The Growing Populist/Conservative Divide In The GOP

[ Posted Wednesday, September 6th, 2023 – 16:06 UTC ]

Mike Pence gave a speech today in New Hampshire, and it actually made some news (I know! I'm as astonished as you probably are...). Pence devoted the whole speech to an argument for the Republican Party to return to its conservative roots and move dramatically away from economic populism. Which is rather odd, since by "populism" he basically means "all that stuff Donald Trump said and did while I was serving as his vice president." Consistency has never been conservatism's strong suit, I suppose....

Snark aside, it was interesting to read what Pence had to say. It remains doubtful whether he (or any other Republican) can turn back the tide of populism that Trump unleashed on the GOP, but Pence is certainly making a full-throated attempt. Here are a few excerpts from his speech, from the New York Times review of it:

Mr. [Mike] Pence, who is polling in the single digits in the G.O.P. presidential primary race and lags far behind the front-runner Mr. [Donald] Trump, has been warning about the dangers of populism for nearly a year. But his speech on Wednesday went further than he has gone before, casting Mr. Trump's populism as a "road to ruin."

"Should the new populism of the right seize and guide our party, the Republican Party as we have long known it will cease to exist," Mr. Pence said at the New Hampshire Institute of Politics at Saint Anselm College in Manchester. "And the fate of American freedom would be in doubt."

Gosh, that all sounds pretty serious, Mr. Pence! Trump is leading Republicans down the "road to ruin"? American freedom itself is in doubt? That's some pretty major stuff, but the real question is whether it's already too late to do anything about it. Has the Republican Party "as Mike Pence has long known it" already ceased to exist? The answer to that would appear to be (at the very least): "Probably."

But back to Pence's speech:

"Republican voters face a choice," Mr. Pence said. "I believe that choice will determine both the fate of our party and the course of our nation for years to come."

He asked if the G.O.P. will be "the party of conservatism or will we follow the siren song of populism unmoored to conservative principles? The future of this movement and this party belongs to one or the other -- not both. That is because the fundamental divide between these two factions is unbridgeable."

Mr. Pence defined Republican populism as a trading away of time-honored principles for raw political power. He said populists trafficked in "personal grievances and performative outrage." And he said they would "abandon American leadership on the world stage," erode constitutional norms, jettison fiscal responsibility and wield the power of the government to punish their enemies.

Pence then hurled an insult so offensive (to them) as to qualify as "fighting words" in Republicanland -- he compared the new GOP populism to Senator Bernie Sanders and the progressive movement he has led. He accused Republican populists of striding hand in hand with the Sanders progressives, and of being "fellow travelers on the same road to ruin." He wasn't shy about levelling this attack at his former boss, either: "Donald Trump, along with his imitators, often sound like an echo of the progressive they would replace in the White House." As I said, that's about as insulting as it gets, over on the right.

Pence pointed out two examples of what he means by all this. He ripped into Ron DeSantis for waging a pointless war with Disney over Disney's right to free speech in the political arena -- something that conservatives fought hard for, a few decades back (see: the Citizens United case). And he bemoaned the fact that all the Republican candidates aren't squarely behind the traditional "We have to slash funding for Social Security and Medicare!" Republican position. Since Trump has "seen the light" on the issue and has been promising never to cut either program, most of the other Republican candidates are now terrified to bring it up (and have fallen into line behind Trump). Pence seems to be the only one bravely out there calling to reduce payments and medical care to seniors -- something Republicans used to be big fans of.

There was a second article in today's Times that took a look at the shifting sands of ideology within the GOP. It seems Trump actually convinced some Republican influencers to have their own embryonic journey on the subject:

A notable swipe against longtime Republican economic thinking has come from Sohrab Ahmari, a conservative who served as an editorial page writer for The Wall Street Journal and the opinion editor of The New York Post. The metamorphosis of his worldview is laid out in a recently published book: Tyranny, Inc.: How Private Power Crushed American Liberty -- and What to Do About It."

"I was writing editorials preaching the gospel of low taxes, free trade, et cetera," Mr. Ahmari said in an interview. But Mr. Trump's election inspired him to research how "American life in general for the lower rungs of the labor market is unbelievably precarious," he said, and his politics changed.

Mr. Ahmari recently endorsed a second term for Mr. Trump, but he has written that "while ferociously conservative on cultural issues," he is also "increasingly drawn to the economic policies of the left -- figures like Senators Elizabeth Warren or Bernie Sanders."

So maybe Pence is actually on to something, with his fighting words? If a former Wall Street Journal editorial page writer is now extolling lefty policies of the likes of Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders, then maybe the GOP ground is shifting in a big way. Ahmari, later in the article, pointed out that the Republican establishment hadn't changed much -- it was still pretty conservative and not populist -- but that the GOP voters had. The Republican Party, after all, has been successfully poaching a lot of blue-collar workers and workers without college degrees from the Democratic ranks. Plus, Donald Trump did usher in a whole wave of voters who backed him who had not been engaged in politics before then. So the makeup of the Republican Party is definitely changing flavors, and the newer members have no problem with things that horrify traditional conservatives -- which mainly consists of ideas as to how to make life better for those at the lower end of the economic scale. In traditional conservative thinking, all these people had to do was "pull themselves up by the bootstraps," and if that didn't work, well, it was obviously their fault and their fault alone -- the government certainly didn't have anything to do with their failures.

Even some conservative thinkers who haven't quite made Ahmari's journey admit that things are changing:

Ms. [Inez] Stepman of the Claremont Institute says she is personally "more traditional right" than thinkers like Mr. Ahmari but agrees they are tapping into something real.

"There is a very underserved part of the political spectrum that is genuinely left of center on economic issues, right of center on cultural issues," she said, pointing to issues including immigration, gun laws, education, gender norms and more.

These are the voters Republicans relentlessly target with "social war" issues, counting on their disagreement with Democrats on these things to allow them to overlook the fact that the Republican Party doesn't promise them anything in the economic sphere. Such wedge issues have worked wonders for the party in the past few decades, but now it seems the new Republican base is demanding more GOP attention to their pocketbooks as well.

Mike Pence may well be copying King Canute, resolutely commanding the tides to obey his royal wishes and turn back. This is a polite and literary way of saying the fight Pence is picking may already be over -- he and his brand of conservatism may have already lost to the populist forces Trump has unleashed. And Pence is fishing around for issues where he can stand out from the field, so this was probably a natural move for him (he already has been making similar arguments, but he's never devoted a full speech to it before).

This could prove to be a healthy development for not just the Republican Party but for American politics at large, if things shake out the right way. Imagine Joe Biden beating Donald Trump (again) for the presidency next year. Would the Trump personality cult finally decide it is time to move on? If so, perhaps some Republicans in Washington would realize that their own voters were calling for some of the things proposed by the likes of Warren or Sanders. Perhaps some true bipartisan legislating would happen, with the result being some very popular policies being enacted (free preschool, perhaps?) -- with plenty of Republicans voting for it. OK, admittedly, that's a best-case scenario, but if the base of the GOP does actually start demanding the party pay some attention to blue-collar and lower-income workers, it could wind up moving the party in a very positive direction.

Of course, Mike Pence would be horrified to see it, but then again you can't have everything.

-- Chris Weigant


Follow Chris on Twitter: @ChrisWeigant


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