Published November 17, 2016
Republicans have always understood that their party’s tent is home to different factions. But they have long tended to perceive these factions—the grassroots base, the business Right, the conservative movement, and the governing-party establishment—as deeply united by a way of thinking, and not just by transactional relationships.
For two decades and more after the end of the Reagan era, Republicans implicitly thought of this coalition in terms we might roughly describe as “The Four Modes of Phil Gramm.” Gramm, the former senator from Texas, was an ideal full-spectrum-conservative Republican. He was a homespun populist pouring his common sense like ice-cold water over liberal eggheads. He was a libertarian economics professor who believed in markets because he could do math. He was a wonk-intellectual deeply conversant in the vocabulary of modern conservatism. And he was a prudent politician who could cut a deal. So Gramm could be fully at home among the grassroots activists, the businesspeople, the conservative thinkers, and the politicians, but in every case he was a purist conservative of a particular sort.
In their rhetoric, but also in their genuine self-understanding, many Republican activists and elected officials assumed that most people in these different factions roughly fit that description, too. This has never been quite true; it has grown less true over time, and it simply is no longer true in the wake of this momentous election.
The most significant implication of the party’s self-misunderstanding was a misimpression of the nature of its grassroots voters. Republican politicians thought of the base of the party as a steadfastly conservative voting bloc that would rebel against any departures from the GOP’s longstanding agenda and would be dissatisfied with party leaders to the extent they were not sufficiently aggressive in its pursuit. The war between the Tea Party and the establishment in the Obama years was fought on this premise.
But Donald Trump’s campaign, even before he won the election, demonstrated that this understanding of the Right’s grassroots—the understanding on which the work of various tea-party activist groups, the House Freedom Caucus, and Senator Ted Cruz’s presidential campaign, as well as the responses to these from establishment Republicans, were based—was in error in some important ways, and in any case is no longer operative. Trump showed that much of the base of the party was driven far more by resentment of elitist arrogance, by a rejection of globalism, and by economic and cultural insecurity than by a commitment to conservative economic or political principles. And he thereby also made the base of the party even more traditionally populist.
This is surely part of the reason why most members of the House Freedom Caucus and many prominent conservative talk-radio hosts didn’t stand athwart Trump’s candidacy in the primaries, even though he showed contempt for much of what they have always championed. Trump demonstrated that the people they claimed to represent were not quite who they had imagined they were.
He made this explicit soon after clinching the nomination. “This is called the Republican party, it’s not called the Conservative party,” Trump said in an interview in May. It was an extraordinary thing for a Republican presidential contender to say. And it was also true and important, and recognizing it would be a very good thing for both Republicans and conservatives.
For conservatives, in particular, ceasing to imagine that we own the Republican coalition, and therefore ceasing to expect it to simply follow our lead, would be a spur to sharpen, strengthen, and modernize our ideas so that they are more attractive and a better fit to contemporary problems. Understanding the need to persuade our fellow Republicans (and not just business leaders but populist middle- and working-class voters) that our ideas would address their concerns and priorities would strengthen our ability to persuade others, too. And it would help Republicans reinforce gains built up in a protest election that would be hard to sustain without substantive policy accomplishments.
But coalitions shape their members, and so just as conservatives might hope to channel the energies of the populist Right and restrain its excesses, sharing the party with a populist voter base might in turn reshape conservatism. Indeed, in some important ways it has already done that over the past decade and more. And just as Republicans have failed to take note of the actual character of their coalition, conservatives too have not sufficiently acknowledged how our movement has changed.
American conservatism has always been a collection of varied groups and schools of thought united, in broad terms, by a general view of the world. That view usually involves a low opinion of man’s character and rationality, combined with a high opinion of his dignity and rights; a resulting skepticism about power that tends to point toward greater confidence in mediating institutions and decentralized decision-making than in consolidated expertise and social engineering; and an overarching belief that the world is a dangerous place and maintaining order takes real work. These general views explain the attachment conservatives have to the American Constitution—which is rooted in some similar premises—and to the Western tradition beyond.
