With the hubbub of the Mueller investigation subsiding, we have a chance to think about what the future holds for a Republican party that was shaken up by the rise of Donald Trump and his particular brand of populism. Republicans must now find a way to escape the horns of a fearsome dilemma. If they stay the populist course, the party looks doomed. If they abandon populism, it seems equally doomed.
It’s true that right-wing populists have enjoyed some shocking successes, but it doesn’t follow that the Trumpian future is bright. What we can say is that we now have a fairly clear sense of what the populists can and cannot do.
They can galvanize a sizable minority of the American electorate, especially in the nation’s most disaffected regions. That may be sufficient to win some elections. But right-wing populists haven’t shown much facility for building coalitions, or pursuing a prudent political agenda. There’s a reason why Steve Bannon has (ironically) become an inveterate globe-trotter: his revolution quickly found its limits on the home front. Compromise is anathema to practitioners of the paranoid style, and in politics, people who can’t compromise have a hard time making new friends.
Trump White House has been volatile by most measures, but one thing at least is astonishingly stable: his approval ratings. Some Americans like him, but the majority don’t, and that reality has not changed since the early days of his presidency. It’s possible that the Democrats will be incompetent enough to lose to such a weak incumbent, but even if that happens, the fact remains that both Trump and his base are quite elderly, and they’ve badly alienated younger generations. Why worry so much about “other people’s babies” when we’re losing our own in a landslide?
Populism has a deep structural problem: It’s strongest where America is weakest. Trump did best in the nation’s least-thriving regions, where the economy and institutions are faltering. Where drugs and suicide are rampant, populism has massive appeal. Healthy and happy people tend to turn away. The Republicans could pick up that ball and run with it, rebranding as the party of misery. There are some downsides though. Politicians don’t have much incentive to make things better if despair and resentment are their most potent electoral weapons.
Republicans won’t find it easy to walk away from populism. America’s wealthy and educated classes have become increasingly progressive, and that almost inevitably pushes the Republicans into some kind of countercultural stance. A party of social conservatives and angry white men will be a rump party; nevertheless, the GOP can’t win without those constituencies in anything like its present form. Less cynically, we should bear in mind that marginalized citizens deserve representation too. It is a problem that so many Americans feel beleaguered and marginalized, and it’s hard to see how the Republican party can succeed without responding to that in some way.
In fact though, there may be other grounds for hope. As the familiar party coalitions continue to break down, space may open for the forging of new alliances. Americans may seem hopelessly divided right now, but surely most of us still want to believe that our nation can have a prosperous future. Conservatives may have an opportunity to make a real impact here, if we can approach the situation prudently.
One reason populists flourish is because we live in a prosperous, opportunity-rich society, whose institutions and mores have come out of alignment with the needs of our populace. Americans set the bar high in terms of the quality of life they think they should enjoy. In raw GDP terms we seem to have plenty of wealth to support this. Changing labor markets and a fraying social fabric have made life quite difficult for some citizens, however. In myriad ways, our existing laws, customs, and institutions are ill-equipped to address the problems.
Consider entitlements. Our mid-20th-century forebears constructed a social safety net meant to help the people they considered the neediest: the old, the sick, and the unemployed. Today employment structures have changed radically, retirees are living much longer, health care costs have exploded, and young parents often struggle to make ends meet while their affluent elders draw benefits. There are real cases of unmet need, but our social safety net is more archaic than stingy. It’s tailored to a historical situation that no longer obtains. Consequently, it distributes resources rather badly, and many parties end up feeling aggrieved.
There are many more examples. Tying benefits to jobs made some sense in an era of lifetime employment; it makes far less sense today. Highly potent recreational drugs have exploded old drug-war paradigms, but punishing epidemics continue to ravage families and communities.
We’ve muddled into a situation in which the young have reason to be resentful, but so do the old. Men understandably feel shortchanged, and so do women. Ethnic minorities have sympathetic reasons to feel aggrieved, but so do many whites.
There are historical precedents for this kind of problem. Late-Republic Rome was packed with inadequately compensated military vets, Italians clamoring for full citizenship, unhappy slaves, long-established Roman families alarmed by rapid cultural change. Displaced farmers mourned lost property, and aristocrats seethed over a bottleneck promotional structure that frustrated their career ambitions. In short, everyone was angry.
Seventh-century Athens had similar problems. Society as a whole was relatively prosperous, but the poor were being pushed into debt peonage, with many ultimately ending up enslaved. Prosperous middle-class farmers resented the hereditary privileges enjoyed by dissolute aristocrats. Everyone chafed at the harshly punitive laws of Draco. Once again, civic discontent seemed near-universal.
Between these two, Athens fared better. First-century Italy endured a civil war, a bloody slave revolt, and a Mediterranean game of thrones that ultimately spelled the end of Roman democracy. Athens was rescued by the great statesman Solon, who was entrusted with the task of negotiating a new compromise between warring classes. He executed this job with great discretion, rewriting harsh laws, forgiving debts, and giving industrious entrepreneurs new pathways to social advancement. It should be said that almost no one was entirely happy with Solon’s compromises. Every class thought it deserved more. Nevertheless, a civil uprising was averted, and Athens would ultimately become one of the ancient world’s most remarkable cities. Solon, for his part, was immortalized as one of the Seven Sages of Ancient Greece.
America’s political arena is becoming uncomfortably reminiscent of those long-ago societies, with increasingly-polarized factions dominated by larger-than-life personalities. Demagogues energize the crowds by vilifying one another and making extravagant promises. Real problems go unaddressed, and general resentment builds.
Might we conceivably find a 21st-century Solon, able to sift competing claims and propose reasonable compromises? In our time this would likely be a group of people, not just a single man. Like Solon though, they would need to be civic-minded, prudent, and savvy to the needs and values of America’s diverse subcultures. Perhaps most importantly, they would need to appreciate the value of accepting the good, instead of holding out for the perfect. No one is ever entirely satisfied with a compromise.
Our Constitution was designed to provide a framework for such a process. The Framers (keen admirers of Solon) understood that it would be impossible to devise a social arrangement suited to the needs of all successive eras. The Constitution they created was meant to facilitate negotiation and compromise, fending off the kind of winner-takes-all competition that ultimately undid the Roman Republic.
Instead of despairing over the GOP’s seemingly grim options, anti-Trump conservatives should prepare for this sort of negotiation. It’s difficult to say when a window of opportunity may open, but we do know that many American voters are dissatisfied with their options. With that in mind, we should reflect. What compromises might a reasonable public accept, on entitlements, immigration, or health care reform? What kinds of mores and institutions would better facilitate productive work and healthy family formation? Our parties are too broken right now to solve these problems, but perhaps that won’t always be the case.