Can the GOP become the populist party?

Intellectual lights in the Republican Party are pushing a new idea: Libertarian populism

Paul Ryan
(Image credit: Mark Wilson/Getty Images)

Still searching for a way forward after last year's resounding November defeat, some Republicans have trumpeted a new economic platform that they say will return the GOP to electoral dominance: Libertarian populism.

While the phrase may sound like an oxymoron, many intellectual lights in the GOP are arguing that it could solve the party's rebranding problem. In short, the idea involves convincing voters at the middle and lower ends of the income spectrum that Republican policies — lower taxes, fewer regulations — will benefit them more than Democratic ones would. The key is casting President Obama and Democrats as elitists who cater to other elitists, and arguing that the usual populist fare — greater federal assistance in areas of health care, education, consumer protection, poverty alleviation, etc. — benefit the wealthy.

"Conservatives need to turn to the working class as the swing population that can deliver elections," the Washington Examiner's Timothy Carney wrote earlier this month in a post endorsing the idea. "Offer populist policies that mesh with free-market principles, and don't be afraid to admit that the game is rigged in favor of the wealthy and the well-connected."

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Former vice presidential nominee and current GOP budget guru Paul Ryan made a similar, shorter case on Twitter this past week.

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Ryan's challenge, and that of other GOPers taking this line of argument, is to convince average voters that Obama has helped perpetuate a vast ruling nexus composed of corporate and government elites. As Ross Douthat, a proponent of libertarian populism, explained at The New York Times:

Theirs is not just the usual conservative critique of big government, though that’s obviously part of it. It’s a more thoroughgoing attack on the way Americans are ruled today, encompassing Wall Street and corporate America, the media and the national-security state.

As theories go, it’s well suited to the times. The story of the last decade in American life is, indeed, a story of consolidation and self-dealing at the top. There really is a kind of "court party" in American politics, whose shared interests and assumptions — interventionist, corporatist, globalist — have stamped the last two presidencies and shaped just about every major piece of Obama-era legislation. There really is a disconnect between this elite’s priorities and those of the country as a whole. There really is a sense in which the ruling class — in Washington, especially — has grown fat at the expense of the nation it governs. [The New York Times]

Yet that tactic has, at least so far, not involved any substantive change in policy. Rather, the idea of libertarian populism "consists of advocating the same old policies, while insisting that they're really good for the working class," according to the Times' Paul Krugman.

"You can see why many on the right find this idea appealing," he wrote. "It suggests that Republicans can regain their former glory without changing much of anything — no need to reach out to nonwhite voters, no need to reconsider their economic ideology. You might also think that this sounds too good to be true — and you'd be right."

New York Magazine's Jonathan Chait agreed with Krugman in a thorough takedown of the idea, calling it a form of Republican "self-deception" and adding that "this is not a new idea at all, merely a new label for an old conservative tradition of attacking welfare queens or New Deal goldbrickers."

"[T]he main driver of inequality today is the marketplace, and the main bulwark against that inequality is the federal government," Chait wrote, citing government safety nets that Obama has tried to expand. "The egalitarian laissez-faire economy is a fantasy."

And according to Josh Barro at Business Insider, libertarian populism fails even on a pure messaging level:

Libertarian populism aims to fix a messaging problem that doesn't actually exist. Middle-class Americans are not broadly distressed about "bigness." They are concerned that incomes are not rising as fast as they used to, that education is extremely expensive, that their children are having trouble getting the education and the jobs they need to move out of the family home.

Some critiques of bigness play well into these concerns — such as that too-big-to-fail banks were able to use their size to extract government subsidies that all the rest of us had to pay for. But others don't; Social Security is a big bulwark against rising economic instability, and the public isn't likely to take kindly to efforts to weaken it on the grounds that it is "too big." [Business Insider]

One of the main problems for GOP reformers like Douthat and Carney is that many in the part see no need to change.

A Pew poll released Wednesday found that nearly seven in ten Republicans felt the party had to "address major problems" to do better in future elections. However, there was absolutely no consensus about what fixes were needed, especially on social issues. And significant pluralities said the party should actually move further to the right on a host of issues, including economic ones.

That's why the Republican rebrand has gone nowhere. Party members can't agree on how the party should approach major issues, let alone how they can build a bigger GOP tent. And with 87 percent of GOP respondents in Pew's survey saying the party was either not conservative enough or just right when it came to federal spending, a pivot to populist-branded economic policies seems unlikely.

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Jon Terbush

Jon Terbush is an associate editor at covering politics, sports, and other things he finds interesting. He has previously written for Talking Points Memo, Raw Story, and Business Insider.