In a characteristically superb column yesterday, Ross Douthat described our contemporary political situation in terms of the “court party” and “country party” — terms drawn from 17th-and 18th-century British politics that refer to a party that wields power for the benefit of elite players and institutions and an opposition that seeks more dispersed power for the benefit of a larger public. No historical analogy is ever perfectly apt, but this one is powerfully clarifying.
Particularly as laid out by its foremost intellectual leader, Henry St. John (the Viscount Bolingbroke), the country party’s idea of an organized political opposition as well as its particular policy vision — which combined a commitment to individual liberty and frugal, restrained government with a kind of social traditionalism — were enormously influential in colonial America and have always continued to exert a powerful influence over our politics. It is an influence that we have often, perhaps too loosely, described as populism.
For much of the past four decades, that kind of substantive populism (as opposed to the far more insidious institutional populism advanced by the early progressives) has tended to be divided into cultural and economic populism, and the two parties have tended to break down along a double axis of populism and elitism: The Republican party has been the party of cultural populism and economic elitism, and the Democrats have been the party of cultural elitism and economic populism. Republicans have tended to identify with the traditional values, unabashedly patriotic, anti-cosmopolitan, non-nuanced Joe Sixpack, even as they pursued an economic policy that aims at elite investor-driven growth. Democrats identified with the mistreated, underpaid, overworked “people against the powerful,” but tended to look down on those people’s religion, education, and way of life. Republicans have tended to believe the dynamism of the market is for the best but that cultural change can be dangerously disruptive while Democrats tended to believe dynamic social change stretches the boundaries of inclusion for the better but that economic dynamism is often ruinous and unjust.
But in more recent years, perhaps especially the last decade, the Democratic party has been moving away from economic populism and becoming truly the party of concentrated elite power. As our elites have grown more socially liberal and our economy has grown more concentrated and consolidated, it has become easier to pursue liberal goals through the system than against it and the Democratic party has become the party of the large, established players — the court party, more or less.
Much of the policy agenda of the Obama administration has embodied this approach. It has been an agenda of consolidation — protecting larger players from competition in exchange for their willingness to serve as agents of government power and driving crucial sectors of our economy (finance and health insurance above all, but by no means only those) toward greater consolidation. This has been something of a return to the original vision of the American progressives, with its active role for government in choosing economic winners who will best serve the common interest while otherwise restraining chaotic market competition. “In economic warfare,” Herbert Croly wrote in 1909, “the fighting can never be fair for long, and it is the business of the state to see that its own friends are victorious.” Big business and big labor, overseen by big government, would keep things in balance. As big labor gradually fades, the progressive economic vision has come down to big business and the state.
The Left’s diminishing emphasis on economic populism has also been on display in the immigration debate, where the kinds of concerns with the wages of low-skill workers that were evident among Democrats in prior rounds of the argument have basically disappeared. Consider this New York Times editorial from February of 2000, arguing against amnesty for illegal immigrants on the grounds that “amnesty would undermine the integrity of the country’s immigration laws and would depress the wages of its lowest-paid native-born workers.” Can you imagine such an editorial today in the flagship publication of American liberalism? The economic arguments they made have not gone away, as Andrew Biggs recently noted. It’s the Left’s interest in those arguments that has abated.
In general (and a discussion of such trends can only involve pretty gross generalizations of course), this has tended to leave us with one party of economic elitism and cultural populism and another party of economic elitism and cultural elitism. It’s a situation that should make Republicans think.
The Left’s economic policies (and the legacy of decades of right-wing confusion about the difference between being pro-market and being pro-business too) are making the American economy less and less like the vision of capitalism that conservatives should want to defend. They should consider what now would be best for the cause of growth and prosperity — the cause of free markets and free people.
Capitalism is fundamentally democratic, after all — we today might say fundamentally populist. Adam Smith’s opponents were mercantilists. He argued against economic policies that pursued the benefit of the nation’s largest producers and traders, which were taken to be equivalent to the interests of the nation as a whole. They are no such thing, Smith insisted, nor does helping big business necessarily increase the wealth of the nation. “The wealth of a state,” Smith wrote, “consists in the cheapness of provision and all other necessaries and conveniences of life.” So a nation is wealthy, in effect, when consumer items are inexpensive, at least relative to the means of the general public; that is, a nation is wealthy when a comfortable life is within the reach of most. Only economic growth, made possible by vibrant competition, can reliably allow for this to happen. Such growth, and so such competition, should be the goal of economic policy and regulation.
