Conservatives Should Embrace Principled Populism

December 6, 2016

It is much more important to kill bad bills than to pass good ones,” Calvin Coolidge once said. With a unified federal government soon to be in Republican hands, however, maybe we can do a bit of both.

But how? While congressional Republicans tend to identify as conservatives, President-elect Donald Trump is a populist. Many observers, including some Republicans, see this as an un-squareable circle.

I disagree. For all the challenges a President Trump may present conservatives during his term, his populism need not be one of them. Far from contradictory, conservatism and populism complement each other in ways that can change history — as did the most successful populist in recent decades, Ronald Reagan.

The chief political weakness of conservatism is its difficulty identifying problems that are appropriate for political correction. Conservatism’s view of human nature and history teaches us that problems are inevitable in this world and that attempts to use government to solve them often only make things worse.

This insight actually makes us good at finding solutions. At our best, conservatives craft policy reforms that empower bottom-up, trial-and-error problem-solving and the institutions that facilitate it, such as markets and civil society. At our worst, though, we can seem indifferent to suffering and injustice because we overlook problems that require our action or resign ourselves to their insolvability.

Populists, on the other hand, have an uncanny knack for identifying social problems. It’s when pressed for solutions that populists tend to reveal their characteristic weakness. Unable to draw on a coherent philosophy, populists can tend toward inconsistent or unserious proposals.

The rough terms of a successful partnership seem obvious. Populism identifies the problems; conservatism develops the solutions; and President Trump oversees the process with a veto pen that keeps everyone honest. Call it “principled populism”: an authentic conservatism focused on solving the problems that face working Americans in a fracturing society and globalizing economy.

Consider how this approach might help Republicans tackle Trump’s two signature issues, immigration and trade.

Since his first speech as a candidate, Trump has attacked our broken immigration system and the ways in which it benefits elites at the expense of less affluent Americans. Traditionally, Washington Republicans have favored “comprehensive immigration reform” that trades border enforcement for amnesty. It’s exactly this kind of corrupt elitism — treating the rule of law as a bargaining chip — that Trump entered the presidential race to combat. Nonetheless, some of Trump’s ideas about a solution can fairly be said to suffer from populism’s traditional faults.

Imagining principled-populist immigration reforms that would help lower-income Americans isn’t too hard. Border security — including a wall, fence, or some other barrier — is an obvious first step. Finally creating a strict entry-exit system and a workplace-enforcement regime would discourage illegal entry and penalize visa overstayers. In short order, fewer foreigners would illegally enter the United States, and more who already have done so would leave — all without the violation of anyone’s rights.

Then there is the matter of trade policies. Trump says America is losing in the global economy and blames international trade agreements for failing to deliver, especially to the working class, on their promised benefits. This contradicts conservatives’ traditional support for free trade. But Trump does have a point. Whatever its aggregate benefits to the economy, free trade has imposed costs on millions of Americans. On the other hand, Trump’s promise to “bring back the jobs” now done in factories abroad is dubious. Automation has so changed American manufacturing that most of the jobs we’ve lost to outsourcing may not even exist anymore. Indeed, total American industrial output continues to grow, even as industrial employment stagnates.

Republicans should be able to recognize that while globalization and free trade have created enormous opportunity and wealth for the country, those benefits have flowed disproportionately to the wealthy. So principled populism would, rather than withdraw from the global economy, seek to channel its benefits to workers — to harness the irresistible forces of globalization to the interests of Trump’s “forgotten Americans.” Dramatically cutting — even eliminating — the corporate-income tax while raising investment-tax rates to recoup the lost revenue would help accomplish this goal. First, it would boost wages, since employers currently pass on some of the tax burden to their employees. And second, it would flood our economy with new foreign investment and help create American jobs.

But a successful populism cannot just give Americans more money; it should also give them more political power. Lots of it. Happily, the Founding Fathers long ago mastered the art of this particular deal. The United States Constitution is not purely democratic, but it is profoundly populist. Indeed, it’s the most successful populist platform ever written, as last Election Day proved once again.

All human history teaches us that people cannot be trusted with unaccountable power; therefore, freedom and security are best protected by dispersing power. Federalism and the separation of powers may sound like legalistic abstractions, but in truth they are as important, concrete, and guaranteed under our Constitution as the right to vote or of due process.

Elites hate the transparency, accountability, and inclusiveness that the Constitution requires of federal policymaking. That’s why they have spent decades circumventing its guardrails. It is not a coincidence that our era of inequality and distrust has been marked by frenzied centralization of political power. Power has been pulled up and away from the people and states and toward the federal government. Within Washington, it has been transferred from the people’s elected representatives in Congress to the two other branches, especially the unaccountable and ever-growing administrative state.

As principled populists, Republicans would not only apply conservative insights to solve discrete problems but also anchor conservatism to the Constitution and radically decentralize Washington’s policymaking power. The new Congress should seize back its Article I legislative authority, ideally with President Trump’s help. Only by putting Congress back in charge of federal lawmaking can Trump make good on his promise to put the American people back in charge of Washington.

And as quickly as Congress recovers its policy portfolio, we should transfer as much of it as possible to the states. The election map once again showed how divided our nation is. To those who would centralize power, this diversity is an obstacle. But constitutional populists can make diversity a real strength by liberating blue and red states alike from the arbitrary rule of an imperial president. Let states, cities, and towns govern themselves, according to their own values. Let every community engage in the global economy on its own terms, prioritizing growth, economic security, environmental protection, social solidarity, or whatever else inspires its civic spirit. In this way, the people will be empowered to protect their own interests from hubristic elites even after this Trumpian era ends.

None of this is to predict that President Trump will govern as an ideologue. Trump ran and won as a populist and should govern as one. But what this idea of a principled populism can do is provide all Republicans a unifying theory of reform to guide both conservatism and Trumpism, and help the new president fulfill his mandate.

In the past, when populist rebellions have failed, it has usually been when their leaders, lacking a governing philosophy, have descended into authoritarianism. Reagan succeeded because he elevated his populism by channeling it through conservative and constitutional principles, just as President-elect Trump now has the opportunity to do.

History warns us that, for ordinary people, there is no such thing as “our” strongman. A republic of constitutionally empowered citizens — free, respected, and sovereign — would never want one in the first place. Leaving our children just such a republic is how principled populism can help our new president truly make America great again.

Op-ed Originally published in the National Review