In the lead-up to the 2022 midterm elections, President Biden attempted to frame our nation’s central political conflict as a battle between democracy and MAGA-style authoritarianism. “Donald Trump and the MAGA Republicans represent an extremism that threatens the very foundations of our republic,” Biden said in his September speech at Philadelphia’s Independence Hall. Indeed, the MAGA takeover of the GOP is transforming every election into an existential battle over democracy and whether the hallmarks of our American experiment—free and fair elections, the peaceful transition of power—will endure.
It is a chilling reality—one that Biden was right to name. But in order to truly understand the current political moment, we must recognize illiberal democracy not as conservatives’ desired end but as the means they are increasingly willing to deploy in order to achieve it. Their true goal is the restoration of a mid-twentieth-century social order, and all of the racial and gender hierarchies it encompassed. The anti-democratic takeover of the GOP coincides with an equally profound shift: a tilt in the power balance between the conservative movement’s longtime political factions. MAGA’s ascendance both reflects and facilitates the triumph of social conservatism over its economic fusionist counterpart.
The story of the modern-day conservative movement is well documented: A group of academics and think tank leaders organized themselves around neoliberalism, an intellectual philosophy rooted in economics, and forged common bonds with an emerging set of social and religious conservative activists. Fueled by millions of dollars of investment in new political and legal infrastructure, this fusionist coalition amassed tremendous power, moving once marginal ideas into the political mainstream and embedding themselves in all branches of government—at the local, state, and federal levels.
Although the alliance between neoliberal economists and social conservatives has been mutually reinforcing, it has typically been understood as a coalition of complementary skills and tactics—the neoliberal “brains” to the social conservative “political brawn.” Social conservatives’ policy priorities have, at times, taken political center stage, but such moments have been generally considered more base mobilization means than policy ends. “Family values” may have been the language Republican candidates spoke on the campaign trail, but when it came to actual federal policy, their priorities were focused and clear: privatization, deregulation, and low taxes.
But in recent years, these roles have shifted. Although the Supreme Court’s Dobbs ruling—and the ensuing torrent of extreme abortion bans in red states—has been the most visible sign of social conservatives’ increasing governing power, their assault on reproductive rights is only a piece of a much broader and deeper phenomenon. Since 2016, the neoliberal stranglehold on the GOP has been gradually loosening; left in its place is an amalgamated form of social conservatism that contains the remnants of the Moral Majority, its New Right successor, and a new form of identity-focused secular conservatism. This new alliance is far from monolithic but shares a mutual interest in the revival of the heteronormative patriarchal nuclear family, which it views as under assault from both cultural and economic forces. Although tensions exist, one thing is clear: Today’s culture warriors are no longer the mere foot soldiers of the conservative movement. They have become the driving force behind it.
Progressives have been slow to recognize this shift—and the threats it represents. In recent years, there has been a concerted investment in building out the contours of an alternative economic paradigm, one that transforms our understanding of a strong economy to one that promotes not merely growth but human thriving and that outlines the critical role that government must play in structuring and supporting markets and manufacturing and delivering public goods. We are beginning to reap the benefits of this work, not merely in the strong initial economic recovery from the COVID-19 crisis, spurred by the Biden Administration’s American Rescue Plan, but in the new era of industrial policy ushered in by the CHIPS and Science Act and the Inflation Reduction Act. Yet at the same time, progressives have been caught flat-footed on social policy. Alongside the overturning of Roe, progressives are being forced to defend their public schools and communities from a coordinated racial and social justice backlash marketed under the banner of “parental rights”—book bans, “anti-CRT” campaigns, and attacks on LGBTQ children and families.