Recovering this understanding of conservative economics would help today’s Republicans see an enormous public need, and an enormous political opportunity, they tend to miss, and to which conservatism could be very usefully applied. It would point to a conservative agenda to help working families better afford life in the middle class, and to give more Americans a chance to rise. This would mean emphasizing conservative paths to higher wages and a lower cost of living for working families (like pro-family tax reform, a more growth-oriented monetary policy, health-care reform that reduces costs through competition and consumer power, energy policy aimed at both spurring growth and lowering utility bills by making the most of our domestic resources, K–12 reform to give families more ways to escape failing schools, higher-ed reforms to restrain tuition inflation,entitlement reform to reduce the burden of debt on the young while retaining the safety net for the poor and the old). It would also mean financial regulation with an eye to competition, rather than consolidation.
The Democratic party can’t really do most of this. Both its ideology and its electoral coalition leave its options quite constrained. It has to make the most of its status as the party of entrenched insiders, and to employ populist rhetoric to mask its increasingly elitist agenda.
Republicans could and should offer the public a responsible, pro-growth, pro-market, economic populism. On conservative philosophical grounds, on practical economic grounds, and on sheer political grounds, it makes an enormous amount of sense. In many ways, it is the missing organizing principle in a lot of conservative policy conversations today. And as Douthat notes, many younger conservatives seem to see this. But most Republicans still do not.
The resistance does not, in my view, come from donors — who often get the blame for it. Blaming them requires a very simplistic view of how political movements work, and a misinformed sense of who Republican donors are and what they want. Even their interests, let alone their ideology and aspirations, would not be in much tension with this agenda.
Instead, it seems to me that the resistance comes from some politicians and activists who have not yet internalized the political environment and the American situation of the early 21st century. They are entirely well intentioned, and they are no less appalled than I am at the increasingly statist corporatism of the age of Obama. But they believe that resistance alone could suffice as an answer — that the Democratic agenda is sufficiently odious that the public requires only a means by which to say no to it. And in its place they have in mind a general outline of the Reagan-era conservative agenda, or maybe even of the pre-Obama status quo. They do not see that a working-families conservatism would move well to the right of that status quo ante, and yet would also be far more popular.
Perhaps understandably, if not wisely, they recoil from all detailed policy prescriptions, seeing them as symptoms of an overactive urge to micromanage. But conservative successes have always been success of public policy, not of anti-policy. And their resistance to policy leaves them, and the Republican party, with an inadequate sense of the purpose and potential of political opposition. Here, too, not much is new under the sun. Here is Bolingbroke, in his 1736 letter “On the Spirit of Patriotism,” laying out his vision of the country party in opposition:
I have observed, and your Lordship will have frequent occasions of observing, many persons who seem to think that opposition to an administration requires fewer preparatives, and less constant application than the conduct of it. Now, my Lord, I take this to be a gross error, and I am sure it has been a fatal one. It is one of those errors, and there are many such, which men impute to judgment, and which proceed from the defect of judgment, as this does from lightness, irresolution, laziness, and a false notion of opposition….
They who affect to head an opposition, or to make any considerable figure in it, must be equal at least to those whom they oppose; I do not say in parts only, but in application and industry, and the fruits of both, information, knowledge, and a certain constant preparedness for all the events that may arise. Every administration is a system of conduct: opposition, therefore, should be a system of conduct likewise; an opposite, but not a dependent system….
It follows from hence, that they who engage in opposition are under as great obligations, to prepare themselves to control, as they who serve the crown are under, to prepare themselves to carry on the administration: and that a party formed for this purpose, do not act like good citizens nor honest men, unless they propose true, as well as oppose false measures of government. Sure I am they do not act like wise men unless they act systematically, and unless they contrast, on every occasion, that scheme of policy which the public interest requires to be followed, with that which is suited to no interest but the private interest of the prince or his ministers. Cunning men (several such there are among you) will dislike this consequence, and object, that such a conduct would support, under the appearance of opposing, a weak and even a wicked administration; and that to proceed in this manner would be to give good counsel to a bad minister, and to extricate him out of distresses that ought to be improved to his ruin. But cunning pays no regard to virtue, and is but the low mimic of wisdom. It were easy to demonstrate what I have asserted concerning the duty of an opposing party. and I presume there is no need of labouring to prove, that a party who opposed, systematically, a wise to a silly, an honest to an iniquitous, scheme of government, would acquire greater reputation and strength, and arrive more surely at their end, than a party who opposed occasionally, as it were, without any common system, without any general concert, with little uniformity, little preparation, little perseverance, and as little knowledge or political capacity.
If the view of opposition he is criticizing doesn’t make you think of today’s Republican party, at least much of the time, then you’re not paying attention.
But precisely because today’s resistance to a policy-oriented conservatism is inertial more than structural — and is the view of devoted activists pursing the good of the country rather than donors defending material interests — it is open to persuasion and proof. The effort to provide those is what a lot of the intellectual energy of the conservative movement is directed to now.
Lots of people on the left fail to see that, just as they fail to see the transformation of their own political movement and the vulnerability it has left them with. To better grasp both, they could do worse than read Ross Douthat every week.
Yuval Levin is Hertog Fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center and editor of National Affairs.