The Future of American Conservatism

Evan McMullin joins the Political Gabfest to discuss the GOP, Trump, and what D.C. and Utah can learn from each other.

Evan McMullin
Independent presidential candidate Evan McMullin at an election-night party on Nov. 8, 2016, in Salt Lake City.

George Frey/Getty Images

This is a transcript of from the May 11 edition of the Political Gabfest. Slate Plus transcripts are lightly edited and may contain errors. For the definitive record, consult the podcast.

David Plotz: What is the present and future of conservatism in Trump’s America? This intellectual and ideological movement, for a long time closely associated with the Republican Party, has a president who appears to not be in any meaningful way conservative, at least if you look at the conservative ideals espoused by conservatives over the past some years.

With you in the house, Evan, it’s a good chance for us to talk about this.

Is the Republican Party a conservative party?

Evan McMullin: Oh, boy. I still think it is, but it is under the leadership of somebody who is not. It is drifting toward that nonconservative space, and was even before Trump.

What do I mean by that? When anyone says they’re a conservative, for me, the question is “What are you trying to conserve?” I always thought we were trying to conserve liberty, life, equality, rule of law, separation of powers, the constitutionality of our democracy. These kinds of things.

Now, under Trump, conservatism is taking on a new definition. It’s more akin to the term you hear among ethno-nationalists in Europe, which is “traditionalist,” which is more associated with white ethnicity and Christianity. That is in direct opposition of what we stand for as Americans.

The truth is, I don’t know what’s going to happen to the future of conservatism. But I will tell you that I’m less concerned about that word and its definition than I am about us sticking to these core principles, whatever we call ourselves. We are a country that was founded upon the idea, the truth, that all men and women are created equal. Of course, we haven’t been perfect, we’ve been not very perfect over time, but the arc has been a positive one, although slow. That’s what I hope the Republican Party will bend back toward, and I hope to have whatever influence I can over that.

Emily Bazelon: That is very unifying, which is nice to hear. I guess I wonder about two issues that have divided conservatives from liberals, the size of government and the degree of taxation.

How core is that to your conservative philosophy, especially at this moment where there’s talk of blowing a big hole in the deficit for tax cuts for the wealthy.

McMullin: First of all, I want to stress that we are in a moment in this country in which we need to protect some very fundamental ideals, and they are those which I mentioned earlier, I won’t repeat them again. Protecting democratic ideals, norms, and institutions is really the name of the game right now. That is not something that can be partisan.

Now, we still, the right and the left, should continue to have debates about very important issues. I do think there’s more common ground than we realize. Politics have become so tribal. But there still will be bitter debates about the size of government taxation, all these things.

I just want to point out that we cannot let those things, and other influences, keep us from defending common ground around democracy.

Plotz: Right. So John, the point that Evan made is just so absolutely true. I mean for godsakes, I would accept a Ted Cruz presidency right now if we were able to preserve some of the norms and institutions of government. Why don’t more Republican legislators believe that? Why are they so willing to abandon what they perceive as these fundamental principles?

John Dickerson: Because they’re politicians—

Plotz: —But we’re all citizens, right?

Dickerson: Right, we’re all citizens, but politicians are in a process that is not 100 percent pure ideological consistency, on both the left and the right. So the idea is, you build a system where self-interest can be hemmed in by the system, and everybody in pursuit of their self-interest, in which they use their ideological views, sometimes to mask their naked self-interest, don’t go overboard, because you have a system of checks and balances that ultimately gets to a good result.

But Buckley said that the conservative movement organized itself in opposition to Dwight Eisenhower. This is not a new thing, where conservatives have been outside of, and separate from, their party. People think about it now, obviously it’s an acute case, and there are people who have called themselves conservative who have supported a president who is not, in all ways, conservative. I would argue in his approach to regulation, and deregulation, he’s quite conservative. So in that sense, you can find common ground.

