart?
“[S]uch a judgement need not be invidious or censorious. Conservative ‘stupidity,’ properly understood, is intimately connected with sentiments that are at the root of conservative virtues – e.g., a dogged loyalty to a traditional way of life, an instinctive aversion to innovation based on mere theoretical speculation, a sense of having a fiduciary relation to the whole nation, past, present, and future” — Irving Kristol.
In other words, the “conservative” in Chesterton’s scenario would be the person who is not interested in reform and is, as Kristol says, “dogged[ly] loyal” to the fence without bothering to fathom why the fence is there in the first place. This could be a conservative protecting his religion, customs, tradition, and nation, not for any profound reason but simply because they are his own.
In our nation’s history, the conservative philosophy has largely encompassed the conservation of our traditions of liberty and limited government. But the conservative sentiments, particularly that of “a dogged loyalty to a traditional way of life” and “an instinctive aversion to innovation,” have the potential to run afoul of the conservative philosophy. Progressives, who did not hold a conservative philosophy, were able to fire up these conservative sentiments at times in the 20th century to accomplish their goals. And today’s “conservatives” picked up that torch, disguised the sentiments as philosophy, and continued the progressive tradition. In other words, the new right is becoming the old left.
Let’s take a look at the old left and see if we can find any striking similarities with today’s newfangled “working-class” conservatism.
One of the central policies of the old progressive left was trust-busting. Teddy Roosevelt, a progressive, urged the Justice Department to enforce the Sherman Anti-Trust Act, and he successfully dismantled the Northern Securities Corporation. Woodrow Wilson bolstered the same act by passing the Clayton Anti-Trust Act and creating the Federal Trade Commission. Both Teddy and Woodrow catered to the populist and conservative sentiment of aversion to innovation — the opposite of conservation. And innovation is not merely the economic innovation of finding cheaper and more productive ways to create products, but the macro-innovation and upheaval on the national economy, communities, and the lives of ordinary men that come about from the development of novel gargantuan corporations and corporate mergers. Josh Hawley and Ted Cruz embody this same aversion to innovation in their war against “Big Tech.” They see the turmoil that tech companies bring on people’s lives and communities through addictive and atomizing social media platforms, so they, as progressives do, turn to destroying corporations (trust-busting) as the solution. This is not to say that there are no legitimate conservative reasons and sentiments to pursue breaking up Big Tech, but trust-busting as a policy is historically progressive.
Now, conservative aversion to economic innovation arises from a tendency to dislike changing traditional ways of doing things, but the aversion also arises from the job displacement that occurs when production costs are cut. Sometimes it is cheaper to replace a worker with a robot or produce elsewhere. And the disarray that the resulting unemployment causes in families and communities invariably evokes a conservative’s disgust with the creative destruction of the free market. Franklin Roosevelt understood this conservative disgust and, through government programs like the Civilian Conservation Corps and the Works Progress Administration, promised to bring back the lost jobs due to companies needing to cut production costs during the Great Depression. Donald Trump, just like FDR, shared this conservative disgust and, through tariffs and infrastructure spending, promised to bring back the blue-collar jobs that were lost due to corporations finding cheaper automated or foreign replacements. Both presidents attempted to appease the conservative sentiments but fell short of the conservative philosophy.
Conservative sentiments could easily be used to justify progressive policies. Organized labor was a progressive reform during the progressive era that hampered the efficiency of businesses, but it also created solidarity among workers and a stable job — all of which accord with the conservative sentiment that desires a traditional way of life because they are, for obvious reasons, a boon to families and communities. Conservative policy analyst Yuval Levin, economist Oren Cass, and politician Marco Rubio signed a letter about a year ago coming out in favor of more organized labor for those reasons. And more conservatives came out in favor of another progressive reform: raising the minimum wage. Tom Cotton and Mitt Romney, in an overt appeal to the working-class, proposed raising the federal minimum wage to $10 an hour.