Progressives are ill-prepared to face political opponents whose animating ideas are less about market fundamentalism and more about the preservation of a nostalgic family ideal—and all of the racial and gender hierarchies it encompasses. This should come as no surprise. For decades, progressives have failed to mount a serious counterforce to conservatives’ social agenda, viewing their ideas about “the family” in particular as either too popular and benign or too radical to be taken seriously. It was a grave error. In 2022, progressives were able to fend off some of the most unpopular aspects of social conservatives’ agenda through ballot initiatives, with voters in six states backing abortion access. But other election results, including Florida Governor Ron DeSantis’s decisive reelection victory, demonstrated that such issues will remain front and center for the foreseeable future. Countering the new conservatism will require progressives to devote as much energy to articulating a bold, inclusive vision of families as we do to the economy—and to explain how our own fusionist vision can increase stability and social harmony. Indeed, part of what has made neoliberalism so powerful and enduring is that it was never purely economic in nature. As the Roosevelt Institute’s Felicia Wong once wrote in these pages, neoliberalism “certainly had an economic, supply-and-demand, markets-focused backbone. But its flesh and blood was a set of social beliefs that said that nuclear families and white Christian churches were safe and calm, producing moral good.” As we watch social conservatism grow ascendent—and democracy crumble in service to its quest for dominance—one thing is clear: We ignore this new conservative power center at our peril. The economic and social ideologies that undergird conservatism remain highly intertwined. There is no dismantling one without addressing the other.
In order to understand what is shifting, we must first take a step back and recap how a disparate group of bedfellows first forged common ground—and in so doing, reshaped American politics for decades to come. The economic seeds of modern-day conservatism began in the late 1940s with the original convening of the Mont Pelerin Society and the toehold its adherents gained within prominent university economic departments and think tanks. But it was through fusionism, the synthesis of conservatism’s traditionalist and libertarian strains led by the National Review in the 1960s, that neoliberalism became a more encompassing moral framework. Free markets were framed not merely as rational and efficient engines of economic growth but as “the highest manifestation of individual freedom,” as K. Sabeel Rahman, a law professor now serving in the Biden Administration, has written in this journal. That clear moral purpose, and the order and stability it promised to a nation reeling from the economic and social tumult of the 1970s, transformed neoliberalism from an iconoclastic economic theory to an all-encompassing worldview. Its ideas successfully knit together a growing landscape of diverse institutions and interests—the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the anti-communist John Birch Society, Phyllis Schlafly’s anti-feminist Eagle Forum, and white evangelical Christian churches—into a powerful political movement, culminating in the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980.
Views about “the family” played an important role in helping these forces coalesce—and remain powerful throughout most of the decades that followed. For social conservatives, the interest in restoring and protecting the “traditional” nuclear family—heterosexual and married, with a breadwinner father and homemaker mother—was explicit and preeminent. Their anti-feminist, anti-LGBTQ policy agenda attempted to reify an idealized family structure that they perceived as being under cultural threat by changing sexual norms and women’s entry en masse into the paid workforce. For economists, as sociology professor Melinda Cooper documented in Family Values: Between Neoliberalism and the New Social Conservatism, the value of the family was more subtle, less about its innate moral virtue than its privatizing function. Cooper’s analysis, however, reveals how symbiotic the two camps were. Social conservatives’ reverence for the nuclear family provided a values-based language to justify neoliberal efforts to dramatically erode the welfare state. And neoliberals elevated the married, two-parent family as a normative family ideal by establishing it as the basic economic unit of society—the container, so to speak, for individual economic success—and, by extension, personal virtue.
The conventional wisdom is that over the last half-century, neoliberalism flourished while social conservatism floundered. Indeed, neoliberal “small government, low tax” orthodoxy became so ubiquitous that, for decades, the economic policies of the two major political parties could be differentiated only by the degree to which they embraced its tenets. Meanwhile, the “majority” part of the Moral Majority failed to materialize. Americans today are more accepting of a wide range of family forms than at any point in history, and families are more diverse than ever. As of 2015, 26 percent of children lived with a single parent; in 2016, 61 percent of married-couple families with children had two employed parents. Any state anti-sodomy laws that remained on the books were invalidated by the Supreme Court in 2003, and in 2015, marriage equality became the law of the land. Many of the issues that once animated the Religious Right are now decidedly out of step with mainstream culture, such as opposition to no-fault divorce laws at a time when 81 percent of Americans view divorce as morally acceptable. As America became more secular and cultural attitudes about women’s rights, LGBTQ rights, and family structure shifted, social conservatism has been viewed largely as a base mobilization strategy at election time—a necessary tactic to keep a relatively small (14.5 percent of Americans in 2020, down from 23 percent in 2006) but politically mighty bloc of white evangelical Christians voting Republican—and less as an ideas force in American politics.
