Politics & Policy

The Case for an Enlightened Republican Populism

Trump works the crowd in Phoenix, July 11, 2015. (Charlie Leight/Getty)

Pundits and analysts increasingly recognize Donald Trump as a political disrupter who scrambles the usual mode of politics. He has shattered the norms usually governing political discourse. His immigration plan has provoked paroxysms of outrage from the Beltway establishment. His calls for trade reform have shocked the bipartisan consensus for globally managed trade. His pugnacious nationalism has irritated many transnational elites. The Donald’s tax proposal seems likely to break with supply-side orthodoxy.

Disrupters often use the cracks in an existing system as entryways to new profits. Trump, like many a disruptive entrepreneur, has located the tensions in the dominant coalition. Faced with numerous policy defeats and skeptical of the current party leadership, Republican voters are hungry for change. That’s one of the reasons Trump’s many sudden reversals, on issues from immigration to abortion to health care, have done so little to dampen the enthusiasm of many of his supporters: They see him not just as a man but as a symbol for needed disruptive energy.

Trump, like many a disruptive entrepreneur, has located the tensions in the Republican coalition.

But, as some Americans have learned in the last six years, it’s a mistake to vote for symbols. We do not elect an idea to any office but a person, so the evaluation of personal qualities is a key duty of any voter. Political parties, however, would be wise to look at ideas and symbols in order to understand their appeal.

Because Trump has highlighted the tensions within the GOP coalition, his sustained peak position in the polls has caused a number of thoughtful conservative writers to wonder whether Trump augurs a cracking of the Republican coalition. As with other systems, political coalitions have numerous not-mutually-exclusive ways of dealing with disruptive forces: They can ignore them, totally incorporate them, adapt to them, try to destroy them, or be destroyed by them. So how should the GOP respond to dis-Trumption?

Ignoring Trump’s appeal would be a mistake, because he points to real divisions in the party coalition. Republicans should address these divisions — simply defeating Trump’s candidacy would not necessarily heal them. Grass-roots frustration with the Republican establishment continues to percolate. Even among Republicans, approval of the congressional GOP is down to 23 percent, according to a recent Quinnipiac poll. Many in the base, fairly or not, view the party’s power structure as ineffective and operating upon values that the base does not share.

For a number of reasons, these tensions are particularly keen when it comes to immigration, an issue on which Beltway elites have tried to forge a bipartisan consensus so they can impose an unpopular and unworkable vision of “comprehensive immigration reform” (instant legalization, expanded guest-worker programs, and promises of enforcement). The base’s anger has contributed to some shocking electoral outcomes. Last summer, Dave Brat earned an out-of-nowhere primary victory over then–majority leader Eric Cantor. Immigration was a primary, if not the primary, reason for Cantor’s defeat.

Trump’s base of support is not, contrary to the media, confined to the right-wing fringe. As political scientist Lee Drutman has suggested, a large portion of the electorate has populist inclinations. Appealing to this portion in a targeted way could help strengthen the GOP’s electoral hand. It is possible for Republicans simultaneously to reach out to the “radical middle” of working-class populists and to deliver on conservative, limited-government principles.

Related: Revenge of the Radical Middle

In the wake of 2012, perhaps some Beltway Republicans thought that an ideal Republican presidential candidate would run on something like the following in 2016: more guest workers, further cuts on capital-gains taxes, a vague celebration of the values of entrepreneurship (say, by trumpeting Uber), a gradual increase in the Social Security retirement age, Medicare reform, an abandonment of social issues, anti-Obamacare rhetoric, and hawkish talk about international affairs. While some of those issues might be valuable, they do not get the GOP to a majority. And while a party running on this platform might gratify the sentiments of some corporate donors, this policy constellation does not help Republicans where they most need it: among the working class and disaffected voters.

