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The Trouble with Solidarity

Calls to unify the fractured Republican Party and reach out to disillusioned Trump voters will never succeed without a comprehensive vision for the future.

Solidarity is in vogue nowadays. At First Things, R.R. Reno has been urging us to view Trumpism as a plea for greater solidarity. The American Solidarity Party has picked up a few adherents and endorsements. Ross Douthat and Reihan Salam have chimed in as well, recommending a nationalism-based solidarity as the road to an improved and re-unified Republican Party.

As usual, Douthat lays out his case for solidarity with impressive clarity. As he sees it, conservatives have split over Trumpism in a way that mirrors their level of satisfaction with Republicanism prior to 2016. Those who were basically satisfied with the Reaganite platform wish to dismiss Trump voters as bitter racists with massive cultural failings. Others, even if they reject Trump himself, agree that the conservative platform and message are in need of a major overhaul. That motivates them to champion a “politics of solidarity” that attempts to adopt certain elements of Trumpism while shedding the white identity politics.

Can I get a third option, please?

Time for a Republican Refresh

Reaganite Republicanism has ossified. Many of the core principles should be preserved, but the policies and message need a refresh. They were tailored to an era when America was less diverse and more solidly middle-class, and when the social breakdown of the Great Society and sexual revolution hadn’t so obviously become a multi-generational problem. “Opportunity” and “personal responsibility” aren’t the magic buzzwords they used to be. We need to rearticulate conservatism in a way that resonates with today’s public.

It takes a lot of intermediate steps, though, to get from there to the conclusion that the party has “failed” the white working class, such that it owes them redress. Isn’t it fairly silly, in the end, to attach so much importance to the question of whether the discontent of working-class whites is their own or the party’s fault? Surely both have made some mistakes, but we should also account for a third major factor: the turning of the Earth.

Things change. Not everyone benefits. We shouldn’t accept the populist’s self-indulgent assumption that someone always must be blamed.

Trumpism represents an angry outburst on the part of people for whom the mid-century “peace dividend” years were particularly sweet. In those days, American whites sat atop the manufacturing world, basking in secure wages and the social respect they’d accumulated in the Second World War. Nowadays it’s far less good to be a white man with a high school diploma living in small-town America. In the good years, now-aging Boomers saved too little and had too few children. Politicians they supported promised them it would all be fine, and those lies are now being painfully exposed. The world continues to turn.

If that’s the story of Trumpism (or at least a significant part), then we should be able to sympathize with the bitterness while still holding Trump’s supporters at arm’s length. Their deepest problem is not the racism and xenophobia (though these are real concerns) but the nostalgia. Like so many of modernity’s discontents, Trump supporters keenly feel their own marginalization. We should offer solicitude as we can, but we still need to recognize that they are mostly devoid of reasonable ideas for how our society can move forward. In the main, Trumpites just want their mid-century paradise back. That, of course, cannot happen. If we’re really pressed to choose between a 1950s platform and a 1980s platform, I guess I’ll go with Reaganism.

To his credit, Douthat is concerned about “the pull of racial patronage” (the title of the above-mentioned column), but he may not be concerned enough. Looking over his suggested policy ideas, I have trouble discerning any other motivating principle. How can we outgrow the “patronage” element of the platform if that simply is the platform?

Is Solidarity the Answer?

This, presumably, is where “solidarity” comes into the picture. It’s a high-minded principle that seems to justify giving Trump supporters some of what they want without descending into Trumpian xenophobia and tribalism. It allows us to be sympathetic without becoming fatuous. Rejecting the fevered logic of nostalgic nationalism and alt-right triumphalism, we can still accede to many Trumpite demands, just in the spirit of helping compatriots in need.

Appeasement of this kind will probably be necessary to some extent, and as a longtime admirer of the reform conservatives, I am prepared to be impressed by their recommendations. Nevertheless, I simply fail to see how a “politics of solidarity” can represent a genuine “refresh” for conservatism. If the goal is to craft a post-Reagan politics, we surely need a more substantive vision than this.

Solidarity is generally a good thing within a community, political party, or nation-state. In a sense, political activity is always grounded in some kind of solidarity appeal: “Let’s do this together, as Americans!” It is a central principle of Catholic social teaching, but it is also prominent in the rhetoric of fascist dictators and tyrants. Therein lies the problem. Solidarity is too flexible and universal an ideal to provide much guidance in tumultuous political times.

