Talking Points

The post-Reagan GOP is still a work in progress

Thirty-two years ago the Berlin Wall fell, a Cold War victory viewed as one of the crowning achievements of the movement conservatism associated with Ronald Reagan. An important development in its own right, this anniversary of the wall's fall is an opportunity to take stock of conservatives who want to replace the "dead consensus" of Reaganism with something else.

We've seen social conservatism take on a bigger role in the political coalition at the expense of individualists (often described as libertarians, no matter how big the government continues to get under the GOP's watch), winning a recent election in blue Virginia by campaigning on parental control of local public schools. Conservatives have begun thinking through some of the contradictions between Reagan's vision of a secure Main Street and untrammeled Wall Street, especially as big corporations side against them in the culture wars. 

The most ambitious Republicans are seeking the approval of these new strains of the right. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis has fought both public and private COVID-19 restrictions that rankle the base. Sens. Ted Cruz (Texas) and Marco Rubio (Fla.) made pilgrimages to the National Conservatism Conference, a gathering of the right's new nationalists. 

And yet with former President Donald Trump back on the golf course, much of this still feels like a work in progress. The conservatives for the common good have sounded libertarian, even libertine, about the pandemic — except for the fact that they're willing to regulate masking and vaccination policies by private companies, too. There are arguments for why the "free market" doesn't simply mean businesses get to do whatever they want. But the overarching philosophy here, to the extent there is one, is that members of my political coalition get to do whatever they want in defiance of the wrong people trying to tell them what to do.

Perhaps the new conservatism's answer is that this is how the left has always done things, and a movement too committed to abstract principles to take on its own side in an argument will always lose. But, for the moment, old-fashioned "tear down the wall" conservatives have more to show for their efforts than the newfangled "build the wall" crowd.