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In memoriam: The conservative renaissance

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Welcome, ladies and gentlemen. I’ll try to keep this brief — much like the life that we are gathered here to honor today. Fleeting though it may have been, it was a promising life. So much potential, as they say.

The life we mourn was, of course, that of the conservative renaissance, a period beginning some time in 2013 and terminating on March 15, at approximately the moment when Marco Rubio dropped out of the presidential race. Henceforth I shall refer to our dearly departed by its initials: CR.

CR was a child born of necessity, really, the product of ideological demand (a market metaphor that would titillate some of its (many) parents). It was delivered into the world a short while after the 2012 Presidential election, when a resurgent Barack Obama had defied historic precedent and secured a second term. The media would ascribe the result to a number of things — Romney’s wooden TV persona, his infamous “47%” gaffe — but there lay a greater, existential crisis at the heart of the Republican loss. The party was simply out of ideas.

Romney could deploy Paul Ryan to chirp about supply-side economics all he wanted: It simply didn’t resonate with voters. Obama won the polls on which candidate “cares about people like me” by 63 points. With the Cold War a distant memory and tax rates at an historic low, the Reaganite blend of ideological hawkishness and tax reductions wasn’t gaining the traction it once did.

Behind the scenes, however, CR was gestating. The death of the old GOP allowed CR to gulp in its first breaths of sweet life.

It was born in the pages of National Affairs, a policy journal established by conservative brainiac Yuval Levin, which published conservative solutions to crises as disparate as housing policy and student loans. It had first started in 2009, but attracted an increasing amount of attention in the wake of Romney’s loss.

In 2014, CR took its first steps: “Room to Grow” was published, a policy manifesto authored by a variety of young “reform conservatives,” predominantly drawn from National Affairs and the American Enterprise Institute (a center-right think tank). The manifesto brought new ideas, unheard in conservative circles for years: focus on the middle class, facilitate social mobility, win minority voters without sacrificing immigration skeptics. Conservative intellectuals could barely contain their joy: CR was growing up so big, so strong! Suddenly, it was cool for the Republicans to care about someone other than their donors. What’s more, reform conservatism became a lodestar for young, reformist politicians, people like Senator Mike Lee and Paul Ryan. Mike Lee proposed a family-friendly tax plan and Paul Ryan announced changes to the welfare system that didn’t involve draconian cuts.

As it grew older, CR went through its emo phase: It inspired those at the Claremont Institute, West Coast Straussians who lament the demise of virtue in politics, to publish trenchant critiques of elite decadence. It also found itself in obscure corners of the internet (as all teenagers are wont to do), building off neoreactionary blogger Mencius Moldbug, and advocating for the dismantling of democracy.

These illiberal moments were all part of growing up, too: CR recognized that conservatism was stale and in need of a shakeup. It was an exciting time in its life — everyone seemed to be talking about the crop of young talent who, embodying CR’s very best, reformist tendencies, would send shivers down Hillary Clinton’s spine as they duked it out in the 2016 Republican primaries.

Then, alas, the Donald. It might be inappropriate of me to muse on the death that we are assembled here to mourn, and so a few words will suffice. Quite simply, it was a murder. Protracted, torturous. The murder weapon: a few words, repeated for months. “We’re going to beat China.” “We’re gonna build a wall.” Trump had a charisma and visceral appeal that wonkish CR never did. To add insult to injury, Donald did everything CR tried to do — appealed to middle-class disillusionment, reshaped the Republican agenda. He just did it better.

And now it comes time to close the casket. “Wait,” I hear somebody cry, “It may be revived yet!” Certainly some have argued that after Trump’s (seemingly inevitable) loss, a Tom Cotton or a Ben Sasse might be able to tap into Trumpian anger and present more palatable, constructive solutions to middle class anxiety. Perhaps they are right. But it will be a stunning act of necromancy if the 2020 GOP primary becomes a battle of ideas.

Until then, farewell, CR. I don’t know if you’d ever have earned my vote, but you sure made things a lot more interesting.

Contact Sam Wolfe at swolfe2 ‘at’ stanford.edu.

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