Thursday, February 11, 2016

How to Channel Populist Energies in a Conservative Way: Or, An Experiment in Tilting at Windmills

Some on the right view the current populist insurgency with something like horror. Criticisms of Donald Trump, who has anointed himself a populist tribune, have often included dark references to a sinister populism that necessarily threatens conservative ideas and limited government. (Of course, one can criticize Trump without criticizing populist sentiments, and many anti-Trumpers have also shown themselves more sympathetic to populism in general.)

I nurture a somewhat quixotic suspicion that a partial rapprochement of conservatism and populist tendencies is possible. At least four trends seem to have antagonized the current populist insurgency: economic decline, identity politics, elite incompetence, and ideological transnationalism. There are policy and political responses to these challenges that are within the spectrum of conservative thought.

As an attempt to explore where such a rapprochement might look like, I offer the following portfolio of policy hypotheticals. I'm not necessarily endorsing all these policy ideas, though I am sympathetic to many of them. Many of these ideas are also offered in the spirit of compromise; they might not satisfy all conservatives or all populists, but they might be at least somewhat acceptable to many in each camp.  We might denote populist-conservative fusionism as a "popucon" approach to politics. (And, yes, I know "popucon" sounds rather like "poppycock.") Many current Republican candidates already have a touch of popucon tendencies, and there are numerous intellectuals and elected officials that popucons could take inspiration from--including David Frum, Ramesh Ponnuru, and the rest of the reformocon crew, as well as Jeff Sessions, Dave Brat, and Mike Lee.

Many in Republican circles are currently seeking to crown an anti-Trump. If Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio, Jeb Bush, and John Kasich really do want to supplant Trump, they may be more likely to succeed if they do not just run as an anti-Trump but co-opt some of Trump's issues. In order to win the nomination, a candidate will have to give voters something to vote for--not just a cause to vote against.

So, in the spirit of fusionism, I offer the following possible popucon strategies. Again, these are offered in the mode of possibility and the hypothetical.

Go beyond "amnesty" on immigration: Immigration has given Trump his opening. The Beltway's preferred version of immigration "reform"--instant legalization, Potemkin enforcement, and expanded guest-worker programs--manages to be both anti-conservative and utterly indifferent to popular needs. Instead of this tired orthodoxy, an evolved version of immigration reform that encourages civil integration, economic opportunity, and the rule of law could win over populists and self-identified conservatives.

Popucons might find that trumpeted opposition to "amnesty" probably won't be enough. Voters have begun to catch on that "amnesty" is a particularly slippery term in a politician's vocabulary. Instead, popucons could make specific commitments on legal immigration, guest-worker programs, enforcement, and the eventual timing of a legalization program (if there is to be such a program at all). Attacking guest-worker programs and the abuse of them would seem particularly low-hanging policy fruit. Trump and Cruz have already moved against these programs, but other candidates still have an opportunity here, too.

In tax reform, think more about Fishtown and less about Belmont: Popucons might focus their tax-reform pitch on those policies that will help voters in the middle and working classes. Capital-gains tax-cuts might be nice, but voters will need to be convinced that tax reform will work for them. Tax credits for families and low-income workers might be part of the popucon strategy.

Take a more critical eye to trade orthodoxy: Many conservatives take as a point of faith that defending current global trading patterns is key for conservatism because such patterns are free trade. Popucons might note that, in reality, much of what goes by the name of "free trade" is a globally-managed neomercantilism that distorts the market in order to supply cheap imports to wealthy nations. Perhaps this system ultimately benefits the average citizen, and perhaps it doesn't. But it certainly isn't the free movement of the market. When, for instance, the People's Republic of China demands that Boeing (and many other companies) open up a factory that is co-owned by a Chinese-backed corporation in order to have access to the Chinese market, that's not the organic product of the marketplace.

Popucons could meet populists halfway by expressing skepticism about expanding that system of managed trade. Even a guy like Kevin D. Williamson, no small devotee of free trade, has said that TPP is so flawed that free-market conservatives should probably oppose it. Many trade compacts have failed to live up to the promises made by their advocates, so popucons might argue that we should re-access exactly how to construct compacts that actually do advance American prosperity and reinforce American sovereignty. This skepticism might not mean blowing up current trading agreements, but it might place different priorities on trade agreements going forward.

