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In defense of Northeastern conservative reformers

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Politics,Beltway Confidential,Philip Klein,Politics Digest

Over at Red State, Erick Erickson criticizes intellectually heterodox Josh Barro and then uses this criticism as a jumping-off point to make a broader point about NY/DC-based conservative reformers. I think this is a mistake to start off with, because Barro isn’t very representative of Northeastern conservative opinion, a fact that I’m sure Barro would readily (and proudly) acknowledge. But beyond that, I think Erickson embraces a false dichotomy between NY/DC conservatives and those in the rest of the country.

Even after eventually granting that there are “real conservative reformers” in the NY/DC corridor, Erickson argues:

Those of us outside Washington and New York should not think ourselves superior to them because of geography or biography. But we should all recognize that the DC-NY corridor of conservative thinkers have a steep hill to climb these days. The public, regardless of party, loathes Washington and the elites. Merely by virtue of geography, many of them are tainted. Thus they must try harder to connect to the real world.

Conservatism wins when it is populist and middle class. It does not win when it is academic or technocratic. Those discussing conservative reform in Washington and New York are offering up some intriguing ideas worth considering. And I hate it for them that they, real conservative policy thinkers, have to overcome both the poseurs and the anti-beltway bias, but I would also urge them to consider that the public deeply, deeply distrusts Washington. It is therefore probably not a great sales pitch to figure out how conservatives in Washington can make the case for Washington improving the lives of people who feel Washington and those, regardless of party or ideology, in Washington have helped create an American aristocracy.

He goes on to conclude that “conservative reform is going to come from the 50 laboratories of democracy and will be tied to a face and voice that ground them in the real world of Main Street, USA.”

The problem with Erickson’s argument is that NY/DC conservative reformers, for the most part, aren’t trying to make the case for how Washington can improve the lives of people in the rest of the country, but rather, how to change policy to empower states and people. Maybe 100 years ago it would have been fine to make the argument that those in Washington should just butt out. But right now, the federal government is so big and intrusive that it’s really impossible for states to perform their roles as laboratories of democracy — or  to prevent the automatic growth of entitlement programs — without major changes in Washington.

For conservatives to have any chance of advancing their agenda, it’s not going to be a matter of whether reformist ideas are coming from inside or outside of the NY/DC corridor, as if it’s an either/or situation. It’s going to require conservatives from all regions — who bring their unique bases of knowledge, skills and backgrounds — working together to generate good ideas, hone them, write about them and then fight for them.

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