As their party swings hard to the Left, some prominent Democrats have embraced the “socialist” label and promulgated increasingly radical policy proposals, such as the Green New Deal and the abolition of private medical insurance. Republicans see a political opening here: Cry “socialism” and let slip the talking heads. While there is a clear political opportunity in reminding the public about the consequences of far-left policies, there is also a potential political trap for Republicans.
The allure of the “socialism” attack is obvious. Such dire warnings can distract from the deep divisions within the center-right and the Republican deadlock on legislative policy (as the record of the 115th Congress demonstrates). However, while shouting “socialism!” from the rooftops might rally the Republican base, American elections are not Hayek seminars, and accusations of “socialism” are not a substitute for a policy agenda that addresses the needs of the American people.
The past offers a warning to Republicans here. The slogan “You did build that” took over the 2012 Republican National Convention. However, while this talking point no doubt gratified some in the donor class and ideological right, it also kept the Romney campaign from explaining how its policy proposals could help working families, and a poor performance among blue-collar voters doomed Mitt Romney’s presidential bid. Likewise, Republicans in 2019 and 2020 might be disappointed by allowing denunciations of socialism to crowd out the work of policy reform. (This is not to say that there is no place for criticizing an ideology that has a casualty list of tens of millions — just that such criticism cannot be the whole of the GOP message.)
Moreover, in speaking about how they can improve the lot of Americans, Republicans might need more than abstract defenses of the market or broad claims that a rising tide lifts all boats. Instead, they will probably have to present concrete policy recommendations that speak to real-world challenges. Republicans can and should be able to address rising health-care costs, overwhelming student-loan debt, economic decline in some parts of the country, the consolidation of the financial sector, and so forth. Addressing some of these issues might at times require breaking from the donorist consensus, but the current legislative impasse Republicans find themselves in and the wave of disruption roiling the right (personified by Donald Trump) might be signs of the exhaustion of that consensus.
A related point goes beyond partisan politics. As Peggy Noonan recently suggested in the Wall Street Journal, the failures of the post-2000 policy regime have helped fuel a variety of challenges to current status quo. In the wake of this political disruption, some have been inclined to settle into the rhetoric of complaint and calumny — to deplore those ungrateful rubes who have dared to question the record of the past 20 years. But merely complaining about present troubles can get in the way of trying to address them. Certain elements of the high neoliberal regime may have to be trimmed or even reversed in order to secure some of the gains of the current mode of globalization.
An extended period of political frustration can give radical schemes a novel shine, which makes the case for reform even more pressing. If certain trends have chipped away at the prospects of democratic societies that protect civic liberties, a responsible act of statesmanship might be to address those trends in order to preserve a republican inheritance. If complaint can be a mode of complacency, reform can be a mode of preservation.