Defend entitlements: At a time of economic disruption, many voters look to entitlements as something they can count on. Social Security remains very popular with the electorate as a whole as well as with Republicans--even conservative ones. A 2014 Pew poll found that 59% of even "consistently conservative" Republicans wanted Social Security benefits to remain the same or to be expanded. Only 12% of that group want to phase it out. Moderates--a group where populists are well represented--are even more defensive of Social Security. The funding issues for Medicare are much more dire than Social Security, but many voters want to see Medicare funding increase rather than decrease. Both plans are probably in need of reform, but, in order for that reform to take place, voters will need to be convinced that they will not be left without a safety net.

Popucons could defend entitlements in a pro-market and pro-growth way: Economic stagnation, especially the hollowing out of the middle class, makes Social Security less affordable, and a lack of market-based competition increases the price of medical care (including the cost of Medicare). A popucon economic platform can make these entitlements more fiscally sustainable. Popucons would lead not with talk of Social Security privatization but instead with efforts to rebalance payment and taxation structures. As Marco Rubio's Social Security plan suggests, there's plenty of reform that's possible without requiring privatization of Social Security.

Focus on expanding and improving health-care: In discussing the Affordable Care Act, popucons would focus on replace rather than repeal. The ACA is an unpopular bill, but some of its provisions aren't. Popucons might argue that their approach to health-care will not only improve care for those who already have health-insurance but also for those who don't. Policy wonks like Avik Roy have spent considerable time writing about how to offer market-based reforms that expand and improve coverage, so there are considerable intellectual resources for popucons to draw upon.

Speak out against the drug epidemic: As Robert VerBruggen noted earlier this year, the rate of drug-overdose deaths skyrocketed almost 150% between 1999 and 2014.*  The explosion of opioid abuse has hit economically depressed areas especially hard. Drug abuse cannot be solved simply by public policy, but policy measures can be taken to combat drug abuse. Moreover, popucon candidates lend their words to the cause of fighting against the alienation that feeds drug abuse. Donald Trump has made pledges to crack down on drugs a major theme of his stump speech, but John Kasich and (former candidate) Chris Christie have spoken out frequently on this topic as well.

Defend the institutions of law and order: The United States has made major strides in combating crime over the past 25 years, but anti-police hysteria and ill-considered policy measures risk causing the nation to backtrack. Especially in an era of unrest, many voters crave stabilizing forces, and the police can be one such force. Popucons can buttress a law-and-order message with targeted efforts at criminal-justice reform and attacking official malfeasance, but they would also keep the rhetoric of public safety at the forefront.

End Too Big to Fail: Post-Dodd-Frank, financial consolidation has continued. Advocates of libertarian populism, like Tim Carney, have called for breaking up the big banks in order to end the era of Too Big to Fail. Many voters view the federal government as defending certain players against the interest of the middle class and the principles of the free market. By taking an assertive stand on financial reform, popucons could channel popular anxiety about a rigged economic game while also advancing free-market principles.

Attack identity politics: Much of what goes by the name "political correctness" is actually a species of Marcusian identity politics, which has become so poisonous that voices across the political spectrum are rising up against it. Mike Gonzalez at the Heritage Foundation has outlined how identity politics can break apart the civic compact. Conservatives and populists can come together in attacking an ideology that fears freedom of thought and rational debate. Moreover, popucons might note that vulgarity is not the same as a rigorous challenge to the identity-politics behemoth.

Call for competence: In the current primary, Republicans have squabbled about whether the failures of the Obama administration are due to flawed ideology or incompetence. Popucons might argue that both ideology and ineptness have led to the failures of the past seven years. A government with a mistaken philosophy might fail no matter how competent its officials are, but incompetent officials can cause a government to fail to achieve even its most legitimate aims.

Support localism in education and elsewhere: Decentralizing power is a common conservative goal, and something many populists want, too. "Common core" has in part become a dirty phrase because many fear a transfer of educational power from local communities to federal bureaucrats and corporate boardrooms. The fact that the Obama administration now seeks to run the discipline programs of schools across the nation might be something popucons could talk about--as well as its efforts to federalize local zoning laws.

These are not the only possible areas where populists and conservatives could find some common ground, but they might provide a starting point for further discussion. An unchecked populism can lead to calls for an absurdly and impossibly perfect strongman, but a conservatism that addresses popular concerns could revitalize the American republic and the hopes of limited government.

*Update: The annual number of drug-overdose deaths increased 150% between 1999 and 2014.

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