This view, however, obscures the more insidious ways that socially conservative “family values” were mainstreamed as neoliberalism took hold. As the result of jobs that don’t pay enough to live on, a system with very little social insurance, almost no public investment in services for children outside of K-12 education, and the replacement of public support for higher education with private financing mechanisms, individuals are now more tethered to families—through wealth and debt—than they were a generation ago. Forty-seven percent of young adults aged 18-29 lived with their parents in February, 2020 (and 52 percent in May of the same year, amidst the pandemic lockdowns), a 15-point increase from 1980. The Religious Right may not have won the war of ideas. But as Cooper documents, by increasing the economic responsibilities placed on the privatized nuclear family, the widespread precarity that is perhaps neoliberalism’s greatest legacy has de facto strengthened family ties.
Socially conservative views of the family were also embedded within neoliberal policies. Together, they have created a complex web of policy incentives and deterrents that differ widely across race, class, and other axes of identity. Welfare reform of the 1990s, for example, was not merely “New Democrat” Bill Clinton’s attempt to make good on his declaration that “the era of big government is over.” It was also the culmination of 30 years of stigmatizing Black single mothers and moralizing about “family breakdown” in Black communities while simultaneously decimating families of color through mass incarceration and other forms of structural racism. By replacing a cash-benefit entitlement with time-limited assistance linked to work requirements, creating a state interest in paternity establishment, and, in the early 2000s, explicitly promoting marriage, welfare reform transformed what had been a public interest in supporting vulnerable families into a state role in enforcing “family responsibility” among low-income, disproportionately Black women.
In contrast, the policy incentive structure for middle- to upper-middle-class, disproportionately white married women has encouraged them to stay home with young children, even as stagnating wage growth over the last 40 years has made two incomes an economic necessity for increasing numbers of families. Through the joint return, for example, the U.S. tax code has long privileged married couples in which one spouse, typically a husband, works, and the other, typically a wife, stays home. Because the married-filing-jointly tax brackets are broader than single tax brackets, single-earner or unequal-earner married couples receive a “marriage bonus,” meaning that they are taxed at lower rates than they would be if both spouses filed individually. Meanwhile, married couples in which the spouses earn approximately the same income have historically incurred a “marriage penalty” (the 2017 Trump tax cuts eliminated marriage penalties for many, though not for some of the lowest-paid families). Recent analyses have exposed the ways that these tax code provisions reinforce and perpetuate gender inequity, by discouraging married women from working, and racial inequity, by conferring additional economic advantage to white families whose structures, as scholar Dorothy A. Brown documents, are “most likely to fit its mold.”
The net result is that family structure has become, along with race and gender, one of the prime sources of inequality in the United States. But just as a central tenet of neoliberalism is that individuals deserve the rewards and punishments they incur from largely unregulated markets, family security is framed as the result of individual choices pertaining to marriage and childbearing. One of social conservatives’ greatest successes has been their ability to drive narratives that position their particular form of “family values” as just a matter of common sense.
Nowhere is this more evident than in the social commentary around family structure, where the talking point that “children do best with two married parents” remains relatively unquestioned, despite the fact that the most rigorous reviews of existing research have found that the “literature lacks a clear consensus on the existence of a causal effect” and that “any such effect is small.” Recent research has demonstrated that being raised in a two-parent family does not provide the same benefits to Black children as it does to their white peers, a difference largely attributed to racial disparities in families’ access to resources, including intergenerational wealth, quality housing, and good-paying jobs.
Marriage does confer economic advantage, but such advantage is by design. Married couples in the United States benefit from a multitude of rights, benefits, and privileges they receive under federal law, whereas our laws attach a particularly high penalty to single motherhood. As a result of our nation’s refusal to invest in policies considered de rigueur in most Western industrialized countries (e.g., universal health care, publicly subsidized childcare), families with single mothers are more likely to be poor than other types of families, which is not true in a majority of comparable, rich democracies. The reason is not their “poor lifestyle choices.” Rather, it is the set of policy choices, cloaked in the language of family morality, that leaves single mothers more economically vulnerable in this country than in much of the rest of the world.
Social conservatives were never, therefore, merely the “political brawn” of the conservative coalition. Their ideas have had both cultural and political influence, especially at the state level, where years of abortion restrictions, for example, helped lay the groundwork for federal action. Yet it is also true that, for years, it was an economic agenda that provided conservatives with the larger political tent. By the 1990s, the face of the Republican Party establishment was decidedly neoliberal. Newt Gingrich’s Contract With America, the governing blueprint that drove the Republican midterm wave in 1994, was mainly a set of economic proposals; even the contract’s proposed Family Reinforcement Act consisted primarily of tax incentives and credits. Notably, the document did not include a single reference to abortion. Much of the GOP’s leadership over the last 20 years—from President George W. Bush to House Speakers John Boehner and Paul Ryan—publicly espoused socially conservative positions on issues like abortion and same-sex marriage but continued to make deregulation and tax cuts their overwhelming policy focus.