Besides economics, the progressive era was also characterized by a conservative nativist sentiment against the change immigrants brought with their foreign culture and values to the traditional American way of life during the immigration boom of the early 20th century. This led to legislation that limited legal immigration: the Immigration Act of 1917 and The Emergency Quota Act of 1921. And Trump, just like the progressives, also limited legal immigration; he reduced it “by 49% since becoming president.” Furthermore, Trump’s rhetoric and slogans (“America First”) flirted with the same nativist sentiment — according to the Pew Research Center, “[a]mong GOP voters who hold the view that the growing number of newcomers to the U.S. threatens American customs and values, 59% view Trump warmly.” The nativist sentiment might be conservative because it is opposed to change, but the restrictionist policy that stems from the sentiment is still progressive.
Let’s take a look at the judicial front. Progressives have a long and storied history of using the supreme court as a second legislative branch to get policies passed that they know won’t have any chance of passing in Congress. A few examples are Roe v. Wade, which legalized abortion, and Obergefell v. Hodges, which legalized gay marriage. On the other hand, conservatives have long believed that the supreme court’s only job is to interpret the constitution as it was intended to be understood at the time it was written. However, Adrian Vermule, a prominent conservative legal professor at Harvard Law School, jettisoned originalism a year ago in favor of a “common-good constitutionalism,” which holds that the judicial branch should just interpret the constitution in ways that would benefit the common good. It’s hard to see how this new interpretation of the constitution differs from the progressive attempt to politicize the court and use it to push partisan policy. Conservatives driven by sentiment may be eager to politicize the court to get policies passed that they know won’t have any chance of passing in Congress, but the politicization of the court, qua politicization of the court, is still progressive.
Looking back at Professor Vermule’s article, it seems as though he captured the zeitgeist of the modern conservative movement because not too long after the 2020 election, top Republicans were gunning for Texas to take a rather progressive lawsuit to the supreme court. On the grounds that Texas’s votes in some trivial way may be diluted, Texas alleged that Georgia, Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin violated the United States Constitution by changing election procedures in Texas v. Pennsylvania. Similarly, in Wickard v. Filburn, FDR’s Agricultural Adjustment Act penalized Filburn for growing wheat in his backyard because, in some trivial way, his backyard wheat might affect interstate commerce. In other words, both modern “conservatives” and progressives now agree that it doesn’t matter how trivial the effect is. If the cause is great enough, then any means (even means antithetical to our framers’ understanding of the constitution) should be used to get the government to regulate and intervene.
And finally, progressives have for decades ignored or even downplayed our enormous debt and deficit spending. Conservatives, thankfully, have been dwelling on this problem, and at times have even tried fixing this problem in the past four decades. Yet, once Donald Trump became president, most Republicans became silent about his administration’s trillion-dollar deficits and skyrocketing debt. In an eerily similar speech to FDR, Trump spent a good portion of his final state of the union address boasting about how much money his administration was spending under his new programs, and almost every Republican clapped and cheered zealously. Even the longtime conservative radio host Rush Limbaugh admitted on his show when asked about Trump’s exorbitant spending and trillion-dollar deficits that “[n]obody is a fiscal conservative anymore. All this talk about concern for the deficit and the budget has been bogus for as long as it’s been around.”
As a conservative, I’ve spent years excoriating some on the right for being spineless and giving in to the left. The problem now is that the leading talking heads, economists, policy analysts, and politicians in the conservative movement are all giving in to the left through trading long-held conservative policy for progressive policy and deceiving us into thinking that this trade-off has made our movement more conservative. After years of failing to limit government, it is easy for conservatives to be seduced by the popularity of progressive policies and make “conservative” justifications for such policies. Yet, all in all, it is still progressive policy. They may brand it as a leaner and more robust form of conservatism that’ll win our side more votes, and perhaps it will. But only the Republican party will be winning, not conservatism. If trends continue, then the new right will become the old left. At that point, expect to hear conservatism’s death knell and the left cheering in victory.