To respond to the legitimate grievances of populists, argues Stephen Harper, conservatives have to snap out of their free market dogmatism.
Are you part of the Three Percent? Not the One Percent of top economic earners but the Three Percent of Americans in a Pew survey who say they trust Washington to do what is right “just about always”? Probably not. Public trust in government is in the toilet. But it’s not as though the American people love a rival; they hate everyone. They certainly don’t have a great deal of confidence in television news or newspapers, organized labor or banks, according to Gallup polling data on confidence in institutions. Nevertheless, they’re far more likely to have confidence in those things than in Congress. Congress? Sigh. Even news on the internet does better!
In the last election, dissatisfaction worked. According to one exit poll, 69% of respondents said they were either dissatisfied with (46%) or angry at (23%) the federal government. Those dissatisfied leaned Trump; the angry went for him overwhelmingly.
The people hated the elites during the last election season, and the elites hated them back. After Trump’s success in the Republican primaries, Jonathan Chait explained the candidate’s unlikely success this way: “The Republican Party turns out to be filled with idiots. Far more of them than anybody expected.” But Jeet Heer took issue with this characterization, in part because he didn’t want to let Trump supporters off the hook: “Idiots are usually not held accountable for their acts.” Heer pointed to data suggesting Trump’s supporters beat the national averages in wealth and educational attainment. So what’s up? “Trump’s essential appeal is based on racism.”
Let’s be clear: Calling someone an idiot or a racist isn’t an invitation to reasonable conversation, but a dismissal. But, in this instance, the dismissal came from both sides of the aisle. Perhaps for the first time, institutional conservatives and their progressive counterparts shared, surprisingly, the same positions and attitudes about the Republican party’s candidate for president, and his supporters.
Richard Reinsch proposes a different approach in “Conservatism’s Way Forward.” He says conservatives need to embrace, or at least appropriate, the language of, and the themes within, the ascendant populism of our day.
The word populism often stands in for irrational demagoguery, or something like that. But instead of seeing populist as a placeholder for idiotic or racist, we should see it as anti-elitist. If the populism of our day is anti-elitist, then conservative rhetorical pirouettes simply accentuate the distance between conservatives in theory and Republican voters in practice. As Reinsch puts it, “Thus conservative calls for limited government, free markets, and the rule of law eventually proved to be meaningless abstractions in the eyes of many Americans, remote from their actual experiences as workers, family members, citizens, and worshipers.”
And their actual experience as recipients of scorn. In 2008, then candidate Barack Obama offered some remarks about the challenges facing people in small towns in Pennsylvania and across the Midwest (also known as voters in swing states). Though “each successive administration has said that somehow these communities are gonna regenerate,” he said, “they have not.” The result? People “get bitter” and “cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren’t like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations.”
One response: “His remarks are elitist and out of touch.” Who said that? Hillary Clinton. Clinton, of course, had her own widely publicized remarks two months before the 2016 election, when she told liberal donors that “half” of Trump supporters could go into “the basket of deplorables.” To be fair, what she said about the other half of the basket went underreported: “That other basket of people are people who feel that the government has them down, nobody cares about them, nobody worries about what happens to their lives and their futures, and they’re just desperate for change.”
So both Obama in 2008 and Clinton in 2016 correctly diagnosed the problem. Swing state voters were told that the economy was getting better, but it wasn’t getting better for them. The economic regeneration promised by successive presidents failed to materialize. No surprise, then, that a 2016 Pew survey before the election showed that Trump supporters focused on the economy and terrorism first and foremost, ahead of immigration and foreign policy.
Why is this important? Well, if government doesn’t seem very good at what it’s supposed to be good at doing (setting the conditions for economic growth, protecting us from enemies, both foreign and domestic, etc.), and focuses instead on incessant meddling (arresting people for selling raw milk, gay marriage, etc.), then it may be time to start over. One possibility: your grandfather’s progressive populism. Another alternative: localism.
To see how populist rhetoric could underscore a move to local control, let’s consider two topics, local money and local growth. The president may want us to go bigly. I say go native, instead. Conservatives and libertarians defend the free market. They should defend localism, too.
First, local money. Instead of asking states to apply for grants administered by bureaucrats, the federal government can give states money and force them to make the controversial decisions about how to spend it. As The Wall Street Journal suggested,
Congress could also shift from categorical and competitive grants to block grants that give governors flexibility. This would also make state and local politicians more accountable for their spending. Let California Gov. Jerry Brown choose between spending billions more on his bullet train in the Central Valley or improving commuter rail in the Bay Area.
Exactly. Currently, your governor or mayor can say the local Bridge to Nowhere isn’t costing you a dime because it’s being built with federal dollars (as though federal dollars materialize without taxation). Furthermore, he can say that the choice isn’t between a Bridge to Nowhere and more funding for a county hospital; it’s between a Bridge to Nowhere or nothing at all. But if the local politician gets the money and decides to build that Bridge to Nowhere, then the people will know to blame him, and not Washington.
What’s true of infrastructure spending is also true of income transfers, which will reach almost 70% in the 2019 federal budget cycle. Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security, etc. comprise the vast majority of the federal budget, but spending more does not mean spending well. A recent article in The Journal of the American Medical Association connects better outcomes for heart attacks in large part to “cost-effective care,” such as stents, “rather than overall expenditure growth.” But that’s just what federally dictated health spending promises: overall expenditure growth. Michael Tanner puts the problem in a sentence: “Medicare is inefficient, spending lots of money without evidence of better results.” Let’s remember that “Medicare is a federal program. It is basically the same everywhere in the United States and is run by the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services, an agency of the federal government” — or so says the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services. If it doesn’t work at the federal level, go local. And remember that private, individual decisions count as local decisions, too.