In recent years, however, the GOP’s longtime economic policy consensus has been showing signs of cracks. The obvious answer to what changed, of course, is Donald Trump. As a presidential candidate in 2016, Trump criticized free trade, touted investment in infrastructure, and even fired a warning shot to the bow of private equity and hedge fund managers by pledging to eliminate the “carried interest” loophole. Although his primary legislative achievement, the 2017 Tax Cuts and Jobs Act, was a resurrection of 1980s-style trickle-down dogma, and although he never did anything on infrastructure or carried interest, the mere fact of his rhetoric opened the door to more dissent from his party’s longstanding market-fundamentalist orthodoxy. Six years and one pandemic later, we have seen the contours of a new economic approach gain a toehold within the GOP. A small but not insignificant number of Republicans joined Democrats to support the bipartisan infrastructure bill and the CHIPS and Science Act, endorsing—albeit largely for geopolitical reasons—an expanded role for government in manufacturing, job creation, and shaping private markets. Some have gone so far as to suggest that this emerging bipartisan consensus could represent the seeds of a new economic worldview that could replace neoliberalism altogether.
At the same time, Trump catered to and empowered the GOP’s social conservative base. His open embrace of nativism and white nationalism, along with his attacks on liberalism, political correctness, science, and the press, fueled a vigorous resurgence of the culture wars and placed them center stage in the political discourse. And by making good on his pledge to nominate Supreme Court justices who would overturn Roe—an outcome they quickly delivered—Trump recentered the Religious Right in American politics.
A narrow focus on Trump, however, obscures the many forces that have coalesced to create the current inflection point. Trump did not emerge in a vacuum. His rise to power reflected— and, in turn, fueled—an emerging set of forces that have collectively challenged the market fundamentalist backbone of the Republican establishment and sought to refocus conservatism on the social dimensions that made neoliberalism such a totalizing paradigm. At the ideas level, this has been reflected in the Trump-era writings of a set of Catholic “post-liberal” academics, legal theorists, and social commentators, such as Patrick Deneen, Adrian Vermeule, and Sohrab Ahmari, whose new magazine, Compact, is an outlet for this “New Right” thinking. Together, they and their colleagues have delivered blistering critiques of what they perceive as liberalism’s problematic prioritization of individual choice and its decimation of the traditions and institutions that they claim foster moral virtue and the common good. Chief among them is, of course, the family. Many post-liberal ideas about families are virtually indistinguishable from those that have long been part of the social conservative canon. They oppose abortion, despair over changing sexual mores and “family breakdown,” are critical of no-fault divorce laws, and advocate for policies “in which the easier route of exit [from a marriage] is more difficult.” But the New Right breaks significantly from the social conservatism of yore on two dimensions. The first is economic. Whereas the old Religious Right preached the prosperity gospel, post-liberals are critical of corporate power, anti-free trade and anti-monopoly, and pro-union. Their enemy is not the state per se but a “rapacious and feckless establishment” of elites who they believe have inflicted great harm on the values and livelihoods of the working class.
The second point of departure pertains to democracy. Post-liberals’ belief that the state should play a role in establishing a moral culture leads to a comfort with, if not an open embrace of, illiberal authoritarianism. Deneen and Ahmari, for example, have met with and publicly praised, respectively, Hungary’s Viktor Orbán. Not only has Orbán doubled down on a conservative family agenda—declaring Hungary a “Christian democracy” and offering subsidized loans to women who marry before the age of 40 and lifetime tax exemptions to those who have four or more children—he has abolished democratic checks and balances on his governing power by sabotaging the country’s judiciary, subverting its independent media, undermining civil society groups, and clamping down on universities through regulation and censorship. There are also connections between the post-liberals and more aggressively “counter-revolutionary” groups like the Claremont Institute, a small conservative think tank that The New York Times recently declared had become a “nerve center of the American right” (John Eastman, a longtime Claremont fellow and head of the institute’s Center for Constitutional Jurisprudence, played a key role in Trump’s attempt to overturn the 2020 election by making the widely discredited legal case that on January 6, 2021, former Vice President Mike Pence could reject the electoral slates certified by the states). Ahmari, for example, has published in Claremont’s publications, and many of the think tank’s statements of principles echo post-liberal themes of elites waging war on “the American way of life.”
