Political movements need rigorous analysis and policies that work
"They want a massive revival of religious life, a turnaround of fertility trends, a revolution in gender relations. But none of the policy ideas on any side of these various debates are remotely scaled to those objectives."
In the particular case of "a revolution in gender relations," I believe part of the problem is that the Right misunderstands the leftward changes that they see occurring in gender relations. They look at the growing acceptance of e.g. same sex marriage, and think that it happened recently, easily, and effortlessly. How did those devious Lefties pull off this "revolution in gender relations" in just a few decades? Surely they must have used one weird trick -- and if so, then the Right can use the same weird trick to accomplish a counter-revolution in gender relations.
They don't see why their "policy ideas" should have to be "scaled to those objectives," because they keep thinking that the Left pulled off massive changes with tiny policy levers, or maybe no policy levers at all.
And so they flail around, trying to find their one weird trick: maybe banning abortion? all contraception? no-fault divorce? all divorce? allowing prayer in schools? compelling prayer in schools?
But they never consider that the rise of freedom in personal relations has been the work of centuries, starting well before the Protestant reformation and running right through the Declaration of Independence to the defeat of fascism in WWII. It has not been quick and it has not been easy. To that extent, the most honest of the Righties are those who declare outright that they want to return us to the Middle Ages.
I've said many times that the reason conservatives never seem to exploit various progressive errors and weaknesses to the extent they could is the absence of answers on core policy issues and concerns for regular people. The result is exactly what Matt says, where they can ride economic tides to thermostatic successes or win here and there on backlashes to various progressive cultural insanities but at the end of the day they have no substantive agenda on any issue. Contrast this to the broader center left that probably punches below its weight due to inability to appropriately sideline its weirdos hellbent on making it impossible for the grown ups to problem solve. Though I guess any time I check into any conservative space my take is that they are all weirdos talking about baseless election conspiracies and vaccine hoaxes.
I wish I could like this essay 100 times, not only for the rebuke of conservatism but mainly for the whole "details matter" theme. I'd go a little further as you do at the beginning of the essay and say that this is maybe not a liberal/conservative thing but an "elite" thing in general, which is part of the general complaint that too many Ivy+ students end up in McKinsey-type firms and come away with an appreciation for the big picture and not enough for consequences of the implementation. On the political spectrum, we may see it more in conservatism since a lot of these think tanks are funded by billionaires with very specific thoughts about how the world should work and push for research demonstrating it (and which may be part of the reason it's an increasing problem with liberalism as well, though as you state, not nearly to the same extent).
But the big picture vs. details issue seems to plague a lot of business culture; I see this where I work (pharma), where big picture-types get promoted up the chain and implement sweeping ideas without sweating the details of how to actually do it. Or, they have this management-style attitude of "let a hundred flowers bloom" and trust their subordinates to "figure it out" without giving much guidance.
If I may needle you a little bit: this is part of my objection to a lot of your science pieces! It's fine to say "let's do challenge trials" or "pharma should be funded by prizes and not through patent protections" but without a lot of details, these sorts of proposals are unworkable.
I just want the technocratic rigor without the technocratic paternalism. Is that too much to ask?
Amateurs talk strategy and professionals talk logistics.
I lived through the Brexit madness, where moron politicians just knew that Brexit was a good idea but had no idea why, or what they wanted from it. The right - and I would say the US right is even worse - just doesn't seem to want to think about what they want and how to achieve it. They just incoherently babble about stuff they don't like or get distracted by conspiracy theories. This is not going to turn around soon.
The last time America became a more religious society with higher marriage and fertility rates was the baby boom. Before the late 1940s, a significant portion of working class men never married and only a minority of families regularly attended church.
The causes of this conservative policy win were mainly serendipitous. World War Two destroyed the infrastructure of our major industrial competitors, left American industry dominant, forced workers to save at artificially high rates for a few years and let American workers achieve higher wages than any of their predecessors anywhere. Women generally needed to marry to enjoy these wage gains, which went mainly to men. Many working class men were eager to lean into middle class forms of respectability like marriage and church going. Of course a third of all 1950s brides were pregnant on their wedding day, unplanned pregnancies were a huge spur to marriage and family formation.
If you wanted to re-engineer the 1950s, you would subsidize salaries in male-dominated industries and then use the tax code to encourage men to spend this money on wives and children. Coincidentally, this is basically what the Iraq war did-- it created hundreds of thousands of high paying jobs that went overwhelmingly to men, many of which were used to support traditional families. The military is possibly the best microcosm of the 1950s we have left.
I think that the “pay attention to international comparisons and recognize when you’re dealing with a long-term global trend” point is a really good one which deserves more exploration in future columns.
With respect to some of the specific issues we’re discussing here, I think that American and European conservatives could learn a lot by noticing that in the developed countries where the state, public discourse, and social norms are most explicitly pro-patriarchy and anti-feminist (Japan, South Korea, parts of Eastern Europe, Italy), women have mostly responded by opting out of marriage and childbearing at higher rates than their counterparts in more feminist countries.
