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22 May 2012

Congressman Jeff Fortenberry: Big Society Republican

When British Conservatives look across the Atlantic for inspiration, which country do they have in mind? These days, it’s more likely to be Stephen Harper’s Canada than the USA.

The Republican Party does have some followers on this side of the pond, but for the most part they’ve greeted the GOP’s choice of Presidential candidate with relief rather than excitement. It’s not like anyone’s saying: “if only we had some of that Romney magic over here.” As for Romney’s rivals, the reaction of most British observers is one of horror.

But, for proper Burkean conservatives at least, there is an interesting, if obscure, alternative. His name is Jeff Fortenberry, a four-time congressman from Nebraska. Unlike most of his Republican colleagues, he has refused to sign a pledge never to raise taxes. But in doing so, he shows how conservatives can make a low tax message relevant to ordinary working people. Here he is in an interview with Rod Dreher of the American Conservative:

  • “My responsibility is to make judgments about hard, complex issues that I believe to be right. Simply looking at the status quo and suggesting that the tax code is sacrosanct and can never change, and that decisions made in the ’80s and ’90s can never change, is absurd. The tax code is weighted toward the ultra-wealthy and ultra-wealthy corporations, and has created an offshore aristocracy of people who can afford to hire an army of accountants and lawyers. This shifts the tax burden to small businesses, entrepreneurs, and others. I don’t want to see taxes go up on any hardworking American. We need a simpler, fairer tax code. Removing special-interest loopholes could potentially increase revenues and allow for lower rates.”

Here’s the same, authentic conservatism on the banking crisis:

  • “We can have systems that are small and local and efficient, or big and unaccountable. Take our financial system. We went through a horrific financial crisis because of a lack of accountability, a lack of ethics, and a lack of proper regulatory oversight. We had corporations so big nobody had any understanding of what was in the portfolio. I compare that to what happened in Nebraska. We had hardly any banks with problems, because they’re main-street banks. They’re small banks. They work with the farmer, the small retailer, the entrepreneur. They understand their business model, and they are responsible. They don’t take inordinate financial risks. When you have a system that’s so big that no one can fully understand it, you’ve got a system that’s not only too big to fail, it’s too big to succeed.”

There are obvious similarities between Fortenberry’s brand of conservatism and much of what the British Conservative Party stands for. The Congressman may not be America’s most famous politician, but anyone who can sell the Big Society to the plain-speaking folk of Nebraska is worth listening to.


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