The problem with the ‘New Deal Right’

July 19, 2023

President Richard Nixon had no scruples about using state power to pursue his political goals, embracing the New Deal model that created our nation’s insolvent entitlement programs, the administrative state, and some of the greatest abuses of the Constitution and government power in our nation’s history.

For a second term, President Donald Trump is looking to the “last New Deal president” for a blueprint, even down to reviving Nixonian-style budget impoundment to thwart the constitutional power of Congress over the federal purse. This is not solely a Trump phenomenon. Over the last several years, a political bloc on the Right that is happy to see Republicans embracing state power for the common good has been growing.

This loosely confederated “New Deal Right” seeks to justify “strong rule in the interest of attaining the common good” and “an illiberal legalism that is not ‘conservative’ at all, insofar as standard conservatism is content to play defensively within the procedural rules of the liberal order,” as Adrian Vermeule puts it. Much like Franklin Delano Roosevelt was happy to trample the constitutional order to threaten the Supreme Court, pass his entitlement programs, and imprison Japanese American citizens, the New Deal Right refuses to make reforms to FDR’s programs, ignores the First Amendment when it protects political opponents, and is happy to abuse government power to punish its enemies.

Beyond the lack of moral limits, however, is a concerning abandonment of the American free enterprise system for a Democrat-lite playbook of cronyism and overregulation. In the pages of Compact magazine, you can find the New Deal Right writing screeds alongside actual Marxists against the free market. One of these New Dealers’ most prominent intellectuals even helped write an entire book about “redeeming the administrative state.” Call me crazy, but I’ve always thought the point was to abolish it, not call it down the aisle to accept Jesus as its lord and savior.

Like Nixon before them, members of the New Deal Right reject timeless Republican beliefs: that limited government and free market economics are the surest path to the common good, not activist government.

Traditional conservatism has always emphasized individual liberty as a fundamental value that should be protected by the government. The New Deal Right, on the other hand, prioritizes the collective good over individual rights (even arguing that COVID-19 demonstrates the need for “ample power to cope with large-scale crises of public health,” the last lesson we should be learning in the aftermath of the pandemic).

New Dealers of the Right inevitably push policies that traditional conservatism finds abhorrent. Bureaucratic micromanagement of private businesses, government activism to promote strange new values, and mandatory vaccinations for healthy people are all likely outcomes under a regime seeking the “common good” without being grounded firmly in conservative principles.

Today, what is more concerning than the Biden administration’s push for left-wing priorities is far too many Republicans accepting its premises. Our movement wins when it sticks to the three-legged stool of limited government, economic freedom, and conservative principles, not parroting Democrats’ talking points. Instead, we have a New Deal Right that is looking to China for economics and good governance lessons .

Here at home, Biden wants to grow government and spend our nation into bankruptcy. But too many Republicans are listening to the Right’s New Dealers and are now terrified to talk about entitlement reform.

There is a temptation within the conservative movement to abandon the old ways of fighting for our cause, our principles. The Left, unconcerned with using state power to punish its enemies and refashion society according to current vogues, has enjoyed cultural dominance and a slew of political victories. The New Deal Right would have us emulate them and become progressive conservatives.

None of this will help Republicans win elections, nor will it restore our country to the vital soil that has ensured our national greatness for nearly two and a half centuries. We do not need to adopt new, progressive values. We need leaders with the courage and ken to cling to timeless principles. Otherwise, conservatism lacks anything worth conserving.

John Shelton is a policy adviser for Advancing American Freedom. He received degrees from Duke University (M.Div.) and the University of Virginia (B.A) and lives in Washington, D.C., with his wife, Katelyn, and their children.