Is Populism the Wave of the Future? Not Really

Is Populism the Wave of the Future? Not Really
Is Populism the Wave of the Future? Not Really

A myth circulating in political science circles talks about a massive realignment in America. According to this narrative, the two major political parties have switched constituencies. The Republican Party, particularly under President Trump, is now the new Working Class People’s Party, while the Democrats have become the haven of rich and corrupt elites.

The elections of 2016 and 2020 supposedly validated this assessment. Thus, many believe that populism, the belief in the rights, wisdom, or virtues of the common people, is the wave of the future. Those who cater to a working-class sensibility will prevail. Those who have power and money will eventually be overcome.

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There is some truth to this realignment. The once-solid Democratic working-class vote is a thing of the past. Meanwhile, many in the liberal establishment and management sectors reject the now-more-populist Republican message. However, such economic-based divisions are not infallible indicators of the vote or the future.  Other factors weigh heavily in determining what motivates voters.

The Telltale Sign that Something is Wrong

One rule never fails. Whenever money and power are the sole criteria to judge political things, it is a telltale sign, something is wrong. Money and power are important factors, but they rarely determine the outcome of events.

The use of economic divisions is part of a Marxist analysis of history that simplistically divides society into classes of so-called oppressors and oppressed, rich and poor, have and have-nots. The clash of these two sides supposedly gives rise to class struggle, a concept dear to all Marxists and repugnant to Christian charity.

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The object of politics should be unity, not division. This false economic outlook will always lead to disastrous and fragmented outcomes.

Cultural Concerns Are the Real Dividing Line

In a recent report for the Center for the Study of Partisanship and Ideology, George Hawley and Richard Hanania challenged this economic explanation for President Trump’s 2016 victory. They claim that “cultural concerns, not economic interests or policy preferences, were the real dividing line in 2016, and remain so today.”

The two researchers reject the “economic anxiety” explanation for the 2016 victory. Many have speculated that economic hardship in Rust Belt and other hard-pressed areas created a populist reaction that turned discontent into votes at the polls. However, the scholars found that the explanation could not hold up to empirical scrutiny.

Three Important Conclusions

The authors came to three important conclusions about the dismal future of populism based on the results of the last two elections. They warn that populism is a losing proposition that conservatives should avoid.

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First, they showed that the actual voting patterns disprove the class divisions that supposedly triggered the realignment of American politics. It was Joe Biden who won by a wide margin among those voters making less than $50,000 a year. President Trump held a similarly wide margin among the sector earning over $100,000 a year.

Moreover, the two scholars note that President Trump did not govern like a populist. His signature domestic policy achievement was a major tax cut for wealthier Americans, not the workers. He has carefully sought the support of those who defend moral values, such as the pro-life voters. Most 2020 Republican candidates who won their seats did not espouse economic populism. In fact, both populist and non-populist Republican candidates performed equally well.

Finally, research indicates that, while economic issues can influence elections, they are rarely determinative. Populist issues like trade policies do not motivate voters.  Most people do not understand specific economic issues and support general plans that affect all society and not a particular class interest.

What Will Work

The surprising thing about the realignment myth is that it runs contrary to established political theory and evidence. Hawley and Hanania report that “For decades, researchers have shown that you can predict very little about how any particular individual votes from knowing his or her objective economic conditions. Cultural attitudes and demographic variables swamp material circumstances. Marxists, who say class interests drive political views, and the populists who believe the same thing from a different perspective, are both wrong.”

Much more critical than economic policies are cultural issues like immigration, religious issues, sexual politics, marriage and political correctness that galvanize voters. The evidence is overwhelming that cultural issues, not innovative economic policies, are the principal points of division between the parties. And these issues should be pursued.

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The two scholars, who share the liberals’ “distaste for culture-war politics,” nevertheless insist that conservatives must not abandon the social issues that have served as their rallying points for decades. These issues truly motivate voters and win elections. They even claim Republicans should push back even harder on these hot-button issues. For example, the last elections showed how dormant topics like affirmative action resonated with voters in deep-blue California and delivered a shocking victory to conservatives.

Populism Is Not the Wave of the Future

Unfortunately, promoters of national populism follow a contrary strategy that emphasizes the ordinary American’s material well-being. They avoid the Culture War issues that energize voters. Thus, some populist strategists make dangerous concessions to pro-abortion and pro-LGBTQ sectors, which will alienate the right’s most dynamic activists. They ignore the evidence that economic issues, while important, will not deliver the votes needed to defeat the ever-more socialist left.

Populism is an ambiguous term that means many things to different people. However, those who call themselves populists must be careful, lest they bring their cause to ruin. Voters should not confuse populism with popular moral issues. Adopting Marxist methods of historical analysis is not a winning plan. Compromising morals to appeal to the more sexually permissive masses will only erode the framework of order needed to regenerate America.

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There is no magic solution to victory in today’s highly polarized America. However, conservatives could save time and effort by rejecting the realignment myth based on economic populist models.  Culture, not economics, decides most voters’ choices. It is time to act accordingly.

IMAGE CREDIT Mike Fleshman