‘Freedom Conservatives’ Look to Revive and Modernize the Reagan Agenda
Avik Roy, president of the Foundation for Research on Equal Opportunity (FREOPP), caused a stir in conservative political circles earlier this summer with the publishing of Freedom Conservatism: A Statement of Principles, a declaration of support for traditional conservative and libertarian principles that have become endangered in the age of Donald Trump. Signed by nearly 200 notable figures on the right, the document emphasizes free market principles and a “big tent” philosophy on issues such as abortion that harken back to the era of former president Ronald Reagan. Spotlight spoke with Roy recently about the statement, and specifically how its principles might inform policies to help low-income Americans. The transcript of that conversation has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
Why don’t we start with a little background about this document and then go into the impact you’d like to see from it specifically in the poverty and opportunity space
In terms of the background on why I led this initiative, I think what’s been happening in right/center circles is that a lot of the people who were early adopters of Trump in 2015/2016 have evolved into creating a kind of intellectual framework for nationalism or for reviving nationalism. And just so everyone’s clear on what nationalism is, nationalism around the world is an ideology that tends to revolve around putting the nation above all other considerations. And in terms of where that departs from American policy, that tends to mean being against immigration of all kinds, legal and illegal. It also means being against free trade because the idea is that free trade harms American workers and helps foreign workers at the expense of Americans. On foreign policy, it means having an isolationist approach, but in the American context, a real emphasis on being opposed to immigration and being adjacent to and sometimes embracing of white nationalism.
To the degree that there were people out there who thought that these things would live and die with Trump, and if and when Trump left the scene, they would go away. the last 12 months in particular have shown it’s not the case. There’s a lot of the other Republican politicians, whether they’re running for president or running for Congress or state legislature or whatever, who have convinced themselves that this is where the Republican base is, and this is the philosophy we need to adopt in order to rise in Republican politics. To myself and lots of other people, that seem much more dangerous than Trump, and a lot of people focus on Trump specifically. But Trump is one guy. If the rest of the country is arrayed against him institutionally and otherwise, there are limits to what Trump can do. But if the entire Republican party adopts his philosophy, that’s much more lasting and much more problematic.
The idea behind putting together this group was to say, let’s articulate a statement of principles that we can all get behind that not only restates what we might call the traditional 20th-century conservative, consensus, where there was much more of a focus on individual liberty, but also to update that consensus in ways where it had blind spots. In particular, around the degree to which an ideological attachment to free markets led people to believe they should be indifferent to the challenges of poverty or social mobility in America, number one. And number two, the persistent inequality of opportunity for African Americans, particularly those who descend from victims of slavery and segregation.
It’s important to acknowledge that not all Blacks living in America descend from victims of slavery and segregation. Many are immigrant—12% of African Americans are first generation immigrants to the United States. But specifically for the descendants of slavery and segregation, there are intergenerational consequences that affect those individuals today. And just to say, we passed the Civil Rights Act of 1964, therefore our job is done here, that’s something that we wanted to take a stand against and say it is important to have a pro-freedom agenda that shows how government policies are actually in part, if not substantially, responsible for these inequalities of opportunity, both for Blacks specifically and for a lot of Americans who struggle to rise in this country. We’ve done a lot of things through government policy to make it harder to rise.
And so, how do we solve those problems? We don’t prescribe a specific agenda in the statement of principles, but what we do say is we commit to building an agenda. I thought that was very important to not simply say, here’s what we stand for, but we’re also making certain commitments as a group to coming together to try to solve these problems and not merely pontificate about them.
And is there a specific schedule of next steps?
We don’t have a Gantt chart or something like that with a timeline. But we’re going to have a reception for signatories of the document at both our FREOPP annual conference in November And also there’s a conference in a couple of weeks in Chicago called the State Policy Network Conference that a lot of the state-based think tanks attend. We want to create some opportunities like that for people to get to know each other in person, because one of the real values of a document like this is for people to know who their friends are, for people to be able to say, okay, this person over here may not know who I am, but we both are signatories to this document, which hopefully means if I drop him a line or give him a call, he’ll return that call and we can collaborate on stuff. We’re still figuring out exactly how on a virtual level to bring people together. We do have a website that will start to be the hub for the work.
And how many signatories at this point?
As of this morning, it’s 194. And to be clear, it’s not a petition. We’ve limited the signatories to people who are active in public policy in some way or in the movement in some way. And we’ve also limited to people who have affiliations with U.S. institutions. We’ve had some interest from people outside the U.S. who really believe in what we’re doing, but we’ve said, this is such a U.S.-centric effort—the document talks about the Constitution and Martin Luther King and a lot of other things that are very specific to the U.S. We also think that’s an important contrast to the nationalists, nationalism is really not a distinctively American political philosophy. It’s something that any country could have.
I know this is not a policy document but are there proposals in the poverty and opportunity space that you think would come under the rubric of what you’re trying to create. There’s obviously been a lot of focus on family-focused policy on right in the wake of the Dobbs decision, for example.
I’d say a couple things. First, at FREOPP, that’s been our MO from the beginning. FREOPP is all about how to address the challenges that Americans, whose incomes are below the U.S. median and how can we apply the principles of free enterprise to the problems that they have. I think that what the statement has allowed us to do is really bring together a lot of other people, whether it’s institutions or individuals, who share that view, but also include people who haven’t really thought about their own work or their own careers in that way. I think part of the value of this effort is that’s one thing to work in isolation and it’s another thing to now be able to have a network of 200 people that you can go to with your work, who can be a distribution channel for those ideas. And not just intellectuals, by the way, but also, policymakers and candidates who might not otherwise pay attention to this kind of work.
How has the statement handled the issue of abortion?
We don’t mention abortion policy in the document and one of the things I’ve said is if you look at back at the Reagan era, Reagan famously talked about a big tent. He was pro-life, he appointed pro-life judges, but the Republican party at that time prided itself on being a party that was home to both pro-lifers and pro-choice. Reagan’s line was, if you’re 80% my friend, you’re not 20% my enemy and we’ve tried to take that approach. I haven’t polled the signatories on this topic, but I would guess that the vast majority are pro-life and believe the Dobbs decision was rightly decided. But we very clearly make room for all.
The document also encompasses signers who have opposing views on issues like gay marriage and drug legalization. One of the criticisms we’ve gotten from social conservatives is, well, there’s no mention of God in the document. In the Sharon Statement, which we cite as an antecedent to our own efforts, God is mentioned explicitly as the originator of the concept of liberty and natural rights. If that’s seen as a rejection of religious principle, we don’t see it that way at all. In fact, we have plenty of religious conservatives who signed on to the statement. We just added as a signatory Russell Moore, the former Southern Baptist Convention leader. Our view is that you want religious liberty protected, the coalition must also include non-believers. In the broader context of America, we have to be able to persuade those who are not regular churchgoers or believers to defend our rights. It was very important for us express that you don’t have to believe in God to believe in religious liberty.
I would also say that one thing that we emphasize in the document is the importance of families and communities, not just individuals. The ability of people to raise their children according to their values is incredibly important. If you don’t trust parents to raise their children according to their own values, who are you going to trust instead?