Communitarian Conservatism in Office


In a January 16th article written by the Editorial Board, this site staked out a well-researched communitarian conservative stance rooted in the thought of Aristotle, G.K. Chesterton, and Alexander Hamilton. While a philosophical basis for such a paradigm has been articulated here and elsewhere, I see value in providing connections to the extant political system. My own voting habits might differ from most on this website because I identify as a “left-conservative” (more on that at some other point perhaps), but I am drawn to the vision New Conservatives articulates. see it manifest in a few select members of our often-broken political system. By no means have they defined the politics of America, but these exemplars provide a sense of direction for a realigned conservative movement.

Of course, I should address the elephant in the room when it comes to a revitalized American conservatism—Missouri Senator Josh Hawley. I thought that Senator Hawley represented immense potential, despite his hewing to the Republican mainstream line as Missouri Attorney General and again on the campaign trail. While I maintained a healthy skepticism from his left, I was impressed by his discussions of individualism as corrosive and his bold Senate stances in favor of helping working people. Hawley’s potential for a new bipartisan consensus became clear when he worked with Democrats like Bernie Sanders on $2,000 Coronavirus relief checks and Tammy Baldwin on narrowing America’s exploding trade deficit. On the other hand, I couldn’t stand how easily Hawley fell into excessively divisive arguments. He decided to die on the hill of refusing to rename military bases honoring Confederates, perhaps a warning shot before his irresponsibly casting doubt on the 2020 election’s results. In undermining the transfer of power, he overstepped entirely, garnering criticism from fellow GOPers like Ben Sasse as well as previous supporters like John Danforth and Democrats he otherwise could have partnered with on economic issues. In the end, Hawley’s gambit led to the cancellation of his book deal, an infamous photograph, and newfound pariah status. A success for communitarian conservatism, his trajectory has not been.

The figure he aspires to follow, President Donald Trump lost the election, meaning he lost the popular vote in two successive campaigns. That said, he did so while mobilizing countless new voters for the GOP, including Latinos along the Mexican border, in post-industrial Northern towns, and in South Florida. While the reasons for this shift are diverse and hotly contested,  something in his, admittedly mostly rhetorical, challenge to free market orthodoxy is worth examining. But Trump himself, along with the cronies like Hawley who continue to act with vitriol towards “the other side”? Take it from Matt Labash in this fantastic Spectator exchange with Chris Buskirk on the legacy of the Trump Presidency: “If the cure is worse than the disease, it can’t be considered a cure”.

At the same time, hope for a kinder conservatism rooted in solidarity necessarily involves rejecting excessive division. Those who stoke fires and contribute to political violence are not productive models for a movement which seeks to rebuild the institutions that make America livable. You don’t govern by tearing down. This became apparent with the fusionist right, who undermined the foundations of governance and then proved unable to respond to crises like Hurricane Katrina. So, the contemporary populist right has fallen short of providing constructive solutions. American Conservative writer Matt Purple hit the nail on the head when he noted that the conservative movement has grown “meaner and coarser, while also better attuning itself to the problems of empire and decline”. After Trump, the conservative movement must reckon with the issues he elevated to the forefront while seeking to answer St. Augustine’s question posed by Joe Biden at his inauguration: “What are the common objects we love that define us as Americans?” The question is worth asking because our answer to it can walk America back towards a unifying vision. Villanova Professor Kevin Hughes responds that “a realist understanding of the common good begins from where we are, not where some few wish for us to be”. Incorporating Burke’s invocations against revolution and building from where we are is a valuable tip for a conservative movement rooted in love.

The thinkers are out there. From Ross Douthat to Oren Cass to Gracy Olmstead to Patrick Deneen to Andrew Bacevich, an ever-growing body of thought is developing around this New Conservatism. It was well articulated in Rod Dreher’s 10 principles of being a ‘Crunchy Con’ and in Phillip Blond’s book Red Tory, but Nick Timothy perhaps put it best in Remaking One Nation when he wrote that “true conservatism – as opposed to the liberalism and libertarianism supported by many Conservative politicians – is not about how we can escape one another, but about how we relate to one another” (164). But as right as writers can be, forging change requires wielding political power, which in a democracy requires pursuit of elected office. So, which elected members showcase the potential for a conservatism rooted in ideas of solidarity too often missing from a right more focused on implementing austerity than combatting anomie, on social service privatization rather than lessening polarization? In combining the ideas of people like New Jersey Representative Chris Smith, Utah Governor Spencer Cox, former North Carolina Representative Walter Jones, and Michigan 3rd District Representative Peter Meijer, among others, we see one route for a post-fusionist solidaristic conservatism that questions the excesses of liberal individualism.