The emergence of post-liberalism as a political theory has been accompanied by a growing number of scholars and new think tanks working to refocus conservatism on a social and family agenda. Although less incendiary in their rhetoric (and at times explicitly at odds with the illiberalism of Claremont and the MAGA movement), they similarly view families as under assault by both cultural and economic forces and are working to translate conservative principles into a set of “pro-family” policies. Many of their positions—encouraging marriage, outlawing abortion, and protecting parents’ right to “religious liberty”—are, once again, a familiar rehash. But because this group of players is driven more by pronatalism than neoliberalism, they have also ventured in some new directions, embracing, for example, a limited set of policies designed to mitigate the rising costs and widespread insecurity that make childbearing and childrearing so challenging. Conservative think tanks like the Niskanen Center (launched in 2015) and American Compass (launched in 2020) have developed and backed child allowance proposals, including Senator Mitt Romney’s 2021 Family Security Act, which he introduced as an alternative to the temporarily expanded tax credit included in the American Rescue Plan. The details of the plans differ, particularly in their generosity to the lowest-income Americans and in the degree to which they adopt neoliberal rhetoric about encouraging work and “self-sufficiency.” But by acknowledging a state role in supporting children and families, such proposals attempt to bridge traditional left-right divides and evolve social conservatism in a new direction.
Even more transformational, however, and not in a good way, has been the emergence of a categorically different strand of social conservatism. Many of the ideas now animating the right are less Christian than they are cultural, focused on grievances related to race, immigration, and issues of individual and national identity. Over the last two years, we have seen a flurry of “anti-woke” campaigns proliferate across the country. Initially framed as opposition to “critical race theory” (CRT)—a legal theory that, contrary to conservative hysteria, is not taught in K-12 public schools—these campaigns quickly expanded to include book bans, efforts to restrict the rights of transgender youth, and an assault on a huge array of instructional practices pertaining to race, gender, sexuality, and American history that critics claim constitutes “indoctrination and politicization.” The early scale of this activism is striking. According to a January 2022 UCLA report, 894 school districts enrolling more than 17 million students (35 percent of all K-12 students in the United States) had been the target of various anti-CRT campaigns.
Trump and a cadre of prominent conservative media figures stoked the resentment and fear that sowed the ground for this backlash movement—and continue to fan its flames. And the Claremont Institute played an instrumental role in its rapid rise. Claremont worked closely with the Manhattan Institute’s Christopher Rufo, who first manufactured the conservative CRT moral panic, and politicians like Governor Ron DeSantis, who signed Florida’s “Don’t Say Gay” and “Stop W.O.K.E.” bills into law in 2022. But they are not alone. A mere two years after Rufo went on his right-wing media blitz touting the dangers of CRT, a plethora of new organizations—No Left Turn, Parents Defending Education, Moms for Liberty, and School Board Watchlist—have emerged on the scene, mobilizing a grassroots base that is broader than the religious conservatives already in the GOP’s fold. Working alongside established groups like the Independent Women’s Forum that have, for years, marketed right-wing ideas to swing women voters, these new groups are disrupting local political ecosystems by agitating at school board meetings and recruiting and training cohorts of new socially conservative candidates to run for elected office.
The financing and staffing of these new groups—and their complex web of connections to established conservative entities—reveal both how social conservatism is changing and what remains the same. On one level, they could be viewed as just the latest incarnation of the conservative AstroTurf financed by a set of prominent donors each election cycle. The political watchdog group True North Research has documented the money trail linking the Independent Women’s Forum to the Kochs and the Bradley Foundation, and the extensive links many of the new “anti-CRT” groups have to Betsy DeVos, Koch-backed entities, and other well-known Republican donors.
