Sunday, January 31, 2016

Populism and Progressivism, Traditionalism and Cosmopolitanism, and the Struggle over the Republican Party


In a series of posts, Sean Trende has diagnosed the current split in the Republican Party as a conflict between cultural cosmpolitianism and cultural traditionalism. Back in 1995, I described a related split in terms of the opposition between populism and progressivism. In this context, "progressivism" stands for embrace of expertise, elite culture, and elite values--and not necessarily for left-wing or progressive social policies. Hence there are populist and "progressive" wings in both major political parties. Even though there are few liberal Republicans left, you have plenty of highly-educated elites and intellectuals in the Republican Party who believe in expertise and embrace elite values. They just disagree with the experts and elites on the left. The conservative counter-establishment, which includes conservative think tanks, policy organs, media organizations like National Review, and conservative academia-- is their natural home.

For the last generation or so the Republican political strategy has attempted to identify conservatism and the Republican Party with populism and cultural traditionalism, and to portray liberals and Democrats as "progressives" (in my language) or cultural cosmopolitans (in Trende's). This strategy has often been very effective, because the modern (post-Reagan) Democratic Party leadership has usually been more progressive than populist in its orientation. Nevertheless, this strategy has put many Republican elites in a bind, because their values and attitudes are often not really populist at all. They are cosmopolitan.

Nevertheless, conservative elites have been able to paper over these problems skillfully, by claiming to identify with and speak for the values and concerns of working class (usually white) Americans. For generations, very well-educated businesspeople and intellectuals have defied political gravity by arguing that their economic agenda of low taxes for the wealthy, deregulation, free trade, and immigration reform was also (or should be) the agenda of the conservative working class. Cosmopolitan conservative elites often paid lip service to culture war issues as the price of a very successful political alliance. This is conservative elites' version of the challenges that liberal elites faced in attempting to speak for the interests of working class and poor people, an association that conservative intellectuals have repeatedly and gleefully attacked. To the extent that these attacks succeeded, conservative elites were simply more successful than liberals in hiding the tensions within their own coalition.

That is, until now.

Donald Trump's candidacy has disrupted this strategy, and revealed the tension within the party clearly. He is appealing to cultural traditionalism or populism, capitalizing on resentment against elites and elite values on both the left and the right. Although he himself is a member of the elite (he loves to point out that he is very smart and went to Wharton) his style of speaking is demotic and blunt, and he comes across as someone in touch with populist concerns and populist values.

If The Donald did not exist, some other candidate would have figured out how to exploit the populist/progressive traditional/cosmopolitan divide within the Republican Party. Indeed, as Trende points out, Rick Santorum and Mike Huckabee offered earlier examples of the strategy. But Trump had the talent--and, let's admit it, the shamelessness--to pull it off powerfully and effectively. Even if he loses the Republican nomination, the damage to the Republican coalition has been done. Other politicians will figure out how they can also play on this divide to their personal advantage. Decades of clever attacks leveled against liberal elites for being out of touch and opposed to the interests of "real Americans" can pretty easily be reshaped and deployed against conservative elites. The Republican Party will be in a state of turmoil for some time to come.

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