I agree with Ryan Anderson ’04 that the Reagan-era neoliberal consensus that had dominated the establishments of both political parties is (deservedly) dead, as more and more Americans — on both sides of the aisle — have realized the dangers that market fundamentalism and hyper-individualism pose to both the political and social stability that are critical to a healthy liberal democracy. To me, this development is potentially exciting, because it suggests that there is a chance for many Democrats and Republicans to realize that they are trying to work towards a common goal of building a freer society and an economy that works better for more people, but respectfully disagree on some of the policy solutions to get us there.
Indeed, Anderson seems keen to cite the example of Mitt Romney, who is the epitome of such a politician on the center-right who has done so much throughout his career to earn the respect of those who disagree with him but share his commitment to a pluralistic, liberal democracy.
However, while Anderson calls for a free exchange of ideas in his essay, it is difficult to take this call in good faith because of the dismissiveness and contempt that he is so quick to show towards those with a different political orientation who are trying to address the same societal and institutional problems that concern him.
Exploring redistribution via tax policy and stronger labor protections as tools for correcting over-concentrations of power that are corrosive to the democratic society that Anderson seeks to preserve? Apparently that’s “class-warfare rhetoric.”
Getting serious about correcting the various ways in which past economic policies were deliberately designed to tilt the playing field against minority wealth creation, or are products of a bygone era in which work places were predominantly male? Sorry, that’s just “identity politics” and “gender ideology.”
And how about corporations responding to shareholder, employee and consumer pressure to once again embrace their traditional role as a “pillar” of society by engaging with the state and civil society on issues like climate change, voting rights, and racial justice, all causes that are deeply consequential to working class employees of these very corporations and should also strengthen the institutional environment on which these corporations know they depend? Nope, that’s just “woke capitalism” (whatever that means).
Anderson has every right to advocate for different solutions to these problems that he believes will ultimately be more effective at fostering more inclusive economic and political institutions. And he certainly has a right to bring his faith-based perspective as a theologically conservative Catholic into the public square and attempt to persuade his fellow citizens of the merits of his views. That’s what our democracy is all about, and such debate will ultimately help policymakers to craft policies that better represent the diverse values of the body politic. What is troubling is that Anderson seems to think that there is only one values orientation that is even legitimate to be represented in our government. Despite how pluralistic our society has become at all levels, he seems to believe in a monolithic working class with values that are not only homogeneously culturally conservative, but are also somehow the only authentic American values around which economic and social policy may be oriented. That framing doesn’t leave a lot of room for a truly free exchange of ideas or for a truly interfaith coalition.
Indeed, while Anderson cites Romney, who is no doubt committed to building a more inclusive economy that also strengthens liberal democracy in a pluralistic society, I can’t help but to wonder if Anderson is more sympathetic to others on the right who also seek to make the GOP a working-class party, but who come from the party’s illiberal, authoritarian wing, whose vision for our country more closely resembles Viktor Orban’s Hungary than a freer, more prosperous United States. While Anderson rightly condemned QAnon conspiracy theorists, he said nothing to condemn the party’s non-QAnon authoritarian wing, championed by such illiberal public intellectuals as Sohrab Ahmari, Adrian Vermeule, and Josh Hammer, that emphasizes seizing political power at all costs, jettisons traditional conservative restraints on power such as federalism, local control, and even constitutional originalism, and instead envisions the Federal Government as a final moral arbiter of society that has almost unchecked authority to arbitrarily harass and intimidate any element of the private sector or civil society that is deemed to be out of step with what these illiberals believe to be the country’s only legitimate cultural orientation. In fact, we got a taste of such illiberalism in the waning months of the Trump presidency, when the administration sought to stifle dialogue on systemic racism in both the public and private sector with executive actions targeting recipients of federal funds that even held trainings discussing systemic racism, and a DOE investigation targeted at Princeton for daring to acknowledge systemic racism in its own history. Not exactly encouraging for a free exchange of ideas.
Some from the party’s illiberal wing explicitly tie their political vision to quasi-theocratic ideologies such as dominion theology (in the case of Evangelicals) or integralism (in the case of conservative Catholics, including some in the pages of Anderson’s former employer, First Things). And that brings me to my skepticism regarding Anderson’s call for a conservative coalition that is not only multiethnic, but also interfaith.
As a fairly orthodox Hindu, my faith obviously informs my personal values, which most people would consider to be culturally traditional. But when it comes to my policy priorities when I vote, I have found that it is far more important for me to support politicians who are devoted to civil rights and prosecuting hate crimes, stand up for the rights of minorities, and use their bully pulpits to celebrate America’s ethnic and religious pluralism. I have never looked to the government to help me with propagating the traditional cultural values that I cherish; I can take care of that just fine within my family and in my house of worship, as long as I am confident that the rest of society understands that my religion, ethnicity, and cultural practices don’t make me one iota less American. To those of us who are observant members of religious minorities, the burden falls on the majority religious community to prove to us that we can be equal partners in any interfaith coalition, and can rest assured that our rights as religious minorities will always be accorded equal respect. So far, most of us theologically conservative non-Christians have not bought it, which is one reason why the vast majority of observant Hindus, Sikhs, Jains, Buddhists, and Muslims still don’t vote Republican.
In summary, I would like to give Anderson the benefit of the doubt that, like Romney, he is seeking a new American conservatism that rejects market fundamentalism and hyper-individualism, but without succumbing to the siren call of illiberal authoritarianism. That would give me greater confidence that his calls for a free exchange of ideas and an interfaith political coalition really are made in good faith. But it would help for him to affirm that he respects, even in disagreement, that so many of us who disagree with him politically are trying to address the same economic and societal problems that he is, but have a different view on the policies to get us there. Even more helpful would be for Anderson to disavow those on the right who also seek to make the GOP into a working-class party, but who seem willing to take our national politics to a far darker place in the process.