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How Populism Can Rejuvenate American Conservatism’s Ideas


Since Donald Trump’s surprise victory several weeks ago, a debate has raged in conservative circles over to what extent, if any, conservatives should adopt some of Trump’s more “populist” tendencies and policies. While Trump’s takeover of the Republican Party and ascension to the presidency are complete, there clearly remains resistance in some conservative circles. However, a grand merger between conservatism and populism is a logical inevitability that will boost both the movement and, more importantly, the nation. That’s because at its core, conservatism is a populist movement.

Princeton University’s Wordnet defines populism as “the political doctrine that supports the rights and powers of the common people in their struggle with the privileged elite,” which is a reasonably fair description. Unlike other political philosophies, populism does not clearly offer specific policy prescriptions, rather a framework through which to view policies: whether they help the working man and woman. This fits perfectly within conservatism.

Conservatives share a natural skepticism of the ruling class, recognizing the corrupting influence of power. It is one of man’s seemingly inescapable flaws that upon taking power he engages in rent-seeking behavior or misuses power for personal profit. Recognizing this weakness, George Washington did a great service, setting the precedence of only serving two terms as president. Rather than trust elites, conservatives have faith in the ingenuity of the average citizen and aim to have citizens retain as much power as possible. Entrusting the citizenry over elites? Sure sounds populist to me.

The Right Needs Skepticism of Big Business

This battle with Trump’s populism is not a new one, but an elevation of an existing struggle within the movement. At its most striking, you can contrast Fox’s Bill O’Reilly (a pragmatic populist) with George Will (an elite intellectual, doctrinaire). The battle obviously runs deeper, typically pitting workingman-oriented conservatives (like Tom Cotton or Mike Huckabee) against Chamber of Commerce Republicans (like Mitt Romney or Jeb Bush).

Having endured years of intellectual stagnation if not rotting since the Reagan years, Chamber of Commerce types have obtained increasing levels of political power. Unfortunately, that has at times led to a policy mix that is more corporatist than capitalist or conservative. After all, the corrosive nature of power is not limited to just government officials but infects big business and the media just as easily. A complex tax code and entangling regulations often serve as mere barriers to entry that let entrenched firms continue to dominate, at the expense of innovators and ultimately consumers.

Additionally when it comes to trade or immigration, corporate interests can deviate from those of the citizenry. Immigration policies that may boost aggregate but not per capita output can goose corporate profits while hurting most existing citizens. Similarly, a large corporation that can relocate production easily may be less interested in fair terms of trade and more in gaining access to a new market. The family of four in Wisconsin probably feels differently. Ultimately, conservatives should have the same skepticism for big business as they do for big government.

Before Trump, that was not the case, or certainly not perceived to be the case, and in politics perception is reality. In 2012 among voters who primarily wanted a president “who cared about people like me,” Mitt Romney lost by an embarrassing 81 to 18 percent divide. Conservatives had been unable to shake off the caricature that we care only about the rich and big businesses. At its best, conservatism is the optimistic and populist political ideology. When people vote for conservatives, they should feel like they are placing a bet on themselves. We needed to return to this message of empowerment and hope.

How This Worked for Ronald Reagan

President Reagan laid this out perfectly in his 1980 Inaugural Address. While history has remembered “In this present crisis, government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem,” this section rings most powerfully:

We have every right to dream heroic dreams. Those who say that we’re in a time when there are not heroes, they just don’t know where to look. You can see heroes every day going in and out of factory gates. Others, a handful in number, produce enough food to feed all of us and then the world beyond. You meet heroes across a counter, and they’re on both sides of that counter. There are entrepreneurs with faith in themselves and faith in an idea who create new jobs, new wealth and opportunity. They’re individuals and families whose taxes support the government and whose voluntary gifts support church, charity, culture, art, and education. Their patriotism is quiet, but deep. Their values sustain our national life.

Now, I have used the words ‘they’ and ‘their’ in speaking of these heroes. I could say ‘you’ and ‘your,’ because I’m addressing the heroes of whom I speak — you, the citizens of this blessed land. Your dreams, your hopes, your goals are going to be the dreams, the hopes, and the goals of this administration, so help me God.

Reagan’s brand of conservatism was so powerful because it was so clearly driven by his faith and belief in every individual in this country. In the years since his presidency, conservatism has lost this spark, moving from an affirmation of the individual to an ideology obsessed with the top marginal tax rate. Defying parody, a top donor even called eliminating the estate tax “the linchpin of the conservative movement.” When did our great movement become so small-minded?

Trump is the first major Republican public official in years to explicitly put his faith in working Americans and tell them to dream big again. Maddeningly, some conservatives have argued back that these dreams (like growing manufacturing jobs) are too big to be achieved. The fact is that the past 16 years have been difficult for many. While the Obama recovery has been epically tepid, the Bush economy was no panacea. Gross domestic product growth was a meager 2.1 percent during his presidency, and real median incomes fell from $57,790 in 2000 to $55,376 in 2008. New thinking on the Right is needed.

Germany Saw a Manufacturing Resurgence. Why Can’t We?

At $56,516, household median incomes are lower today than they were in 1998. Since the 1998 high, manufacturing employment has plummeted by more than 5 million. That’s more than 750 jobs shed every single day for at least 18 years. Trump’s focus on reinvigorating our manufacturing sector has earned him tremendous disdain from some conservatives who almost seem willing to sell Americans short.

Yet decline in this sector is a choice, not destiny. Since the start of 2005, while American manufacturing employment has fallen by nearly 15 percent, Germany’s manufacturing employment has increased by 7 percent. Developed economies can compete in value-add manufacturing. Had our manufacturing sector underperformed Germany not by 22 percent but only 11 percent, another 1.5 million Americans would have a job today.

