Fall Reading: Conscience of a Conservative

Arizona Sen. Jeff Flake is one of few Republican senators who challenge President Donald Trump directly, openly and actively. He’s written a new book titled Conscience of a Conservative. In it he makes the case that America’s conservative movement has lost its way and is in crisis. And while his commentary may be on the bleeding edge of conservative thought about our current president, I think Flake presents a compelling analysis. I recommend his book for your winter reading.

Flake defines conservatism as follows:

I believe there are limits to what government can and should do, that there are some problems government cannot solve, and that human initiative is best when left unfettered, free from government intervention or coercion.

He then says these ideas offer the most freedom and best outcomes in the lives of the most people. In full disclosure, I agree.

Flake makes his case for why Donald Trump is an enigma and a riddle that needs to be solved. Flake says populism, nativism and demagoguery are sugar highs and we need to find something longer lasting to carry the conservative movement. He says ideas and values are the best place to start.

Defining values

Conservative values, in Flake’s worldview, include limited government, economic freedom and individual responsibility. When a policy violates these values, he encourages conservatives to speak up. He then identifies another layer of these values, such as education, hard work, initiative, enterprise, cooperation, patriotism, fair play and service to one’s country.

Flake argues for a major course correction for the Republican Party. He points out the demographic reality that about every four years, the electorate gets about two percentage points less white. He says the Republican Party, which gets older and whiter each year, is trending toward irrelevance. He reminds the reader that populism, nativism and demagoguery will have an unpleasant crash.

In one of the more interesting sections of the book, Flake calls the anger in the Republican Party the “spasms of a dying party.” He goes on to criticize his Republican colleagues for nearly coming to blows over flag burning, rather than debating and finding solutions for Social Security. He says his quarrel with the president is not an act of apostasy, but rather an act of fidelity. He wants his party to have a more serious conversation.

That conversation must consider critical public policies relating to immigration, free trade and international diplomacy. He believes the president’s immigration policy targeting majority-Muslim countries is misguided, takes aim at “fake news” and “alternative facts,” and criticizes the president for pulling from multi-lateral trade agreements.

In making his points, Flake quotes a long list of conservative stalwarts: Barry Goldwater (whom the book is named after), William Buckley, Friedrich Hayek and George Will, to name just a few. The narrative will remind those of you who are conservative, why you are, and those of you who are not conservative, why you are not.

Flake openly acknowledges that truth doesn’t always play well on the campaign trail. He credits Trump for his marketing acumen and showmanship. Flake also takes issue with the president on Cuba. In a classic quote, Flake says, “I can’t help but think that Fidel Castro would be smiling. In life, he managed to restrict the freedom of Cubans. In death, he’s somehow managed to restrict the freedom of Americans.”

A new conservatism

Flake released the book in the summer and announced in October he would not seek re-election as a U.S. senator. I suppose it’s not surprising. He says in the book, “We must be willing to risk our careers to save our principles.” Perhaps his book is a launch for a larger conservative assignment, maybe a run for president in 2020.

No matter what Sen. Flake has in his future, I take comfort in his appeal for a new type of conservatism. My favorite part of his new conservatism is the call to embrace, once again, the tenet that our enemies are not other Americans. Flake says we must reject destructive politics.

Indeed, the shining city that Ronald Reagan spoke of his entire political life was described by the Gipper himself as a “tall proud city … teeming with people of all kinds living in harmony and peace.”

I believe the biggest threat to America’s future (and Utah’s for that matter) sits in Washington, D.C. We need a functional government to deal with our problems—domestic and abroad. And the reality is we need conservatives and liberals, Republicans and Democrats, to listen to each other, reason with one another, and make the best policy we can. Flake’s bleeding edge of conservatism may really just be good old-fashioned conventional wisdom. It takes everyone to make this country great.

Natalie Gochnour is an associate dean in the David Eccles School of Business at the University of Utah and chief economist for the Salt Lake Chamber.