The New Populism of the Right
In the weeks following the presidential election, a number of prominent conservatives, stunned by the scale of Mitt Romney’s loss, took to the cable-news circuit, offering heterodoxies and heresies designed to save a wounded party.
Multiple Congressmen—Sen. Saxby Chambliss, Rep. Peter King, and Sen. Lindsey Graham—retreated from Grover Norquist’s infamous anti-tax pledge. Republican strategist Mike Murphy advised his fellow conservatives to develop a “view of America that’s not right out of Rush Limbaugh’s dream journal.” Weekly Standard editor William Kristol has told Fox News Sunday viewers that tax hikes on millionaires isn’t a hill Republicans should die on—for three weeks in a row. Even conservative firebrand Sean Hannity claimed to have “evolved” on immigration, seeing it as an issue that has “got to be resolved.”
In other words, the long-overdue moment of Republican reflection has begun. But these are frequently the strategic reflections of veteran party activists, and their solutions have tended to be shortsighted.
If the party desires a return to the White House—and they have only won the popular vote once since 1988—they would be well advised to look to a new generation of conservative writers and intellectuals.
That new generation has for the most part moved beyond battles over whether the top marginal tax rate should be 28 percent or 35 percent; rather, they want to reboot the way Republicans talk to—and think about—the 47 percent.
The media postmortems have largely focused on the right wing’s trouble with demography—specifically, how the party will deliver voters who aren’t rural, old, and white. But while immigration and liberalizing social attitudes among younger voters are surely a cause for considerable concern, there is a growing interest in shedding the image—clumsily reinforced by Romney both before and after the election—that theirs is a club of wealthy businessmen, unconcerned with society’s lower rungs.
Who will make up this new guard? Tim Carney, for one—the Washington Examiner columnist who penned one of the most discussed and reflected upon post-election columns. Carney is neither a RINO nor a disaffected libertarian—he’s a pro-life Catholic who cut his teeth working alongside conservative columnist Robert Novak. His argument is simple and urgent. “Republicans need a new coalition and a new message,” he wrote on the day after the election. “The heart of that coalition should be the working class. The message should be populism.”
As Carney sees it, the Republican populist must explain to middle- and working-class voters that the system is stacked in favor of big corporations and the wealthy. It’s in fact a deeply conservative position, he argues, to hold that “Obama’s big government expands the privileges of the privileged class.”
The idea isn’t a strategic pivot after a grim election. In 2006, Carney laid out the case for conservative populism his first book, The Big Ripoff, a brutal and compelling assault on the collusion between big business and big government, though few in the Bush-era Republican establishment paid much attention at the time.
Carney argues that the “fertile ground [for Republicans] is the middle class, the working class—the people who haven’t done that well recently.” In other words, the very groups that had good reason to feel slighted by the Romney campaign’s 47-percent rhetoric.
“The trend over the last 15 years has been upper-middle-class white suburbs moving Democratic and blue-collar areas moving Republican,” Carney said in an interview. “And instead of trying to tap into that trend, Romney tried to buck it.”
Carney contrasts Romney’s approach with that of Rick Santorum, who may have been unelectable nationally, but who nevertheless made a serious play for working-class voters. While Romney blasted those “who believe that they are victims, who believe the government has a responsibility to care for them,” Carney pointed out, Santorum shifted the blame to politicians who believe government largess is a policy solution. “They were talking about the same thing,” Carney said, “but the guys who were the bad guys in Romney’s account were the victims in Santorum’s account.”
Carney isn’t the only voice advocating engagement with the 47 percent. Reihan Salam, a Reuters columnist and blogger at National Review, has long called for a form of conservative populism. In 2008 he co-authored, with New York Times columnist Ross Douthat, Grand New Party: How Republicans Can Win the Working Class and Save the American Dream, which argued that Republicans have, among other grievous sins, “confus[ed] being pro-market with being pro-business,” and warned of the “marriage of big business and big government.”
“Republicans sound apocalyptic, because they are drawn to the language of freedom and tyranny, and I think that’s just something that’s toxic,” Salam said, inadvertently invoking Mark Levin, the right-wing radio host and scourge of Republican reform who wrote the bestselling book Liberty and Tyranny. Indeed, Levin recently ranted against conservative quislings, accusing William Kristol, of all people, of “giving aid and comfort to Obama’s attack on capitalism and successful people.”
This is the type of rhetoric that exasperates Salam, who argues that the party needs an affirmative message—something beyond promises of tax cuts in perpetuity.
“Tax cuts do not feel like an affirmative message” to those in the lower and middle classes, Salam said—especially since, as Romney helpfully pointed out, many of the lowest-income voters aren’t overburdened by taxation in the first place. “Republicans are advancing the same ideas that they advanced in the 1990s. Mitt Romney’s tax plan was Bob Dole’s tax plan.”
The Tea Party briefly revivified the conservatives in 2010, but Salam, who supports many elements of the movement, thinks that Republicans “probably would have won bigger victories” had they not nominated fringe Senate candidates Ken Buck, Sharron Angle, and Christine O’Donnell.
“Between freedom and tyranny and socialism, there are a lot of things you can say about how to make these things work better,” Salam said. On the state level, for instance, he pointed to Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker’s success in “common-sense things,” like attacking rules that make it difficult to fire ineffective teachers. “The irony is that Scott Walker, when he talked about national issues, said ‘Mitt Romney’s tax cut isn’t big enough.’ So at the national level, some of these same people say things that are wackadoo.”
But old-guard conservatives like Rush Limbaugh continue to argue that Mitt Romney (not to mention John McCain) wasn’t conservative enough. Such a position, rooted in the very debatable assumption that moderate candidates inhibit the get-out-the-vote efforts, allows the old guard to assert that their message is fundamentally sound—and that America remains essentially a center-right country—but is handicapped by a party that isn’t particularly good at messaging. Salam waves away the suggestion, pointing out that Romney “ran a pretty consistently conservative campaign, named Paul Ryan as his running mate—and he started surging after he pivoted hard and abruptly to the center.”
Conservative factionalism isn’t going anywhere—the paleos will still do battle with the neocons, who will launch attacks on the libertarians, who in turn will declare war on the social conservatives—but many on the right expect priorities to shift dramatically in the wake of 2012. Republicans had better hope that the Hayekian idea of spontaneous order will work in the post-Romney shakeout, allowing the most sensible views to dominate, and preventing a single clique— those who Carney derisively calls the K Street crowd—from determining the party’s ideological future.
Carney is optimistic. Romney represented the K Street worldview, he says, “so maybe now the Republicans sounding the anticorporate-welfare voice will be listened to more and the K Street voices less.” And he believes conservative populism is a winning strategy “because it’s adhering to conservative principals but also taps into the widespread view that the game is rigged. It’s a feeling that is behind both the Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street.
CORRECTION: Due to an editing error, a previous version of this article did not fully characterize Reihan Salam's opinions regarding the Tea Party. The article has been corrected to include a reference to his support for "many elements of the movement."