A simple model that fits this data is that marriage and child rearing are disproportionately likely to be a raw deal for women, women with decent jobs (both a cause and side effect of economic development) have a strong BATNA and can choose to opt out, and, at the societal level, the cluster of political changes and social norm shifts that fall under the “feminist” label are basically ways to sweeten the deal so that getting married and having kids are still at least sort of attractive.
I do think the “anti-woke” strand has a relatively concrete policy agenda: establish and enforce a “colorblindness” standard of civil rights, and that “disparate impact” is not sufficient evidence of discrimination. Those would be pretty big changes.
“But I think it’s turned out over the past several generations that while standing athwart history yelling “stop!” might be a good election strategy and occasionally block some bad ideas, it cannot reverse the big underlying trends.”
I think this is exactly right. As someone who has worked in conservative policy circles, this recognition is what is driving the attraction to the different varieties of post-liberalism, including the more extreme anti-democratic varieties.
The section on marriage today, showing skepticism that promoting it can be something the government can pull off as the article looks at the failures the Bush administration had in that regard, feels like a bit of turnaround from Friday's mailbag [https://www.slowboring.com/p/dog-days-of-mailbag-857], where Matt was thinking "we should try to nudge adults in committed romantic relationships to get married", and proposed a Pigouvian tax on lavish weddings that I thought was unworkable.
The "two-parent families improve children's life chances" thing seems like a good example of why correlation doesn't prove causation.
As far as I know, nobody's disproved the null hypothesis, which is "Having parents who stay married doesn't make you better off. What's being observed is a set of genetic traits that predispose some people to be more successful than others at maintaining romantic relationships *and* at completing many years of schooling, obtaining highly paid jobs, et cetera "
(I don't necessarily think this is all about genetic variations in intelligence, although those probably do matter. There are other factors like time preference and conscientiousness that smart people can often be bad at.)
Am I wrong about this? Is there social science research that's succeeded in picking out this possibility and refuting it?
In re "how do you actually" cause "Muslim-majority countries to become prosperous liberal democracies incorporated into the U.S.-led alliance and trading system," here's my two cents:
I was 100% opposed to the Iraq war at the time it happened and remain so opposed to this day, but here's what I told people I thought the US should do if it was serious about democratizing Iraq in any meaningful way:
(1) EVERY Iraqi (regardless of age, former political alignment, etc.) is offered a 6-week intensive English course in Iraq, with some sort of financial incentive to participate.
(2) EVERY Iraqi high school student who demonstrates a certain (relatively low) level of fluency in English is offered the opportunity to do a one-year study abroad in the US at a public high school, with a stipend paid to their family in Iraq and a stipend paid to American host families.
(3) EVERY Iraqi with the equivalent of a high school degree or greater, ages 18 to 35, and who demonstrates a certain (moderate) level of fluency in English is offered a full-ride four-year scholarship with modest requirements for maintaining grades/course hours to any accredited public university or college in the US that admits them.
(4) ANY Iraqi who participates in one or more of these programs gets preferential treatment for receiving a US work visa.
My logic for this proposal was that, in my view, the inherent problem with most countries that might be targeted for democratization/liberalization in the 21st Century is that there are hardly any "native" liberals present in them -- they are societies that have no recent history of liberalism and most locals who might have been predisposed to liberal ideas fled decades ago. The starting point thus would have to be as massive an injection of "liberalism" into the society as possible and the best way to do that is almost certainly heavy exposure to the English language and American culture.
(And yes, I know people always say, "What about the Axis powers after WW II? They didn't go through that sort of process." To which my response would be that Germany, Italy, and even Japan all had more history of domestic liberalism prior to their turn to fascism between the late 1920s and early 1930s than Iraq did in 2003.)
“ Their solution was rooted in an idea that I think is correct: if a much larger share of children were born into and raised by stable two-parent families, that would ameliorate many pressing social problems.”
If more kids were born to the types of stable responsible parents who enter into stable long term relationships, sure. Simply forcing unstable and uncommitted people to stay married won’t move the needle in terms of childhood outcomes.
Perhaps reinforcing the thermostatic view of government, it’s worth pointing out that the Bush administration followed the Clinton administration which was smitten with the ideas of “Reinventing Government”, which basically was focused on measuring how well government services worked and determining what could best be accomplished by outsourcing. If memory serves, Al Gore ran a program as VP specifically referencing the Reinventing Government framework. But for bad ballot design, questionable Supreme Court reasoning and Al Gore’s respect for democratic processes, we may have had a world focused on government effectiveness, rather than “one big ideaism” and culture war fights.
Isn’t the problem here the conflict between religious values and Friedman-esque economics? For example, I’ve often wondered why conservatives haven’t made a fuss about things that make church going difficult like the end of Sunday closing and the relentless rise of travel sports. These are issues government actually could do something about
Bush was the worst president of my lifetime but if social security was privatized, current retirees would be a lot richer than they are now.