Senator Mitt Romney’s Family Security Act, that consolidates and simplifies numerous tax credits and family benefits (including the Child Tax Credit and the child-based provisions from the Earned Income Tax Credit), has put off a renewed intra-conservative discussion about the translation of conservative thoughts and principles to a working-class policy agenda.
It is still too early to estimate how this debate will finally be resolved. Though Romney’s proposal was lauded in some wonky and social circles that are conservative, its conservative critics have created various discussions about labour disincentives, fiscal expenditures, etc.
A big portion of the discussion is about competing policy viewpoints. But one has the sense that the disagreement also reflects conflicting views concerning the political future of American conservatism: Why is it about ongoing down a Trumpian route of identity and grievance politics, doubling down on the standard Republican plan agenda of tax cuts, commerce, and globalization, or charting a new, policy-oriented working course?
I would submit that, as conservatives discussion this query, they may have the ability to draw lessons from recent conservative knowledge in Canada. A Conservative government, led by Prime Minister Stephen Harper by 2006 to 2015, successfully ascribed a conservative policy agenda rooted in the issues, interests, and inspirations of working-class voters. Its track record indicates that such a strategy can finally produce positive policy and political outcomes.
Specifically, the Harper administration’s development of a Universal Child Care Benefit to comprehend the social value of parenting and also head off a national child-care system suggested by its progressive opponents may offer salutary lessons for American conservatives from the context of the present child benefits debate.
Conservative intellectuals Ross Douthat and Reihan Salam are rightly credited for foreseeing the governmental fecundity of working populism within their 2008 book, Grand New Party: The way Republicans could win against the Working Class and Save the American Dream.
They argued at the time that the Republican Party and the wider conservative movement required to adjust their policy agenda to represent the issues, interests, and ambitions of non-college-educated voters when they were to compete in a political context that has been increasingly realigning along academic lines.
“Should you make conservatism applicable to regular working people, you make it the most powerful political philosophy in Western democratic society.” He lacked the purposeful policy ideas that Douthat and Salam set forward, but he reluctantly discerned what they had seen roughly eight years before. His working populist message enabled a special route to victory over the presidential chief and finally in the general election.
There are various elements that resulted in the Republican Party to dismiss Douthat and Salam’s admonitions, but there’s a legitimate argument that, though it was well-researched and strict, their strategy only involved a level of danger and uncertainty that Republican lawmakers were unwilling to take on. They were in effect calling on elected Republicans to shift from a group of policies and issues for which they had developed muscular memory over almost three years. Politicians are, if anything, leery of their untested, unfamiliar, and unknown.
I’ve occasionally wondered whether the case for a new, working-class conservatism could have been bolstered by pointing to the policy and political accomplishments of Stephen Harper’s Conservative government in this time.
It was not only an intellectual exercise . The Canadian experience showed that a conservatism oriented to working-class concerns, interests, and ambitions could indeed be highly successful as a political proposal.
Harper’s political vision was about bringing conservative thoughts to keep on behalf of working citizens. As he said in a 2006 interview:”In case you make conservatism applicable to regular working people, you make it the most powerful political philosophy in Western democratic society. Where Conservative parties are more powerful, and successful on a continuing basis, that is what they do.”
His governance record reflects this key insight. Harper knew that modern conservatism is more than just the sum of marginal tax rates and government spending as a share of GDP. Conservatives need to have a limited yet positive vision for authorities that addresses larger questions such as the role of the family in our society, the socio-cultural origins of poverty and purposefulness, as well as the social costs of crime and dependence.
As he outlined in a 2003 address prior to becoming prime minister:
There are real limitations to tax-cutting when conservatives cannot dispute anything about how or why a government really does what it will. If conservatives accept all legislated social liberalism with balanced budgets and company grants–as do some in the company community–then there actually are not any differences between a conservative and a Paul Martin [that the centrist Liberal prime minister at the time]. There’s, naturally, much more to be done in fiscal policy…. In large measure, but the public discussions for doing so have already been obtained. Conservatives must be greater than modern liberals in a hurry.
Thus, Harper sought to reorient Canadian conservative policy thinking from its macroeconomic priorities of former decades (like uncompetitive marginal tax prices, bloated government spending, along with over-regulation) to a new set of microeconomic and social issues that were salient with high-income voters.
This intellectual shift was shown to be great politics. The Conservative Party basically halved its”gender gap” between female and male voters and continued this demanding ratio during most of its own bureaucracy. Additionally, it made significant profits with non-college-educated, working-class guys that likewise held up throughout its period in office. The web effect was to win three consecutive federal elections including the first Conservative majority success in almost a quarter century in 2011.
