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Political dead end
Nationalist-populist right badly misreads the U.S. electorate
Are America’s founding principles of individual liberty, free enterprise, federalism, civic republicanism, and equality before the law still essential to governing our republic in the 21st century?
Yes! That’s why hundreds of leading policy experts, scholars, journalists, and political practitioners have signed the FreeCon statement, and why hundreds of thousands of Americans have flocked to FreedomConservatism.org or read our principles on other platforms and websites.
Although ours is an intellectual movement — espousing practical ideas for enhancing the freedom, opportunity, and well-being of our fellow Americans — FreeCons also believe that right-leaning politicians seeking to win and maintain governing majorities at the federal, state, and local levels would be well-advised to adopt our principles as their own.
Today we offer several takes on the political promise of Freedom Conservatism — and the political dead end proposed by its nationalist-populist rivals.
Pop the bubble
David Harsanyi is a senior editor at The Federalist and writes the Happy Warrior column for National Review. A FreeCon signatory, Harsanyi is the author of five books and formerly held editorial positions at AP and the New York Daily News.
In a recent column, Harsanyi excoriated “right-populists” for misreading the electorate. “Most suburban families are dispositional conservatives,” he wrote. “Many are not strongly ideological. They certainly won’t be galvanized in large numbers by ‘based’ dunks on libs.
“And yet, so many Republican candidates tie themselves to the aesthetic and tonal qualities admired by the new right social media grifter class. These people live in a hermetically sealed political bubble.”
Instead of championing free enterprise to promote growth and opportunity, populists encourage right-leaning politicians to move leftward on economics. But there is already “a big-spending, pro-union, big government, welfare state party” that voters can choose if they wish, Harsanyi pointed out.
“Do you know what time it is? It’s going to be 1977 forever if Republicans keep this up.”
Little to offer
An associate professor of politics at Ave Maria University, James Patterson is also president of the Ciceronian Society and a FreeCon signatory.
In a Law & Liberty essay, Patterson picked apart the political case for National Conservatism. Its expectation that a more populist GOP could build a broad electoral coalition has not come to pass — the Trump-era party has attracted a smaller share of American voters than the pre-Trump GOP did.
Why? One reason is that most of the new voters NatCons have tried to woo are reliably Democratic voters who espouse left-wing positions and ideology. Gaining their support would require abandoning “core commitments of National Conservatism on issues like wokeness.” In short, Patterson wrote, the NatCons are “a minority faction within the Republican Party, with little to offer to Democratic populists.”
Moreover, contrary to the hopes and predictions of the NatCons, “the Republican Party does not seem disposed to move dramatically to the left on economic issues.”
Out of alignment
George Hawley, an associate professor of political science at the University of Alabama, is the author of such books as Right-Wing Critics of American Conservatism and Conservatism in a Divided America: The Right and Identity Politics.
For an article for the new magazine FUSION, he analyzed long-term trends in survey data. Contrary to the claims of both progressives and NatCons, Republican views on such issues as immigration and identity have changed little over the past two decades.
“The people on the Left and Right who considered Trump a repudiation of Reagan-style conservatism misunderstand Republican voters,” wrote Hawley, a FreeCon signatory. In place of what they term “Zombie Reaganism,” activists want to “substitute right-wing populism, and in some cases even explicit white identity politics.”
But “few signs indicate that any of these new voices — whether under the banner of National Conservatism, populism, New Right, post-liberalism, or the Alt-Right — are better positioned to win elections, or even to align with Republican voters’ wishes.”
Where are the wins?
Few political champions of right-leaning populism have “been able to secure office successfully, a necessary prelude to genuine and durable political influence,” wrote Butler, one of the organizers of the FreeCon project (and, as depicted, a champion runner!)
As for Americans concerned about national sovereignty and public morality, he argued that there’s already “plenty within the existing conservative tradition that emphasizes those issues.”
“Conservatives are better off turning to those sources than to an intellectually compromised, politically ineffective faction that has no business being the Right’s ‘governing consensus’ for the next century.”
Robert Tracinski, a columnist for Discourse magazine, recently reviewed Patrick Deneen’s book Regime Change. A key voice on the nationalist-populist right, Deneen “explicitly comes out against every foundational American idea and institution,” Tracinski reported, and “regards the U.S. Constitution as a mistake.” Still, Deneen offers few specifics about should replace it. Tracinski describes his book as “a fantasy of power, not a specific plan for obtaining it.”
Alejandro Chafuen is managing director, international for the Acton Institute. He is also president of the Hispanic American Center of Economic Research and former president of the Atlas Network. In a recent Forbes column, Chafuen wrote that Nobel-winning economist Friedrich Hayek “would have no difficulty signing the Freedom Conservatives’ document,” as has Chafuen himself.
In a recent edition of his podcast Free Enterprise In Three Minutes, Ray Keating explained his reasons for signing the statement. “This is a conservatism that — while leaving plenty of room for legitimate disagreement, discussion, and debate — understands sound economics,” Keating said. “It is the American conservatism that I really came of age in” and “must be re-energized and spread far and wide for the future of America and the world.”
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