Responding to a fracturing party by calling for a “politics of solidarity” is like addressing widespread loneliness by founding a “Friendship Club.” Almost everyone wants companionship, but enduring friendships are based on something more than a mutual flight from loneliness. If you want to help people find friends, you’ll do better to start a book club, plan a basketball tournament, or found a gardening co-op. Help people to discover mutual interests from which satisfying friendships might grow.

In politics as well, fruitful solidarity needs to be built around a compelling, shared vision. Pity is a thin substrate upon which to build a party, and guilt is not much better. We might notice as well that the racism and xenophobia of Trumpism are problematic here in a way that goes beyond their intrinsic offensiveness. They evidence an insularity that is fundamentally in tension with the kind of solidarity that an ethnically diverse America needs right now. It will be exceedingly difficult to outgrow those failings if we’re fixated on chasing a group of voters for whom it is a significant feature of the kind of solidarity they want.

Reconciling with Trump voters is probably necessary in the long run if the Republican Party is to survive. That means we need to find better (and more self-conscious) ways to incorporate this sub-group into the conservative coalition, ways that accommodate—at least to some extent—its need for internal solidarity and group identification without making that the substrate upon which the entire party is built. This is no easy task. It will be that much harder, though, if we start from a position of weakness, using “solidarity” as an excuse to make policy concessions without any further attempt to harmonize them with deeper conservative principles.

A Conservative Vision for the Future

Constitutional conservatives should spend some time debating a broader, future-oriented, conservative vision of the common good. We should look beyond what disaffected whites need and consider instead what America needs. What will it take to ensure that our children and grandchildren have a future?

That will probably begin with a frank acknowledgment that many sectors of society are organized in ways that are anachronistic and unsustainable. Healthcare, education, and agriculture are just three of the most obvious examples of sectors that have been hyper-regulated into expensive mediocrity. It’s common knowledge that our entitlement system is unsustainable, particularly in light of our falling birthrates. Our justice system pours too much energy into incarceration and too little into effective crime-control. These are real problems that require long-term policy solutions.

Many Trump voters want to be told that these longstanding conservative claims simply are not true. But they are true, and doubling down on the political fictions of past decades is a betrayal of younger Americans and of generations to come. We should acknowledge that reform needs to be gradual, and we should look for reasonable ways to address the insecurities of people who depend upon these outdated programs and systems. Still, a Republican Party that sidelines those issues as a concession to aging white voters is resigning itself to obsolescence.

When it comes to economics, we need to instill balance into our conversation about markets. At times, conservatives have grown lazy in their discussion of markets, treating them like a magical wand that can solve all of our social ills. That’s not realistic. Human problems call for a more humane response. On the other hand, we must continue to reiterate that freer and fairer markets are a real good; they are not themselves a social problem. Modern history is full of attempts to achieve desired social outcomes through market regulation. These schemes have a very poor track record. Instead of vilifying markets, we should discuss more realistic solutions (drawing on some combination of good policy and a revitalized culture) to the social problems that have arisen in the wake of certain market developments.

Finally, we need to pay attention to the state of our culture. Trump supporters are obviously motivated by cultural insecurities, but their demands have primarily focused on immigration and Islam. Those topics do merit some attention, but it’s surely no accident that populists have focused on the targets that seem furthest removed from themselves. Blaming foreigners will not help us to rebuild the moral and cultural foundations that we need to weather the coming challenges with grace. Liberal progressivism continues to leech away many of the resources we need to build strong families and communities, and conservatives need to respond to that predation with renewed vigor.

Solidarity-boosters might plausibly argue that the above vision is broadly compatible with their shorter-term policy suggestions, as well as their general call for a more nationalistic politics. I hope they would say that, because most are writers that I admire and frequently look to for insight. Still, their suggested agenda may still be in tension with mine, at least in the ordering of the to-do list. Should we start by addressing the insecurities of disaffected aging voters, hoping that this limited beginning will be able to open out into something broader and more inclusive? Or should we start by articulating a vision for the common good, and hope that sufficient numbers of Americans will be willing to bet on the future?

I favor the latter as a starting point to real conservative reform. From there, we can work backwards, finding ways to extend a hand to particular sub-groups. Trump supporters are our compatriots, and they’re hurting. Solidarity with them would be good. But as every capable family therapist knows, you can’t establish a lasting family peace by omitting the painful intermediate steps and skipping ahead to the group hug.

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