But as foundations for a coalition, these general views can add up in different ways under different circumstances. Since the 1970s, conservatives have tended to think of them as adding up to a coalition modeled on a three-legged stool. The legs have been muscular (originally anti-Communist) internationalism, social conservatism, and supply-side economics. Different conservatives emphasized these differently, with some really belonging to just one faction and only tolerating the others for practical ends. But the three routinely worked together.
And as happens in coalitions, the three elements all tended to shape one another over time. The internationalists made social conservatives tougher and less naïve about the world, and made the supply-siders more committed to freedom along with wealth. The social conservatives made the hawks more idealistic and made many of the supply-siders pro-life and otherwise traditionalist. The supply-siders made the internationalists smarter critics of Communism and made the social conservatives friendlier to growth and wealth.
The result, for a time, was a better-rounded and more effective coalition—one with a particular kind of argument for freedom at its core. And that coalition also helped shape the Republican party in recent decades in its battles with the Democrats, who have been shaped by their own different, if no less powerful, understanding of freedom.
That conservative coalition was well formed to offer attractive solutions to the problems of the late 1970s and the 1980s, but with time it has grown increasingly detached from American circumstances and priorities. One of the things we see more clearly in light of this year is that the familiar conservative coalition has for some time already been gradually transforming into a related but different coalition. The precise shape of that emerging coalition remains unclear, but it is a little easier after this momentous election to speculate about its general outlines.
Rather than muscular internationalism, social conservatism, and supply-side economics, the three legs of the stool of the conservative coalition in the coming years seem more likely to be, broadly speaking, American nationalism, religious communitarianism, and market economics. That’s a closely related coalition. The change has been evolutionary, not revolutionary, and conservatism has not changed as much as the broader Republican coalition has under the forces of populism.
The internationalists who were more defense hawks than democracy promoters can find a lot to like in a constructive nationalism. The supply-siders are believers in free markets, they just tend to emphasize growth at the margins more than using markets as tools of problem-solving. The social conservatives share the worldview of religious communitarians, if not always the same political instincts. There are many similarities, but this also stands to be a different conservatism in some important ways.
It is, for one thing, an ideological coalition that evinces a yearning for solidarity as much as a hunger for freedom. The ideological coalition that is progressivism will likely change in similar ways in the coming years, as an emphasis on conformity overtakes an ethic of liberation. This gradual evolution of the ideological Right and Left reveals an underlying shift in American life that we are only beginning to understand.
The interaction of the elements of this new coalition will also, unavoidably, be different. As before, the three elements would need to restrain one another’s excesses to make the whole more functional and appealing. Religious communitarians might help to make nationalists less livid and more tolerant, and to make the “marketists” less libertarian and individualistic. Nationalists could make religious conservatives less universalist and make marketists less cosmopolitan. Marketists could help make nationalists less isolationist and religious communitarians less collectivist.
In effect, all three will need to focus one another on the middle layers of society: a constructive nationalism as a unifying force against both hyper-individualism and globalism; a community-minded religious conservatism as a counterforce to the potential of markets to fall into moral chaos and of nationalism to devolve into hateful insularity; market economics as a way of solving problems near at hand rather than of unleashing faceless global forces or just liberating individuals.
This would still be a thoroughly conservative coalition in a familiar sense. It would be the natural home for pro-growth, small-government capitalism, along with social traditionalism and unabashed American patriotism and constitutionalism. But it would tend to emphasize the links between these views (which, after all, are also naturally in tension) by emphasizing their common roots in humility more than their common aspirations to boundless liberation. It would be more sober than cheerful, more careful than confident, more Tocqueville than Kemp. And it would be a conservatism heavily influenced by the increasingly populist flavor of the broader Republican coalition in the age of Trump, even as it frequently needs to act as a check on the party’s populism.
This outline is speculative and heavy on broad categories and vague “isms.” But it might suggest some guidelines for conservatives as we consider our role in the new Republican governing coalition. In a sense, Donald Trump has written a check to his voters that only conservatives can help him cash. That will require conservatives within the party to determine how far toward populism we should be willing to go, what we should ask in return, and how conservative principles can be applied to our contemporary challenges to address the desires and needs of middle- and working-class Americans.
None of these will be quite new questions. Some on the right have been asking them for years. But the Republican coalition is only now beginning to understand how important they will be to its future.
— Yuval Levin is the Hertog Fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, editor of National Affairs and a contributing editor of National Review.