Going local means greater accountability. Perhaps you think otherwise. What if going local simply means succumbing to local prejudices? Two responses: First, we should distinguish local prejudices from local preferences. Sometimes a stated preference is really and truly a prejudice, and should be resisted, but sometimes preferences are merely preferences, good or bad. If people can keep their local preferences, then they may realize that the fault, dear Brutus, is not in our government, but in ourselves — and that’s a good thing. Going local means greater accountability, even when the message is unpleasant. Take one instance: We are to blame for our fat kids. How do we know this? Well, when Michelle Obama championed better health for school children, itself a laudable goal, the children did not praise her unreservedly. They did not rejoice in being rescued from their town’s bad health preferences. Instead, they took to social media to complain, posting pictures of their (according to them, and sometimes to the rest of us) gross-looking lunches. The USDA set the health guidelines, but the kids asked, “Where are the potato chips?” as they put their fruit and vegetables in the trash. Fried food isn’t a prejudice, but it sure is a preference.
Second, even if the prejudices are actual prejudices, they will still be more easily identifiable, and so more powerfully resisted, first and foremost at the local level. Champions of decency fought segregation on the bus (Rosa Parks in 1955) and at the lunch counter (the Greensboro Four in 1960) before the wave of civil rights legislation vindicated their correct moral positions. If the system is somehow unjust, then increasing the distance between the wrongdoers and their victims will help the wicked hide their injustice behind a vast labyrinth of bureaucracy. Injustice must be resisted, but it has to be known as such before people can know to resist it.
Second, local growth. Nowadays, when someone talks about being fair, it’s often code for paying more than the market price (as in fair trade coffee) or equalizing incomes through transfer payments (as in one’s fair share of taxation). But there’s another kind of fairness, and that’s the fairness of impartiality. We should strive for impartiality, but not favoritism, in our trade relationships, neither rent-seeking for American companies nor shielding them from the marketplace.
But if our treaty obligations, tax regime, etc. undermine the American worker’s ability to compete in the marketplace on free and equal terms, the federal government should endeavor to correct this imbalance. Doing so may not make companies more successful, but it will guarantee that, if they fail, they will have only themselves to blame.
Local growth can only be sustained through local jobs. We need people to develop new goods and services that can be sold to other Americans and, indeed, to the whole world. But what if clever American entrepreneurs find their intellectual property stolen and discover that the U.S. postal service subsidizes the shipping rates of foreign competitors, so they not only manufacture knockoff goods more cheaply but also pay less to ship them to customers in the United States? That’s not happening — is it? Yes, it is.
China offers itself as the most obvious example of what we can call the Mighty Mug Problem. Jayme Smaldone, founder and CEO of Mighty Mug, says Chinese competitors have produced knockoffs of his patented travel mug. In their search for those violating Mighty Mug’s intellectual property, he writes, “We came across a fake Mighty Mug for $5.69, with free shipping all the way from China.” Given that Mighty Mug pays USPS $6.30 for shipping, Smaldone asks, appropriately enough, “How is a Chinese retailer able to sell a product and send it 8,100 miles for less than our shipping costs alone?” His answer: “The Universal Postal Union, founded in 1874 and now a United Nations agency.” China, classified with counties like Cuba and Gabon, receives substantial discounts in its shipping rates. So China can ship a knockoff mug for a dollar and change, but Mighty Mug would have to pony up $22 to send a legitimate mug back. Even worse: U.S. taxpayers cover the revenue lost to USPS to subsidize the shipping. Talk about the slow boat to China.
Some populists want to scream and shake their fists at China, but our anger should not be directed at China but at ourselves, at our own incompetence at understanding how trade agreements can penalize American producers. Trade wars will only hurt American producers and consumers. But a focus on maintaining a level playing field can help.
The slogans of the day hide legitimate, not illegitimate, concerns. They describe in shorthand an actual problem. Political thinkers should play the role of good doctors by not getting lost in questions of scope (how many people face the problem), degree (how extreme the problem is), or the slogan itself. A patient may say he hurts all over, when his pain is localized; he says it is killing him, when he’s clearly never experienced childbirth or a broken leg, but he’s still doing his best to articulate the problem as it seems to him. So, too, a man may say that the economy’s in shambles, when he’s talking about his town; that he has no job prospects, when he really doesn’t want to make less than he did before, but he still has a legitimate concern, even if he misdiagnoses the cause — or the cure.
In Hillbilly Elegy, J. D. Vance communicates a genuine allegiance to home, a place real or imagined. Most professionals don’t, I think, share such sentiments; born in one place and educated in another, they work somewhere else. If they identify by a geographic designation (rather than by an occupation or ethnicity or religion), it’s probably as large as the United States, or even much larger. It’s probably not as small as a city, or a part of a city, or a town. It’s hard to be local, when you’re oh-so-international.
But if you did not go to college, you may have no experience of leaving family for economic opportunity. If one’s great-grandfather, grandfather, and father worked for General Motors, it’d be hard for that not to be your dream, too. The idea of moving for work must be more disruptive than it is for those of us who moved around for education prior to taking our first job. Indeed, immigrants to the United States — like the college educated — do something many working class populists may find very difficult to consider: they leave home for economic opportunity. People dream that they will be able to work in the same towns and cities as their parents and grandparents did. They can only do that if we make communities great again, and localism is the way We the People get there.