Politics & Policy

Are We Whigs?

A “Dump Trump” sign is flown in NYC (Reuters: Shannon Stapleton)
Conservatism’s headwinds

My friend Bill Kristol, dismayed at the rise of Trumpism and the Republican party’s embrace of it, proposes to start a new political party. He has suggested calling the party the New Republicans — or, if not that, the Old Republicans. That we might plausibly call a new conservative party one or the other speaks pointedly to the strangeness of this political moment.

But one of the other names he has considered may be more appropriate: the New Whigs.

There has been one successful third party in U.S. politics, and it was founded in Ripon, Wis., on March 20, 1854. The Republican party aimed to take a stand against the “twin relics of barbarism” disfiguring the American republic: slavery and polygamy.

Who says Republicans never get anything done?

The Republican party inherited some of its energy and membership from the small but influential single-issue Free Soil party, which opposed the expansion of slavery, as well as from the sinking ship that was the Whig party. Some anti-slavery Democrats came over to the new entity as well. The Whigs had a bad run of it, electing two presidents only to see them die in office, and then a third, John Tyler, turned on his party after being elected and was ultimately expelled from it. Millard Fillmore, the definition of presidential mediocrity, represented the end of the Whig line, leaving an opening for the newly founded Republicans. Six years after the GOP’s founding, it elected its first president: Abraham Lincoln.

The descent from President Lincoln to President Trump is proof positive that the theory of evolution does not apply to political parties.

Or maybe it does: The Whig party went the way of the dodo, and there is no reason to believe that the Republican party as currently constituted should prove deathless. Perhaps Bill Kristol’s efforts at founding a successor will ease the GOP’s retirement from history.

That would be something. But what comes next would be more difficult by many orders of magnitude.

The populists are wrong about almost every question of substance, but they are exactly right about one question of political reality: Conservative ideas are not popular, and neither is the conservative style. The Right enjoyed the services of a remarkable group of charismatic and principled leaders in the second half of the 20th century — Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher in elected office, F. A. Hayek and Milton Friedman in academic affairs, William F. Buckley Jr. in the popular culture — but what ails conservatives right now is not a mere deficit of charisma. What ails conservatives is — and here the populists have it nearly correct — globalization, if not the “globalists” of the Trumpkin imagination.

We are experiencing the single greatest period of human flourishing in history as modest improvements in government and radical improvements in technology combine to allow the benefits of capitalism to spread around the world to places that had once been cut off from the dynamic cultures and wealth-creating markets of the developed world, which is another way of saying the capitalist world. Places that had not known international trade and local entrepreneurship have developed both, and with those have come — haltingly and imperfectly — demands for more accountable and liberal government. All of this ought to be entirely familiar to Americans, because we have seen this happen before: As recently as the 1960s, much of the South was in effect a Third World country within the borders of the United States, complete with corrupt and ineffective government, poverty, and the associated social pathologies. The economic rise of the South did not make New England, the Mid-Atlantic states, or the Midwest poorer — it made them richer, providing them with new markets and new opportunities for production.

What happened within the United States in the postwar period is happening globally now, and it will have similar results: A richer China and a more prosperous India will become more important markets for the things Americans make, and they will become even more important sources of the things Americans consume.

Free trade is in the national interest of the United States, meaning the interest of the United States as a whole.

That is all to the good. The political problem is this: The integration of global markets and global supply chains means that the rewards for success in entrepreneurship, corporate management, finance, and investing will grow larger, for the same reason that the most successful car salesman in Los Angeles makes a lot more money than the most successful car salesman in Muleshoe, Texas. Being an exceptionally talented operator in a $1 trillion global market pays a great deal more than being an equally talented operator in a $500 million regional market. And while the emergence of a truly global economy means big opportunities and big rewards at the top, it puts the American middle class into more direct competition with workers abroad (and consumers — they compete, too) than they had been in the past. This is not because workers abroad are poorly paid (German autoworkers are paid more than their American counterparts, but Mercedes and Audi remain very competitive) or because they enjoy some other unfair advantage. This is simply a result of the fact that the previously exclusive club of rich and highly productive countries is getting new members.

And that’s a problem for Bill Kristol’s new conservative party. Free trade is in the national interest of the United States, meaning the interest of the United States as a whole. But free trade is in very deep conflict with many non-national interests, namely those of incumbent firms in fossilized industries and the people they employ. There isn’t any getting around globalization: It is not avoidable or reversible, and it would not be in our national interest to avoid or reverse it even if it were. It might be in the quarterly interest of General Motors, though, and, in spite of all of the nationalistic rhetoric of the moment, few voters or politicians actually take a national view of things, which is why Senator Marco Rubio believes, or says he believes, sugar subsidies to be a national-security issue.

Americans will not escape globalization, but that doesn’t mean they’re going to like it: They don’t, and they won’t.

Much of what conservatives need to do in the service of the genuinely national interests of these United States is going to be unpopular, at least with some special-interest group, corporate-welfare client, or other constituency. Balancing the budget in a responsible way is a program without a real constituency. So is the related project of reforming entitlements. The most modest of steps toward reforming our underperforming primary-education system produces howls that we have declared war on schoolchildren and their teachers. Further liberalizing our trade relationships with the Far East, the European Union, the United Kingdom, and Latin America — which is very much in our national interest — is going to vex a whole lot of self-described economic nationalists.

The Republican apparatus may be cowardly, craven, and more than a little corrupt, but it is not the main obstacle toward achieving meaningful conservative reform. The main obstacle toward achieving meaningful conservative reform is the same as the main obstacle to the success of the Libertarian party: Americans do not want what they are selling. The tasks of conservatives is to explain to Americans why they should. It will not be easy.

Bill Kristol, a patriot and an idealist, is a man without a party. He may find himself the founder of a party without men.

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