Yet the way that these groups are framing family is also decidedly new. Few of the “anti-woke” campaigns explicitly evoke religion, but “family values” remain prominent in their rhetoric. Indeed, it is the concept of “parents’ rights” that has successfully knit together such a seemingly disparate set of issues into a unifying political narrative. The use of the term is itself indicative of social conservatism’s evolution. Once used primarily in fights over parents’ ability to home-school their children for religious purposes, the term has been repurposed to encompass a wide-scale assault on public schools. By doing so, social conservatives are sending a clear message: They are going on offense and attempting to expand their reach.
So many differences and tensions exist between the various social conservative factions that it is easy to overlook their common core: a desire to maintain the institutions (e.g., the church, “traditional” nuclear families) and hierarchies that they believe form the basis of a well-ordered society. The anti-wokeism movement is a clear and transparent attempt to maintain the racial hierarchies threatened by new narratives about American history (e.g., the 1619 Project) and the political power generated through the racial justice uprisings of 2020. Dobbs, of course, has laid bare the extent to which the desire for patriarchal authority has always been at the root of religious conservatives’ war on reproductive autonomy. Red-state lawmakers are in a race to the bottom over how much control they can exert over women’s lives, proposing legislation that would seek to enforce abortion bans across state lines and criminalize the act of helping a pregnant person secure abortion care. New legal fears have arisen over whether data about women’s menstrual histories could be used to prosecute them for having abortions in states that have banned the procedure—and even whether new right-wing-financed anti-birth control period-tracking apps are being designed for such a purpose.
Organizations like the Claremont Institute are similarly explicit about how their social vision encompasses a plainly patriarchal and heterosexist family ideal, with men and women operating in separate spheres. Claremont’s new Washington outpost, the Center for the American Way of Life, identifies countering “radical feminism” as one of its primary goals; one of the family policy manifestos on the center’s website claims that “[s]olid families arise from a surplus of male ambition and accomplishment.” Meanwhile, a recent article on “Womanly Virtue” in The American Mind, one of Claremont’s publications, advocates for a “political program that…invite[s] women into their natural vocations,” referring to marriage and motherhood.
In contrast, the kinder, gentler New Right organizations like Niskanen and American Compass are less overt in their embrace of traditional hierarchies. Forgoing the bombastic rhetoric of Claremont, or even of Schlafly and her 1970s anti-feminist suburban warriors, they instead imbed their ideology in the details of their policy proposals, creating incentives and rewards for a particular type of family—the heterosexual, two-parent, married variety in which one parent (presumably the father) works and the other parent (presumably the mother) stays home. Once that is understood as the goal, however, even their positions that appear at first glance to stray from the traditional conservative mold begin to make sense. The New Right is concerned about the economic precarity of contemporary life not because it’s made life harder for all families, but because it’s made life harder for certain types of families. They embrace child allowances, especially those that target support to middle-class families, because they provide an incentive for married mothers to stay home with children. In essence, they are attempting to stipend their way back to the Fordist family wage that, along with a variety of other benefits provided to predominantly white, middle-class men, allowed the mid-twentieth century-style nuclear family to take hold.
Even more revealing are the policies they oppose. Conservative groups like the Institute for Family Studies and American Compass ran a vigorous public campaign against the child care subsidies originally included in the Build Back Better Act, misrepresenting them as an “elite preference” even though low-income single mothers would have seen the greatest benefit. Policies that enable women to work outside the home, by nature, reduce gender hierarchies; policies that expand the social safety net and lift the floor for the poorest women and children reduce both gender and racial hierarchies and make life outside of marriage more economically feasible. Structural exclusion remains the core of the social conservative worldview.
Yet for all that they have in common, it is far from certain whether these various factions will be able to coalesce as a coherent social conservative movement, not to mention build a form of Fusionism 2.0 with the traditional neoliberals who still dominate Washington. There is legitimate disagreement among social conservatives on the issue of same-sex marriage, as evidenced by the Republican split over the Respect for Marriage Act. Romney’s Family Security Act was met with indifference and derision from the rest of the Republican Senate caucus, leading New York Times columnist Jamelle Bouie to quip that Romney is “inventing policies for a fantasy G.O.P.” (Romney has since introduced a Family Security Act 2.0, which is less focused on the original act’s child poverty-reducing goals and more focused on encouraging marriage and work). Post-liberalism could wind up becoming something of an intellectual nothingburger akin to similarly ideologically positioned movements of yesteryear (Remember the communitarians? Or the Reformicons?) briefly en vogue in select academic or fringe political circles but with little real-world impact. Conservative pundits like Ross Douthat and Reihan Salam have been advocating for the GOP to rebrand itself as the party of the working class (i.e., “Sam’s Club Republicans”) and adopt a “big government conservatism” and “pro-family” agenda since 2005—but to little policy effect. Despite these forays into alternative ways of thinking, conservatism may be unable to escape its neoliberal straitjacket.