Pro-Family Economics

First, our economics must be centered on an idea of the common good, defined by Pope John XXIII as “the sum total of social conditions which allow people, either as groups or as individuals, to reach their fulfillment more fully and more easily”. President Trump, while failing to do nearly enough, at least named the problem when he highlighted the plight of rural and post-industrial America. Looking forward, the conservative movement must prioritize the amelioration of the plight suffered by the left behind, even if it means shifting away from libertarianism. Marco Rubio sketched an outline with his “common good capitalism”, recognizing crucially that the ends of the market should not be GDP alone, but strong families and communities. But simultaneously, Rubio has not always followed through; while admitting that $11 an hour is not enough to raise a family on, he still refuses to support a minimum wage increase. Instead, I believe that Chris Smith and Walter Jones Jr. are instructive examples for a common good economics with a place in the Republican Party.

An imbalanced economic order wreaks havoc on the institutions traditionalist conservatives and communitarians alike seek to uphold. Family ties are the most important of the social bonds that sustain a flourishing society, incubating ideas of obligation and deliberation in youth. Instead, a society of high-powered meritocratic rhetoric and growing inequality shreds the mutual associations that enliven public life. How can we maintain democratic discourse in a society where the vast majority own so little and subsequently feel aggrieved by the concentration of power at the top? Economic fragmentation often gives way to social fragmentation. This realization that conservatism cannot co-exist with such social discord is older than some might expect, with Edmund Burke stating in his 1780 Speech on the Independence of Parliament that “Frugality is founded on the principle that all riches have limits”. Otto Von Bismarck pursued government healthcare to undermine the rise of more extreme ideologies. Peter Viereck (an often forgotten conservative) defended some of the New Deal’s reforms because they channeled grievances “back into the old, middleclass, parliamentary framework”. More modern sages echoed this extension of a politics of limits and stability to an unbalanced economy. Christopher Lasch, great prophet of today’s political realignment, was right to note that “economic inequality is intrinsically undesirable, even when confined to its proper sphere”, something now recognized by none other than Tucker Carlson. This should be a core tenet of a new conservative movement. We cannot profess to stand up for stability and civil society without acknowledging the corrosive impacts of a system that disproportionately benefits the powerful. Communitarianism at its best stands up for the vulnerable in all spheres. It’s time to recognize, as Gracy Olmstead writes, that “being truly pro-life means seeing, valuing, and celebrating those ties at every opportunity”. The moral and the economic therefore cannot be separated.

There’s an especially instructive, little-discussed example of common good economics in Central New Jersey. Chris Smith has been a foremost Republican proponent of working class policy goals in Congress for 40 (!!) years. Just in the last few years, Smith voted against mandatory arbitration for employment, for raising the minimum wage, and in favor of the PRO Act, helping workers organize. For this, Chris Smith has gained endorsements from the AFL-CIO, earning the designation, rare for Republicans, of one the “Best Candidates for Working People”. Unlike most in the libertarian-on-economics GOP today, Smith taps into a long history of support for working-class Americans in the party, one that lasted from Lincoln through the 1970s. While I don’t expect the right to launch into full throated endorsements of organizations that often get involved politically on the left, I envision a post-zombie-Reaganist conservatism being attuned to the need for workplace democracy.

Thankfully, the pro-labor conservative perspective has grown in the last few years. New York Magazine recently interviewed American Compass founder Oren Cass, aptly highlighting him as an exception to the sometimes-sketchy populists who do not pair rhetoric with real support for workers. In that interview, and in his fantastic book, Cass endorses sectoral bargaining through works councils and a more collaborative labor-employer relationship. While as a left-conservative I personally find some of Cass’ ideas inadequate, his advocacy is a boon to conservative realignment. Cass emphasizes that unionization leads to a healthier market economy, a fact borne out by evidence that strong unions reduce income inequality, increase wages, and boost access to paid family leave. Organized labor achieves ancillary social benefits that slot into a conservative framework.

