Books discussed in this essay:

The Emerging Republican Majority, by Kevin Phillips

The Emerging Democratic Majority, by John B. Judis and Ruy Teixeira

Electoral Realignments: A Critique of an American Genre, by David R. Mayhew

Although political scientists pay close attention to politicians, the favor is seldom returned. Neither office-seekers and -holders, nor the aides who help them acquire and wield power, bother to attend academic political science conferences. Few journalists turn to political science quarterlies for insights, or attempt to translate the articles’ graphs, equations, and jargon for lay readers.

An important exception was “A Theory of Critical Elections” by V.O. Key, Jr., published in the Journal of Politics in 1955. Key’s idea, subsequently elaborated by other prominent scholars, was that the normal configuration of American politics is for one of the two major parties to be dominant for a period of several decades, during which the other is subordinate. The dominant party sets the agenda and defines the terms of national debate. It doesn’t win every election, but wins most of them, leaving the weaker political party to take such advantage as it can of temporary vulnerabilities: weak candidates, scandals, or some crisis.

An election is critical, or “realigning,” when it marks not just an exception to the rule, but the emergence of a new rule: the party that had been weaker enters upon a period of dominance, while the one that had been stronger is consigned to a prolonged era as the loyal opposition. Usually, the change is triggered by the emergence of a new voting bloc, closely aligned with one party, or an existing bloc’s shift in party loyalties. In the paradigmatic critical election of 1932, for example, working-class voters broke heavily for Democrats, and remained an important part of the New Deal coalition for many years thereafter. During the 36 years preceding 1932, Democrats occupied the White House for only eight. In the 36 years after, they held it for 28. Democrats were even stronger in Congress, where they held majorities in both chambers for all but four of the 48 years after 1932.

No More Breakthroughs

During the protracted wait for the next realignment, Key’s theory went from being about American politics to becoming a part of it. Politicians and journalists came to operate in a longer time-frame, thinking about a particular electoral cycle in terms of a more extensive historical cycle. This was the premise of Kevin Phillips’s influential book, The Emerging Republican Majority (1969), written for a popular rather than an academic audience. Karl Rove, blending the roles of political practitioner and theorist, was not only the architect of GOP victories in 2004, but made no secret of his ambition to restore Republicans to a long period of dominance, similar to the one they enjoyed before 1932. The realignment paradigm informed as well The Emerging Democratic Majority (2002), written by John B. Judis and Ruy Teixeira.

Confirming Hegel’s maxim that the owl of Minerva flies only at dusk, however, the idea of political realignment became widely accepted just as it was becoming inapplicable. Indeed, more recent scholarship has strongly challenged the whole framework of critical elections demarcating eras of realignment, which then endure for decades. “Electoral politics is to an important degree just one thing after another,” David R. Mayhew wrote in Electoral Realignments: A Critique of an American Genre (2002). The “Rip Van Winkle view” wherein “voters come awake only once in a generation” turns out to be “too slippery, too binary, [and] too apocalyptic.”

Recent American politics, in particular, shows the major parties to be so closely competitive that neither is the “natural” majority while the other is relegated to the minority. Electoral advantages are small and ephemeral, not decisive and enduring. From 1964 to 1984, for example, there were three landslide presidential elections, where the victor received at least 18% more of the popular vote than the loser. Since 1988 the greatest margin of victory was 8.5% (Bill Clinton against Bob Dole in 1996), and the largest portion of the popular vote was 53.4% (George H.W. Bush in 1988). Similarly, long decades where Democrats dominated Congress have given way to an era of volatility. Beginning in 1994, after 40 consecutive years of Democratic majorities in the House of Representatives, the speaker’s gavel has passed from one party to the other on three occasions. Control of the Senate has shifted between Democrats and Republicans seven times since 1980.

With the two parties so evenly matched, political combat resembles trench warfare, not cavalry charges. The focus is on winning and then holding small advantages, since minor victories can be of major importance in determining which party will govern and which will oppose. Large, decisive breakthroughs appear, in any case, to be unobtainable.

Enter the Reformicons

With the country closely and acrimoniously divided between Democrats and Republicans, a significant new attempt to build on the GOP’s advantages and address its vulnerabilities comes from a group who have come to be known as the reform conservatives, sometimes called “Reformicons.” Reform conservatism, less than one year after the publication of the e-book manifesto titled Room to Grow, is an intellectuals’ initiative rather than a citizens’ movement. Whether it acquires constituents and goes on to affect elections and shape public policy depends on the quality of the Reformicons’ recommendations, and the acuity of their understanding of the political situation.

