As the culture wars have given way to the jobs crisis, reform-minded social conservatives who once focused on ethics now embrace economic concerns and the harried middle class, but they are still driven by a certain moral vision.
That fact is somewhat obscured in a New York Times Magazine article about a group of policy wonks that includes Yuval Levin of National Affairs and Ramesh Ponnuru of National Review. These “reformicons”—as E.J. Dionne dubbed them in these pages—have created an idea club called the YG Network—short for “Young Guns”—to overhaul government according to conservative principles. The Young Guns mean to sustain the spirit of Ronald Reagan while acknowledging that the old policy prescriptions won’t do. Thus they embrace the need for a social safety net but without creating a culture of dependence, an eminently worthy ambition. Recently, the network published a collection of essays called “Room to Grow.” Urging a more localized civil society that avoids what they consider big government-mandated social engineering, the papers offer up proposals on health care, education, unemployment, Social Security, energy, and family life intended to buttress the distressed middle class in ways consistent with conservative principles.
In spite of some reflexive (and old-fashioned) gibes at the “liberal welfare state” in “Room to Grow,” after Eric Cantor’s defeat the Young Guns have found themselves in search of a shoot-out. Does the GOP leadership really want to do much of anything at all in the way of government, at least before 2016? Is there an audience for the reformicons’ policy prescriptions? While the conservative establishment is in a poor position to embrace an activist policy manifesto, the conservative reformers aren’t welcome among the libertarians either. That’s because the Young Guns have some old ideas about the kind of society we should have and the kind of people we should be. In their own way they are social engineers, the charge a previous generation of conservatives leveled against the New Dealers.
To see this, we need to remember the issue that excited Levin and Ponnuru during the Bush years, and one that attracted the sustained attention of the forty-third President himself: the bioethical debate about human embryonic stem cells. (Full disclosure: I have had a cordial personal relationship with Levin, including having him as a visiting speaker in my classes, and engaged in an online debate about stem cells with Ponnuru.) Isolated from human embryos that were destroyed in the process, these cells could turn into all the cell types in the human body, posing the prospect of new medical knowledge and perhaps new cures. For years this rather arcane topic attracted so much emotional intensity because it was a classic confrontation between two esteemed values: respect for the human embryo and the commitment to address suffering caused by disease.
Committed to defend the former value but obliged to concede stem-cell biology as an important part of future medical science, opponents of human embryonic stem cell research were eager to embrace laboratory alternatives to embryonic cells that, so far at least, have not held up to scrutiny. Even in the past two weeks, further evidence has been reported that adult cells transformed into more potent, embryo-like cells still have genetic traces of the skin cells from which they were derived, rendering them unfit for use in some future medical therapy.
Yet as heated as it was, the stem cell debate was only a conservative stalking horse for larger doctrinal concerns about the unholy alliance between the life sciences and leftist politics, a phenomenon I described in my book, The Body Politic. Levin and Ponnuru in particular attacked what they regarded as a liberal worldview in cahoots with an anti-human science run amok. In his book Imagining the Future, Levin called the left the “party of science” (it was not a compliment), while Ponnuru’s book The Party of Death took the charge that modern liberalism lacks a moral core about as far as one could go short of implicating the twenty-first century left in the Holocaust.
As the Times article points out, the conservative reformers prefer not to talk about these moral values issues anymore (including gay marriage), perceiving them to have been lost. But that retreat is merely tactical. A close reading of their work shows that the new focus on the middle class is tied to proposals for government policies that they believe would rescue traditional values that they take to be threatened by programs like Obamacare. In the “Room to Grow” paper on pro-family policies, for example, a trenchant and in many respects admirable analysis concludes with the peroration that “a stable and happy family life” is “a key pillar of the American dream, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”
Who can disagree that the breakdown of family structures has been a tragedy for low-income Americans? And why would these reformers not entertain interventions in a marketplace that has failed to secure a modicum of equity? Setting aside the novel notion that the Founders had family life rather than property rights in mind when they edited Jefferson’s language, the more interesting question is what sorts of families the reformicons have in mind; surely not those composed of same-sex couples with children produced by in vitro fertilization.
Regardless of protestations about a reform agenda, the answer to that question would disclose that the underlying moral mission of modern conservatism—to create the social conditions for a revival of traditional values—is alive and well.