But I think ultimately, if you see the president as the vehicle through which you can repeal the Affordable Care Act, you can lower and reform taxes, you can make the changes you want to make to entitlements, and the federal education system and the EPA and the FDA and the FTC and the SEC, and all those other institutions that are now headed by people who spent their careers trying to knock down those institutions, you’re willing to put up with some downside on some other things, because you’re getting a lot of upside on things you believe in.

McMullin: But I just have to say, that exactly, is dangerous. Some of these things are very important for conservatives, and I’m not endorsing all of them, but I will say that the challenge is trading democratic ideals, norms, and institutions for policy wins that are important to you, as you point out, John. But they are not as important as self-rule. They are not as important as our ability to choose our own leaders and hold them accountable. They cannot be traded for those things.

And by the way, I foresee that, I mean we’ll see how this presidency develops, but the Democrats are also at risk. If Donald Trump puts forth a trillion-dollar infrastructure and transportation plan, then you may see some Democrats willing to take the edge off their criticism of violations of democracy, in order to get a little more of that federal government money. That can be dangerous.

I’m not saying they shouldn’t work with them, if that’s what they believe, but we cannot compromise on self-rule.

Plotz: Emily, do you think that what is happening, in terms of the degradation of these democratic norms, institutions, and ideals—do you think that represents, in any sense, an actual strategy of any part of the Republican Party, or do you just think of it as a by-product of the fact that we have a venal narcissist with no impulse control as president, and that’s the effect of it, but there’s no intentionality to destroy these norms?

Bazelon: I think it’s somewhere in between. If you don’t think the government solves problems, if you’re deeply skeptical of it, then you’re more willing to run it down, because even if you are the ones who are in power, if you leave the institution in shambles, well, you’ve just proved your point, that people can’t trust Washington and the federal government should be smaller.

In that sense, I think there is more willingness, sometimes, on the part of Republicans, to compromise these norms. Democrats need the government to work, to prove their thesis, and Republicans don’t.

Plotz: Evan, do you think that’s true? Do you think there’s a faction of conservatives who want government to be ineffective, because it meets their principles?

McMullin: No, I think it’s true for some, maybe, but really I would say it in a different way. Conservatives tend to want more power located closer to people, where it’s more accountable and responsive to people. My mother works in city government. When people don’t like what she does, they show up on her doorstep, OK? I’m not wishing that upon anyone, but the point is just that—

Bazelon: No, you kind of are.

McMullin: Yeah, well, you’re right. The point is just that power is so unaccountable in Washington. It’s not that Republicans, healthy Republicans, not some of those who are supporting Trump, but healthy Republicans—

Plotz: —That’s the entire House Republican caucus, and Senate Republican caucus, by the way.

McMullin: I hope that’s not the case. But, look, I think it’s more about where government power is. I take your point, Emily, but we’re in this moment here where we have a president who absolutely has authoritarian tendencies, and you’re still arguing for a large, centralized government. Now is our moment where we may want to rethink that, and I think the right and the left maybe have something to learn from each other on this and other topics, and I think what the right has to offer, or the healthy right has to offer, in this situation is, hey, maybe it isn’t such a good idea to have so much power in Washington, where it’s less accountable to the people.

What we, as conservatives, can learn from the left, and I take a lot of heat for saying this, is more compassion, sympathy, and concern for minority communities, for people who are struggling in America. So these are things we can take from each other in this moment. But I think we’ve got to learn from it on both sides.

Bazelon: Well, I just want to ask a question about science.

McMullin: About what?

Bazelon: Science, and data. One of the most confounding things to me about this administration, but I actually think there are roots of it that go further back, are the way in which conservatives, the Republicans, are no longer, in some instances, responsible in the way they treat numbers and data. Obviously there’s the climate change debate. But also the running down of the CBO, for example. The idea that that’s not a legitimate way to score the cost of a bill. There are a number of ways in which Republicans have become really allergic to science and data. I find that so confounding.

Plotz: Do you think that is completely separate from the anti-elitism?

