Conservative Populism
How to make our case to middle- and working-class voters


Victor Davis Hanson

The conservative failure in 2012 was not an inability to appeal to hyphenated groups on the basis of ethnic, gender, and age identification. Instead, there was a general cluelessness about how to reach the middle and working classes of all races and ethnicities by explaining how conservative principles are not just for the rich.

Consider what messages candidates send by the issues they choose to address. Rather than write off the 47 percent of Americans who receive entitlements and do not pay income taxes, conservative candidates needed to wade into those groups to talk with them and debate them rather than merely lecture them. Why not a symbolic minimum $500 income tax on everyone who is working, if only to remind all of us what April 15 portends? Getting booed for supporting school vouchers is a lot better than not talking about them at all to those who would most benefit. The Michigan episode reminds us that when the message is democracy and freedom to choose rather than union-busting, liberals lose. Hundreds of millions of dollars given to Washington and New York PACs and consultants is not a good bargain, at least in comparison with funding grass-roots registration and get-out-the-vote efforts in key states.

Vocabulary should change as well. It would be wiser to rail against “wasteful” or “callous,” rather than just “big,” government. “Borrowing” is preferable to the drier “deficits.” Republicans always lose when “taxes” become “revenues,” “borrowing” becomes “investments,” and mega-borrowing becomes “stimulus.” “A trillion” means nothing to most people; “a thousand billion” might still shock a little. The “campus” (Latin: “field”) is much better referred to as a “country club.” If you wish to cut PBS funding, then focus not on Big Bird but on the insiders who expect six-figure salaries for providing public-television entertainment in a largely uncompetitive environment of crony capitalism. Can’t expensive and government-subsidized wind and solar power be seen as the obsessions of the affluent, while cheap, free-market natural gas is a lifeline to the poor and the middle class?

Conservatives might rethink the tactical approach to key issues. Why get trapped in the Obama notion that $250,000 qualifies one as “rich”? Most Americans aspire to make a six-figure income, but few hope to make a seven-figure one. Eight out of the ten wealthiest counties in the nation went for Obama; so did Hollywood millionaires and Silicon Valley grandees. When a George Soros, Steven Spielberg, or Michael Moore is a beneficiary of the very tax policies he despises, it is time to become creative and take a hard look at tax breaks, incentives, and federally backed loans. Should municipalities be allowed to issue blank-check tax-free bonds, often for social-engineering purposes far beyond street or sewer maintenance?

Barack Obama keeps begging us to raise taxes on those like himself. But most of his affluent supporters in Greenwich or La Jolla do not receive the free housing, travel, food, and entertainment the Obamas do, and might resent the president’s professed magnanimity at their expense. If Republicans cannot stop tax hikes, then perhaps they might draw the line at the $1 million income level and spare the dentist and auto-repair-shop owner below that line. The Republicans are more the party, anyway, of those who aspire to be rich than of those who are so rich that they can afford to donate to and vote for Obama — an act for those in Carmel and Cambridge increasingly analogous to a tasteful indulgence like granite counter tops and wood floors.

Google, many of whose executives and employees are fervent Obama supporters, has off-shore tax havens in the Caribbean. Why do we neglect such liberal craftiness in a season in which Mitt Romney was crucified? The truth is that everyone from the college president who gets his taxes paid by his university to Jay-Z is a beneficiary of Republican advocacies that he damns. The Republicans may not be able to save the zillionaires in their midst from Obamaism, but they could protect those who make a little over $250,000. If Obama wishes revenue, then why not slap surtaxes on sports, movie, and concert tickets to the point that Sean Penn, Barbra Streisand, and LeBron James may have to pay a little more of their fair share? Why not go after the hyper-salaries of nonprofits’ executives? If Obama wants “taxes on the rich,” perhaps he should start with new surcharges on the well-paid executives of government-subsidized or tax-exempt entities such as PBS, NPR, the Rockefeller Foundation, and the Tides Foundation.

I think ending deductions for state taxes is a large mistake, as well as ending the home- mortgage deduction — given that greater taxation leads to more government spending and debt, which slow the economy and usually make the lives of those who are supposed to be helped worse. But if we are to go over the cliff, then Republicans might suggest that they cannot save those all of us who live in blue states, and so will concede that Californians and New Yorkers should not get their 10 percent–plus state-income-tax deductions at the expense of others, mostly in red states, whose state taxes are so much lower. If someone chooses to live in Menlo Park or the Upper West Side, then why must others subsidize his $1.5 million mortgage?