Indeed, at American Compass, Brian Dijkema authored a stellar article arguing that “the trade union is a quintessentially Tocquevillian institution” which can bolster the family and working class while contributing to social solidarity. Rightly ordered, unions support a culture of democracy; in countries from Poland to Tunisia, trade unions were at the forefront of democratization efforts. Even in Australia, B.A. Santamaria spearheaded a largely Catholic trade union struggle to reclaim the labor movement from the Communist menace. The goals of a conservative pro-labor policy should be guided by this democratic spirit and a related desire to transcend class conflict such that “the conflict between the hostile classes [can] be abolished and harmonious cooperation of the Industries and Professions” can be promoted. (Quadragesimo Anno 81)  To fight inequality and lessen division, the worker be “paid a wage sufficient to support him and his family” (71). Asserting the dignity of work is especially pressing in an economy where young people feel compelled to turn to the exploitation of Uber or OnlyFans.

Accordingly, for Rep. Smith, rejecting the unbound economic libertarianism is not about political expediency, considering his stances probably limited his career trajectory. Instead, Smith lives out an undying devotion to a common good, solidaristic economics. In a speech given during the Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom, Smith linked his fights for the unborn, trafficking victims, and those “suffering the agonies of addiction and abuse, people with disabilities and still others facing famine and disease”. His consistent commitment to the vulnerable stems from his Catholic background, reflecting the Church’s Preferential Option for the Poor, which demands justice for the most vulnerable. Beyond the theological import of caring for the vulnerable (shared in other faiths, from Christianity to Judaism to Islam), pro-family policy requires modulating the conservative position towards free markets.

Main Street Approaches

To usher in the solidaristic economy post-liberal thinkers often discuss, a locally rooted main street conservatism is needed. There’s nothing conservative about the draining of economic and social power out of struggling parts of the country, whether by outsourcing or automation. America’s economy today is led by managerial types gliding between hyper-individualistic, financialized hubs where working people can’t afford housing. In sum, our economy’s workings have become inimical to holistic human flourishing, instead promoting addictive behavior and fomenting anomie through the erasure of social bonds. Surely the bottom line cannot be the be all and end all. This recognition has been a powerful one on the populist right, but a previously elected Republican Congressman best models the policy to match it. Against the backdrop of an unsettling economic order, conservatism must stand for a sense of home, for decentralized power, both economic and political. This is a longstanding notion reflected in what Bill Kaufmann calls “the dormant traditions of local self-government, of confident liberty, of charity and love, and of that wonderful indigenous blend of don’t-tread-on-me defiance of remote arrogant rule with I’ll-give-you-the-shirt-off-my-back communitarianism”.

Part of that involves rejecting the “move fast and break things” paradigm paraded by big tech moguls like Mark Zuckerberg. One brave soul actually did it in Congress. North Carolina Representative Walter Jones, who passed away in 2019, was one of my favorite GOPers; I even authored a tribute to him on his passing. Jones uniquely recognized the risks of concentrated, complex financial markets, supporting the reinstatement of Glass-Steagall to prevent commercial banks from speculating with depositors’ money. Unlike donor-driven politicians in both parties, Jones also supported repealing the Citizens United decision, remarking that “if you are going to give the government back to the people, then you’ve got to clean your own house up”. Our broken campaign finance system allows for excessive corporate influence, skewing the democratic playing field. Instead of parroting Heritage talking points, Walter Jones uniquely challenged the two-party establishment with his espousal of social conservatism, economic decentralism, and non-interventionism abroad (perhaps a subject for another piece). Yet, he avoided being crass or abrasive, a trap populists sometimes fall into. Jones, and I can attest to this, was known as one of the nicest members of Congress and wrote more than 11,000 letters to the family of servicemembers who died overseas, showing a devotion to atoning for his vote for the Iraq War. Jones’ humane and humanistic, decentralism resonates today. The recent Gamestop short squeeze imbroglio demonstrates how power structures tilt towards hedge fund managers; they want the free market for everybody else but clamor for deplatforming and regulation the minute average nerds band together to call their bluff. Outsourcers pack their bags and leave communities like Flint, Michigan to decay. The right should begin challenging overly concentrated and boundary-evading economic power, for it is essential to maintain the common good and put “the oikos back in the oikonomia”, as Roger Scruton wrote. Reinvigorating a sense of place goes hand in hand with a politics of limits.