Room to Grow, subtitled Conservative Reforms for a Limited Government and a Thriving Middle Class, is a collection of essays by 13 different authors, ten of whom spell out reforms in particular realms of domestic policy, such as health care and education, while the other three chapters address broader themes. In one of the latter, Yuval Levin, editor of the public policy journal National Affairs, provides the core Reformicon rationale: The “premise of conservatism” he writes, is that “what matters most about society happens in the space between the individual and the state—the space occupied by families, communities, civic and religious institutions, and the private economy.” Accordingly, “creating, sustaining, and protecting that space and helping all Americans take part in what happens there are among the foremost purposes of government.”

Another thematic chapter argues that good policy is good politics: unless Republicans formulate and present conservatism in terms that deserve victory, they are unlikely to achieve it. Peter Wehner (who, like Levin, is both a fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center and an alumnus of the George W. Bush Administration) urges conservatives to demonstrate to voters “how applying conservative principles and deploying conservative policies could help make their lives better.” Such arguments are required because “Americans do not have a sense that conservatives offer them a better shot at success and security than liberals.” Wehner’s formulation suggests Americans might believe conservatism offers them a worse shot at success and security than liberalism does. And in admonishing conservatives to tend to such elementary political tasks as understanding citizens’ concerns and addressing their “aspirations and worries,” he further suggests that those widely shared misgivings about conservatism have some basis in fact.

A protracted era of close partisan competition makes it imperative for each party to attract new voters without antagonizing its base. The political criterion for judging any new proposal or practice, in other words, is whether it produces a net increase in votes. Furthermore, added voters must not only outnumber subtracted ones, but must also outweigh the value to the party that had been provided by regulars who stop contributing money, volunteering time, or conveying commitment and enthusiasm.

The Wonks and the Base

Not surprisingly, reform conservatives are conscious of the Tea Party, whose emergence six years ago is largely responsible for Republicans capturing first the House and then the Senate, as well as increasing the number of state legislative chambers the GOP controls from 36 in 2009 to 68 today, the largest figure in the party’s history. (There are 99 state legislative chambers in all; Nebraska’s legislature is both unicameral and nonpartisan.) Room to Grow mentions the Tea Party in just one chapter, and favorably. Ramesh Ponnuru, of National Review and the American Enterprise Institute, devotes his essay—also on broader themes rather than policy details—to “Recovering the Wisdom of the Constitution.” He compliments the Tea Party for two efforts: first, making constitutionalism a concern of the entire republic and all public officials, rather than the sole responsibility of the federal judiciary; and second, making clear that the people can, and should, attend to constitutionalism not just as possessors of rights that must not be denied, but as stewards of a constitutional structure that must not be deformed. Thus, Obamacare’s “individual mandate to buy health insurance ran into trouble not because it violated some specific prohibition in the Bill of Rights, but because it could not be justified as ‘necessary and proper’ to execute the Article I powers of Congress.”

Echoing Levin’s argument about making the space between citizen and state flourish, Ponnuru writes, “Conservatism should be home to everyone who takes seriously the task of strengthening the constitutional structure of a limited, accountable government that serves rather than masters civil society.” And he reiterates Wehner’s point about making citizens’ lives better when he argues that constitutionalism “must make itself attractive” by showing that “we can have wider access to health care, an affordable safety net, opportunities to learn, and the like, without granting ever more power to government.”

As it presents itself, then, reform conservatism is not an adversary of, or a corrective for, the Tea Party, but a logical extension of it. If that’s how Tea Party activists see the situation, too, the result would do a great deal to brighten Republican electoral prospects. The match makes sense in one respect: reform conservatism has theoreticians and policy wonks, but no obvious base of support; while the Tea Party has grassroots enthusiasts, but needs—or, at any rate, lacks—theorists who lay out a comprehensive, subtle argument for constitutional conservatism.

