It may be “respectable,” but it’s not what motivates Republican voters
Crazy things can happen on social media, such as a sitting U.S. senator debating a random anon over populism. Last week, Ohio Sen. J.D. Vance argued with one “Bespoke Capital” over this matter.
What initiated the debate was a new poll from American Compass, a conservative group that wants the GOP to embrace economic populism.” The poll made a poor case for American Compass’s mission, finding GOP voters lacked enthusiasm for “New Right” (meaning populist) issues.
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As Bespoke Capital pointed out:
The poll finds that populist challenges about “worker control,” financial vs. manufacturing sector, family formation, and difficulty for non-college grads are top issues for only 9-13% of GOP voters. In contrast, cultural/identity challenges of illegal immigration, transgender activism, fighting anti-white racism, and concern over woke corporations are prioritized by 52-69% of voters.
The poll depicted the traditional concerns of Business First Republicans as “Old Right.” Despite the questions being written to favor populist concerns, Republican voters still preferred Old Right positions like tax cuts over New Right issues like “worker power.”
Bespoke Capital’s post about the poll drew a response from Vance, who denounced it as a “dumb thread.” Vance mostly quibbled over minor points–such why Blake Masters lost his Senate race–while conceding that GOP voters care more about cultural issues than economic ones. But he argued that cultural issues, like immigration, are also economic matters.
Vance dismissed those on the “dissident right” who scoff at economic populism:
Too many of these guys seem to want George W. Bush's policies, minus the war and the minorities. Count me out. The old guard's economic agenda is a complete dead end. "Cato Institute, but whites only" is morally and politically stupid.
I don’t think anyone wants George W. Bush’s policies, minus the war and minorities. In fact, wars and minorities defined Bush’s priorities!. And libertarians felt he was too in thrall to big government anyway.
Even though Mr. Capital had the data on his side, Vance’s argument received more positive engagement. A typical response came from conservative operator Saurabh Sharma. He also conceded that cultural issues were more important, but insisted “America First [needs] a comprehensive agenda across every issue area that benefits its voters.” That apparently necessitates support for items favored by so-called populists.
But there are some questions left unanswered in this debate. What is populism? What is the kind of populism favored by the Right? Is it what our voters want? Does it actually win elections? And why is it so popular to champion now?
Populism can be defined by both style and ideology. In style, it connotes a political leader who is charismatic, anti-establishment, and appeals to the masses. This is a broad term that can cover everyone from Donald Trump to William Jennings Bryan. Those two figures share little in terms of ideology, but both earn the sobriquet of populist. If it’s just about style, then it makes sense.
But if it’s about ideology, it doesn’t quite make sense. In the American context, populism usually meant the above features combined with the primary purpose of some form of wealth redistribution. The People’s Party of the 1890s, where the term “Populists” originates, advocated for a left-wing economic agenda that, according to historian Michael Kazin, “called for nationalizing the railroads, breaking up the trusts and strengthening labor unions.” That might not sound so bad to many on the New Right, but their chief aim was to eradicate inequality in American Life. That would put them more on the Left than the Right. Huey Long, a strangely beloved figure among the New Right, was more explicitly redistributionist in his populism. “Share Our Wealth” is arguably the most radical economic proposal suggested by a major American politician. Its onerous taxes would mandate an income and a home for all Americans. That idea wouldn’t go down well in even a GOP dominated by the New Right.
Populists on the New Right fall into two categories into how they approach this brand. One focuses on policy wonkery bereft of Trump’s bravado. This is the American Compass strategy, which is mostly rebranded Reformiconism. Reformicons received some positive press attention in the 2010s for being the new “respectable” conservatives. Unlike the rubes in the Tea Party, these guys had ideas. Most of these ideas were very boring, like safety-net reform. They wanted to show they were different from the Ayn Rand caricature of the GOP and prove conservatives can care about workers. But most of what they offered interested no one outside of the think tank world and media sphere. Reformicons earned nice plaudits in the New York Times, but that was it. The Trump moment initially consigned the Reformicons to the dustbin.
But these types rose from the dustbin to rebrand themselves as “populists.” Even though they hated Trump, they successfully claimed the banner of intellectual Trumpism. They were able to garner more puff pieces in the mainstream media, and reporters turned to them to find out what “Trumpism” really meant. They obviously didn’t like Trump’s cultural war animated by race and identity. They reimagined Trumpism as a safe persuasion primarily focused on economics. This made them respectable to journalists but out-of-touch with actual GOP voters. Their own polling shows this.
The other form of populism on the American Right isn’t concerned with policy. It’s just rhetorical bombast directed at corporations. This can range from Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis’s crusade against Disney to some conservative commentators wanting to cancel capitalism. It’s a popular sentiment, and many of its expressions are warranted. Woke corporations deserve a public thrashing. At the same time, the rhetoric coming from the commentariat can sound like a bad imitation of Marxism, minus concrete policies. It’s easy to rail against the capitalist superstructure. It’s harder to translate that into a policy program. The wonks at least understand that.
The wonks also seem to have a better understanding of who makes up the right-wing base than their rhetorically radical counterparts. A major reason they stick to in-the-weeds policies is because they know what’s acceptable within the Republican fold. “Share Our Wealth” proposals would keep them out and alienate the base. As I detailed in a recent column, the core right-wing constituency is middle-class. It may evince a blue-collar style, but their incomes are traditionally white collar. These people do not want to pay any more taxes. They don’t want their wealth spread to the ghetto and barrio. They’d prefer if their money stayed put.
Child tax credits won’t bother the base, but it won’t excite them either. The border, crime, and anti-white racism in schools is what gets them to the ballot box.
The great irony is that New Right populism isn’t that popular. Unlike the People’s Party, it doesn’t originate from farmers and laborers in the heartland. The New Right populism emanates from DC and its members mostly work in politics. Its ideas don’t animate the base or bring in new voters. This populism operates as a way for enterprising columnists and activists to establish a semi-edgy brand for themselves. Most conservatives realize the old National Review way is cringe, yet they’re frightened by the dissident right. Populism offers an attractive third way. A columnist can posture as a “dangerous thinker” while facing no serious threat of cancellation. It’s perfect for this subset.
It’s clear that the old GOP orthodoxy of Paul Ryan and George W. Bush needed to be cast aside. But voters didn’t pick Trump because they wanted stronger unions or family subsidies. They rallied around Trump because they wanted fewer immigrants and criminals. That’s the true nature of Trump’s politics.
Some economically populist ideas are good, but this is all secondary to identity issues. Too many conservatives want to shunt them aside in favor of a politics that will get them a New York Times column. But no matter how many times an American Compass fellow expounds on the virtues of populism, his politics doesn't resonate with actual people.