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Should the GOP Continue to Embrace Populism? Two Responses

Quillette readers Joe Benning and Charles N.W. Keckler give their responses.

· 8 min read
Should the GOP Continue to Embrace Populism? Two Responses
Supporters wave to outgoing US President Donald Trump as he returns to Florida along the route leading to his Mar-a-Lago estate on January 20, 2021 in West Palm Beach, Florida. (Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images)

NOTE: Below are responses from two Quillette readers to our recent roundtable discussion.

I. Populism is not the answer

Joe Benning is a retired economist. You can find more of his writing at his blog, On Liberty Watch.

Should the GOP continue to embrace populism? On the surface, this appears to be an interesting question, but upon closer examination, it obscures more than clarifies. Does the question refer to electoral strategy—i.e., would the continuing embrace of populism help the GOP win elections? If so, for what purpose? Or is it a question of policy substance? For instance, does embracing populism imply articulating a set of defensible policy proposals that share a common philosophical underpinning?

To examine these questions, we first need to broadly define what populism is. In Quillette’s recent roundtable discussion, Dennis Saffran gives a qualified yes to the question of the GOP embracing populism, and uses the definition employed by the Voter Study Group. He writes that populism “leans left on economics but it is also socially and culturally conservative.” He then goes on to finesse the politics/policy question by asserting that populism is both good politics and good policy.

I don’t think that’s true. Let’s start with the definition. It is flatly impossible to be both culturally and socially conservative and to lean left in economics. Examine, for example, some of the more notorious American populists and a clear pattern emerges. Throughout American history, they had collectivist leanings and a Manichaean worldview, with a villain to blame for the nation’s problems. William Jennings Bryan, for instance, promised he would not let mankind be crucified on a cross of gold. Eastern bankers were the enemy.

Huey Long’s “Share the Wealth” idea proposed limiting to “a few million dollars … what any man can own.” And he had no problem suggesting the use of violence. For instance, he said, “I used to get things done by saying please. Now I dynamite ‘em out of my path.” Long had no sympathy for limits on government power. He asserted that, “A man is not a dictator when he is given a commission from the people and carries it out.”

Then there was Fr. Coughlin, who was initially a vocal supporter of FDR and the New Deal. He established a political organization called the National Union for Social Justice (sound familiar?) whose platform called for the nationalization of major industries and railroads and the protection of labor rights. He broke with FDR when he accused him of being too friendly with bankers, who were a common enemy among populists. He also trafficked in antisemitism.

George Wallace was a staunch segregationist who also supported national industrial policies. He took the oath of office as Governor of Alabama on the spot where Jefferson Davis was sworn in as president of the Confederate States of America. In his 1963 inaugural he said, “I draw the line in the dust and toss the gauntlet before the feet of tyranny, and I say segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever.” That line, incidentally, was penned by his speechwriter Asa Earl Carter, a Ku Klux Klan leader.

And of course, we can’t leave out Donald J. Trump. It was Trump who managed to drive political discourse in America to new lows. It was Trump who excoriated the free trade that has lifted billions out of poverty. It was Trump who cozied up to the world’s worst dictators. It was Trump who routinely violated political norms, who made personal loyalty to him the only measure that matters, and who stirred up the crowd that attacked the Capitol on January 6th.

Thus, the common themes of American populism are inchoate rage directed at “outsiders,” distrust of markets and finance, and a belief that society is rigged by elites against the common man. All of which puts me in mind of Winston Churchill’s quip that the best argument against democracy is a five-minute conversation with the man in the street.

It is clear—or ought to be—not only that populism is illiberal, but also that it lays a foundation for authoritarianism. Whether it is authoritarianism of the Left or Right does not matter. Six of one, half a dozen of the other. State control is the instrument of choice, or as Mussolini put it: “Everything in the State, nothing outside the State, nothing against the State.”

The implementation tools of state control include sympathy for mob rule, advocacy for the instruments of command-and-control, cultural relativism (post-truth ideology), and a cult of personality. Natural law is an anathema to populists who have little sympathy for individual rights. Populists make a great show of support for “the common man” but that’s all it is—a show. And populism is not conservative; rather populism is the name given to a congeries of resentments stoked up by politicians out of ignorance or opportunism. It is often quite radical, assailing the status quo for its perceived corruption.

In his book, American Happiness and Discontents, George Will asks what it is that conservatives mean to conserve. His answer is: the Founding. It is the American Founding that created the legal framework for the American democracy. The point of the founding was (and is) to insure liberty. It is not to succumb to jealousy or the vagaries of the polls.

The American Founding was based on a proposition stated clearly in the Declaration of Independence, namely that “all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights [among them] Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness—That to secure these Rights Governments are instituted among Men…”

Governments are instituted to secure pre-existing rights found in nature or nature’s God. That all men are created equal refers to equality before the law, not in all attributes or skills. Does that sound like a populist to you, as in “I alone can fix it”? I didn’t think so.

