Why Can’t Republicans Be Populists?
The establishment has been routed, but its economic orthodoxy rules.,
President Biden’s American Rescue Plan is incredibly popular, even among Republican voters. We don’t have details yet on the next big Democratic initiative, but we can expect it to poll well, because we know that it will combine major infrastructure spending with tax hikes on corporations and the rich — which are all popular things.
But like the rescue plan, the next plan probably won’t get a single Republican vote in Congress. Why are elected Republicans still so committed to right-wing economic policies that help the rich while shortchanging the working class?
Fair warning: I’m not going to offer a good answer to this question. The point of today’s article is, instead, to argue for the question’s importance.
I ask why Republicans are “still” committed to right-wing economics because in the past there wasn’t any puzzle about their position.
Like many observers, I used to have a “What’s the matter with Kansas?” model of the G.O.P. That is, like Thomas Frank, the author of the 2004 book with that title, I saw the Republican Party essentially as an enterprise run by and for plutocrats that managed to win elections by playing to the cultural grievances and racial hostility of working-class whites. Bigotry, however, was mainly a show put on for the rubes; the party would go back to its pro-rich priorities as soon as each election was over.
The classic example came when George W. Bush won re-election by posing as America’s defender against gay married terrorists, then followed his victory by announcing that he had a mandate to privatize Social Security. (He didn’t.)
But that feels like a long time ago.
Billionaires may have started the Republican Party on its march toward extremism, but they’ve clearly lost control of the forces they conjured up. The G.O.P. can no longer put intolerance back in the closet after each election so as to focus on the real business of tax cuts and deregulation. Instead, the extremists are in charge. Despite a lost election and a violent insurrection, what’s left of the old Republican establishment has abased itself on the altar of Trumpism.
But while power in the Republican Party has shifted almost completely away from the conservative establishment, the party is still committed to an economic ideology of tax and spending cuts. And it’s not obvious why.
When Donald Trump rolled over establishment candidates in 2016, it seemed possible that he would lead his party toward what some political scientists call “Herrenvolk democracy,” policies that are genuinely populist and even egalitarian — but only for members of the right racial and ethnic groups.
South Africa under apartheid worked that way. There were limited gestures toward whites-only populism in the Jim Crow U.S. South. In Europe, France’s National Front combines hostility to immigrants with calls for an expansion of the nation’s already generous welfare state.
As a candidate, Trump often sounded as if he wanted to move in that direction, promising not to cut social benefits and to begin a large infrastructure program. If he had honored those promises, if he had shown any hint of genuine populism, he might still be president. In practice, however, his tax cut and his failed attempt to repeal Obamacare were right out of the standard conservative playbook.
The exception that proves the rule was Trump’s farm policy, which involved huge subsidies to farmers hurt by his trade war, but managed to give almost all of those subsidies to whites. The point is that there was nothing like this on a broader level.
Was Trump’s continuation of unpopular economic policies simply a reflection of his personal ignorance and lack of interest in substance? Events since the election suggest not.
I’ve already mentioned lock-step Republican opposition to Biden’s relief package. Rejection of economic populism is also apparent at the state level. Consider Missouri. One of its senators, Josh Hawley, has declared that Republicans must be “a working-class party, not a Wall Street party.” Yet Republicans in the state’s legislature just blocked funding for an expansion in Medicaid that would cost the state very little and has already been approved by a majority of voters.
Or consider West Virginia, where another unfulfilled Trump promise, to revive the coal industry, resonated with voters. Coal isn’t coming back; so the state’s Republican governor is proposing to boost the economy by … eliminating income taxes. This echoes the failed Kansas tax cut experiment a few years ago. Why imagine it would work any better in Appalachia?
So what’s going on? I suspect that the absence of true populism on the right has a lot to do with the closing of the right-wing mind: the conservative establishment may have lost power, but its apparatchiks are still the only people in the G.O.P. who know anything about policy. And big money may still buy influence even in a party whose energy comes mainly from intolerance and hate.
In any case, for now Republican politicians are doing Democrats a big favor, clinging to discredited economic ideas that even their own supporters dislike.
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