The New Old Right

March 2017
By Mark Funkhouser  |  Former Publisher
Former publisher of Governing and former mayor of Kansas City

Splintering and fracturing are dominant forces in today’s social and political life. Our institutions are eroding, and it’s not clear what will replace them. This, of course, is scaring people. In such an environment, the old-school conservatism of traditional values and institutions is extremely valuable. Even liberals should recognize and respect the calming influence that traditional conservatism can have in public life. When people are frightened, it’s hard to make progress on the issues of social justice dear to the left.

So in the current political climate we all should cheer any return by some on the right to traditional conservatism. As Alan Greenblatt reports in the cover story, that seems to be happening in Arizona, where Republicans control the governor’s office and both chambers of the legislature. Greenblatt quotes House Speaker J.D. Mesnard as saying that there “has been a conscious effort to keep us out of these divisive, controversial issues.”

Once such a decision is made, the path becomes a lot clearer for tackling big problems: Shift to the center, find common ground, make a deal, celebrate and move on to other issues. Here again, Arizona is instructive on an issue that bedevils other states. With its public safety pension system in deep financial trouble, Senate leaders created a stakeholder group that included legislators, the governor’s office, police and fire unions, and taxpayer groups. In February 2016, the resulting comprehensive pension reform bill, passed by the Senate unanimously and by the House on a 49-10 vote, was signed by Gov. Doug Ducey.

Arizona’s approach, Ducey says, is “the path forward for Republicans and conservatism.” I suspect that much of his motivation stems from early influences. Ducey’s father was a police officer, and Ducey attended a Jesuit high school where service to others and consideration for the vulnerable were key principles.

There is another principle that a Democratic governor, one also steeped in the Jesuit tradition, emphasizes: subsidiarity. California’s Jerry Brown defines it as the precept that a central authority should perform only those tasks that cannot be handled effectively at a more immediate or local level. In this respect, Arizona has not been a model, preempting its local governments on everything from plastic bag bans to gun control.

With more people living in urban areas than ever before, local control would seem to be another essential old-school conservative value whose time for revival has come. Without reconciliation with cities, the path forward for Republicans and conservatism is a dead end.