So to answer the question: should the GOP continue to embrace populism, the clear answer is an unequivocal “no.” Not only does populism have a very bad track record when it comes to actually winning elections; from a policy standpoint it is pure snake oil, a soothing balm for low information voters. It is bound to make things worse economically, socially, and culturally.

The challenge for the GOP is to develop market-based policy solutions for the nation’s problems and rein in an out-of-control administrative state. If the GOP is incapable of doing that, the party will simply go the way of the Whigs. Which is what it will deserve.

II. Populism vs elitism is a false dichotomy

Charles N.W. Keckler, JD, PhD, is a former federal executive, sometime law professor, occasional litigator & semiprofessional political anthropologist. You can follow him on Twitter @CharlesKeckler.

“Should the Republican Party continue to pursue populism?” is the wrong question, founded on a false dichotomy between populism and elitism. Such a schema in a democracy will always push politics in the direction of what purports to be “the people.” The Republican Party is, was, will be, and must be the party of the middle class. And it therefore stands apart from a putative war of top and bottom, and the phony choices such class warfare is meant to compel.

The GOP is the party of those who believe in the autonomous citizen, who will live and die by self-reliance, self-improvement, personal responsibility, civic duty, productive labor, behavioral rectitude, prudent investment, and the jealous defense of rights of property and liberty. Such people may have any number of other political beliefs, and only a minority conform to anything like the ideal of classical liberalism. Nevertheless, they are inherently bourgeois, as is the GOP, and have traditionally sought to avoid both dependence on others and having others dependent on them.

Such relationships inevitably have a political quality of subjugation they deplore, whether as subjects or superiors. This goes back to Lincoln, who wrote: “As I would not be a slave, so I would not be a master. This expresses my idea of democracy.” Whatever may have happened in Ripon, Wisconsin, in 1854, and regardless of all that has happened since, the moment Lincoln wrote those words marked the true beginning of the Republican Party—its birth. The Republican Party is the party of the middle class, or it is nothing.

Not everybody agrees with middle-class values, and even many Republicans are in the party because they believe it has the right enemies, not because they recognize that it has the right principles. And there is today an element of the American elite which has tacitly or consciously adopted the tenets of Marxist-inspired critical theory. The transformation of this elite began and remains centered in the non-STEM parts of the academy, but it has extended its reach into many other related culturally influential institutions such as journalism, the sciences, professional associations, publishing, nonprofit foundations, and social media. Only a minority (if a concerningly large minority) of its adherents are actually socialistic, but their New Left presuppositions are almost invariably corrosive of individualism, merit, capitalism and other traditional American middle-class ideals.

Moreover, this group enforces an increasingly rigid orthodoxy against divergent views once they achieve dominance in an institution, a mirror of and replacement for the “cultural hegemony” of bourgeois norms that once pertained in the West as the intellectual bulwark against communism. This follows the advice (perhaps unwittingly) of one of the hard Left’s great theorists, the early 20th century Italian communist Antonio Gramsci. Beyond internal enforcement, this elite is now exerting extraordinary power to censor both literature and science, and to enact an extra-constitutional transfer of half a trillion dollars to its constituency.

Of course, the Republican Party, to be true to its principles, must oppose what I term our nascent “Critical Hegemony.” But it is delusional to believe this opposition should be, or even could be, extended to all elites. As Gramsci’s contemporary Robert Michels saw, there will always be an elite; therefore, the issue is the composition of that elite (and whether it disguises itself as something else). It would be as senseless to abandon the academy to the Critical Hegemony as it would be to allow it complete control of journalism, philanthropy, or the judiciary. In every sphere, the goal will be to reform existing entities and where needed, create alternatives. Moreover, the political divergence of a cultural elite and an economic elite has been happening throughout the West in the form of a differentiated “Brahmin Left and merchant Right.” The private economic sector, if Republicans do not allow it to be controlled via the ESG and DEI norms generated from the Critical Hegemony, remains the natural ally of the GOP.

Apart from rebalancing the power between cultural and economic elites, how should a Republican Party that transcends populism and understands itself as middle-class proceed? In the main, its goal with regard to elites will be to restore that which once was. This means a pluralistic and meritocratic elite, not just a conservative one, open to all those who show skill and hard work. Emphasizing rising standardized test scores is not a “populist” theme, but a commitment to educational excellence is precisely what helped Republicans win in the most recent election in Virginia.

Certainly, it will help to focus on those who aspire to a middle-class life, and to nurture and facilitate those aspirations, rather than just celebrate those who have already made it. Yet the foundation of the party must always be to defend earned success and the fundamental American promise that we will ask of each man and woman only what they can do, not where they come from, nor who their family is, nor what they believe.

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