Reihan Salam is a writer, journalist, and Schwarz Fellow at the New America Foundation, a Washington, D.C.-based public policy institute. His writing appears regularly in The National Review, Forbes.com, The Daily Beast, Slate, and other publications. His article "The Death of Macho," concerning the disruptive effects of the recession on men across the globe, appeared in Foreign Policy in 2009. He is the co-author, with Ross Douthat, of "Grand New Party: How Conservatives Can Win the Working Class and Save the American Dream" (Doubleday, 2008).
Question: Should conservatism look back to a specific era, or a “best-of” of American history?
Reihan Salam: I like the best-of idea. That makes a lot of sense. Although I’d say that I think America’s great advantage is the society… is that it’s a society in which cheap failure and fast failure are possible, a society in which we don’t have really brittle institutions and that actually is a product to some degree of sloppiness. You know like our welfare state is not complete. It was not designed after military conquest and after we were occupied by some other country and then let’s design the perfect constitutional arrangements, let’s design the perfect tax code and the perfect healthcare system, etcetera. Rather we kind of have this kind of messy kludge set of solutions that can be really frustrating in some ways, but also because it’s so messy and because it’s so sloppy it always leaves room for people on the outside of it, on the edges of it to think you know let me do something different, let me come up with something totally different that people in Washington or people in New York aren’t going to notice and I’m going to create it out here in isolation, you know like kind of like a squirrel hiding away nuts, and then suddenly you have this huge flourishing thing that no one designed but then kind of came out of nowhere to take over the world.
This applies in so many ways. Like if you think about MP3’s. You know what I mean? If you think about the Internet, if you think about all these technologies they weren’t frontal attacks. They were flank attacks and I think that when it comes to solving social problems to me a lot of my friends were on the left. I think that they have this mentality and I kind of share it intellectually in a way is wouldn’t it be great if we could solve the immigration problem this way and solve the agriculture problem this, then we solve the obesity problem, then we solve the public health problem and it all works out brilliantly because we have this amazing plan.
I think that President Obama is a guy who is a really smart guy. He is surrounded by really smart guys and they think you know we know what we’re talking about. You know, we’ve got people who are, you know, John Bates Clark medalists. We’ve got people who are shortlisted for the Nobel Prize. We can figure out this whole American society thing. Let’s do it. And I mean, it’s so exciting, and I can see why people are so into it, and then you see the right-wingers who are like, “They’re trying to criticize us.” “How dare they?” “Clearly they’re fools or clearly they’re deeply dishonest or corrupt or they don’t want poor people to have healthcare.” And it’s like wow, no, but it’s like you are so smart, but it’s like actually kind of these dopey people, hippies, you know pot smokers. You know these guys on the edges who aren’t super awesome planners they often come up with rad stuff and when you have something that is really tightly planned then they can’t do their thing. You’re banning them. You’re not allowing them to do their kind of neat thing that could make everything cheaper and greater and awesome in a way that we can’t really anticipate, so I think that that’s what I want to preserve about this country because this is this countries great gift to the world. America is not richer, than lots of other you know awesome first world countries where you can get baguettes and you can ride a bicycle everywhere and it’s beautiful, yet folks from those countries come here and more would come here if they could and why is that? I mean again, it’s they’re not coming to like make you know kind of 20% more. Sometimes they are, but not always. They’re coming because you don’t have that stigma and you have that opportunity for business model innovation or cultural innovation and I really, really worry that this conceit that we’ll solve these particular problems that we recognize now because again our view is so blinkard and so narrow that we don’t see the other problems. So let’s do what those guys do. Let’s do what France does. Let’s do what Singapore does, kind of whether you’re from the left or right rather than let’s build on our tremendous strength, which is enabling weirdoes.
Question: Where does choosing hippies over technocratic liberals leave conservatives?
Reihan Salam: This is an extremely hard problem, because when you look at the Republican Party and how they’ve conducted themselves during the health reform debate, it makes perfect sense, so you have a lot of these rock-ribbed conservatives who say we’re against big government and these kind of Republicans who are kind of squishes. You know what I mean? They want to compromise. You know we’re against that. These are the same conservatives who are saying Obama is trying to slash your Medicare. You know what I mean? It’s incredible and then it seems are they hypocrites? They’re not hypocrites. They represent districts that have a lot of older white people. They want to get reelected and in their zeal to get reelected they’re forgetting that there are districts in suburban Long Island, suburban Philadelphia, suburban Los Angeles where people have a different mentality. They think about things in different ways. So it’s this kind of crazy dilemma where again you’re focused very narrowly on your own goals rather than on the goals of this broader political movement and so it all makes a lot of sense. It’s hard to be that upset of disappointed by it because it’s the world we live in.
So I think that for conservative intellectuals, for conservative thinkers what you want to do is keep beating the drum of how our goal is to preserve this economic space, this cultural space for innovation and the Republican Party is going to do its thing and sometimes they’re going to be right, sometimes they’re going to be wrong. When they are opposing Democrats who are trying to kind of impose brittle structures on this tremendously kind of creative and potentially very fruitful, exciting set of institutions then we can be for them. We can be rooting for them.
And one thing that I’ve always wanted is, if only Republicans could offer the perfect health reform package as an alternative. I’ve always felt that way and now I’m starting to think maybe that’s not the right way to think about it. Maybe that’s not really possible because it’s not a matter of your perfectly planned solution versus my perfectly planned solution, but rather your perfectly planned solution versus my let’s try to do things that can be wound down, let’s try to create institutions that when they stop working can cease to exist and that should basically be our goal.
Recorded on November 16, 2009
Interviewed by Austin Allen