September 8, 2023

Can Conservatism and Populism Coexist?

Mike Pence says that the differences between the two major Republican factions are “unbridgeable” and that we need to choose one or the other.

For the Republican Party, it’s a time for choosing. So says former Vice President Mike Pence, who argues in a Wall Street Journal op-ed that the GOP must choose between conservatism and populism.

“Republican voters,” Pence writes, “face an important choice next year. It will determine both the fate of our party and the course of our nation. Will we be the party of conservatism, or will we follow the siren song of populism unmoored to conservative principles? The divide between these two factions is unbridgeable. Conservatives like me believe that man’s rights come from God and nature, not from the state.”

We don’t think these two dominant ideologies within the Republican Party are “unbridgeable.” This sounds defeatist to us. There’s much more that conservatism and populism have in common than in conflict. And further, we think this either-or choice is a false one, both narrow-minded and shortsighted. Why? Because this isn’t 1980, and there simply aren’t enough pure conservatives out there to win a national election anymore.

Consider the face of our changing electorate. In 1980, when Ronald Reagan beat Jimmy Carter by eight million votes, whites made up 88% of the electorate and Reagan drew 56% of their vote. Forty years later, Donald Trump drew a greater share of the white vote, 58%, than Reagan did in 1980, but he still lost to Joe Biden by, ahem, seven million votes. Why? Because the white share of the electorate had shrunk from 88% to just 67%.

Our point is: We need to grow the Republican tent, not shrink it. And the way to grow a tent and grow a party is to invite a more diverse and ever-increasing mass of people into it by attracting them to a core set of principles. And it seems to us — and the polling bears this out — that Donald Trump’s “America First” principles are more attractive to more people than Mike Pence’s conservative principles. (Here, it’s worth remembering that George W. Bush was proud to call himself a conservative, and that he left office with the lowest approval rating of any American president in history.)

A Pence campaign flier argues that conservatives favor fiscal responsibility, a strong national defense, traditional values, limited government, and economic freedom — and that populists are against all of these things.

Really? This seems disingenuous at best and lazy at worst.

Fiscal responsibility? Trump certainly embraced deficit spending and greatly increased the national debt, but so did Reagan and both Bushes. In any case, it seems to us that Republicans are at their fiscally responsible best when the other party is in power and the GOP controls the congressional purse strings.

National defense? Trump rebuilt our military from the woeful Obama years, and Reagan’s own rebuild from the Carter years was instrumental in bringing about the collapse of the Soviet Union. But Bush’s long-term commitment to nation-building in Iraq and Afghanistan proved ruinous to our fighting forces and to our nation’s financial well-being. And how compelling an argument can Pence make that the $113 billion we’ve spent so far in Ukraine is essential to our national defense?

Traditional values? Yes, Pence is a faithful, God-fearing husband and father, and, yes, Trump has been married three times and had multiple extramarital affairs, including one with a stripper. But together, Pence and Trump teamed up to be the most pro-life administration in American history, so why not focus on what connects the two camps rather than what separates them?

Limited government? By what rationale were our years-long nation-building wars in Iraq and Afghanistan consistent with limited government? Or our budget-busting and arsenal-depleting support for the war in Ukraine? And by what rationale is the PATRIOT Act consistent with limited government?

Economic freedom? What exactly does this mean? Because if economic freedom means continuing to let the Communist Chinese freely import their goods into our country while they slap tariffs on our goods, manipulate their currency, steal our intellectual property, and engage in all manner of espionage, then we’ll take a hard pass. To our way of thinking, economic freedom should be tethered to economic fairness and fundamental decency.

Pence not only penned an op-ed about the choice between conservatism and populism, he also hit the campaign trail to talk about it at New Anselm College in New Hampshire. As National Review reports: “Pence warned that leaning into populism could lead to a future where ‘our party’s relevancy will be confined to history books.’ ‘It may live on in some populist fashion, but then it will truly be, in a cruel twist, Republican in name only,’ he said.”

“Will we choose to go down the path of populism and decline?” Pence asked. “I believe we stand at a crossroads. I have faith that Republican voters will once again choose the good way.”

Here again, we’re seeing a side of Pence we never knew existed. If conservatism is “the good way,” then populism must be “the bad way.”

Whatever happened to building a bigger Republican tent? Or are we only interested in growing our tent racially and ethnically but not ideologically? And if populists are persona non grata in Mike Pence’s Republican Party, then what about libertarians?

This purity test seems to us to be self-limiting — and self-sabotaging. If non-conservatives need not apply for membership in Mike Pence’s Republican Party, then we’re going to get clobbered in a lot of national and statewide elections going forward.

If Pence was this ardently opposed to populism when Trump asked him to be his running mate, he should’ve politely declined. After all, Trump’s “populist” policies were no mystery to anyone who was paying attention — from cutting taxes to securing our southern border to taking on China to restoring American manufacturing to achieving energy independence to wiping out ISIS to keeping us out of “stupid” wars. What, we wonder, is so “unbridgeable” about policies such as these?

On the contrary, a Republican Party that can knit together its conservative and populist constituencies can be an awesome force in American politics — a force that can go toe-to-toe with the Democrats and their built-in advantages of free stuff and favorable media and educational indoctrination.

But a Republican Party that rejects its largest and most energetic constituency is a party doomed to failure, doomed to back-bench status, doomed to lose national elections in perpetuity.

Here in our humble shop, we see the merits of both conservatism and populism, and we give each due credit. And we’d submit that the fundamental tenet of conservatism, which is constitutionally limited government, tends to afford both conservatives and populists the thing they most want out of government — which is Liberty, the freedom to live our lives as we want to live them.

This is a time for choosing, alright — for Mike Pence. He’s a good and decent man, but he’s never going to be the president of the United States. And how he conducts himself during the remainder of his campaign will go a long way toward setting his legacy. Does he want to be the guy who helped drive the Republican Party apart, or the guy who helped bring its two competing factions together for the common good?

It shouldn’t be a tough choice.

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