Opinion

Republicans may win control of Congress. What do they want?

Are the 1970s the rhyme for the time in America?

I've got the 1970s on my mind. And not only because I've been watching the HBO series Magic Time, which is mediocre as drama but a superb recreation of L.A. sleaze (John C. Reilly's comb-over deserves an award). The crime, inflation, and foreign wars dominating today's headlines are highly reminiscent of those more than 40 years ago. And the depressed national mood under a hapless president makes Jimmy Carter's notorious "malaise" speech feel all too relevant.

Bad news for the country tends to be good news for the party out of power. Although they're saying appropriately somber things about the burdens Americans face, Republicans are almost giddy about their prospects in upcoming congressional elections — and perhaps 2024. They have every reason for optimism. In addition to the historical pattern of the out party picking up seats in the midterms, just one president who faced a recession during the second half of his term has been re-elected since the Civil War. Bonus points if you knew it was William McKinley.

If it's good for GOP candidates, though, the emerging political environment may require some adjustment from conservative intellectuals. Since Trump's election in 2016, discussion in journals, social media, and private meetings has tended to start from the assumption that the Reaganite agenda of bolstering national security, controlling prices, and reducing bureaucratic intrusions into ordinary life was, at best, outmoded. At worst, critics blamed this dead consensus for undermining goals of cultural stability and economic prosperity that it was supposed to secure. 

The collapse of an old paradigm makes room for different ideas. And the last few years have been an exciting time for right-of-center political thinking. Their manners were often abrasive and their rhetoric unnecessarily personalized. But populist, "postliberal," and outright reactionary figures raised important questions about the relationship between moral principle and ephemeral policy, the economic presuppositions of personal responsibility, and the tensions between personal freedom and social order. 

It doesn't matter that these questions are less novel than younger figures attracted to what has become known as the New Right seemed to believe. In fact, opposition to mass immigration, skepticism about consumerism and the influence of big business, and calls for more assertive enforcement of traditional sexual norms have ample precedents in the synonymous New Right of the Reagan era. 

But reruns of that '70s show reveal some blindspots of the new New Right argument. One is that it tends to misunderstand the origins of the package of tax cuts, deregulation, and free trade that Reagan helped sell to the American public. 

Contrary to accounts from opponents on the left as well as some on the right, "neoliberalism" was not a conspiracy by libertarian activists to undermine an otherwise successful model of political economy. As historian Gary Gerstle acknowledges in his forthcoming history, ideas with a long and complicated history gained political traction mostly in response to the poor performance of the U.S. and other Western economies in the 1970s. The most effective argument for freer trade, for example, was not that Adam Smith or Friedrich Hayek said that it was a good thing. It was that foreign companies and offshored production offered consumers cheaper alternatives in a period of rampant inflation. 

Understanding the origins of a policy doesn't entail approving of all its consequences. Still, a realistic assessment of the conditions that sustained the Reagan movement also helps clarify the alternatives. Whatever retrospective critics might wish, there was little political demand for a more statist brand of conservatism in the days of Whip Inflation Now — and little economic prospect that it would succeed. 

Recognition of such constraints isn't just a matter of history. Despite some intriguing proposals that defy conventional ideological distinctions, the prospects are dim for new programs to promote family formation and raise birthrates. That's not only because Americans tend to be skeptical of universal benefits, which they interpret as welfare. It's also because pumping trillions more dollars directly into an already overheated economy is a non-starter. As my colleague Damon Linker points out, even the Biden administration can read the writing on the wall. The big-ticket items in the forthcoming budget are the military and immigration enforcement rather than climate change or social programs. Reagan gets credit for winning the Cold War, but the buildup of American capacity began under Carter. 

There are related constraints in foreign policy. The Russian invasion of Ukraine hasn't refuted arguments for a less interventionist foreign policy. But it has clarified the unappealing alternatives to liberal democracy, broadly conceived, and revived, if not altogether restored, the previously flagging Western alliance. It remains to be seen whether Europeans will finally accept the share of the defense burden that they can unquestionably afford — permitting the long-awaited "pivot to Asia." But Trump-era chatter about leaving NATO and even pursuing an informal alliance with Putin's government is very far out of fashion. 

These developments, so reminiscent of the '70s, don't mean that we can or should borrow policies directly from the Cold War. Like period fashions in music and clothes, the revival is never exactly the same as the original. With the inflation rate headed for double digits, heightened tension with Russia, and a crime wave that undermines the mystique of progressive governance, the conservatism of the 2020s may look more like its ancestors than seemed likely just a few years ago. Just say no to comb-overs, though.

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