Making sense of what happens when vast swathes of the electorates of liberal democracies feel ill-served by their political parties and institutions.
The Mythical Progressive-Conservative Voter
F.H. Buckley is doing his best to save Trumpism from both its most irresponsible proponents and those who would relegate it to the dustbin of history. His new book, Progressive Conservatism: How Republicans Will Become America’s Natural Governing Party, is a well-intentioned effort to emphasize the most generous and egalitarian elements of former President Trump’s political movement. From his writings, it is clear that Buckley, a law professor at George Mason University, is a sincere patriot who wants to heal the country’s wounds, bring identity politics to an end, and open a path to upward mobility for the people trapped in poverty and dysfunction. I applaud his goals, even when I disagree with the specifics of his policy proposals. There are limits, however, to how far a book can retcon the history and nature of Trump’s movement and presidency before it loses its connection to reality.
A Progressive-Conservative Moment?
Buckley argues that Trump was a quintessential progressive conservative, and as such he is in the same camp as Republican luminaries such as Abraham Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt, and Dwight Eisenhower. Progressive conservatism, as Buckley understands it, is pro-free market but not libertarian. It recognizes the inevitability and the benefits of a strong welfare state. It stands against corruption and for republican virtue. It seeks to revive economic mobility and the American dream. It is unapologetically nationalist without being illiberal. Buckley writes that Trump’s political vision embodied all these traits and Republicans must now “finish the job that Trump promised and failed to carry out.”
Progressive Conservatism is a manifesto designed to persuade and galvanize his audience, and as such, it contains little original scholarship. Buckley also kept it relatively short—I assume because this was the ideal length to attract the maximum number of readers. I understand why it was light on footnotes and sometimes brief in its defense of relatively minor claims. I nonetheless scratched my head at several points in the book, wishing he had elaborated on statements I found dubious. For example, he writes that “there were two times when public corruption—the corruption of public officials—took center stage. The first was 1776. The second is now.” Really? Do most historians consider public corruption the leading cause of the American Revolution? And is that really what most people are concerned about today? For all our justified complaints about today’s politicians, their betrayals of the public trust do not approach the comical levels of malfeasance witnessed during, say, the Grant or Harding Administrations.
The book relies on various methods to make its case. The chapter on inequality and the chapter on economic mobility are largely quantitative. Of the two, the chapter on inequality is less compelling. Worrying about economic inequality as such has always struck me as a dead end for conservatives. Such discussions implicitly accept the left’s framework of wealth as a zero-sum game. I am not committed to my insouciance toward inequality and could be persuaded to take the issue seriously, but I did not find Buckley’s evidence convincing. He leans heavily on a couple of bivariate scatterplots with a small number of observations and a negligible R2. I suspect the relationships he plots would not achieve statistical significance in any model that included appropriate control variables. If he really presented the strongest existing evidence for inequality’s deleterious effects, I will continue to ignore the issue.
Buckley places a particular emphasis on the immigration question. I applaud him for avoiding the conservative cliché, “I have no problem with immigration, it just can’t be illegal immigration.” That argument is often insincere and always a rhetorical dead end. Instead, Buckley is very clear that his real problem is our current system of legal immigration.
Because of our emphasis on family unification when admitting immigrants, we are not necessarily getting the best possible immigrants from an economic perspective. He would much prefer a system that admits immigrants based on their ability to make valuable economic contributions to the country. He considers Canada’s model ideal.
Buckley may be right that the Canadian model would be an improvement over our current system. I am not entirely convinced. He is against high levels of low-skilled immigration because these immigrants compete for scarce jobs against low-skilled, native-born Americans. That is fair enough, but do not high-skilled immigrants compete with high-skilled native-born citizens? Why should one be concerned that Americans must compete with immigrants for back-breaking roofing jobs, but remain nonchalant about Dean’s List engineering students competing with immigrants for high-status jobs in Silicon Valley?
Buckley is probably correct that well-educated, upper-class immigrants are more likely to be a net positive for the national treasury, and they are less likely to exhibit the kinds of social disfunction we associate with poorer Americans. Are these the only considerations that matter? Buckley does not want to import a permanent underclass, but should we be cautious before importing a new upper class with no emotional attachment to the U.S. or affinity for American political culture? Has the large-scale immigration to Canada and Australia that Buckley applauds made those countries more likely to be paragons of progressive conservatism? Maybe it has, but the question is at least debatable.
Progressive Conservatism also has little to say about the most important question when it comes to immigration: numbers. The number of immigrants the U.S. admits every year strikes me as more important than their average educational attainment or level of English proficiency. Buckley suggests we could accept even more immigrants than we accept now, provided we are confident about their economic value.
Buckley’s arguments about immigration and economics strike me as incongruous with the sentiments driving Trump’s populist political movement. Millions of Americans are uncomfortable with the cultural changes that follow mass immigration. A new immigration system that favors upper-class immigration may result in faster, more dramatic cultural changes than what we are experiencing now. Buckley is clearly unmoved by all such cultural concerns, noting that “the progressive conservative doesn’t complain that he’s been replaced in America. He knows that we’ve always been replaced and that we’re none the worse for it.” That’s fair enough, but the modal Trump voter probably does not share these cosmopolitan sentiments or Buckley’s commitment to liberal ideals—nor does he care very much that illegal immigration makes it harder for high-school dropouts to get hired by apple farmers and landscaping crews. He just wants to lessen immigration.
