Clause 61: The Pushback Blog

Because ideas have consequences

The Roots of Republican Populism

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In more than fifty years of living, I have listened to a lot of people. While my sample is unscientific, it is not deliberately biased. I have heard from a lot of people who are not like me. What I have consistently heard is that the American people are generous, not mean-spirited. This includes Americans who are also Republicans.

So what is going on with the Republican Party lately? One watches or reads the news and one would believe that the Republican Party is made up of haters. On the debate stage, the candidates’ language was certainly strident, with key exceptions such as Rand Paul and John Kasich who are, to put it charitably, not leading the pack.

Writing in The Atlantic, David Frum has contributed to our understanding with a thoughtful analysis that avoids commonplace stereotypes ( The best part of the article is his analysis of populist sentiment:

These populists seek to defend what the French call “acquired rights”—health care, pensions, and other programs that benefit older people—against bankers and technocrats who endlessly demand austerity; against migrants who make new claims and challenge accustomed ways; against a globalized market that depresses wages and benefits. In the United States, they lean Republican because they fear the Democrats want to take from them and redistribute to Americans who are newer, poorer, and in their view less deserving—to “spread the wealth around,” in candidate Barack Obama’s words to “Joe the Plumber” back in 2008. Yet they have come to fear more and more strongly that their party does not have their best interests at heart.

The roots of this populism go back to, of all things, the New Deal. Back in the 30s, people were talking about the “common man”, the “little guy”. Yes, there was a high smoke-and-mirrors factor to the rhetoric, but that was the central theme that obtained broad support among the American people. It resonated with people’s beliefs. FDR did not win four terms in office by publicly dismissing the concerns of ordinary people. Whatever he actually implemented, he spoke to them in his addresses, including his fireside chats.

In a 2013 article (, Josh Freedman and Michael Lind set the breakdown of the New Deal social contract around 1980. When Elizabeth Warren discusses the decline of the middle class, the baseline she uses for comparison is 1970. However, the consensus supporting the social contract was already unraveling in 1970.

To Deserve Help

During the 1960s, the Democratic Party shifted focus from the “common man” to the permanent underclass. In this view, everyone deserved help; no one should live in poverty. Help became an entitlement.

However, the New Deal was a social contract, not merely an economic contract. We’re going to help you as long as you deserve it. I am my brother’s keeper, but my brother has to be someone I would want to keep. It’s not OK for my brother to do nothing to help himself and demand that I help him, and it’s not OK for the government to speak for him and require me to help him unconditionally.

Note that whether or not the people receiving help actually are doing the best they can to help themselves is irrelevant. It is not my intention to argue what the recipients of help actually are or are not doing to help themselves. Maybe they are helping themselves in ways others don’t recognize. The point is that others who were fighting to hang on to their own socio-economic position perceived that help was being extended to those who did not deserve it, and did not like this direction one bit. Archie Bunker didn’t like it, and neither did my mother.

The ascent of Nixon is typically attributed to factors such as the Republican southern strategy, intended to exploit racial divisions after LBJ put civil rights legislation through. However, a very real motivation for those who mourned for FDR in 1945 to turn their backs on the Democratic party in the 60s was the breakdown of the New Deal social contract.

It was these pessimistic Republicans who powered the Tea Party movement of 2009 and 2010. They were not, as a rule, libertarians looking for an ultraminimal government. The closest study we have of the beliefs of Tea Party supporters, led by Theda Skocpol, a Harvard political scientist, found that “Tea Partiers judge entitlement programs not in terms of abstract free-market orthodoxy, but according to the perceived deservingness of recipients [italics in original]. The distinction between ‘workers’ and ‘people who don’t work’ is fundamental to Tea Party ideology.”

That distinction was always fundamental, and was woven into the New Deal social contract. You even had to work to get federal old age benefits (a.k.a. Social Security).

The Unraveling Coalition

The people I have met who go to Tea Party events are not ideologues. They would much prefer to use their disposable time in the same ways that they had always been using it in years past: primarily for recreation, leisure and social activities. They were motivated by the sense that the direction in which the country is going is intolerable to them, and this reality politicized them.

Yet even as the Republican Main Street protested Obamacare, it rejected the hardening ideological orthodoxy of Republican donors and elected officials. A substantial minority of Republicans—almost 30 percent—said they would welcome “heavy” taxes on the wealthy, according to Gallup. Within the party that made Paul Ryan’s entitlement-slashing budget plan a centerpiece of policy, only 21 percent favored cuts in Medicare and only 17 percent wanted to see spending on Social Security reduced, according to Pew. Less than a third of ordinary Republicans supported a pathway to citizenship for illegal immigrants (again according to Pew); a majority, by contrast, favored stepped-up deportation.

