Oren Cass Discusses the Future of Conservatism with the Rockefeller Center

On Wednesday, April 14th, 2021, Oren Cass, the Executive Director of American Compass, met with Dartmouth students and community members for the Rockefeller Center’s second Rocky Watch event of the spring term. Rocky Watch is a weekly series of live broadcasts hosted by the Rockefeller Center to create a common space for community discussion and intellectual engagement in this time of remote learning.

Wednesday’s discussion focused on the future of conservatism. During the event, Cass outlined core conservative values and explained how conservative principles could generate solutions to the 21st century’s most pressing problems. The event was moderated by Professor Charles Wheelan, a senior lecturer and policy fellow at the Rockefeller Center.

What is conservatism? According to Cass, many unfairly characterize conservatives as being people who “want to keep things the way they are.” Cass disagrees – conservatives appreciate the utility of existing institutions but remain open to change. Referencing Jonathan Haidt’s six dimensions of moral intuition, Cass observes that conservatives value care, liberty, fairness, loyalty, authority, and sanctity.

How have conservatives translated these traditions and moral intuitions into practice? In the economy, Cass argues that conservatives want to see efficiency and material prosperity balanced against the maintenance of familial relations and the needs of the nation.

However, Cass sees conservatism as having strayed from these values since the Cold War. The Cold War brought social conservatives, economic libertarians, and foreign policy hawks into the Republican Party. While these factions of the Republican Party shared little in common, their contempt for communism bound them together and led to electoral successes. This coalition also generated policies that Cass believes do not reflect conservative values.

These policies can be traced to when libertarians seized control of Republican economic policy in the 1980s. According to Cass, this has been problematic. Under the stewardship of libertarians, economic output has increased significantly but the American social fabric has suffered in the process. Thus, while free-market policies may have appealed to libertarians, they dismayed many social conservatives. The failure of the Republican Party to address the concerns of its conservative voters was underscored by the shock election of Donald Trump, who advocated for nationalist economic policies and vowed to rebuild America’s communities. With that in mind, Cass argues that economic libertarians should no longer be “driving the car.” It’s time, Cass says, for conservatives to bring their own economic sensibilities to the discussion.

Cass sees America as facing four challenges that conservatives are well suited to addressing: the rise of China, the destabilizing impact of technological change on society, the decline of family formation in the US, and wealth inequality. These problems, Cass says, all require some measure of government intervention.

Conservatives have a history of using government to address great challenges: between the Civil War and World War II, conservative-championed industrial policies—such as government-financed infrastructure improvements and high tariffs—laid the foundation for the economic prosperity of the 20th century. While today’s conservative policies would be tailored to the needs of the moment, Cass believes that a Republican platform of interventionist industrial policy and conservative social values could form a potent governing majority.

Cass then discussed policies that could be included within a conservative platform. “Economic redistribution not only does not solve our problems,” Cass says, alluding to the popularity of redistribution among policymakers on both sides of the aisle, “it is popular precisely because it is actually the easiest thing to do.” Rather than cutting checks to individuals, conservatives should focus on rebuilding the institutions of the country.

Cass is unique within the conservative movement for his support of organized labor. “Either we are going to redistribute, or we are going to form structures within the market economy that [advocate for workers] effectively,” Cass says, framing his support for labor. However, Cass has been critical of American organized labor, arguing that they should adopt the labor model of Europe. The European model “tends to be much more on the industry level” and “much more focused on providing actual benefits,” allowing European industries to protect workers while remaining globally competitive. Unions are important mediating institutions, and “their demise has been very harmful to working class communities”

The discussion then turned to how conservatives can take a leadership role in the fight against climate change. Cass believes that “conservatives need to acknowledge the extent of the [climate] problem” while pointing out that “predictions of doom [around climate change] are not supported by either the science or the economics.” Economists, Cass says, have estimated that “climate change is going to reduce GDP in the year 2100 by roughly 3 percent.” While conservatives should take action to mitigate the effects of climate change, they should also take a society-wide perspective on what these effects will be and calibrate their responses accordingly.

In terms of family policy, Cass wryly notes that America is experiencing “the converse of the climate change problem,” in the sense that progressives have not recognized the harm done by the decline of the American family. Citing the Brookings Institution, Cass argues that two-parent families produce better outcomes and that declines in family formation should alarm policymakers. “We can be much more family-focused when we make policy,” Cass says.

Cass is optimistic that his vision for the future of conservatism will find a home within the Republican Party. Donald Trump was “neither a conservative nor a libertarian,” but his rise highlighted that the party needs to change. Responding to that need, Cass views the “tremendously thoughtful” Senators Cotton, Hawley, Rubio, and Romney as applying their strong conservative principles to today’s problems. Within the Republican Party, in other words, there is opportunity for renewal.

Written by Ben Vagle ’22, Rockefeller Center Student Assistant for Public Programs