The Future of Conservative “Populism”

Having referred to Erick Erickson’s New Year’s meditation on a future agenda for conservatives as “rambling” (a nicer term for “incoherent”), I was naturally interested to see it touted as a potential major ideological breakthrough by none other than Ross Douthat, who admits he normally has almost nothing in common with the blustery Georgia-based blogger.

Douthat’s point of departure is the common-place observation that conservative “populists” tend to promote policies just as (or even more than) comforting to economic elites as their supposed “Wall Street Establishment” intraparty rivals support:

The strangest and most self-defeating feature of recent Republican politics is that while the party’s populists talk a good game about championing regular Americans and taking on the party’s Georgetown cocktail partygoers and Wall Street insiders, when it comes time to advocate actual policy they mostly just embrace more extreme, less workable versions of the ideas those same insiders already endorse. (Both the Mike Huckabee-endorsed Fair Tax and Herman Cain’s 9-9-9 plan, to pick two prominent examples, are like parodies of the Wall Street Journal editorial page’s long-running view that taxes should be much lower on, well, Journal readers and slightly higher on the lower middle class.)

No question about that. Douthat, of course, is still clinging to the vision of a “Sam’s Club Republicanism” that uses activist government to support “traditional families” and expand the GOP advantage among white-working-class voters. That his would-be champion, Tim Pawlenty, ran an unsuccessful presidential campaign on the same old standard-brand Republican message Sam’s Club Republicanism was supposed to replace must have come as a great disappointment to Ross–to the point he is looking for succor to the likes of Erick Erickson.

So what’s the bold new “populist thinking” Erickson’s promoting? Here’s Douthat picking through the flotsam and jetsam for gold:

Erickson’s “new agenda” post opens up a path out of futility for the populist right. It’s an outline, not a policy paper, but basically he argues for 1) a more family-friendly turn in tax policy, and a focus on payroll taxes as well as income taxes; 2) a more anti-corporate, anti-Wall Street turn in economic policy, based on a recognition that “the Fortune 500 has less and less in common with the fortunes of the average American,” (for readers well-versed in D.C. wonk controversies, he even sneaks in a dig at the G.O.P.’s ill-thought-out support for the existing copyright regime) and 3) a focus on the cost of higher education, in pursuit of what he calls “a low cost BA.” These ideas share space in his post with old conservative standbys like regulatory reform, school choice, and repealing Obamacare. But they are not old standbys themselves, and they offer a glimpse of what a more constructive and effective right-wing populism might be able to offer to the party — and a glimpse, too, of what might have been had Republicans thought harder about policy in 2012 instead of just expecting the economy to deliver them the White House.

While I do believe the recognition of the existence of payroll taxes (paid so heavily by many of the “47%” moochers with no federal income tax liability) is an important step forward for conservatives, you have to figure Erickson’s interest in that is closely associated with the desire to destroy the safety-net program payroll taxes support (not a step Douthat has endorsed in the past). As for the rest, it is difficult to reconcile an interest in “family-friendly tax policies” with savage opposition to the refundable EITC and child tax credits that are routinely denounced as “welfare” for “lucky duckies,” not least by Erickson, the blogosphere’s main defender of the “47%” smear. As for the “low-cost BA” nugget, this is pretty thin gruel for a “populist” agenda, and wildly inconsistent with the Right’s general hostility to “government schools” at every level. Indeed, the GOP pols who have recently joined the crusade for lower tuitions (e.g., Rick Perry, Rick Scott and Scott Walker) seem to be using it as a lever to attack faculty salaries and academic independence, and/or to move public universities towards emulating for-profit higher education models.

Douthat briefly acknowledges that Erickson’s “new ideas” co-exist with an awful lot of old ones, so it takes an act of hopeful desperation to assume the new shoots will emerge boldly from the underbrush of boiler-plate conservatism. But the bigger problem is that recent conservative “populism” in this country has invariably relied for its support on savage culture war and demands for vicious partisanship. It requires coddling economic elites in order to blast the unholy alliance between cultural elites (including “non-productive” financial “parasites” who will nonetheless be freed from regulation) and the “underclass.” Perhaps this politics of rage can be supplemented with a few policy odds and ends of the kind Douthat prefers. But pretending its substantive agenda will ever outweigh its sheer fury is the most striking of Ross’ false hopes.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.