Nov 18 2016
“It is much more important to kill bad bills than to pass good ones,” Calvin Coolidge once said. But with a unified federal government soon to be in Republican hands, 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 the federal 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, with President Trump overseeing the process with a veto pen that keeps everyone honest. Call it “principled populism”: an authentic conservatism focused on solving the problems facing working Americans in a fracturing society and globalizing economy.
As principled populists, Republicans would not only apply conservative insights to solve discrete problems, but also anchor our 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, because only by putting Congress back in charge of federal lawmaking can he 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.
In the past, when populist rebellions have failed, it has usually been when their leaders, lacking a governing philosophy, descend 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.
(A longer version of this article is on newsstands now in National Review.)