Put into Practice

The plausibility of a synthesis of Tea Party and reform conservatism is suggested by the public career of Mike Lee, a first-term Republican senator from Utah. In 2010 Lee successfully challenged three-term incumbent Robert Bennett, who had a lifetime rating of 83.76% from the American Conservative Union and the endorsement of the National Rifle Association. Lee, who had never run for office before 2010, won the Utah GOP Senate nomination by promising to fight for limited government, for ending “the cradle-to-grave entitlement mentality, [and] for a balanced budget.” Bennett, according to news accounts, had become unpopular among Utah Republicans because he had voted for the bailout of the major banks during the 2008 financial crisis, had pursued earmarks aggressively, and had co-sponsored a bipartisan health care bill that would have imposed an individual mandate.

Since taking office, Lee has been prominent in advocating policy ideas endorsed by Reformicons. He has, for example, championed a tax reform whose biggest innovation is a $2,500 credit to parents for each dependent child. Lee’s credit, unlike the existing one capped at $1,000, could be used by taxpayers who had some of the credit left over after zeroing out their federal income tax obligations, to reduce the liabilities imposed by the payroll taxes that support the trust funds for Social Security and Medicare. The proposal, endorsed enthusiastically in Room to Grow, would give families that choose to have one parent stay home full- or part-time a benefit equal to that enjoyed by families with no stay-at-home parent. Federal policy, then, would become neutral regarding mothers’ decisions to participate in the paid workforce, in a way that government programs to provide or help defray daycare expenses are not. The measure is, in that respect, explicitly and decidedly “pro-family.” Allowing people to use a tax credit to reduce their payroll taxes, as well as the matching amount paid by their employers, would have the additional benefit of disabusing Americans of the notion that Social Security and Medicare are “earned benefits,” paid for by “contributions” that are “kept” in individual “accounts,” all of which are then sealed away in Al Gore’s “lock-box” somewhere. Helping Americans understand the truth—Social Security and Medicare are government spending programs, supported by taxes like all other taxes—would make those huge entitlement programs less difficult to reform.

Elevator Pitches

Nevertheless, amalgamating tea Party and reform conservatism to form an intellectually coherent and politically powerful force remains a stern challenge. The Tea Party instinct to emphasize first principles rather than delve into policy nuances was expressed first and most famously by a passage from Barry Goldwater’s The Conscience of a Conservative (1960), which is often quoted by Tea Partiers today:

I have little interest in streamlining government or in making it more efficient, for I mean to reduce its size. I do not undertake to promote welfare, for I propose to extend freedom. My aim is not to pass laws, but to repeal them. It is not to inaugurate new programs, but to cancel old ones.

Room to Grow does not explicitly criticize this declaration, but there’s no doubt that the Reformicon project differs importantly from Goldwater conservatism. Wehner writes, “Rather than talk about conservatism exclusively as a set of rules about what government should not be doing, [conservatives] need to help Americans see the conservative vision of American life—and of America’s government—as a way to unleash the nation’s potential.”

Since the New Deal’s start 82 years ago, Democrats’ elevator pitch to voters has been, “You’ve got a problem? We’ve got a program!” For many conservatives, from Goldwater to the Tea Party, the corresponding argument has been,

You’ve got a problem? We’ve got a philosophy! And if you come to really understand and appreciate that philosophy, you’ll realize that your problem is…well, your problem. Other people may choose to make it their problem—the inclusive generosity of religious and civic groups is an admirable attribute of a vital civil society. But they won’t act on their generosity through the medium of government programs. According to our philosophy, addressing your problem with a government program is, by virtue of the harm it will inflict on the constitutional order and the economy, bad for everyone, even the people whose problems the government program will purportedly solve.

(Republicans shun express elevators.)

Unleashing Potential

Reform conservatism has both a program and a philosophy. As Wehner says at the very beginning of Room to Grow, “Policy is problem solving. It answers to principles and ideals, to a vision of the human good and the nature of society, to priorities and preferences; but at the end of the day it must also answer to real needs and concerns.”

The logic of reform conservatism is that if the entirety of the conservative response to such needs and concerns is an argument about all the ways government must not respond, lest the proper limits of constitutional governance be exceeded, conservatism’s electoral prospects are exceedingly dire. The American voters declined, emphatically, to repudiate the New Deal when Republicans invited them to do so in 1936 and 1964. The success of a third such effort, undertaken as the New Deal’s transformation of Americans’ ideas about the legitimate scope of government approaches its centenary, is unimaginable.

Wehner’s formulation clearly implies, as well, that if conservatism amounts to the principled refusal to even try to solve problems or address citizens’ real needs and concerns, its defeats will be as hard to lament as they are easy to predict. As his 1992 reelection campaign was losing altitude, President George H.W. Bush was reduced to assuring voters, “Message: I care.” If the conservative message is, in essence, we don’t care—and don’t even care that it’s obvious we don’t care—conservatives are going to have few celebratory Election Days.

