December 6, 2019 1:42PM

Big Government Conservatism Returns

Donald Trump ran and won by opposing many traditional Republican candidates and ideas. However, for two years or more, his administration seemed a lot like a traditional Republican administration though its President behaved rather differently than other presidents of either party. Now intellectuals are coming forth with manifestos articulating Trump’s revolution three years after the barricades were stormed. For example, we have For Real American Greatness, A Tech New Deal.

Readers interested in policy will be disappointed, even frustrated with this manifesto. It has one concrete proposal – prohibit Facebook’s Libra cryptocurrency. The rest is a mixture of mood, allusion, and “the future that awaits Americans” if the new conservativism is accepted. Presumably this document adumbrates the changed outlook of the new conservatives, and policy wonks will follow with their concrete proposals.

Let’s begin with five words in the title: American Greatness, tech, and New Deal. Conservatives embracing the New Deal, not as fact but as ideal, might seem strange. But many believe the Reaganite small government philosophy no longer sells on election day so new (old) ideas are warranted. How about American Greatness? Ok, but that’s not a new idea either: recall the American Greatness conservativism of 1997? They too rejected “the antigovernment, ‘leave us alone’ sentiment” and weren’t “unfriendly to government, properly understood.” The earlier American Government conservatives ended up wanting wanted to govern Iraq, not Facebook. Maybe with “tech” things will turn out better, though neither crusade has shown much concern for collateral damage.

Make no mistake, the new conservatives believe in government: “America’s innovative power and technological leadership are vital strategic assets. They must be safeguarded and leveraged with a new framework of policy and politics by the people, for the people, and of the people.” I am not certain how one uses a framework to safeguard and leverage “America’s innovative power and technological leadership.” But our authors are clear that private innovation and technological leadership are mere assets in the service of public power. Concretely, the talents and property of individuals are to be “leveraged and safeguarded” for collective ends. Indeed, our authors note that “like all corporations, tech firms exist at the sufferance of US law.” That would indeed imply a certain leverage for those who make law, at least. That does have a New Deal sound to it.

Our authors assert this change in outlook and doctrine is a necessary response to changes in the world: “Trump is a consequence of deeper causes that neither politics nor anything else can now reverse.” What might those causes be? I am not certain. The next sentence states:

Our digital technology has formed a new social and psychological environment that reshapes our very souls — our perceptions, sensibilities, and our habits of the heart.

Did Trump reshape our souls through his tweets? Or did a plurality recognize their souls were being reshaped and turned to Trump for relief?

Beyond this confusion, it’s interesting that self‐​identified conservatives would put so much weight on discontinuity. You can hardly continue past practices if people have had their souls reshaped. You could reach back beyond the immediate to the distant past, and the authors do gesture toward “America’s founding documents” in their conclusion. But then you would be fostering significant change if not revolution. You would hardly be a conservative. Perhaps we might conclude, if we know something about Leo Strauss and the Claremont Institute, that the authors are actually advocating we consult the documents of the second (and real) Founding, the New Deal mentioned in the title.

A leading if not dominant view now sees politics as constituted by “the distinction between friend and enemy.” Our authors have written a political document in that sense; tech companies are not their friends.

But thanks to the domineering influence of Silicon Valley’s own woke vanguard, the Right now recognizes that top tech companies are sowing threats to our most basic ways of political life.

Enemies threaten us in some way. Or in this case, many ways:

Speech controls are seen on the Right to betoken a deep anti‐​constitutionalism; the leading tech role in “woke capital” evinces a sweeping anti‐​Americanism; commitments to globalism at any price, even partnering with Chinese government researchers to develop tools with military applications, reveal anti‐​Western attitudes; and, finally, artificial‐​intelligence projects surpassing or consuming the capabilities and consciousness of users lay bare an anti‐​human philosophy.

Say what you will about this document, it is not short on political aspirations. Tech people are said to be against the Constitution, against America itself, against Western civilization, and against humanity while helping the Chinese develop their military. No wonder tech needs regulation!

The authors would have been more persuasive had they been more specific in their indictment of the tech companies. Perhaps their intended audience knows the specifics already and needs no persuasion. But their assertions are far from obviously correct.

Consider only the “anti‐​constitutional” charge against the companies. A lot of history and Supreme Court doctrine says the First Amendment does not constrain tech platforms. In line with their expansive view of government, our authors seem to think the private property of shareholders in Facebook and other companies are “our public square.” That seems implausible, and within the American framework, deeply anti‐​constitutional. Such demands carry little force absent arguments for what is after all, a significant change in the line between public and private.

In the end, our authors’ essay is not adequate to their aspiration toward a new American nationalism. After all, the nation’s elites, if not its citizens, are divided not least about what it means to be an American. But our authors’ strong view of the nation and its values is held by a minority, the people who are expected to affirm the mood of this essay. But our authors cannot and would not wish to impose their view of the nation on the majority of their fellow citizens that do not share that mood. They must persuade the unconvinced and that they have barely undertaken in this parade of unsupported assertions. Moreover, their heavy demonization of tech people will inevitably divide rather than unite Americans around any national ideal, including their own. For American Greatness fails on its own terms.

But perhaps its terms are misconceived. America is not an organic whole led by benevolent guardians toward national greatness. Our government is rather a set of institutions created to enable individuals to pursue their aspirations in justice and peace. Inevitably our success is measured by individual liberty not collective attainments, by mostly private rather than mostly public efforts. Such individualism will not satisfy collectivists urging identity politics or national greatness. But that individualism has been and will be the true source of American greatness.