Bazelon: It’s not separate at all. You’re right, it’s connected.

Plotz: Which comes from which?

Dickerson: I think it’s separate. Both sides have been complaining about CBO for a long time. Because it’s in their self-interest.

Bazelon: But this strand, John. It’s a skepticism of expertise.

Dickerson: Yeah, that’s right, that’s why I’m saying it’s separate. The rise of the skepticism about experts feels newer. The skepticism about CBO when it’s not in your interest to be in support of CBO, then supporting CBO when it’s in your interest—that’s a long-standing trope of Washington.

Bazelon: Maybe I’m making too much of that example.

Dickerson: Well, I guess what feels newer is the death of expertise.

McMullin: And the systematic assault on truth, period.

Bazelon: Great, so what you said earlier, about maybe conservatives have something to learn from liberals about compassion, that seems to me like a long-standing idea. Not unassailably true, not that it always goes in one way, but the notion that liberals were more bleeding heart is—that’s old, we’re familiar with that. The idea that liberals would be the ones who were standing up for and marching for science? That does not seem to me like a natural affinity. Those shouldn’t be partisan concepts. I find that to be very strange.

Plotz: But everything has become partisan. It’s really hard to find issues that aren’t partisan. Sports have become partisan.

Bazelon: Yes, I agree. But it’s not equal, right? I don’t want to absolve liberals as being always being true to the data. That’s too much. But the degree of lying and skepticism about expertise feels so much stronger on the right, so much the province of Fox News. That is strange, it doesn’t need to be that way.

McMullin: It’s tremendously troubling, and it’s a terrible place for the Republican Party and the conservative movement to be. That’s not where we should be.

But I will tell you that when you have a president who is authoritarian by nature, who decides that he’s going to put his own interests before the interests of the country, which is what he’s done, this is what happens. You have to then conduct an assault on truth so that you can’t be held accountable. As you do that, you bring all the people you’re leading, who have jumped on board with you, you bring all of them along, and all of a sudden, you’re the party fighting against truth. That is a terrible place to be.

Plotz: John, do you think there’s any chance that, in 20 years, that the people who are the anti-Trump conservatives are Democrats? Do you think that Evan is gonna be the Democratic governor of Utah?

McMullin: It’s not gonna happen.

Dickerson: No.

Bazelon: But that shouldn’t be the answer, right? You want Evan to go reclaim the Republican Party.

Plotz: But what if the party is unreclaimable?

Bazelon: Maybe there’s another party that he helps start.

Plotz: The system can’t have three parties.

Dickerson: So, play out your scenario, let’s do it. So, your scenario would happen if, basically, President Trump has two terms, eight years, and it becomes…

Plotz: That’s the stuff of nightmares.

McMullin: That was a crowd-pleaser right there.

Dickerson: Right, so that he would fully inhabit the Republican Party, would be fully associated with him.

Bazelon: Right.

Dickerson: And then you couldn’t go anywhere else…

Plotz: But there’s a huge number of people who are left-wing intellectuals 50 years ago, who are now conservatives. They became the neocons, right? The neocons are people who basically started out of the Democratic, the Jackson wing of the Democratic Party, that are now on the right. So why is that not going to happen to Evan and David Frum and Bill Kristol, of all people. It seems to me that the Republican Party, as currently constituted, has no home for you, as it acts in Congress.

McMullin: We do feel rather homeless.

Dickerson: But it’s also had those ebbs and flows, where conservatives were in and then they were out. I mean, in 1964, it existed after Goldwater’s loss, and then Reagan comes roaring in. It’s not inevitable that they totally leave the party.

McMullin: I would say that parties have a long lifespan, the major ones do, right? The Republican Party was once a third party, and it split off from the Whigs when the Whigs were interested in moving back toward slavery, and the Republicans didn’t want to do that. A couple of years later, Abraham Lincoln joined the party, it became the party of Lincoln.