Rather than dismiss manufacturing as a populist folly, conservatives should look to fix our outdated tax code, encourage learning skilled trades in high school, and streamline regulations to boost the sector. These are worker-oriented, populist policies. It is no coincidence that the sector we regulate least, the Internet, has enjoyed explosive growth, while a sector burdened by regulation, manufacturing, has stagnated. Innovators flock to areas where innovation isn’t inhibited.

Similarly, for a movement that doubts government’s competence, I’ve been stunned to see how fiercely some conservatives defend our trade deals, as though it is impossible to fathom the idea our government negotiators did a subpar job. The empirical data shows that since 1994, import growth has exceeded export growth by 30 percentage points. Had exports kept pace with imports, they would be more than $300 billion higher today, enough to support north of 1 million jobs.

Considering these trade deals were supposed to get us access to new, fast-growing markets, there is a credible argument to be made that export growth should have exceeded imports. We know that nations like China have little respect for intellectual property laws and subsidize state-owned enterprises to take market share internationally. Allowing foreign nations to distort trade to benefit themselves isn’t conservative. Conservatives and populists alike should push for trade deals that benefit American citizens and renegotiate those that don’t.

Specific Policies Aren’t Principles and Need to Be Revamped

Our economy clearly isn’t working like it should. For the past 40 years, GDP growth has averaged 3.2 percent. Today, the Federal Reserve sees potential growth at a paltry 1.8 percent. When there is less growth to go around, the politically connected inevitably enjoy a disproportionate share of the gains, typically at the expense of average citizens. We also must remember that small deviations in growth matter “big league.” If our economy grows at 3 percent instead of 2 percent over the next 25 years, real per capita annual income will be over $20,000 higher. That is a dramatic difference in living standards.

Reagan’s core conservative principle was not cutting the top tax rate; it was returning power to the citizenry.

We all should be working tirelessly to get potential growth back up, but we also must realize that the policy mix of the past 16 years hasn’t been working particularly well for all but a very few. The last eight years, where growth has frequently fallen short of 2 percent, is a reminder that big government doesn’t work, but conservatives do themselves no favors reflexively going back to the 1980 playbook.

For too long, many conservatives have been confusing policies with principles. Reagan’s core conservative principle was not cutting the top tax rate; it was returning power to the citizenry. Given the problems the economy faced in 1980 (an aggregate supply shortage driven by excessively high costs of capital), Reagan cut top tax rates to free up capital, creating an investment boom that lasted for 20 years. Cutting top tax rates was a policy but not the underlying principle.

Today’s problems are different, so the policies should be. Inflation isn’t excessive, and apart from cash idiotically trapped overseas, the cost of capital is fairly low. Our problems are a persistent skills gap, industrial production that is no higher than a decade ago, and exports that are significantly below potential levels. The answers to these problems lie in Trump’s populist conservatism: namely focusing on U.S. manufacturing, bettering trade deals, increasing the earned income tax credit, and sweeping education reform. These policies are all aimed at giving Americans more control over their own lives, which has been conservatives’ goal for decades, while boosting otherwise stagnant median income.

The Core Should Be Giving Americans More Power

In recent years, we as conservatives have lost our way, and too often, we parrot the same policies without remembering the rationale for what we believe: entrusting each citizen with more power and responsibility. This problem brings me to my favorite homily. As most Catholics (and I suspect many of other faiths) can relate to, many homilies are quite forgettable, but on occasion, one is particularly powerful. I heard it one Christmas when I was in elementary school and it has stuck with me for years. It tells a story that is applicable across many facets of our lives and relevant to the current battle in conservatism. Here is the story as I remember it.

In the Swiss Alps, there was a small church with a small but devoted congregation. On the side of the church, there was a white plaster wall. Upon entering the church, everyone would kneel or bow in front of the wall. Often, people would say a brief prayer. This tradition had been going on for many years, for longer than most parishioners had belonged to the church. No one gave thought to why it was done, merely carrying on with the tradition.

This fight between the common citizenry and centralized elites of all kinds, whether they be in government, media, or business, has been the defining battle of the republic.

One year, the church was undergoing a much-needed restoration. Having chipped after years of wear and tear, part of the restoration involved stripping down the white plaster from the wall to redo it. As they stripped down the wall, the construction workers uncovered a giant mural of Christ on the cross. The construction workers immediately beckoned the pastor, asking what to do. He of course told them not to re-cover the mural.

No one could ever understand when or why the mural was covered with that coat of white plaster, but going forward, every time a parishioner entered the church he or she bowed or knelt in front the mural of Christ.

I don’t know whether this anecdote is factual or embellished, but it has remained with me nonetheless. Regardless of its veracity, the underlying message is just as important. Often in life, we go through the motions, losing sight of why we do things or why we believe what we believe. This is the issue that faces conservatives today. Our movement has faced an intellectual stagnation in the post-Reagan era, failing to modernize policy proposals to fix today’s problems. It is this intellectual exhaustion that made the party so susceptible to a “hostile takeover” from an outsider like Trump.

As our leaders argued for lower taxes or pro-corporate policies seemingly for their own sake, Trump reminded us that conservatism is about the average person, not the elite or big business. Heck, it was Reagan who disparaged the idea “that a little intellectual elite in a far-distant capitol can plan our lives for us better than we can plan them ourselves.”

This fight between the common citizenry and centralized elites of all kinds, whether they be in government, media, or business, has been the defining battle of the republic. In recent years, many Republicans have been on the wrong side of this fight. With his campaign and worker-oriented policies that meet our present troubles, Trump promises to return power to the average citizen and unleash our ingenuity. He should remind all conservatives just what our movement is all about: the people. We should adapt accordingly.