In a classic Indian fable, a group of blind men come upon an elephant. Each man touches a different part of the creature, and each comes to a different conclusion about what stands before him. One feels its trunk and thinks he must be touching a snake. Another thinks he’s touching a tree when he rubs the elephant’s leg, and so forth. This fable about human perspective can be helpful for thinking about some disputes on the center-Right about populism and civic renewal. (What follows makes no pretense to vision — it’s more about blindly feeling one’s way from one part of the elephant to another.)
Different parts of the Right are at war at the moment over a host of important political questions. It would be folly to wish away all conflicts here, but it’s also possible to note that some factions within the Right are raising the same issues from different perspectives. Consider two recent political commentaries: Tucker Carlson’s viral monologue and Brink Lindsey’s new National Affairs essay on the importance of reviving “republicanism,” a philosophical approach that, reaching back to the ancient world, stresses liberty as self-governance and non-domination. Carlson’s monologue and Lindsey’s essay may appear to be antitheses, and they are in their targets. Carlson focuses on the American “elite,” while Lindsey trains his fire on the “populist demagoguery and extreme negative partisanship that has led the Republican Party so badly astray.” Moreover, they differ in genre. Carlson offers a made-for-cable polemic, while Lindsey is writing a discursive study for a policy journal. In reality, however, they share some commonalities in response to the challenges facing the United States, and these commonalities point to one possible reorientation of the Right in the years to come.
Both think that the Right needs to take a new approach to government policy in order to revise the economic and cultural dynamics of the United States. For instance, Lindsey argues that the Right should make peace with the welfare state. According to him, Republicans should focus less on trying to shrink government and instead embrace “the need for active government in some key arenas — to help people develop the skills they need to thrive in an increasingly demanding labor market, and to provide social insurance that protects people against the inevitable losses and dislocations associated with a dynamic market economy.” For Lindsey, government has a major role to play in helping Americans confront socioeconomic disruption. Carlson takes a slightly different tack. He seems to focus more on how government policies themselves have fomented socioeconomic disruption. Of course, this is not an either/or choice: A reformist menu could combine efforts to dial back certain kinds of disruption while also supporting other programs to compensate for existing disruption.
But both take for granted that government policy can and should play a major role in addressing contemporary challenges. This is not a trivial point. The response to Carlson’s speech has made clear a twofold division on the right: between those who think that the policy regime of the past 20 years needs a major correction and those who think otherwise, and between those who think that government policy has a great role to play in addressing today’s challenges and those who emphasize the limits of policy.
I’ll skip over that first division for the moment and focus on the second. While Lindsey and Carlson seem to think that government policy can indeed have a major role to play, others have been much more skeptical. For instance, Ben Sasse in his book Them claims that politics cannot solve many of America’s problems — that the country is racked by an epidemic of loneliness that is beyond the reach of policymakers. Some of Carlson’s critics also seem informed by this policy-skeptical tradition, saying that what most ails Americans is not a given policy regime but instead the loss of certain cultural values (such as personal responsibility).
While that cultural critique has some merit, it is also incomplete. Public policy cannot address all cultural issues and often ties itself in knots when it tries, but it can shape some of the underlying conditions that influence culture. Over the past few decades, a number of policy choices have been made: opening up the American market to more goods from abroad (especially the People’s Republic of China), the expansion of legal immigration and guest-worker programs, legislation and regulations that enable and even encourage the concentration of the financial system, policies that continue medical cartelization, and so forth. Drug legalization, which has garnered renewed bipartisan interest, is a policy area that is likely to have significant implications for both the economy and society. One might think that these policy changes have, by and large, been to the benefit of Americans, but it’s hard to deny that they have had an effect. And this effect is not confined to economics. If a factory closes down, or if the native-born workers in a given sector are replaced by foreign-born laborers, that will have cultural implications.
Carlson and Lindsey most likely differ in the concrete policies they would propose to answer these challenges. For instance, Lindsey likely supports a more expansive immigration system than Carlson does. But, even in their ideal political goals, there are some important continuities. Regular Carlson viewers know that one of his favorite targets is the concentration of power. He continually assails “big tech” and says that current immigration and trade policies do not sufficiently prioritize the interests of workers. Anti-labor policies end up undermining America’s families and weakening the fabric of American society.
Set Carlson’s call for a renewed middle class next to these sentences from Lindsey:
A new approach to domestic policy is further aided by the republican conception of liberty as non-domination. The basic intuition here is that freedom requires a level of personal independence among the citizenry, and that in turn requires a broad middle class and limited extremes of wealth and poverty. In the republican view, excessive imbalances of power and status undermine government in the public interest because both the rules themselves and their administration will end up slanted in favor of the powerful.