The pundits, donors and thought leaders of the Republican Party did not get it:

As a class, big Republican donors could not see any of this, or would not. So neither did the politicians who depend upon them. Against all evidence, both groups interpreted the Tea Party as a mass movement in favor of the agenda of the Wall Street Journal editorial page. One of the more dangerous pleasures of great wealth is that you never have to hear anyone tell you that you are completely wrong.

Much like the intelligence officers in the US Army were competing to analyze the Germans out of the war in late 1944, the Republican Party establishment marginalizes and dismisses the Tea Party. The establishment doesn’t want to hear it, thinks it can ride out the storm and keeps monopolizing the conversation. Yet the casualty list grows — Bob Bennett, David Dewhurst, Eric Cantor, John Boehner.

Cantor’s loss to Brat jolted House leaders. Immigration reform slipped off their agenda. Marco Rubio repudiated his own deal. But Republican elites outside Congress did not get the message. They rationalized Cantor’s defeat as a freak event, the sad consequence of a nationally minded politician’s neglect of his district. They continued to fill the coffers of Jeb Bush and, to a lesser extent, Rubio and Scott Walker, all reliable purveyors of Conservatism Classic.

The Immigrant Thing

What is the great animus toward immigrants? Didn’t everyone descend from someone who came here from someone else? Frum identifies more immediate concerns on people’s minds:

Owners of capital assets, employers of low-skill laborers, and highly compensated professionals tend to benefit economically from the arrival of immigrants. They are better positioned to enjoy the attractive cultural and social results of migration (more-interesting food!) and to protect themselves against the burdensome impacts (surges in non-English-proficient pupils in public schools). A pro-immigration policy shift was one more assertion of class interest in a party program already brimful of them.

The Peasants Are Revolting
(I’ll Say They Are!)

Into this seething brew Donald Trump inserts himself.

When Trump first erupted into the Republican race in June, he did so with a message of grim pessimism. “We got $18 trillion in debt. We got nothing but problems … We’re dying. We’re dying. We need money … We have losers. We have people that don’t have it. We have people that are morally corrupt. We have people that are selling this country down the drain … The American dream is dead.”

That message did not resonate with those who’d ridden the S&P 500 from less than 900 in 2009 to more than 2,000 in 2015. But it found an audience all the same. Half of Trump’s supporters within the GOP had stopped their education at or before high-school graduation, according to the polling firm YouGov. Only 19 percent had a college or postcollege degree. Thirty-eight percent earned less than $50,000. Only 11 percent earned more than $100,000.

The media, obsessed with demographics and identity politics, was completely blindsided by this development. He’s arrogant, he’s adolescent, he’s crass, he’s rude. He doesn’t play by the rules. He invited Hillary Clinton to his 2005 wedding; how much of an outsider can he really be? Are these people blind, deluded or just stupid?

The people we are talking about already know that journalists and political insiders are condescending toward them. It’s a dog-bites-man story by now.

It’s uncertain whether any Tea Partier ever really carried a placard that read keep your government hands off my medicare. But if so, that person wasn’t spouting gibberish. The Obama administration had laid hands on Medicare. It hoped to squeeze $500 billion out of the program from 2010 to 2020 to finance health insurance for the uninsured. You didn’t have to look up the figures to have a sense that many of the uninsured were noncitizens (20 percent), or that even more were foreign-born (27 percent). In the Tea Party’s angry town-hall meetings, this issue resonated perhaps more loudly than any other—the ultimate example of redistribution from a deserving “us” to an undeserving “them.”

Seen from a viewpoint of conservative political orthodoxy, “Keep your government hands off my medicare” doesn’t make any sense; who created Medicare in the first place? The government can modify it anytime they want to; it’s their program. When you dine with the devil, you had best use a long spoon.

But spin around and look at it from the point of view of the New Deal social contract. Over the past eighty years, people made sacrifices and accepted obligations in the expectations that they would get certain benefits. That’s the contract part of social contract. The social part is tied to the idea of deserving. If “undeserving” people — however defined — can jump the queue and have prior claim to benefits, then the social contract is rubbish, a device to sucker the rubes.

One could argue that, once the New Deal contract was extended to all deserving Americans — most notably blacks, who were substantially excluded by design in the 30s — the cost soared out of reach. One could argue that the social contract was never adequately defined; it exists in the eye of the beholder, an agreement with yourself. But nobody of any note is making these arguments. Instead, they view Tea Partiers and Trump supporters as a circus freak show and dismiss their dissatisfaction.

Whatever Donald Trump’s limitations are, the people who are supporting him have their own ideas. David Frum is the first public person I have encountered who takes them seriously instead of trying to delegitimize them.


Written by srojak

December 24, 2015 at 1:40 pm

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