Politics & Policy

Conservatives and Populists: Finding Common Ground

(Dreamstime image: Kenneth Sponsler)
Both distrust centralized power and believe that elites have been incompetent.

In their recent exchange on the topic of populism, Utah senator Mike Lee and National Review’s own Andrew C. McCarthy both raise valuable points. Senator Lee holds out hope for what he terms a “principled populism,” in which conservatives ally with populists on certain key issues. McCarthy dissents from the “populist” project and notes that political actors and writers should not abandon their abiding principles because of narrowly decided election results. As someone who sketched out the possibility of an “enlightened populism” in 2015, I have some sympathy with Senator Lee’s call for a principled populism. However, McCarthy offers an important warning to conservatives: Wherever one comes down on the issue of populism or conservatism, one should not sacrifice rigor of thought. It certainly seems to me that some elements of populism can be compatible with at least some elements of conservatism. But we can locate those areas of agreement only by applying critical judgment — not by surrendering it in a wave of popular euphoria.

The history of movement conservatism as a major political force reveals the electoral alliance between conservatism and vigorous populism. In recent decades, leaving aside the most recent example of Donald Trump, Republicans have relied on populist energies to power major electoral victories: Ronald Reagan, the Gingrich revolution of 1994, and the tea-party wave all depended on populist energies (even if these energies were less than they now are). While he didn’t deliver on many populist policy aims, even George W. Bush relied upon populist optics in 2000 and 2004. This conservative-populist alliance might not always be healthy, and there is no reason for conservatives to surrender their deeper principles in order to cozy up to a populist insurgency. However, conservatives might be wise to locate areas of sympathy between conservatism and populism and work to address the broader causes of this latest populist disruption.

A populism that equates anger with political truth would seem incompatible with conservatism. Tensions likewise exist between conservatism and a populism that sneers at expertise or that calls for an all-powerful secular savior to ride in like history on horseback and deliver us from the messiness of everyday politics. Nonetheless, some tendencies of populism reinforce (or are at least compatible with) conservatism. In seeking to return “power to the people,” populists can align with a key conservative aim: decentralizing power. A belief in the diffusion of power — through market competition, the nurturing of mediating civil institutions, the checks and balances of the federal government, the broader principles of federalism, and so forth — has been one of the major themes of American conservatism.

Part of the current populist insurgency has been fueled by an opposition to the efforts of a narrow cultural caste to crush the free exchange of ideas. Hostility to the left-wing culture war played a significant role in putting Donald Trump over the top; fear that a Clinton administration would use the federal bureaucracy to crack down on religious dissent no doubt caused many cultural conservatives and moderates to pull the lever for Trump. In The Fractured Republic, Yuval Levin calls for a more decentralized approach to governing, and, on many issues, embracing localism and mediation could gratify both populist and conservative concerns.

Populists and conservatives can also make common cause on the role of experts. Critics often view populists as red-faced critics of “book learnin’” Despite that caricature, populists today often argue that those in power haven’t been elite enough; too many supposed “experts” have shown themselves to be anything but. Conservatives can and should rally to the cause of restoring prudence to the administration of government. However, they might also remind populists and the public at large that it is in part because of human limitations that we should resist putting centralized power in the hands of a few technocrats.

McCarthy is right that there are many problems that government cannot solve, and the current breakdown of civic norms is not only a matter of government policy. However, government policy can help address some problems, and it can also make some of those problems worse. For instance, government policy can worsen some tendencies toward socioeconomic stratification (by encouraging illegal and low-skilled mass immigration to undercut non-college-educated workers, for instance). In addition to repealing government policies that exacerbate socioeconomic stratification, conservatives can champion other efforts, such as a more family-friendly tax policy, to lessen that stratification. Such efforts could realize populist and conservative goals.

One of the great conservative teachings is the role of limitation, and, in politics, the limits of power can be all too clear. An administration and a political coalition can only do so many things. Republicans in 2017 would probably be wise to focus on the forces animating the current burst of populism, including declining civic trust, the calcification of identity politics, a troubled immigration system, skepticism toward globalized trade agreements, and generalized economic anxiety. Confronting these challenges does not necessarily mean adopting a radically centralized statism, but it might require some compromises and some reimagining of how to apply conservative principles in the 21st century.

It’s easy and false to suggest that Americans are restive because they don’t appreciate how good they have it.

At times, populists can succumb to a radically adversarial stance, in which burning down “the system” takes precedence over all other moral and practical considerations. Conservatives have at times also indulged this oppositional approach, hoping that denunciations of “the Establishment” will make voters flock to the conservative banner. Rather than simply nurturing the burn-it-down spirit, though, conservatives should confront the forces that have increased public alienation. It’s easy and false to suggest that Americans are restive because they don’t appreciate how good they have it. Instead, the governing elite has a long record of failures in recent years, from the financial crisis to administrative incompetence to numerous foreign-affairs debacles. By confronting those problems, conservatives can help quell populist fires and advance conservative ends.

We could call this approach principled populism, a reformist conservative response to populist currents, vanilla conservatism, or something else. But, whatever we call it, conservatives must face the conditions of the present with a spirit of practical flexibility and of intellectual and moral seriousness. The withering of an inclusive civic culture has exacted a terrible toll on our politics and on our efforts abroad, and, under whatever name, conservatives should confront that withering. Vox populi, vox Dei is a poor foundation for a governing philosophy, but any intellectual movement that entertains hopes of becoming a governing one needs to take account of the conditions of the people.


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