The rise of reformers and Ikea conservativism

05/29/2014 7:05 PM

06/03/2014 10:17 AM

Parallel to the rise of the tea party — with less attention but more potential influence — has been a gathering movement of reform conservatives whom my colleague E.J. Dionne Jr., in an essay in the journal Democracy, dubs “Reformicons.”

One version of the tea party governing vision was recently and neatly summarized by Mississippi Senate candidate Chris McDaniel: “I’m not going to do anything for you. I’m going to get the government off your back, and then I’m gonna let you do it for yourself.”

This might better be called Ikea conservatism. The parts and instructions are in the box. Do it for yourself. But what if some of the pieces have gone missing? What if (to badly strain the metaphor) you can’t read the instructions and doubt the possibility of finishing the project?

Reform conservatives hold a different definition of the social and economic problem. Government programs can be sadly counterproductive. But government did not create the vast trends of globalization and technological innovation that require workers to have a level of education and skills that antiquated governmental institutions seem incapable of providing for much of the population. And many Americans are forced to adjust to these disorienting changes just as supportive social institutions — two-parent families, communities that provide mentors and models — are collapsing.

In this light, “Do it for yourself” does not seem responsive or realistic. But reform conservatives, in their own reticent and wonkish way, are also manning the same barricades as some tea party activists in revolt against a complacent, centrist, business-oriented Republican Party. They are calling for a conservatism that reaches beyond small-business owners (who are genuinely concerned about regulatory burdens) to address the practical concerns of working-class and middle-class Americans, struggling to advance against swift economic and social currents.

In his essay, Dionne begins with a large error, but raises three important questions. He mistakenly sets President Barack Obama’s agenda — particularly the Affordable Care Act — as the definition of political centrism, and then judges the sincerity of conservative reformers by how closely they orbit this version of liberalism. By this standard, he admits, reform conservatives are “destined to let progressives down.” Well, yes. One would hope. Because reform conservatism is intended as an alternative to a tired progressivism.

Dionne appropriately asks, while dating himself, “Where’s the beef?” (Quoting Walter Mondale from 30 years ago, who was quoting a television commercial popular at the time.) One regular, quarterly response is made in National Affairs, the journal of reform conservatism. This ideological tendency has been recently distilled into a collection of essays titled “Room to Grow: Conservative Reforms for a Limited Government and a Thriving Middle Class,” featuring distinctly market-oriented proposals to provide universal health coverage, improve access to higher education and redesign the social safety net (among other interesting ideas).

Dionne also asks if the GOP base, which cheers candidates such as McDaniel, is capable of embracing reform conservatism. Much of the right interprets recent presidential losses by John McCain and Mitt Romney as a function of excessive compromise and moderation.

Finally, Dionne wonders if reform conservatism is too timid to confront the serious, structural problems in our country. But reform conservatism is promising precisely because progressivism has ceased to be.

The liberal agenda — a minimum wage increase, higher taxes on the wealthy, more public subsidies in education, more spending on safety nets — is often an attempt to get a little extra life out of outdated institutions. It is a vision of the future stuck in 1965. A pre-Clinton Democratic Party.

In America, both parties need updated governing agendas. At least some Republicans are admitting it.

To reach Michael Gerson, send email to

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