Populism is on the march — through the United Kingdom, Greece, France, and even our own land. A spike in populist sentiments often points to failures on the part of the governing establishment. That’s certainly the case in Europe, where populist groups on the Left and the Right have risen up against the European Union project. The vision of a Europe dominated by technocrats in Brussels has generated massive resistance — partly because many Europeans fear the loss of self-government, but also because this technocratic vision has led to sluggish economic growth in much of the eurozone and may be planting the seeds of a major financial crisis.
On the American political stage, Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders illustrate a bipartisan alienation from the ruling elite. There are crucial differences, of course. The Republicans are blessed with an embarrassment of riches in terms of candidates for 2016, and the GOP field includes more policy diversity than does the Democratic one. Furthermore, the bland corporatism of Hillary Clinton’s campaign has no counterpart in the campaign of any of the Republican candidates. (As a side note, it’s rather intriguing that many in the media — including many Republicans — take for granted that Donald Trump “taints” the Republican brand but rarely if ever ask whether Bernie Sanders, an avowed socialist, “taints” the Democratic one. The amount of human misery inflicted in the name of “socialism” far exceeds the damage done by hard-nosed reality-TV stars.)
But the rise of both these figures illustrates a broader dissatisfaction with the status quo. Donald Trump appeals to grassroots conservatives who feel that the Beltway GOP views them as unsightly baggage. It’s no surprise that Trump has used immigration as a political trampoline. That’s perhaps the issue where there is the greatest divide between Main Street and the corridors of power, and where national elites have worked the hardest to shut down a real debate. Bernie Sanders affords a way for those on the Left to admit that the Obama record on the economy has been, well, dismal. Senator Sanders trumpets that the “real” unemployment rate — if you include people who have given up looking for work and people who are working part-time when they would prefer to work full-time — is 10.5 percent. At his campaign stops, he decries the hollowing out of the middle and working classes. National Democrats are trying to keep alive the fiction of an economic resurgence, but too many voters are still hurting.
Increasing anxiety about the fitness of the cultural, political, and economic establishments stands as a background to our public debates. This context is crucial for understanding the current populist ascent. “Populism” is one of the favorite stigmatizing words of the Beltway. Self-appointed Solons cluck their tongues at populists’ vulgarity, anger, and paranoia. Some of this skepticism about populism is well warranted; the fact that something is popular does not necessarily make it true or noble, and populist movements have, over the years, committed wrongs. Mob rule is one of the great internal threats to a free republic, and so efforts to restrain the mob should be applauded. Moreover, populists can often rightly be faulted for having a huge gulf between rhetoric and reality. Populists like William Jennings Bryan have proposed solutions that sounded good at some visceral level but weren’t actually practical.
However, contrary to the pretensions of the anti-populists, it has been technocrats — not populists — who have had egg on their faces over the past decade. Pedigreed members of the meritocracy were the architects of the real-estate bubble and the 2008 financial crisis. Technocrats flocked to Barack Obama, sure that “No Drama Obama” with his perfectly creased pants would be the return to competence. As the rise of ISIS, the OPM hack, and the Affordable Care Act rollout demonstrate, this belief was sorely mistaken. And the establishment hasn’t exactly been the embodiment of judicious sobriety, either. Many in the cultural and economic elite drive the frenzy of the new intolerance. It’s not slack-jawed yokels who want to ban Civil War video games, suppress Latin literature, and hector transgressive comedians. The philistine demagogues of our day can, unfortunately, all too often be found in boardrooms, college classrooms, newsrooms, and seats of government. The current ruling establishment has not lived up to its own standards, which has made it harder for this establishment to ward off populist challenges.
At the moment, there is potential for a party to craft a governing majority that combines populist energies with sober deliberation. This enlightened populism would try to scale back the Byzantine bureaucracy that so often aids the powerful, but it would also focus on crafting government policies that would ultimately strengthen the nation’s vast aspirational majority. It would seek to temper popular anger with an optimistic and realistic narrative about the United States.
