It is very easy to say how important each election is. However, something is definitely different this year. American society is coping with the forces of globalization, which shrinks the distance between people, markets, and nations; and devolution, which pulls those same stakeholders apart based on perceived differences.
The political left has offered democratic socialism as their solution. This movement has been strong enough for Bernie Sanders, self-professed socialist, to put pressure on the more moderate Hillary Clinton.
Meanwhile, the political right has turned to populism. This shift is so pronounced that the Republican Party will nominate the fringe candidate Donald Trump with his outrageous behavior, authoritarian tendencies, and penchant for demagoguery. The lesson learned in all of this chaos is that voters rightly or wrongly are rejecting the Bill Clinton “third way” and Ronald Reagan conservatism. So is there a new answer for 21st century governance that is preferable to what the voters are moving towards in 2016?
There is indeed. It is called the Big Society, and it has been adopted by the British Tory Party under David Cameron. Its origins lie in the politics of Edmund Burke, the 18th century British statesman and conservative philosopher. Therefore, its home would be appropriate in the Republican Party if and only if the Republican base can shake off its fascination with Trumpism.
Small government, big society
Big Society conservatism calls on government to help bring together all elements of society to work to address issues based on tradition, cultural norms, and institutions at the lowest governmental unit possible. In American politics, it would not abandon the conservative agenda of individual liberty, strong families, limited government, and strong national security. Rather it would require policy makers to view that agenda through the lens of the Big Society and bringing people together. There are some specific proposals that can be implemented to complement the conservative agenda.
The machinery of government is the first area that could use new ideas. States should adopt the same method of choosing presidential electors as Nebraska and Maine. The winner of each state overall will get two votes and the winner of each congressional district would receive an electoral vote. Such a method equalizes the influence that rural and urban districts exert in presidential elections and gives the minority party of each state a greater voice in choosing the president. Much success has been made in expanding the vote, but problems still exist. The Voting Rights Act should not look exactly like it did when it was first passed in the 1960s. However, a VRA is still necessary and should reflect the reality of 21st century America.
There are still many American citizens who do not have a full voice in our government. Therefore, the U.S. territories of Guam, Northern Mariana Islands, U.S. Virgin Islands, and Puerto Rico should be put on paths to statehood. Washington, D.C., should have budgetary and legislative autonomy and, ultimately, statehood as well. All Americans must feel they have a full say in their government.
While voting reform is critical to full participation in decision-making, policies that sustain a a pluralistic culture must be maintained. Such plurality is necessary for democracy to thrive. Therefore, we must take up comprehensive immigration, paying careful attention to any displacement of current workers. Additionally, criminal justice reform is necessary so that not every sentence becomes a life sentence to marginalization. Mental health should be prioritized instead of stigmatized, and addiction must be treated as a health issue not a law-enforcement issue.
Individuals with special needs must have opportunities to be full members of society. Outreach to disadvantaged youth, especially those who are homeless or part of the foster care system, must become a priority. Finally, anti-discrimination laws should be enacted to protect the LBGT community, and at the same time, states should adopt religious freedom protections that allow religious practice and conscience to be a consideration in any court proceedings.
Education and health care
Education is the key to improving the quality of life of citizens and creating economic growth. However, whether one argues for private education or public education, all education starts at home. Thus, the first reform to implement is parental accountability. Additionally, businesses and colleges must have more input in school district management through advisory panels or school boards.
In terms of higher education, community colleges must recommit themselves to building job skills. Community college should be extended to three years with nine trimesters and include a work co-op program where students alternate trimesters between classes and work that relates to their fields of study. To make all college more affordable, student loans should be pegged to market rates. However, students who choose majors with fewer job prospects should have to pay a higher risk premium on their interest rates.
The Social Security and the social safety net must also be made more effective. To complement Social Security, conservatives could find common cause with President Obama and support his proposal of several years ago for “myRA,” which expands the federal thrift savings plan to more citizens.
The health care industry should explore community-based delivery options. One possibility is following the “Patch Adams” clinic model, whereby clinics are opened in under-served areas, staffed by volunteer medical professionals. Patients pay through giveback based on their ability. Another option is to expand federally-qualified health clinics to those that focus on women’s healthcare and also provide an alternative to Planned Parenthood. Cities should consider developing community schools that provide basic health care services to students and their families.
Community revitalization and security
The White House must also reinvigorate its Office of Faith-based Initiatives, tasked with delivering social services through religious organizations and nonprofits. The office could explore the idea of church-based neighborhood revitalization where churches and places of worship become the center of improving the redevelopment of the physical space of their neighborhoods. Finally, a universal basic income for all Americans should be the center of a serious discussion, but in the interim, the earned income tax credit should be expanded to take into account singles with no children.
Jobs and economic growth are a big concern. A jobs program is needed to assist individuals who are displaced by globalization or who are seeking work experience. Franklin Roosevelt, who led a very different Democratic Party, had some good ideas about how to achieve this goal. Therefore, a modern Works Progress Administration and a modern Civilian Conservation Corps should be instituted to provide gainful employment to individuals and improve our nation’s infrastructure and environment, respectively. Our financial system could be reformed by encouraging more federal credit unions in order to give communities a greater voice in managing local financial institutions.
National industrial policies only allow the government to choose economic winners and losers. Instead, to build the economy, a regional approach should be centered around clusters of local industry. Within these regional clusters, stakeholders would reinvent current supply chains and economic assets to create new value in the global economy.
The environment and conservation should also be used to bring communities together. Voluntary energy co-ops provide a way for communities to choose their preferred alternative energy without increasing costs. Urban renewal also can have improve the environment and strengthen communities through the development of green spaces, urban farms, and urban manufacturing hubs.
Big society conservatism even has a role to play in national security. Mandatory service in the National Guard should be a requirement as way to strengthen our military and emergency readiness while bringing the cohesion of military units to local areas. As Big Society conservatism gains traction, it can further expand into the foreign policy realm as the basis of foreign aid and a basic value of alliances. Even military deployments can be part of Big Society conservatism through what Benjamin Valentino calls humble humanitarianism, the use of military for relief missions and refugee assistance.
While this list is in no way complete, these proposals are first steps in renewing conservatism so that the movement will remain a vital part of the political conversation. Ultimately, Big Society conservatism represents a path for America instead of the failed options of socialism and populism. A non-Trump Republican Party is the right way to deliver this agenda.