The parallels between the populist inveighing against the concentration of power and Lindsey’s republican desire to avoid “excessive imbalances of wealth and status” are striking. Though republicanism and populism might be in tension on some issues, it seems that they are in deep agreement about the dangers of domination. After all, much populism in the Western world has been driven by opposition to domination (by whom varies with location), and Brexit was in no small part motivated by anxiety over domination by Brussels. Many of those most sympathetic to populism in U.S. politics are also among those most interested in reversing the concentration of power in certain economic sectors. For instance, newly elected Missouri senator Josh Hawley has spoken about the possibility of placing new regulations on tech companies in part because of fears about excessive concentration in this sector.
Lindsey at times takes pains to differentiate his project of “republicanism” from conventional conservatism, and some of Carlson’s critics have suggested that his criticisms of high neoliberalism represent a break from conservatism. Of course, there are tensions there. Nevertheless, potentially deep affinities exist between the aim of a broad distribution of power and many concerns close to the hearts of movement conservatives (a point Lindsey also acknowledges). Carlson calls for policies that could strengthen the family, and the family has long played a central role in conservative thinking. The family is also a building block for the republican distribution of power: It is ground zero for the development of the interpersonal bonds (as well as personal responsibility) that are crucial for a richly textured society.
The project of maintaining enriched civic textures is also not absolutely opposed to the interests of liberty, either in the sense of “republican” liberty or in the sense of liberty as a wide range of civic liberties and the free market. The loss of the mediating institutions of civic society helps create a sense of chaos, which makes a society more vulnerable to both demagoguery and governmental overreach. Civil liberties require civic capital to survive, so a defense of those liberties means that such capital must be nurtured. At times, the nurturing might entail government action. One of the key themes of conservatism is that order allows for the realization of liberty’s promise. (Some God-given or inherent dignity might be responsible for this promise, but achieving it depends on a political order.)
These possible affinities between conservatism, republicanism, and (what is often called) populism do not mean that there might not be real differences on how to achieve these goals. Some might argue, for example, that tariffs are necessary to protect the industrial base of the United States; others might instead find that tariffs undermine a geopolitical order that has been favorable to American economic interests and global growth overall. Some might support some version of a universal basic income, while others might incline toward Oren Cass’s proposal for a wage subsidy. Immigration remains a huge flashpoint, with some wanting to continue or expand current immigration patterns while others want to reform them (potentially by rebalancing or moderating them, or both). And foreign policy is perhaps an area where conflicts are greatest among these various traditions.
Nevertheless, it would be possible to imagine one possible policy evolution for the Right in coming years: as a party of the nation, a political coalition that seeks to use policy levers to help spread economic opportunity while maintaining a dynamic social safety net and working to prevent the excessive concentration of key economic sectors. Such a republican approach has a long genealogy within the Republican tradition; the Federalists, Whigs, and, then, Lincoln Republicans were by and large the defenders of national solidarity. Such an appeal to civic integrity could be a way of dulling some of the identity-based conflicts that have grown especially sharp in recent years.
Far from being an attack on economic vitality, a “party of the nation” approach could end up defending it over the long term. The continued economic disappointments of the high neoliberal era have fueled political extremism on both ends of the political spectrum, and “socialism” has acquired a glossy sheen that it has not had in American politics for a century. Defending capitalism might very well mean increasing the economic security of the working and middle classes. Increasing this security might require that the labor market be tightened or that more-flexible vehicles for worker training be developed, but it might also include, for example, reforming the health-care system to make it more cost-efficient while also providing a backstop for vulnerable Americans.
Being the party of the nation in this expansive sense would less be about seeking to dissolve the diversity of the United States into a homogeneous brand and more about cultivating a sense of national fellowship to complement the diverse other forms of identity (such as ethnicity, gender, religion, region, and so forth) cultivated by Americans. Far from turning their backs on liberty, the defenders of such an approach to the nation would be working to sustain it: Reknitting the civic textures of the United States could help counteract some of the forces of partisan rage disrupting the American political order — such political instability often augurs ill for the cause of liberty. Since the ability of the United States to be proactive abroad depends on its strength at home, being a party of the nation also does not necessarily mean being a party of isolationism.
This project of strengthening national integrity could appeal to both those who champion and those who loathe populism. By counteracting some of the real challenges that have fueled populism, it could reduce populist urgency and thereby lessen the risk of further political disruption. Sometimes, finding an elephant requires bringing together a variety of perspectives.