My point is, there can be disruption in the political parties. I don’t know if it will take 10 years or 20 years, but I believe that both the Republican party and the Democratic Party are ripe for disruption right now. It may happen. Parties can die, and new parties can gain momentum. It doesn’t happen very often, but it does happen.

* * *

Plotz: OK, we’re gonna take the opportunity of Evan’s presence here to have a little trans-American comity.

Evan, you are a native son of Utah, where you ran very well in the presidential election, capturing 21 percent of the vote. You attended BYU. You’re a Mormon, as 62 percent of Utahans are.

You are also a creature of Washington, D.C. You live here now, you’ve worked for the CIA, you’ve worked for the House.

You talked very eloquently a minute ago about what the parties can learn from each other—now we want to discuss what Utah and Washington, D.C., learn from each other.

The Utah economy is a very prosperous economy, it’s growing fast. Utahans live longer, and are generally healthier than other Americans.

Do you think that Utah is, in fact, the American paradise?

McMullin: Wow. I think you’d have to conclude that it is certainly one of them. I mean, in Salt Lake City, in particular, we have highest upward-mobility rate in the country. If you are born into the bottom quintile, you have a higher percentage opportunity to end up in the top quintile by the time you die.

Bazelon: What’s your explanation for that?

McMullin: It’s a combination of things—it’s a complex. The combination of state- and federal-run programs, supported by civic engagement. The LDS Church has a very well-developed welfare program, and that contributes very heavily to it. It creates an opportunity for people to rise above their challenges, essentially, not merely survive in poverty.

Bazelon: I have to say that when I was reading about Utah and all its great attributes, I had this feeling that religion must be such an important part of this, that the cohesion of the society, this sense of shared values, must really be informing all of the positive attributes you’re talking about. And then I couldn’t decide what to do with that. Partly because, we do have this thing in the Constitution called the Establishment Clause, but also because the country is not becoming a more religious place, for the most part, so then I wondered how replicable that lesson was.

McMullin: Well, I think that religion is a big part of it in Utah, but it shouldn’t have to be. If we can find ways across America of just giving more to our communities, and when I say that, I mean volunteering more, giving more of your income, not through taxes, but just to support local, good causes. It’s part of our faith that you fast once a month, and the money that you would have spent on food you’re supposed to give to the welfare system, and you volunteer in the welfare centers, the storehouses and whatnot. It’s a thing that you do.

You don’t need faith for that. Or if your faith doesn’t involve that, that’s fine. We all, as individuals, can decide to do that. The government has a role to play, don’t get me wrong. We need a healthy, effective safety net. That’s all true. But we have to do things, too. We have to, as individuals, play a role.

Plotz: Right. I just wonder, it seems to me the LDS church, with its emphasis on hard work, on family, no consumption of alcohol. Mormons are much healthier than other Americans. As a Mormon man, you’re likely to live, I think, 10 years longer than John is.

McMullin: It didn’t help me keep my hair, but hopefully I’ll live a long time like this.

Plotz: And then, of course, many Mormons go on mission, so it’s an international faith. But I mean, you said, “We can all replicate this, we can all go volunteer.” Are those virtues replicable in places without a strong, very forceful church system, which also has a lot of compulsion—maybe “compulsion” is the wrong word—but there’s a lot of social pressure on you?

McMullin: I mean that’s more of a negative way to put it. The most positive way would be—

Dickerson: Well, us Catholics call it guilt.

McMullin: Yeah. There’s certainly Mormon guilt, and I think it more than rivals Catholic guilt. But I’ll tell you that—

Plotz: There are two Jews on stage.

McMullin: This panel’s about guilt, this is what this is. We’re here because of guilt.

But, no, I think it’s very rewarding, actually, to give of yourself, and to put a higher cause ahead of your own needs. We need more of that in this country. And you get something in return for the service.

Plotz: What does Washington have, John? You and I are true sons of Washington. What do we have?

McMullin: I’m really eager to hear this.

Dickerson: More diversity.