Republicans in particular have much to gain by embracing an enlightened populism. Far more damaging than any remarks Donald Trump might make at a press conference is the fact that many voters fear that Republican politicians either do not care about them or do not have policies that will improve their situations. That working-class alienation — more than any comments about “self-deportation” — is what sunk Mitt Romney’s presidential run in 2012. Repealing the Affordable Care Act will not shore up this popular deficit, nor will passing the Trans-Pacific Partnership. And, despite what some in the RNC might hope, slamming Hillary Clinton won’t, either. Myriad scandals did not stop Bill Clinton from winning two terms.
In a “political typology” released last summer, Pew classified about 13 percent of the voting public as “Hard-Pressed Skeptics.” These skeptics are financially harried and have a pessimistic view of the American economy. While supportive of some government programs, they are also skeptical about government intervention as a whole. They also tend to be socially conservative relative to the rest of the American public. This demographic could easily fit into the Republican coalition. And yet it favored Barack Obama over Mitt Romney by 40 points in the 2012 election (65 to 25 percent).
These beleaguered skeptics would seem a prime target for a message of enlightened populism. But Republicans can’t afford to stop at messaging — they will also need to put forward policies that will strengthen opportunity and security for the middle and working classes. Where there is a vacuum of civil society and economic opportunity, big government thrives, and certain government interventions can assault both civil society and opportunity, leading to a vicious circle. This, by the way, helps explain why the Gang of Eight immigration bill, supported by many Beltway Republicans, would have been a massive setback for the long-term health of the GOP and the hopes for smaller government. The bill was larded through with corporate giveaways, and its encouragement of illegal immigration and escalation of guest-worker programs would have further undermined economic opportunity for the middle and working classes. Anti-middle-class policies offer a long march to a more invasive government and a more fractious politics. For Republicans interested in keeping the United States an active and responsible player in world affairs, restoring a sense of domestic optimism and prosperity should be a key aim; broad economic stagnation is not a recipe for a vigorous role on the global stage.
In the run-up to 2016, many of the Republican presidential candidates are showing an admirable openness to policy creativity. Rick Perry, Marco Rubio, Scott Walker, and others are assembling impressive policy teams. But the Trump boomlet suggests that they still have more work to do in persuading grassroots Republicans that their respective policies offer distinctive solutions to some of the problems troubling the nation as a whole and the economic middle in particular.
There are plenty of areas where Republicans can channel populist energies while remaining true to conservative principles.
There are plenty of areas where Republicans can channel populist energies while remaining true to conservative principles. The “libertarian populism” advocated by AEI’s Tim Carney would target corporate cronyism and defend the free market. Real reform could make the financial sector more in accord with market principles (unlike Too Big to Fail). Reforming entitlements so that they are sustainable could help assure members of the middle class that, as if they hit hard times, a support system will be there for them. Pro-family tax reform would lessen the burden on working families and help ensure a vibrant demographic future. In talking about reforming health care, Republicans will have to do more than castigate the ACA; they will have to stress how their replacement will improve access to health care. Dialing back guest-worker programs would both support an immigration policy of integration and buoy the fortunes of aspiring workers.
Attempting to tamp down the new crusade against free expression could be a key component of this enlightened populism. Cultural sophistication has a long pedigree in modern conservatism (see William F. Buckley Jr., Irving Kristol, et al.), and a soupçon of adventurous cosmopolitanism could be an antidote to the aggrieved parochialism of the reigning progressive cultural elite. In countering the outrage Wurlitzer and defending freedom of thought, this cosmopolitanism would help various communities stop feeling themselves the target of an endless cultural assault.
In the late Sixties and Seventies, Republicans were able to use popular discontent with a flawed “liberal” order to push the nation in the direction of a new consensus. In 2006, Democrats harnessed popular dissatisfaction with the Bush administration in order to take control of Congress; with the election of Barack Obama in 2008, they tried to shift the national conversation far to the left. However, President Obama’s bureaucratic progressivism is revealing new shortcomings every day. Republicans were able to leverage anger with the failures of the Obama administration so as to take control of the House of Representatives in 2010 and the Senate in 2014, but they have not yet been able to close the deal completely with the electorate on a national level. An appeal to an enlightened populism could help Republicans find a more enduring majority. More importantly, it could also help reform some of the institutions of power so that they respond more effectively and humanely to the real challenges facing the United States.