I’ve previously written about the development of the Canadian government’s policy framework for encouraging families with children. The nation went in the post-WWII universal family allowance to a means-tested, income support program for families with children in the 1980s due mainly to budgetary aspects.
The Conservative Party under Harper suggested restoring a universal child benefit within its 2006 election platform. The UCCB will supply $100 CAD ($78.35 USD) a month for each child under age 6 regardless of family income or the way the funds could be utilized. The policy case was primarily on positive externalities: a universal child benefit sought to recognize the difference between the personal costs and social returns of raising the next generation. It had been in effect a public policy affirmation of the social value of parenting or what’s been explained in the policy literature because of”parental recognition objective.”
Placing a universal child benefit at the center of the party’s policy agenda proved to be a significant departure from its conventional policy and political orthodoxy.
A contributing factor was that the then-Liberal authorities was beginning to consciously pursue a brand new national child-care framework whereby it would transfer funds to provincial governments to establish exactly what amounted to a publicly-funded and publicly-delivered child-care model that adheres to some common set of national standards. The idea had a lengthy pedigree one of Canadian progressives dating back to a Royal Commission on the Status of Girls from the early 1970s.
But this was more than merely a technocratic debate about the best means of encouraging families with children. It became an expression of competing values regarding parental option, the use of the country, and the way we consider paid and unpaid work.
As I outlined in a recent essay, the position has been aided by two variables. The first is that a vast majority of Canadian families with children below the age of four at the time employed a mix of home made daycare and other personal arrangements for their child-care requirements and consequently were by and large failed by the Liberal administration’s one-size-fits-all model.
Harper intuitively understood that conservatives have to apply their fixed fundamentals to new and evolving problems when they are to remain responsive and relevant to the voting public generally and working-class voters in particular.The second was an infamous, mid-campaign gaffe if a Liberal spokesman complained on a television panel that parents could misuse the unconditional dollars under the Conservative plan to purchase”beer and popcorn.” This political misspeak highlighted the technocratic, government-knows-best underpinnings of this Liberal Party’s child-care proposition also brought into greater focus the values-based choice before voters.
The internet effect was to position the Conservative Party since trusting and supporting parents compared to the Liberal Party who didn’t seem to encourage parents to make the best choices for their families. It is challenging to discern how basic this political comparison was on the Conservative Party from the ensuing election, but there is no question that it was a significant theme particularly in the wake of this”popcorn and beer” incident. It is no collision, for example, that a typical Conservative message in the final days of this campaign was that the party thought the”real experts on raising children are mothers and dads.”
The Conservative Party finally won the 2006 election, and the incoming government stopped its predecessor’s national child-care frame and implemented the UCCB in its first year in office. It produced positive consequences on child pornography in Canada, had minimal (even mostly favorable ) employment effects for kids, and finally became one of the Harper authorities trademark policies within its almost ten years in office.
Lessons for American Conservatives
As important as Canadian conservatives’ experience with child gains is, the larger lesson here is about the translation of both conservative thoughts and principles into a working agenda. Harper instinctively understood that conservatives have to apply their principles to new and evolving issues whether they are to remain responsive and relevant to the voting public generally and working-class voters in particular.
This isn’t a call for ideological compromise. It is instead a recognition that conservatism is more than a finite set of policy positions: it’s a frame to find the planet as it really is. Its thoughts and principles are repaired but its application to new and evolving topics is always dynamic. This procedure was described by Yuval Levin as a workout of”implemented conservatism.”
It is a fantastic descriptor of Canadian Conservatives’ positioning on child gains in particular and Stephen Harper’s political philosophy more generally. It pertains to the translation of conservative principles concerning choice, subsidiarity, and also the significance of the family institution to the reasonable question of these rising costs of raising young children.
That is precisely the sort of policy and political recalibration that Douthat and Salam envisioned in their book. Theirs was not a call to leave conservatism but instead to apply and interpret it to a brand new set of problems applicable to working-class voters. The Harper government’s experience with the UCCB shows that they were on the ideal path.
The choice prior to American conservatives is therefore about more than the specific design details of Senator Romney’s child allowance proposal. It is about the Republican Party’s future orientation: Can it shift its policy agenda to better meet the demands of its increasingly working-class base as Douthat and Salam set forward more than a decade back? Or will it still continue to progress a more traditional Republican policy agenda that seems increasingly disconnected from its voters?
But the Canadian conservative record indicates that it isn’t just an exercise in expediency. The end result could be to incrementally shift policy and governance within an applied conservative direction.