There is conservative reformist smoke, but no fire


Shorter conservative reformists (roughly).

There are a few images that spring to mind when thinking of Josh Barro. Perhaps foremost is a picture of himself sharply dressed, sporting what looked like a black eye as a Twitter avatar once. That image fit how I interpret his online personality; a crotchety, word-piercing center-right blogger well known for his rough assessments of the contemporary GOP, fascination with public pension reform, and same-sex advocacy.

One image that wouldn’t occur to me is Barro in a tree angrily throwing coconuts, but it will from now on after he was profiled this week in The Atlantic with the headline “Josh Barro, the Loneliest Republican.” Jonathan Chait types an excellent look at a very interesting person, but the backdrop to Barro as subject for a ‘looking-glass mirror’ piece is his placement in the small (yet outspoken) ranks of those being described as “conservative reformers.” This year has featured a not-insignificant number of write-ups and blog shout-outs for policy oriented people on the right. These folks are challenging their own ideological base on subjects like monetary policy, social spending and crony capitalism. Understandably, they’ve been getting a lot of attention in a post-election vacuum filled with political scandals and talk of 2014 and 2016.

Yet there’s a lot for me to unpack in the question, “Is there a genuine conservative policy reform movement?” What would one consider as genuine? What constitutes reform? What makes a movement a movement in this sense? I don’t think I have necessarily have the intellectual wherewithal to definitively proffer an answer, but this is my blog and this is the internet so of course I have an opinion anyway;

I think this is reformist smoke without the fire to back it up.

To elucidate that thought I’ll refer you Mike Konczal, who has to my knowledge been the only one to flesh-out a response to the question of whether a conservative reform movement really exists in policy. His setup for a very well-thoughtout post:

So there are two elements. First, reformers think that the GOP is currently on the wrong track with its policies, and second, they believe there need to be more “middle-class-friendly solutions” in new policy. This is different than saying that reformers don’t argue that the economy is a giant Randian morality play, or that President Obama is a left-wing radical; it’s about specific policies.

Are either of these things true? I don’t see it. Or, I see it more on the marketing end than on the policy end.

Konczal goes on to lay out a pretty decent set of policy standards that form the foundation for the broader conservative establishment, the areas that reformers stand in disagreement (which mostly aren’t against the standards), and how the latter (while important) isn’t substantive enough to suggest they’re interested in a massive shift in the policy focus of the right.

I don’t know. Perhaps there’s some confusion between these individuals and the broader post-election narrative of a GOP that needs to change in order to focus on middle-class concerns and multiracial outreach. Now that is a movement consensus, but it’s mostly moderate to non-conservative pundits and VSP’s paid for opinions that grace the covers of weekly political magazines and work well for five minute panel sessions on TV. Moreover, like the actual reformers in question they’re largely ignored when people closest to policy-making continue to advocate for extreme-right proposals.

Now Barro is decidedly excluded from this pushback, as evidenced in Chait’s profile, yet he’s only one person. Even throwing in two others, as Konczal does, still counts for a minority within the reformist minority itself. Everyone else would largely nod enthusiastically to Paul Ryan’s budget, so the question still stands, “Is there a genuine conservative policy reform movement?”

Genuineness implies sincerity on the part of individuals, and in this case that applies to a reform of what the modern Republican party envisions as the ideal set of public polices. If Konczal’s standards are fair then the reform movement being talked about isn’t genuine. The reform most of these individuals are advocating barely earn their characteristic definition, applying mostly to issues of marginal focus within the GOP (think monetary policy, tax credits, etc). What makes a movement in this sense is apparently 15 people who blog a lot. In social movement theory we typically study groups of people mobilizing to effect change. Writing blog-posts, however good and worth-reading, isn’t enough to count as mobilizing. And that’s assuming they’re actively attempting to effect change in a way that constitutes meaningful reform, which they don’t. This premise fails at every angle. The answer is no.


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