When I was asked by the editors of the Financial Times to contribute to a series on the future of conservatism, I hesitated because it seemed to me that in both the US and Europe what was most needed was not a new form of conservatism but rather a reinvention of the left. For more than a generation we have been under the sway of conservative ideas, against which there has been little serious competition. In the wake of the financial crisis and the rise of massive inequality, there should be an upsurge of left-wing populism, and yet some of the most energized populists both in the US and Europe are on the right. There are many reasons for this, but one of them is surely that publics around the world have very little confidence that the left has any credible solutions to our current problems.
The rise of the French Socialists and Syriza in Greece does not belie this fact; both are throwbacks to an old and exhausted left that will sooner rather than later have to confront the dire fiscal situation of their societies. What we need is a left that can stem the loss of rich-world middle class jobs and incomes through forms of redistribution that do not undermine economic growth or long-term fiscal health.
But if you can’t solve the problem from the left, maybe you can do it from the right. The model for a future American conservatism has been out there for some time: a renewal of the tradition of Alexander Hamilton and Theodore Roosevelt that sees the necessity of a strong if limited state, and that uses state power for the purposes of national revival. The principles it would seek to promote are private property and a competitive market economy; fiscal responsibility; identity and foreign policy based on nation and national interest rather than some global cosmopolitan ideal. But it would see the state as a facilitator rather than an enemy of these objectives.
Distrust of state authority has of course been a key component of American exceptionalism, both on the right and the left. The contemporary right has taken this, however, to an absurd extreme, seeking to turn the clock back not just to the point before the New Deal, but before the progressive era at the turn of the 20th century. The Republican party has lost sight of the difference between limited government and weak government, reflected in its agenda of cutting money for enforcement capacity of regulators and the IRS, its aversion to taxes of any sort and its failure to see that threats to liberty can come from powerful actors besides the state.
A new kind of conservative might look at the presidency of Theodore Roosevelt for inspiration. Just as in the present, American capitalism in the late 19th century had generated powerful new interests, particularly the railroads and oil interests that provoked huge conflicts with farmers, shippers and their own workers. Roosevelt believed that no private interest should be more powerful than the American state, and set about to ensure that by going after Northern Securities and other trusts. One imagines that if he had been president during the 2008-2009 financial crisis, he would not have been satisfied with the regulatory hodgepodge that is Dodd-Frank, but would have sought to break Goldman Sachs and JPMorgan Chase up into smaller pieces that could safely be allowed to go bankrupt if they took undue risks. If a new breed of conservatism could put Wall Street in its place, then it would have much more credibility taking on public sector unions and other interest groups on the left, just as Roosevelt did.
If contemporary conservatives could get over their ideological aversion to the state, they would recognise that American government is both necessary and in great need of reform rather than abolition. Private sector companies have undergone huge changes in recent decades, flattening managerial hierarchies, upgrading workforce skills and experimenting ceaselessly with new organizational forms.
American government, by contrast, seems trapped in a late 19th-century bureaucratic model of rules and hierarchy. It needs to be smaller but also stronger and more effective. And this will not happen unless people see public service as a calling, rather than a despised occupation for people unable to make it in the private sector. In this regard, conservatives have an advantage because they can call people to public duty on the basis of the American nation rather than abstract ideals.
Recovery of strong-state conservatism would have important foreign policy consequences. It would imply continuing investments in US military power and engagement in the world to maintain a balance of power favourable to American interests. This position is consistent, however, with a careful husbanding of national power: instead of undermining the American fiscal position through costly wars, it would see rebuilding of the economy as a precondition for a reassertion of military power over the long run.
Recovery of a Hamiltonian-Rooseveltian conservatism would require junking a lot of the ideas that have animated the right since the rise of Ronald Reagan, such as the willingness to tolerate deficits as long as this meant lower taxes. But while this older tradition is in certain respects similar to strands of European conservatism, it is also profoundly American.
Both Hamilton and Roosevelt believed strongly both in the exceptional character of the American regime and in the idea of progress. Hamilton foresaw that a centralised state would be necessary to create a national market, and an economy based on manufacturing. Roosevelt understood that the industrial economy had unleashed forces that needed to be tamed. They saw national power as a tool to achieve their ends, something to be nurtured and built rather than demonised as something to be drowned in a bathtub.
The chance, of course, that any version of this conservative vision will be adopted by the contemporary Republican Party is close to zero. If Mitt Romney is defeated in November, we will not see an internal soul-searching over the basic agenda, but rather the argument that he lost because he wasn’t conservative enough.
Moreover, what ties many Republican legislators to their libertarian views has less to do with strong ideological conviction than where their bread is buttered. When Jamie Dimon was called to testify on JP Morgan Chase’s multi-billion dollar loss before the Senate Banking Committee, the Republican members put on an appalling performance, unctuously flattering him and asking him to confirm that we didn’t need more bank regulation. My reaction was that they couldn’t possibly be such big idiots; they were simply following the money trail. So if you want to change the nature of conservatism, you’ve also got to change the flow of resources and the way that they affect American politics.
[A version of this piece appeared in the Financial Times on July 20, 2012.]