A number of today’s most troubling and stubborn domestic challenges—toxic polarization, dispiriting alienation, crushing addiction, depressed workforce participation—put at risk the health, happiness, and stability of our fellow citizens and communities. But, politically speaking, they also challenge core elements of conservatives’ longtime policy playbook.
Leaders on the right have argued for decades that the nation’s well-being depends on our pushing power down to local bodies and individuals. If we do so, the argument goes, the animating energies of liberty, pluralism, and community will kick in. But, after surveying today’s thorniest problems, it’s difficult to conclude that things would naturally solve themselves if we could only clear away the barbed brush cultivated by federal mandates and the administrative state.
Unprecedented numbers of able-bodied men are choosing not to work. People are suffering loneliness and disconnection while simultaneously feeling under assault by those with different views. Population loss in many rural communities and small towns is hollowing out swaths of America. Staggering numbers of “deaths of despair” speak to the depth and reach of the pathology.
Many conservatives see all of this as proof of a desperate need for small-scale mediating institutions, like community groups and church-supported charities. These institutions—we’ve been taught by Tocqueville and countless others since—define America, create meaning, strengthen character, and enable mutual support. But if these social formations are so valuable, why haven’t they solved today’s grinding social problems?
The growth of the federal government is part of the explanation. But Uncle Sam isn’t the only culprit; many other forces (the nation’s size, changing conventions, the complexity of social challenges) have enervated our mediating institutions. At a minimum, we must acknowledge that Uncle Sam’s backing down won’t automatically cause these groups to step up.
A conservative policy agenda built primarily on undoing Washington activity will be inadequate. Advocates of decentralization need a strategy more active than hoping civil society regenerates itself. Conservatives need to craft, deploy, and test policies that help strengthen individuals and communities so they can strengthen their local associations.
Conservatives are, wisely, seldom eager to increase the state’s role in non-state activity. Indeed, it would be far preferable if no policy agenda were necessary to bolster individuals, communities, and voluntary associations. And, certainly, any government effort to grow the influence of these groups could, if done foolishly or nefariously, allow technocrats to manipulate civil society or make already enervated bodies more dependent on faraway sources of money and inspiration.
But we don’t have the luxury of hoping benign neglect will prompt the renaissance of local institutions. That hasn’t worked. Indeed, for decades now, scholars from both left and right have documented the deterioration of mediating institutions and asked how society can lean on groups that have disappeared or become impotent. Conservatives must stop cursing the darkness and begin igniting a thousand of points of light.
The right should embrace a “capacitating conservatism” aimed at jumpstarting local institutions—in other words, making sure they possess the capacity to carry out the functions they should be performing. The state would create modest, temporary mechanisms that stimulate local actors’ development of a diverse array of solutions tailored to their communities’ needs.
Subsidiarity in Practice
This is an approach profoundly different from seeing social challenges as an invitation for central administrators to intervene comprehensively and permanently. Instead, capacitating conservatism is informed by Catholic social thought’s concept of “subsidiarity,” which not only argues for decentralization, but also maintains that when smaller bodies are unable to fulfill their duties, larger bodies are responsible for helping to rehabilitate them so they can. Capacitating conservatism adheres to subsidiarity’s admonition that central bodies should support local bodies while avoiding any action that would deprive local bodies of their freedom, functions, or initiative.
In practice, this means supporting conditions that allow existing social formations to grow and allow new, effective local entities to emerge. This can be accomplished through open-ended, short-term competitive grant programs for nonprofits, or through vouchers that enable individuals to procure services from a constellation of nongovernmental providers. Tax policies can also incentivize investments in local bodies. Existing models include state-level “education savings accounts” (which enable families to direct government funds to a range of educational providers), the federal charter school grant program (which funds the start-up of schools run by nonprofits), the federal New Market Tax Credit program and Opportunity Zone program (which provide incentives for private investments in distressed communities), and “social impact bonds” (which offer incentives for investments in service providers aiming to solve local problems). In each of these, higher-level bodies equip and empower local actors who can diagnose problems and craft an assortment of solutions.
Conservatism’s domestic agenda has been so anemic for so long not only because the underlying problem is so daunting, but also because conservatives don’t think in terms of sweeping state solutions.
The far-reaching changes to the building blocks of governing and the deterioration of mediating bodies have left many conservative policymakers downcast and even paralyzed. The effects of this Eeyorism can be seen in contemporary conservative policy malaise—Oh no. Not much we can do. It can be seen in arguments that the only possible solutions are upstream of politics and policy—changing culture. But it also seems to have fostered the frenetic fretting that’s beset some on the right. The melodramatic “Flight 93 Election” mindset and the apocalyptic argument that liberal democracy naturally undermines itself both bespeak defeatism and catastrophizing that are contrary to the conservative character. We are more grateful, even-keeled, and optimistic than this.
A more appropriate perspective is that The American Way’s accomplishments enabled too many to take too much for granted. Two centuries of political, military, and economic success can convince people that concepts like federalism, localism, pluralism, work ethic, and civic engagement are superfluous. The silver lining for conservatives is that the recognized fallout from the loss of norms should generate greater appreciation for norms in general and present a relatively fertile field for the reintroduction of lost or dormant ones.