Ponnuru has written that the reform conservative label is unfortunate in that it implies “we are primarily interested in reforming conservatism, when what we’re really after is a reform of a government that is simultaneously bloated, intrusive, and ineffective.” He also regrets “the impression that we are a faction competing with other groups, such as libertarian conservatives or tea partiers, which is not at all how I view us.”

Nonetheless, if reform conservatism is so successful as to become conservatism, period, some long-standing habits of thought and action are going to have to be set aside—exactly the sort of thing conservatives are reluctant to do. Going back to the first issue of National Review in 1955, conservatives have always been eager, in Wehner’s phrase, to unleash the nation’s potential. But they’ve also made it clear that the most important requirement for doing so is leashing rather than reforming government. The names of such prominent Tea Party-associated organizations as Citizens for a Sound Economy, Freedom Works, and Americans for Prosperity clearly convey the belief that capitalism, unhindered by government regulation and redistribution, is an absolutely necessary and quasi-sufficient condition for economic progress.

Reform conservatism modifies this stance. The free market remains necessary to unleash national potential, but falls well short of being sufficient. When there are needs and concerns capitalism cannot address, people will and should call on the government to allay their fears and address their needs.

Bad Means for Good Ends?

One reason those on the right who do not presently consider themselves reform conservatives may not rush to embrace this approach is the fear of a slippery slope. The proposition that government should do X better—that is, in a manner less bloated, intrusive, and ineffective—strongly implies that the government should do X. It might be construed more qualifiedly: if the government is going to do X, and address this or that social need and concern, it should do X well rather than badly. That formulation leaves open the possibility there are some Xs the government shouldn’t do at all: categories of needs and concerns that fall beyond the legitimate purview of government, no matter how adroitly or successfully it might address them.

I don’t doubt that the reform conservatives believe this, since it would be surprising if their answer to the Democratic elevator pitch turned out to be, “You’ve got a problem? Well, whatever it is, we’ve got a program, too, one that’s better for you and the country than what liberals are selling.” I cannot, however, find the place in Room to Grow where anyone says this. The 110 e-pages devoted to describing how and what government should do better do not dwell on anything government shouldn’t do at all. Levin, calling on conservatives to attend to the “details of public policy” and “develop some technical policy expertise,” writes, “The federal government has grown so large and complicated that any attempts to transform it into a far more bounded, decentralized, nimble set of institutions must begin from an understanding of its particulars, and this feels to some conservatives like a concession to technocracy.”

What will be harder to overcome is some conservatives’ fears that the reform conservative project entails conceding more than the inescapable need for expertise in formulating and implementing public policies. If it concedes, instead, the legitimacy of the New Deal and Great Society to-do lists for government, and confines its critique of liberalism to the use of bad means for achieving good ends, many conservatives are going to go AWOL rather than fight for those circumscribed goals. Such defections would make it difficult for reform conservatism to be the path, or even a path, to making conservatism more electorally competitive. The core conservative argument to voters would become that our five-point proposals for dealing with this or that social need and concern are bounded, decentralized, and nimble, while liberals’ eight-point proposals are bloated, intrusive, and ineffective. Even if completely true, that declaration doesn’t rank with, “Give me liberty or give me death!” and “Extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice,” when it comes to stirring conservatives’ blood.

Building a Majority

And if recasting the conservative critique of liberalism in technocratic terms does indeed prove deflating, it’s not clear that the resulting loss of votes and vigor will be offset by the number of new constituents attracted by the reform conservatism agenda. It’s one thing to call on conservative activists to develop policy expertise, another to expect voters to turn in this homework assignment. Will a significant number of voters—or even a small number of voters—otherwise skeptical about conservatism, become part of a new conservative majority owing to the attractiveness of deftly crafted policy proposals?

Maybe. But it sounds like reform conservatives are going to try to win by playing a game liberals invented, according to rules liberals have written, on liberals’ home field. If conservatism stops asking whether government has the duty and legitimate authority to address every need or concern, and confines itself to debating how government should do so, voters are going to need to be profoundly impressed with conservatives’ proposals for conservatism to end up being more popular than it is now. This may be asking a lot, not merely of voters’ attention spans but of their willingness to reject the party that endorses government intervention clearly and unreservedly in favor of the one that offers subtle arguments about the best modes of government intervention.

