“Trump exposed the dead consensus and rot within the Republican Party, opening the door for a new, more populist GOP.” It’s the mantra of a certain kind of conservative, and their favorite piece of evidence is the following scatterplot of voter ideology in the 2016 election, constructed by the Voter Study Group during the 2016 election.
As you can see, most swing voters are in the upper-left quadrant, meaning they had relatively conservative opinions on social issues, and relatively liberal ones on economic questions. This, we’re told, is why the GOP must be remade in Donald Trump’s image. That is, the image of candidate Trump, who promised not to reform entitlements and floated the idea of a universal health-care plan, not President Trump, whose greatest legislative achievement was a tax cut and whose reelection battle cry was “America will never be a socialist nation.” In any case, there are a few problems with the dead consensus crowd’s use of this single chart to dance on that consensus’s grave.
- Neither the GOP nor the federal government could reasonably be described as favoring a completely laissez-faire approach. Before Trump, President George W. Bush pushed hard for the passage of Medicare Part D, and his father was voted out of office after breaking his 1988 promise not to raise taxes. Both Bushes and President Reagan made use of tariffs during their respective presidencies. In the meantime, the federal government has become exponentially larger, as have the resources poured into entitlement and welfare programs to assist less-fortunate Americans. And if it’s deregulation that the dead consensus-ers take issue with, they must reckon with Trump’s touting “the regulation cuts” as “maybe even more important [than tax cuts]” during his farewell address. If there are specific issues where the GOP should favor a more interventionist government, those who would radically change the GOP should feel free to make the case for such changes, but the economically libertarian party and country they describe does not, and has never, existed.
- Markets mostly work. It’s easy to forget that, given that this simple and self-evident point is never made by Democratic Party, and is increasingly ignored by some in the GOP, but the United States is the most prosperous nation in the history of the world because of its mostly capitalist system. All around the world, the evidence is staring us in the face: North vs. South Korea, Republic vs. People’s Republic of China, Florida and Texas vs. New York and California. If the GOP abandons its generally pro-market outlook, there will be no pro-market argument being made, save for by some half-naked man on a stage at the Libertarian Party convention warning about the impending toaster-license mandate. Again, this shouldn’t preclude us from debate and reform of the party platform on specific issues — our economic relationship with the Chinese Communist Party, for example — but it should dissuade us from abandoning fusionism altogether.
- Contrary to what you’ve heard since 2016, generic, tax-cutting, Reaganite Republicans do quite well for themselves. Since 1994, Republicans have controlled the U.S. House of Representatives for 20 years. When the 2022 midterm elections take place, Democrats will have only held it for eight. The Senate has been only slightly less lopsided: Republicans will have controlled it for 17 years to Democrats’ eleven when the 118th Congress is sworn in. In Pennsylvania, a state where it has been said that only a conservative in Donald Trump’s mold could win, Pat Toomey, arguably the Senate’s most ardent free-trade crusader, is on his second term. Cory Gardner beat an incumbent Democrat in Colorado in 2014 running as a generic Republican in a generic Republican Party. David Perdue won by eight points in Georgia that same year. Somehow, both lost running as figures in this new, more populist, and supposedly more appealing party during the 2020 cycle. Many make the mistake of projecting all of politics on to presidential races, and especially the ones held in 2008 — when eight years of a Republican administration coincided with a financial crash and the emergence of the most talented Democrat of the last several decades — and in 2012, when that Democrat had an incumbency advantage. Trump won in 2016, and for that he deserves credit. But the surprising nature of his victory causes some to forget that Republicans were supposed to win in 2016 and polling showed Marco Rubio with a four-point national lead over Hillary Clinton when he dropped out in March 2016. Trump lost the popular vote by two. Of course, it would have been an entirely different race if Rubio had been the nominee, and it’s impossible to say if he would have ultimately triumphed, but the contention that only Trump could have won is both unfalsifiable and dubious.
- The idea that the GOP should abandon its long-held principles because it would be politically beneficial is a cynical and damaging one. It is the task of our leaders to advocate what is best, not play Simon Says with the electorate. To alter one’s approach based upon the vicissitudes of public opinion at any one moment in time is not to be generous or public-minded, but selfish and shortsighted. Even if you were to unreservedly accept the proposition that voters wanted a hard turn left away from the free market, that alone should not be considered enough to justify such a turn.
None of this is to say there’s no place for change in the GOP or no room for the upper-left quadrant in the party. They bring an important perspective to the table and are right to say the party should put more of an emphasis on certain cultural issues. But this singular scatterplot is not the trump card many treat it as, and a more targeted, conciliatory approach might prove more compelling than the adversarial one it represents.