Buckley’s discussion of immigration was emblematic of a problem in Progressive Conservatism: the author consistently presents an idealized picture of Donald Trump and his movement. To be clear, I have never been a #NeverTrump conservative. In fact, after his 2016 victory, I was optimistic about Trump and hoped he would implement an agenda very similar to what Buckley calls for today. I have always rolled my eyes at histrionic pundits convinced a fascist revolution is in the offing. But we also need to realize what propelled Donald Trump to the presidency. Trumpism’s grassroots voters have never been primarily motivated by the principles laid out in Progressive Conservatism.
The left has long promoted the notion that Trump’s victory can be easily explained as an attempt by reactionaries to reassert patriarchy and white supremacy in a rapidly changing country. Conservatives have understandably pushed back against this narrative. It is possible to go too far in the opposite direction, however, and I fear Buckley has done so. The typical Trump voter was never an Alt-Right white nationalist, a QAnon conspiracy theorist, or a revanchist Christian nationalist. Yet it would be disingenuous to say that cultural anxieties and resentments were not a key element of Trump’s successful political formula. They were far more important than the public’s concerns about “republican virtues”—virtues, I should not have to point out, Donald Trump rarely exhibited.
Trump voters, especially in the 2016 primaries, were mostly not motivated by trade policy; few Americans have the slightest clue about what policies we have or how they impact the economy. Nor did they view rampant corruption among lawmakers and bureaucrats as a widespread societal problem—they were upset about real and perceived corruption linked specifically to the Clintons, but that has been the case for Republicans since the 1990s.
Buckley is correct that most Trump voters have no interest in economic libertarianism, and they want to be confident that Social Security and Medicare will remain intact indefinitely. This has always been true of the Republican Party in the electorate. Trump’s promise to safeguard entitlement programs probably did help him a bit in the G.O.P. primaries. This is nonetheless an implausible explanation for Trump’s rise in Republican politics in 2015 and 2016.
Although his policy positions may have helped him win the hearts of some Republican primary voters, I suspect the crude, superficial elements of his campaign explain more of his political success. Millions of people loved his attacks on the media, the Democrats, and left-wing celebrities. A lot of well-intentioned, right-of-center intellectuals and activists really want Trumpism to be about strengthening supply chains, prudence and restraint in foreign policy, education reform, and eliminating illogical regulations. Unfortunately, I suspect most of Trump’s voters were far more interested in his zingers lobbed at Rosie O’Donnell and CNN. My assessment of voter sophistication may be overly pessimistic, but it is more believable than the idea that the typical voter has any knowledge of or interest in lobbying reform.
According to Buckley, “If Trump remains popular among Republican voters, that’s because they want to see the policies he favored enacted.” The problem with that claim is that Trump did not deviate very much from the standard Republican policy playbook while he was president. Trump spoke like a populist, but he governed as a typical conservative. What major policy initiatives that were passed and implemented during Trump’s presidency would have been different if Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio, or Jeb Bush had prevailed in 2016? Very few, I suspect.
An additional problem with Buckley’s analysis is that there is scant evidence that Republicans who follow his advice and promote moderate economic policies perform any better at the ballot box than doctrinaire economic conservatives. Buckley correctly notes that Romney lost, Trump won, and the two spoke very differently about economic issues. It does not follow that their economic talking points were the key explanation for the different election outcomes. The fact that millions of ordinary voters consider Trump more genuine, empathetic, and relatable than Mitt Romney, and most people of all political persuasions have fonder feelings for Barack Obama than Hillary Clinton, is a simpler and more credible explanation for the different outcomes of the two elections.
None of these critiques suggest Buckley is wrong in his policy suggestions for the Republican Party. His argument in favor of school choice is spot on. His plan for reforming higher education is also worth serious consideration—he proposes that the government refuse to guarantee student loans for students at schools with tuition above some specified amount. Buckley’s case against the regulatory state as it presently exists is similarly cogent. And despite my critique of his arguments about immigration, we should seriously consider his proposal to shift toward a points-based system. I do not think that plan will be a panacea for all sides of the immigration debate, but it is reasonable and deserves to be part of the discussion.
Buckley has many good ideas, but they are not ideas that voters, including Trump voters, are clamoring for. This may not really matter. One lesson from the Trump years is that Republican voters do not seem to care very much about policy specifics. They want a strong economy and leaders who go on the offensive against the Left. Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, Trump was delivering both and was on track to reelection.
If Buckley wants to see his policy preferences implemented, he needs to persuade people with power to pursue them. Part of that also requires getting politicians with similar views elected, which can only be accomplished by maintaining a cold-eyed approach to the electorate and elections.
Especially in this period of affective partisan polarization, voters are tribal and nasty, yet also not very ideological. They want to see their partisan enemies beaten and humiliated, treating policy as a secondary consideration. Trump showed that Republicans can win at this game. Unfortunately, unlike Buckley, I see no path toward a new era of reconciliation and cooperation dominated by progressive conservatives. Conservatives can nonetheless do some good when they have power, and I hope Buckley has a seat at the table when leaders are determining their future agenda. They might want to look elsewhere—to analysts with more of a Machiavellian mean streak—when formulating their campaign strategies.