The Corner

Politics & Policy

The Right’s Divisions

In the medium term, I’m more pessimistic about the divisions within the Right than within the Left.

The Left’s divisions are real and sometimes bitter on a personal level, but you can usually see how they can be stitched up at the level of policy. The Left wants single-payer health care today. The center-Left wants single-payer eventually, after expanding Medicare and Medicaid has made the private-insurance market so small that it can be drowned in a bathtub. The center-Left wants the opposition figures and institutions to be silenced by economic boycotts and legal harassment. The far Left wants to speed up the process by breaking heads at riots. When you eyeball the plans of the center-Left (and make allowances for the eventual cost of single-payer), you probably get top marginal tax rates in the high 50s (inclusive of state income taxes.) The far Left probably gets those tax rates somewhere into the 70s.

There are still some important differences on dealing with the big banks (between those who want to break them up and those who want to cash their checks), but either the policy differences between the center-Left and the farther Left are usually prudential or the common ground is easy to see.

It is a little different on the right. One economics, you have what might be called “degenerate Kempism.” It is a combination of tax cuts for high-earners, cuts to entitlements spending, and increased low-skill immigration. On the other side, you have people who think of themselves as being on the right but who reject some or all of that. The ideas of Jack Kemp started as a way to connect wage earners to the GOP, but those ideas have long since become a rationalization for the interests and sensibilities of the right-leaning affluent.

The great advantage of degenerate Kempism is that most of the political talent, social capital, and money is on the side of this agenda – the money being the least important of the three factors. It is the default of the GOP lobbyists, donors, and most of the center-right politicians who came up through business or the professions.

What it doesn’t have are the voters. Put plainly in front of the public, most of swing voters and most Republicans oppose one or all of the components of degenerate Kempism. They might swallow one of the components, but taken together, they are toxic.

A further great advantage is that degenerate Kempism is an existing agenda. That means that those policies get thought out. There are existing plans to cut high-earner taxes, raise the retirement age, restrain Medicare spending, and expand low-skill guest-worker programs. When opportunities arise, believers in degenerate Kempism (and they are painfully sincere) are ready to take advantage.

There is no such common agenda among right-populists. Trump was nominated on the ruins of degenerate Kempism, but there wasn’t much of a policy in Trumpism. The result was that the congressional Republicans gave Trump a degenerate Kempist health-care bill that (whatever its other good qualities) reduced insurance coverage, raised insurance premiums for many older workers, and cut taxes on the wealthy. The public reacted badly.

It is difficult to see the common ground between the more elite degenerate Kempists (and I’m not helping with the labeling) and the populists. The degenerate Kempists want what they want. They are willing to make temporary retreats but will push on any door to cut any tax on the job creators, to cut domestic spending, and to answer the call of the affluent for cheaper low-skill labor. The populists have only the vaguest idea of what they want, and some of that is contradictory.

You can see some room for common ground, but it involves squinting and assuming more good faith and responsibility than either side has demonstrated. It involves the degenerate Kempists accepting that tax policy should be oriented more to the payroll-tax obligations of wage-earning parents than to the marginal tax rates of millionaires. It means that wage subsidies for the lowest-skill workers are a more pressing priority than are capital-gains rates of venture capitalists. It means admitting that America does not have too few low-skill workers. The populism will have to be at the center of the agenda rather than a garnish to a meal set for the business lobbies.

On the other hand, the populists will have to appreciate responsible politicians rather than thrilling to provocateurs. Lasting populist wins will involve what political scientist Lawrence Mead called “administrative statecraft.” It was that combination of populist energy and carefully crafted policy that gave conservatives welfare reform. It has been a generation since the last such victory.


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