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July 18, 2013 3:44 PM Populism Needs To Be Popular

By Ed Kilgore

Having already posted my thoughts on the problems associated with the Republican Party adopting some ideology or message of “libertarian populism,” I will note in passing Ramesh Ponnuru’s succinct rejection of the idea that combining hostility to state subsidies for big businesses and other special interests with the traditional conservative hostility to state “redistributive” efforts on behalf of the needy will work electoral magic.

It was not until Monday that Tim Carney, a libertarian-populist writer (and a colleague of mine at the American Enterprise Institute), got around to publishing a manifesto for the group. It is a document that contains several good ideas — but not a viable political strategy for conservatives.
The main focus of Carney’s work is that big government and big business collude at the expense of the little guy, and he recommends that Republicans run against that collusion in order to win working-class votes. In particular he wants them to break up the big banks, end corporate-welfare programs, clean up the tax code so that powerful interests no longer profit from it, and end regulations that protect established businesses from competitors (regulations that stifle food trucks, for example). He would also cut the payroll tax and end government policies that favor employer-based health insurance.
I’m sympathetic to most of the items on Carney’s list — and those on the list that fellow populist Conn Carroll has compiled. Taken together, though, they do not seem to amount to a winning political platform. A Republican party that took on the U.S. Export-Import Bank might improve its image a bit, but how many Americans really care enough about the issue to change their votes based on it? Nor does freeing the food trucks seem like it would win many votes, however right it might be as a policy matter….
Cutting the payroll tax, unlike most of these ideas, would tangibly affect most people’s lives by raising their take-home pay. If Republicans proposed it, though, they would surely be accused of jeopardizing Social Security and Medicare, which seems like a rather large political defect. Other Carroll proposals, such as ending student loans and the mortgage deduction, seem likely to be unpopular even at first glance.
Republicans ought to propose conservative answers to the concerns that are uppermost on most voters’ minds. The libertarian-populist method seems to be to start with the solutions and then to imagine that voters have the relevant concerns. And while many of the proposed solutions have great potential appeal to conservative voters, few would do much to expand their ranks.

In other words, if you want to sell a political party highly resistant to change a “new” ideology of “populism,” it had better be popular. Because it’s not, you typically find Republicans taking the easier route of defending government programs that benefit their own constituencies against the claims of those people. I don’t think it’s a winning formula in the long run, but it’s more promising that pretending the voters Republicans need would be happier if government stayed out of their lives altogether.

Ed Kilgore is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly. He is managing editor for The Democratic Strategist and a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute. Find him on Twitter: @ed_kilgore.

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