According to a political typology released by Pew, about 13 percent of voters are “Hard-Pressed Skeptics” who lean socially conservative and economically populist. Another 15 percent of voters (the “Faith and Family Left”) want government to help the poor but also have many conservative cultural values. This bloc of 28 percent voted overwhelmingly for Barack Obama in 2012. A more economically populist GOP, including one that stresses the anti-poverty capacity of capitalism, can make a play for these demographic groups. As the Democratic party turns increasingly intolerant and secularist, the GOP could also make further inroads by defending traditional values, including the traditional value of tolerance.

With a measured appeal to populist sentiments, Republicans can energize the base and reach out to the middle. A financial-reform proposal that ends Too Big to Fail, for instance, would be a win for conservative principles, grass-roots GOP activists, and voters in the alienated economic middle. Putting forward policy reforms that would end the decade-plus economic stagnation could help inspire hope among voters while also slashing government deficits. A pro-opportunity immigration agenda could strengthen civic bonds and reassure frustrated voters. Education reform could pull back the standardized-testing mania and return control to local communities. Tax reform could speak to the needs of working families. There are plenty of opportunities for Republicans to put forward policies that speak to conservative principles and that strengthen the party’s appeal among diverse communities.

By advancing more pro-opportunity policies, Republicans will gain more space to maneuver rhetorically and politically. In light of the continued dominance of Trump, other GOP candidates might be tempted to make their rhetoric angrier while keeping their policies the same. That’s probably the opposite of what they should do: Shift the policies while speaking in a conciliatory tone.

Denouncing “anchor babies” and demanding a repeal of birthright citizenship while also calling for more H-1B visas, for instance, does absolutely nothing to expand the Republican coalition. Some in immigrant communities (including some “anchor babies” who can now vote) are probably offended by such rhetoric, and it still leaves populist conservatives upset over the expansion of guest-worker programs. It would be far better for a candidate to call for a streamlining of guest-worker programs and a more effective system of immigration enforcement, and to use more conciliatory language in talking about illegal immigrants. Anger is a poor substitute for solutions that actually help Americans.

For electoral, moral, and policy-related reasons, Republicans and conservatives cannot afford to forfeit these popular energies. If the GOP hopes to make some of the hard structural reforms needed to put the nation on track to renewed prosperity and sustainable finances, it must rally popular sentiment. Change is supposed to be difficult under our nation’s constitutional system, so reforms will often require a broad public consensus. Some entitlements, for example, might need reform to be fiscally sustainable, but we will be better able to make these changes when the nation has a basic level of trust in public authorities. If Republicans hope to reform entitlements, they will have to persuade the average worker that they are on that worker’s side; otherwise, they risk looking like Mr. Scrooge. Public consensus is especially important if proponents of limited government hope to divert the nation from the path of presidential Caesarism that the present administration has paved.

Dis-Trumption poses significant political dangers to the GOP. It could split the party or turn it into a spasming sound-bite machine of aimless grievance. But adapting to the policy disruption set in motion by Trump could also strengthen the party. Since 1988, Republicans have not been able to fully revive the Reagan coalition on a presidential level. Republicans have been able to win more enduring congressional and state-level majorities in part because the decentralized nature of congressional and state campaigns allows individual candidates to be more flexible. So, imaginative and conservative-minded reforms to the GOP might be necessary if it is to win the White House.

Republicans, as enlightened populists, will have to present an optimistic view of American society as a place where Americans of all stripes have a chance to get ahead.

A policy platform that strengthens our nation’s communities can also strengthen our access to and enjoyment of liberty. In Federalist No. 10, James Madison wrote that a sound republic will “refine and enlarge the public views, by passing them through the medium of a chosen body of citizens, whose wisdom may best discern the true interest of their country, and whose patriotism and love of justice will be least likely to sacrifice it to temporary or partial considerations.”

The rise of outsider candidates such as Donald Trump, Ben Carson, Carly Fiorina, and Bernie Sanders demonstrates that those in government need to do more to respond to public views and channel them in a way that defends an aspirational republic of law, liberty, and hope.

— Fred Bauer is a writer from New England. He blogs at A Certain Enthusiasm, and his work has been featured in numerous publications.


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