It is the authoritarian takeover of the GOP that makes this influx moment different from other eras—and potentially more dangerous. Whereas the goal of the Moral Majority was to build a political majority, today’s social conservatives appear more focused on deploying all available levers of power to codify their minoritarian worldview. Justice Clarence Thomas’s concurring opinion on Dobbs stated how eager he is to have the Supreme Court reconsider other unenumerated rights, including same-sex marriage and contraception. A large number of Republican voters seemingly question whether their agenda should even be subject to legal restraints. Sixty-one percent of Republicans, for example, say they favor the United States declaring itself a “Christian nation,” even though a minority (43 percent) believe that doing so is constitutional. A senior fellow at the Claremont Institute, perhaps the clearest example of how social conservatism and illiberalism have become inextricably intertwined, dismisses the political majority that voted for President Biden as “not Americans,” thereby justifying Claremont’s “counter-revolutionary” goal of “[o]verturning the existing post-American order” in pursuit of their preferred way of life. The power inflection in the conservative coalition and its growing authoritarianism are a combustible combination, one that makes this moment so rife for escalating political violence.
Yet despite the peril of the moment, there is reason to be hopeful. The nonexistent “red wave” in the 2022 midterms demonstrated that the GOP vastly miscalculated the support their ideas have with the American public. And the retreat from market fundamentalism, even in some conservative circles, has demonstrated that worldviews can shift. To be sure, it was an evolution caused, in part, by neoliberalism’s own empirical failures—skyrocketing inequality and lower rates of growth post-1980 than in the 30 years prior. But it is also the result of investment in the kind of infrastructure that builds new paradigms and helps them take hold. For years, progressive think tanks and academics have been working to articulate bold new ideas and infuse them into policy. Similar investments in movement building have helped progressives use breakthrough moments (e.g., the 2008 financial crisis, the COVID-19 pandemic) to reveal the broken nature of our neoliberal economy, challenge dominant economic narratives, and build political power. We have tools and strategies to reshape worldviews.
We are at a paradigm shift moment that shares many similarities to the 1970s. Now, as then, Americans are reeling from tumult: a global pandemic, widespread insecurity, rampant gun violence, increasing extreme weather caused by climate change, rapid inflation, and challenges to the old racial and gender orders. Now, as then, Americans are demonstrating a receptivity to new ways of thinking—about what a “good” economy looks like and about the social relationships and institutions individuals and families need to thrive. But unlike the 1970s, a totalizing paradigm is not on offer. Rather, people are being asked to choose between a progressive economic vision that rebalances public and private power, supports workers, and fosters racial and gender inclusion and a conservative social vision that promises to restore stability by moving us back to another era, when atomized households and clear racial and gender hierarchies provided, at least for some, the veneer of order. During the recent campaign, some MAGA Republicans explicitly put this retro “family values” vision directly in front of voters. Ohio Republican Senator-elect J.D. Vance, for example, suggested that even people in violent marriages should not divorce, and disparaged Democrats for being “controlled by people who don’t have children.” Senator Josh Hawley is writing a book on men and masculinity that calls on “American men to stand up and embrace their God-given responsibility as husbands, fathers, and citizens.” But other Republican politicians left particulars more intentionally vague, instead leaning into issues and narratives (e.g., crime and inflation) that attempt to associate Democrats with chaos and Republicans with order. Progressives would be wise to clarify the actual terms of the debate.
The risks of this moment are clear. Progressives could be defeated by a form of social conservatism that co-opts just enough of our economic rhetoric to expand its political reach, one that is willing to dismantle democracy to achieve its goals, or a combination of the two. But one thing is clear: All versions of the now ascendent social conservatism are grounded in the kind of racial and gender exclusion that would prevent a truly new economic paradigm from taking hold. Progressives must work equally as hard to articulate an alternative compelling social vision that affirms the dignity and value of all people and supports an expansive range of families—and explain how it can increase stability and social harmony. Without it, the social conservatism that was once the “flesh and blood” of neoliberalism could become the backbone of whatever replaces it.