Plotz: Yeah, obviously more. Public transportation. You guys don’t have good public transportation.

McMullin: No, people are pretty spread out. There is some light rail that runs from Provo to Salt Lake, but it’s not New York City.

Plotz: Have you ever taken it?

McMullin: No. But, hey, I don’t even own a car, I Uber everywhere.

Dickerson: Our mountains are really—we can’t compete on ski slopes.

McMullin: We ski everywhere.

Bazelon: Salt Lake is a nice city, but D.C. has a cosmopolitan nature, right, the way it has all these different people from different backgrounds.

Plotz: One thing I think, which I don’t think is a strength or a weakness of Washington or Utah, is that a lot of what makes Utah successful is actually a massive federal presence. They have federal projects to build interstate highways, to connect the country. Utah benefits massively from that. The trains, before that. The protection of federal lands, which actually makes Utah a great place to go on vacation and helps the economy. So the policies that we’re setting here in Washington are really helping out.

McMullin: I would say it has more to do with low taxes, limited regulation…

Plotz: You would say that.

McMullin: Exactly.

Bazelon: Also, you would want to take over all of those federal projects and have the state run them.

McMullin: You’re talking about federal lands?

Bazelon: Yeah.

McMullin: Well, look. For people who may not know this, you should Google this map, because it’s quite incredible. About over 50 percent of the 11 westernmost states are federal land, and in Utah, it’s like 65 percent. So this does cause a lot of problems, right? For example, I would like to see most of that land in state control. I would like it still to be public, I’d like it still to be protected. But for the people, right, for the people who are booing—

Bazelon: You’re losing them! They loved you before.

McMullin: I know, you did this on purpose.

Bazelon: You just said “state control,” not public, though, right?

McMullin: You know, I was born in Utah and raised in Washington State. And every year, we have these horrendous forest fires. I mean, it’s a terrible environmental problem. The idea that local, that state environmentalists, that state land managers can’t handle this, I think is a really arrogant Washington idea. Sorry to kill the mood.

Plotz: No, bring it.

McMullin: But I really believe that. I mean, they’re not a bunch of idiots out there, they want to protect the land. We love the land, we spend our time in it.

We just think that more of it should be in our control and protected by us.

Dickerson: Finally, someone else who believes in the common sense of people outside Washington.

Bazelon: Yeah, we’ve had some big fights about that, it’s true.

Dickerson: David thinks I’m a common-sense elitist.

McMullin: What does that mean?

Plotz: John, who’s lived in Washington even longer than I have, is constantly invoking the common sense of the people in Reading, Pennsylvania, that he’s just been talking to, or the good folks in this or that town in Iowa that he’s been visiting.

Bazelon: The real America.

Plotz: He really believes in a real America. I hate the idea of a real America. Washington, D.C.—this crowd is a real America.

Dickerson: Wait a minute, wait a minute, of course I’ve never said that!

Plotz: You imply it…

Dickerson: Oh now I’m on the hook for what I imply.

No, I just don’t think all wisdom comes from the block around where you live.

I’m guessing your parents came from somewhere other than Washington, D.C., and they have wisdom …

Plotz: Brooklyn.

Dickerson: Like I said, not from Washington, D.C. And I bet their parents came from somewhere before that, too.

Plotz: You do this thing of ascribing virtue …

Dickerson: No, I ascribe virtue as a corrective to the notion that they’re all dimwitted if they didn’t grow up in the Washington, D.C., area.

McMullin: David, can I just say, I want to say something about a very good point you made about diversity. I will say, having spent a number of years in D.C., that is one thing I love about this city. And I will say an interesting thing about Utah, too, is that we are not extremely diverse, and people know that.

But we are also the only state that has a Republican governor who continued to say yes to refugees. It’s something that regular people are involved in. Regular people are volunteering their time to welcome refugees, to help them become accustomed to their new lives in America. That’s something that we don’t see across America enough. It’s one of the things that I most admire and respect about the state of Utah.