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


Victor Davis Hanson

Rather than worry about estate taxes on billionaires, could not the Republicans draw the line above the $5 to $8 million estates that include most family businesses and farms? Better yet, they should focus on the shameful avoidance of inheritance taxes by the mega-estates of the $1 billion sort. When Warren Buffett and George Soros make arguments — only now, when they are in their 80s, rather than back when they were in their 30s — that the heirs of those who left behind a business must pay the government 45 percent of its value above $1 or $2 million, there is a good case for populism. If Buffett’s estate is worth about $50 billion and if he is giving most of it to various charities whose agendas reflect his own, he will be shorting the Treasury as much as $20 to $30 billion.

In other words, Buffett — well aside from his sizable investments in life-insurance companies, which profit from high estate taxes — is asking the heirs of tens of thousands of family businesses worth $2 million or so to pay estate taxes to make up for the revenue that he avoids contributing by so self-indulgently giving to a favored cause. And in the case of his ally George Soros, is it really liberal for him to fund Media Matters at the expense of Health and Human Services or Head Start? The GOP effort should be to protect smaller successful enterprises, and not to allow those with $1 billion–plus estates to escape federal estate taxes by setting up tax-free foundations or diverting capital to pet causes.

The point, again, is not that high taxes are good, or that the real problem is not overspending. But the country voted for Obama, and the politics of cliff jumping mean a greater likelihood of taxes’ rising than being cut. As we go over, let us ensure that those who wanted more revenue are precisely those who pay their fair share.

Consider, too, the populist argument against illegal immigration. How did the Republicans get tagged as the heartless party for their support of honoring federal immigration law? Instead of falling into destructive arguments over the proper height of the border fence, as we saw during the Republican primaries, or, alternatively, pandering to the Latino vote by dreaming up all sorts of versions of amnesty lite, why not make the populist argument for border enforcement?

How liberal is it to allow into the U.S. hundreds of thousands of illegal aliens who undercut the wages of the American working poor, in many cases minorities and, especially, Latinos? How liberal is it to order the world’s legal applicants — who worked to learn English, get a college degree, and apply for legal immigration —  to wait for years while others, who came here illegally, crowd into the front of the line? How liberal is it for La Raza (“the race”) to demand that immigration policy be predicated on racial solidarity, in its efforts to obtain amnesty for one particular ethnic group without any worry about the plight of others struggling to obtain legal status? Diversity should be the Republicans’ criterion for immigration reform.

The fact is that illegal immigration is illiberal to the core; it represents an unholy alliance between corporate employers who want cheap labor and elite activists in the media, politics, and academia who count on an expanding ethnic base to ensure their own status as representatives of collective grievances. In contrast, the populist position is concern for entry-level American workers whose wages are undercut by illegal immigration, support for a racially blind policy that does not predicate special treatment on the basis of tribe and ethnicity, and an insistence on legality that does not privilege those who break the laws over those who pay dearly to honor them. In short, the supporter of illegal immigration is the illiberal. Nearly $50 billion in remittances leave this country each year for Latin America — a large percentage of that sum from illegals. Thus, everyone who tolerates illegal immigration is willing to force the American middle class to provide entitlements that subsidize remittances sent to foreign nationals abroad — to the delight of a corrupt Mexico City elite that has systematically failed to care for millions of its country’s own indigenous peoples.

Examine also that most reactionary of institutions, the university — which fuels many of the cultural and academic arguments against conservatism. For decades tuition has risen far higher than the rate of inflation to subsidize everything from rock-climbing walls and designer dorms to superfluous race/class/gender “studies” courses and reduced teaching loads. So it is time for academia to pay its fair share. Republicans should make the argument against all sorts of tax-evasive compensation. Why do many professors get tax-free tuition waivers for their children? Surely if a well-paid professor can have his children receive sizable reductions in tuition, he should pay taxes on that perk. Do we really wish to subsidize the lifestyle of the Elizabeth Warren household? Universities should not be able to create Byzantine tax-avoidance programs for administrators, who have become veritable CEO grandees without the stigma of belonging to the 1 percent. I am not aware of other professions — doctors, lawyers, accountants — whose members demand lifetime tenure after six years. Why should students have to borrow for inflationary tuition in an era of near deflation, for the benefit of the elite whose commercial practices are secretive and mostly hidden from the public? If the point of tenure was to ensure free speech and diversity, then it has utterly failed, given that the university is the home of speech codes and monolithic ideologies. I know of none outside the campus — not farmers, not 7-Eleven workers, not nurses — who enjoy lifetime tenure or have their children given nearly free college educations.

The new Democratic party is an alliance in large part between those on entitlements and in labor unions, and those so wealthy that they either don’t mind paying for big government in exchange for alleviation of liberal guilt, or have various means to avoid the very high taxation they support. What do Tom Daschle, Timothy Geithner, John Kerry, and Hilda Solis all have in common? As Obama cabinet appointees or would-be appointees, they sought to avoid the sort of taxes that they advocate as necessary and patriotic for others. In contrast, the Republicans are the party of those in between, who are getting killed both by protecting those who despise them and by advocating beneficial policies of self-help for those addicted to entitlements who vote for their enablers.

Republicans need to find positions that avoid these paradoxes — and populist candidates who look and act like the scrappers they represent. The Democrats have nominated wealthy prep-schooled, Ivy League candidates for the last four straight elections — and run them as “men of the people” as they were showered with billionaire cash. It is time for Republicans to try something new.

NRO contributor Victor Davis Hanson is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution and the author, most recently, of The End of Sparta, a novel about ancient freedom.