It’s difficult to imagine conservatism prospering unless smart proposals about what government should do more deftly accompany, rather than supplant, bright-line distinctions about what government shouldn’t be doing at all. Near the close of Capitalism and Freedom (1962), Milton Friedman quotes lines the British jurist A.V. Dicey wrote in 1914:

The beneficial effect of State intervention, especially in the form of legislation, is direct, immediate, and, so to speak, visible, whilst its evil effects are gradual and indirect, and lie out of sight…. Nor…do most people keep in mind that State inspectors may be incompetent, careless, or even occasionally corrupt…; few are those who realize the undeniable truth that State help kills self-help. Hence the majority of mankind must almost of necessity look with undue favor upon governmental intervention. This natural bias can be counteracted only by the existence, in a given society,…of a presumption or prejudice in favor of individual liberty, that is, of laissez-faire.

It’s going to be difficult to dissuade the citizenry from looking with “undue favor” upon governmental intervention by promising government interventions superior to those now on offer. And what if American politics remains closely divided? The policies that emerge for a Republican president’s signature from any Congress without large Republican majorities are likely, after all the compromises and concessions needed for passage and implementation, to bear no more than a faint resemblance to the carefully crafted proposals reform conservatives submitted at the outset. The ungainly end product will, as a result, have weak prospects for attaching voters to the reform conservative project.

The Economy and Immigration

There’s another reason to wonder how many additional voters will find conservatism more enticing if it turns into reform conservatism. After the American Enterprise Institute, where six of the ten authors who wrote Room to Grow chapters on policy reforms are associated, published a list of 22 recommendations its employees had put forward in the book, blogger Mickey Kaus tweeted that nothing on that list of “tinkerings” would do as much good for ordinary Americans as “a tight labor market.” Wehner begins Room to Grow by making clear that reform conservatives’ entire focus is on the middle class, the 85% of Americans “who do not consider themselves poor or rich, and who can imagine their fortunes turning either way.” In tenuous economic times, however, they more easily imagine their fortunes turning for the worse, which is why, he reports, “the dominant mood of the country is anxiety, insecurity, and unease.” Wehner quotes National Journal’s Ron Brownstein: middle-class Americans feel “pervasive, entrenched vulnerability.” “After years of economic turmoil, most families now believe the most valuable—and elusive—possession in American life isn’t any tangible acquisition, such as a house or a car, but rather economic security,” warns Brownstein.

A prolonged era where the supply of labor was scarce rather than plentiful would indeed markedly improve economic security. To attract and retain workers, employers would find it necessary to bid up wages and augment employee benefits. It would seem much easier for conservatives to allay middle-class anxieties, and attract new supporters, by the easily comprehended promise to enact and enforce strict immigration laws than through demonstrations of technocratic virtuosity in various realms of domestic policy.

Room to Grow has nothing to say, however, about immigration. One gathers that this is because reform conservatives, like conservatives and Republicans generally, have several opinions but no consensus about immigration. Levin and Ponnuru have written measured articles opposing the immigration reform bill passed by the Senate in 2013, which was hailed by President Obama but died in the House, where it never came to a vote. Wehner, meanwhile, co-authored an essay with Michael Gerson, Washington Post columnist and former speechwriter for President George W. Bush, that urged the GOP “to welcome rising immigrant groups” instead of “signaling that America is a closed society.”

The Abiding Challenge

In this regard, as in others, the work that reform conservatives have yet to undertake vastly exceeds what they’ve already completed. The abiding challenge for American conservatives is to practice the statecraft that will preserve a self-regulating economy in our self-governing republic. The abiding danger comes from the democratic reactions to the creative destruction of capitalism, which understandably and often justifiably seek to mitigate that destruction. Too frequently, however, these reactions take the form of government policies inimical both to markets’ dynamism, and to principles and practices indispensible to republicanism: limited government, the rule of law, and inalienable rights, among others.

At this early moment in what may prove to be long stint on the political stage, reform conservatism bears watching more than it deserves judging. The conservative cause has not always been well served by statecraft that says a great deal about fundamental principles but little about policy details and implementation. It is necessary to correct this habit, but possible to over-correct it. Reform conservatives, like conservatives in general, need to get the little things and the big things right, and to make clear how the little things conduce to the big things.