This decentralist concept of economic democracy ties to subsidiarity, or “a teaching according to which a community of a higher order should not interfere in the internal life of a community of a lower order, depriving the latter of its functions, but rather should support it in case of need”. (Catholic Catechism 1883) Decentralizing power, be it economic, cultural, or political, allows for the “participation of the greatest number in the life of a society” (Catechism 1882). Therefore, while standing up for workers, the poor, and others who today’s high-speech economy leaves behind, conservative insights about subsidiarity would differentiate a communitarian approach from monopoly capitalism. Subsidiarity is not a word frequently mentioned in Washington DC, but Rep. Peter Meijer of Michigan is trying to change that, referencing the concept on the campaign trail as a way to encourage a “sense of community, responsibility, and accountability” and even incorporating it into his Twitter bio. Subsidiarity, as advanced by Peter Meijer, can be part of a realigned conservative agenda that views concentrated power as problematic. This may yield fruit in the antitrust sphere, where Rep. Ken Buck, the top Republican on the House Antitrust Subcommittee, has already been applauded by left-leaning commentators like Matt Stoller.

From these insights, common conservatives can branch out to expand their coalition. Already, major realignment potential exists in paying families to have kids or establishing local public banks, topics I’ve written about before. Left and right must come together. From there, we can also see the value of anti-usury laws to expand interfaith dialogue. With shared roots in Abrahamic faith values, this policy could help the realigning right reject the Islamophobia expressed by the far-right towards a pluralistic-yet-Godly perspective on the economy. The family-first conservatism espoused by Reps. Chris Smith, Walter Jones, and Peter Meijer can forge a better path forward on economics.

How to Approach Cultural Issues

Even if the right can achieve new coalitions on economics, cultural and social issues represent a minefield. A communitarian conservatism would do well to follow Utah’s lead, sticking to faith values while recognizing too the value in pluralism and love for one’s neighbor. The negative effects of economic libertarianism and social libertinism do not beget absolutist revanchism, but call for a Burkean recognition of progress tempered by a reverence for tradition. Perhaps you could even call this approach compassionate communitarianism.

In this regard, Utah Governor Spencer Cox stands out. Raised on his family’s farm in tiny Fairview, UT, Cox is a devout Mormon who retains his upbringing’s small town values. That said, Utah has been remarkably successful at promoting cultural conservatism while dodging the culture wars. Last election, every Republican Gubernatorial candidate in this heavily GOP state attended an Equality Utah forum! Especially in difficult times, Utah Republicans stand against hate; then-Lt. Governor Cox spoke to a vigil after the Orlando shooting, fighting back tears as he described the importance of love for one’s neighbor. When considering this tradition and the logical compatibility of these positions, it’s impossible to forget reading Andrew Sullivan’s 1989 conservative case for gay marriage, written from the right before most of the left embraced LGBT rights. Sullivan argued that marriage is about “a deeper and harder-to-extract-yourself from commitment to another human being” that helps foster “foster social cohesion, emotional security, and economic prudence”. Communitarian conservatism should learn from Spencer Cox, Andrew Sullivan, and Utah’s anti-discrimination laws — religious liberty doesn’t have to be at odds with the expansion of LGBT rights. In 2015, then-Utah Governor, Republican Gary Herbert, signed SB296, which passed with bipartisan support. This law bars discrimination in housing and employment against LGBT people while providing accommodation for religious organizations and employees. SB296 was developed not by waging political warfare, but by bringing together the LGBT community, the Mormon Church, and lawmakers from both sides.  In turn, as Professor Douglas Laycock, a predominant religious liberty expert, discusses, religious freedom can avoid becoming a third rail or partisan issue, neither of which we can afford it to turn into. That’s how a heavily religious, traditionalist state can also rank 2nd in the nation (chew on that, California) for supporting LGBT non-discrimination provisions and ban conversion therapy, with religious backing for doing so. Utah’s example demonstrates how “we could still create a society in which both sides can live their own values, if we care enough about liberty to protect it for both sides” (Laycock 878).

While expanding gay rights, Governor Spencer Cox and Utah Republicans haven’t abandoned their religious beliefs. Governor Cox’s background makes apparent that faith drives his notions of justice, including his love for all, no matter their background. Religion fills an essential role, requiring protection and accommodation. When religious conservatives engage in good faith discussion, they’re more likely to end up with a unifying solution. Communitarians would do well to reach beyond the GOP’s traditional confines and build on the acknowledgement that open-hearted deliberation on cultural divisions can work out.