On one level, we should see a capacitating conservative agenda as helping to solve today’s problems. But its more fundamental purpose is to restore discarded but essential components of our system of governing. The challenge is to undertake this audacious effort humbly—to somehow reorder suboptimal arrangements using modest means. We ought to catalyze, not force, far-reaching change: to prompt local actors to lead through their independent endeavors instead of empowering central administrators to compel reform. Catalyzing local activity isn’t a bouquet of cut flowers on a shelf—a lovely but site-specific, short-term gesture. It’s a handful of seeds intended to take root, bloom for years, and influence the surrounding ecosystem. The analog for the proper approach is the concept of “rewilding.”
Rewilding Our Social and Political Ecosystem
In conservation biology, rewilding aims to reinvigorate an area by reintroducing species and natural systems that had disappeared. When we return, for instance, certain animals or grasses into a geography, an astonishing chain reaction occurs naturally. A set of predators interacts differently with a set of prey that interacts differently with trees and brush, which affects erosion, which influences water quality, and on and on. As a result, a new, more robust balance emerges. In other words, a complex system whose health was slowly compromised over time is revivified through a cascade of positive changes set in motion by reintroducing one of that system’s previous components.
This presents heady implications for civil society. A policy could foster a specific local activity, reintroducing some lost institution, which would kick off a train of beneficial practices and norms. In other words, policy need not mandate a fix to a problem, much less mandate fixes to an area’s array of problems. Instead, policy can facilitate a community’s solving one of its own problems. That, then, begins the chain reaction.
Importantly, rewilding includes the concept of “keystone” variables, such as a species whose reintroduction would have an outsized influence on the ecosystem. Social scientists and community activists could make compelling cases for a number of keystone social factors, such as marriage, crime reduction, or early childhood education. If policy could spark local initiatives dedicated to improving just one of these factors, positive results could ripple out expansively. Higher rates of stable marriage might increase male workforce participation. Together, they could improve child well-being and later educational outcomes, which may stimulate job creation . . . and on and on.
This may seem simultaneously familiar and jarring to the right. On one hand, it is premised on the conservative conviction that many beneficial norms and institutions are interdependent, that arrangements related to family, work, localism, pluralism, etc. are mutually reinforcing. But when considering change, conservatives tend to see only how the tight connections among these practices pose a risk to the entire architecture. They appear like an intricately arranged set of dominoes: destabilize one, and the rest fall in rapid succession. In other words, when you undermine marriage, then childrearing, work, self-sufficiency, and social capital soon collapse.
But the cascade might also run in the opposite direction. Norms smartly reintroduced might begin a virtuous civil-society cycle. The task for today’s conservative leader is seeing policy as a tool for re-empowering individuals and their mediating institutions so they can re-instill beliefs and practices that have atrophied.
The Importance of Work
In his new book, The Once and Future Worker, Oren Cass argues that social trends, government policies, and scholarly measures of economic health have undermined work to a disastrous effect. His view is that work is far more than an enabling condition for a person’s consumption of goods and services. On the contrary, it’s a keystone social factor, influencing mental health, family wealth, child well-being, civic participation, social capital, and more.
Cass advocates the use of public policy to rehabilitate work, enabling more Americans to pursue their goals, support their families, and contribute to the broader community. His somewhat controversial proposals for policies related to education, the environment, and immigration must be understood as instrumental to achieving his ultimate goal, which he describes as using work to enable individuals to support strong families and communities. Cass concedes we have succeeded spectacularly at a different goal—growing the economic pie. But the tools used to accomplish that goal and the secondary consequences of achieving it demonstrate that it was, in the end, the wrong goal. While maximizing overall wealth, we ended up with distressing levels of economic inequality, falling workforce-participation, a leviathan welfare state, skyrocketing rates of disability, a sense of dislocation, sticky economic mobility, and broken families.
Implicit in Cass’s worldview is the rewilding hypothesis. By tying work back to other social factors—initiative and discipline, single-parent families, stable neighborhoods, student achievement—he shows that undermining work does have vast negative ripples. But he also believes supporting work will have vast positive ripples.
Pro-work policies are a form of capacitating conservatism: by strengthening individuals, they can facilitate the development of community groups that advance the common good. Pro-work policies can also model subsidiarity: Government crafts interventions to capacitate individuals to reassume their duties. And pro-work, pro-modern-union policies are a form of rewilding: reintroduce a now-absent component of civil society as a means of setting off a train of social benefits.
Cass’s book also demonstrates the differences between conservatism and libertarianism. Cass is not reflexively deferential to markets, because efficiency isn’t the only social good. He emphasizes production over consumption, because the former is intertwined with dignity, community, and charity. He’s skeptical of economists urging unemployed workers to just move to where the jobs are, because he appreciates the place-based nature of family and culture. His discussion of immigration is informed by the social risks of too suddenly or too substantially jostling social cohesion. It seems that Cass appreciates liberty not as the ultimate end of politics, but as the necessary condition for forming voluntary associations, establishing norms, creating traditions, and rooting families. That is, liberty enables individuals to develop and evolve practices that support human flourishing—practices that then deserve to be preserved.
These differences between libertarianism and conservatism reveal the conservative policymaker’s ultimate calling in this unusual political moment. We mustn’t shy away from using policy to achieve important ends—not just freedom, but the lessons, beliefs, and norms that make a free society succeed.