Immigration and the Nation

Utah also stands apart in its demonstration that American conservatism doesn’t have to look exclusionary to the rest of the world. For one, Governor Gary Herbert signed into law a provision protecting immigrants convicted of a misdemeanor from automatic deportation. Marijuana offenses should not lead to family separation. Additionally, when President Trump rejected refugee intake, conservative-leaning Utah stepped up and encouraged the federal government to bring more refugees to the state. In no small part, the Mormon faith’s own history with religious persecution inspires a more open approach to the downtrodden from around the world. Being open to immigration does not mean, contra the claims of some nationalists, support for open borders. Utah’s guiding document on this issue, the Utah Compact, brings together various stakeholders and leaders behind a diverse set of goals including border security and the rule of law on one hand as well as opposition to family separation and a humane outlook on the issue. Utah’s pro-immigration voices affirm both common humanity and the rule of law, perhaps explaining why Utah is America’s fourth most patriotic state.

There’s a real debate to be had about immigration, but common good conservatives should reject the depraved cruelty of people like Stephen Miller. Reihan Salam recognizes this in Melting Pot or Civil War, where he focuses on the role of a more egalitarian economy in integrating immigrants into American society while rejecting open borders. Due to their philosophical underpinnings, conservatives can credibly promote a new consensus around integration, responsibility, and shared citizenship. The late Peter Augustine Lawler propounded these themes in a Russell Kirk Center Symposium submission, linking political division on immigration to the decline of shared civic life and the loss of civic institutions. Ideally, an economic paradigm centered on both solidarity and the common good would encourage the redevelopment of civil society, a prerequisite for moving beyond cultural conflict. It’s easy to trace a line from Utah’s faith values to their pro-family economic paradigm to their effective integration of migrants. Other Christian traditions share this outlook; former Pope Benedict XVI wrote that the Church’s goal is to “promote real integration in a society where all are active members and responsible for one another’s welfare, generously offering a creative contribution and rightfully sharing in the same rights and duties”. This religiously inspired view towards immigration can inform coalition-expanding conservatism.

Frankly, it shouldn’t end at LGBT issues and immigration. The right can take notes from Senator Tim Scott, who introduced a criminal justice reform package promoting police de-escalation, studying the status of Black men and boys in America, and sharing information about law enforcement incidents. Such reforms capture the potential for bipartisan change, which communitarian conservatives should pursue. While the incarceration rates of Black and Hispanic men have declined by 34% and 26% respectively since 2006, a substantial racial gap persists in incarceration; beyond that, last summer’s incidents remind us that inequalities abound in the criminal justice system. These inequalities, when evaluated through cry out for reform. Tragically, the current carceral system undermines strong families; children with a parent in prison are more likely to fall behind in education, suffer from conditions like migraines, asthma, and depression, and fall into homelessness. In turn, children impacted by this trauma are more likely to seek out belonging in gangs or other negative outlets. The concurrent corporatization of the prison system, bound up with its expansion, even shows up in exorbitant prices for families to contact loved ones behind bars, further harming the ability of families to communicate. Outside of mass incarceration, but linked to it, differential treatment at the hands of police harms institutional trust, fraying community relationships and undermining safety. Criminal justice reform is part of developing a system that sustains family. The aforementioned economic reforms would also tackle the root causes of crime. Justice and order are not mutually exclusive, but rather attained in unison.

The environment is another issue where realigned conservatism can promote an ethos of care. Despite the prominence of Koch-funded politicians who deny global warming, GOP Representative Peter Meijer writes on his website, “we are stewards of the natural inheritance we have been given, and must value sustainability as a core conservative principle”. Environmentalism is not a “left” position; scholars from Russell Kirk (who refused to drive and once called man the “Enemy of Nature”) to Roger Scruton to Patrick Deneen articulate a conservative environmentalism that rejects both an overbearing state and the despoiling of creation. So too do these thinkers reject those who use conservation as a front to push a radicalism, left or right.  Rightly understood, preserving the permanent things, upholding natural beauty, and protecting our planet go together in this communitarian outlook.


Perhaps some will discard my perspective as “not really right leaning”, but I find value as a left-conservative in a deeper dialogue about what the American party system should look like. A healthy, balanced partisan alignment would promote actual discussion between those on left and right who support stronger families, seek an end to limitless war, promote conservation, and want to soften the blow of hyper-capitalist globalization. This won’t start with candidates or politicians hawking division. Instead, it will grow from the work of those who keep their heads down and contribute to a new bipartisan consensus.

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