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Conservatives, Grab Your Pitchforks!

Could Republicans get around the Democratic populist flank? Heavens, let’s hope so.

Thomas Edsall, the New York Times online columnist and veteran WaPo political reporter, fretted this week [1] that a surging group of young conservative reformers might have learned the GOP’s lessons after 2012 well enough to steal the Democrats’ traditional economic thunder, and that Hillary could be too tied up in Wall Street to stop them. For those of us on the reformist right that may seem rather too rosy a scenario to hope for, but the column did bring out several noteworthy political developments. (Ramesh [2] and Yuval [3] offer the official reformocon corrections at NRO, justly pushing back against Tea Party firebrand Mike Lee being part of a lurch to the center.)

Edsell worries that “The danger for Democrats is that they will lose ownership of the issues of stagnation, opportunity, and fairness.” Most of the elected Republican rhetoric on wage stagnation and income inequality that we’ve heard in recent months, coming as it is from Mitch McConnell and Ted Cruz, rings pretty hollow. Haranguing Obama for the fact that the post-recession economic recovery has overwhelmingly benefited the 1 percent smacks more of partisan opportunism than a reformed platform when it is unaccompanied by any serious effort to grapple with the deep structural forces that have been driving that economic polarization for several decades now. Occupy rhetoric in Republican mouths often sounds even more jarring than Congressmen who decry the cronyism of Solyndra in the same breath that swears fealty to the farm bill. Jeb may be the only major politician currently alluding to the wave of work deskilling and automation.

Opportunity is much more comfortable territory for conventionally conservative politicians, but as for fairness, Wick Allison wrote here [4] immediately following the 2012 election,

A capital gains tax rate (making money off money) that is lower than the earned income rate (making money off work) is just not fair. Bestowing that rate on hedge-fund managers through a specially designed loophole is just not fair. Allowing the rich to take mortgage deductions for second and third homes, or for homes worth over $1 million, is just not fair. Allowing business owners like me to take myriad deductions that our employees cannot take is just not fair. But, most of all, allowing the wealthy to pay very low tax rates while interest on the war debt accumulates, deficits continue, and middle-class incomes deteriorate is just not fair.

The times are indeed changing, as the reform conservative™ Lee-Rubio tax plan offers expanded child tax credits that are—very significantly—refundable against the payroll tax, and which are paid for, in part, by capping the home mortgage interest deduction for the first more-than-modest $300,000 of a home. While that may sting relatively middle-class homeowners in expensive markets like Washington, D.C., it seems a reasonable trade-off to keep from continuing to subsidize holiday homes in the Hamptons with an intended middle-class tax break.

The most humorous part of Edsell’s column comes as analysis of what reform economics could do to the GOP coalition:

If Republicans compromise on taxes, conservative Christians are going to worry that compromise on abortion will be next. Anti-immigrant forces are already convinced that Republican leaders will cave in to pressure to enact liberal immigration reform. Many of the party’s most loyal constituencies fear that if this leftward turn continues, the entire conservative edifice could implode.

Conservative Christians need not worry that abortion abandonment is next; it’s already past [5]. Likewise, comprehensive immigration reform has long ranked just behind expanded free trade agreements on the Congressional GOP list of priorities. If there’s one constituency the GOP has not dared disappoint, it is the donorists.

Conservative reform ideas are certainly still under heavy attack from the conventionally minded [7] right [8], but what Edsell gets very right is that there is currently an dynamic open policy debate on the right, where the Democratic party, as I have heard echoed by frustrated friends on the left, mostly seems economically exhausted.

It has been over 25 years since the Clinton family was engaged in any similar sort of policy entrepreneurship, and their past 15 years have been spent overwhelmingly in the donorist circles that run the gamut from simply self-interested to the disturbing and predatory [9]. One great unknown is whether Hillary has the political wherewithal to upset the coterie of plutocrats who have been funding the Clinton Foundation and placing advance down payments for influence in the form of her lucrative speaking fees.

The question is: is there anyone other than a Bush [10] to pass out the conservative pitchforks and torches?

22 Comments (Open | Close)

22 Comments To "Conservatives, Grab Your Pitchforks!"

#1 Comment By Mike Alexander On February 12, 2015 @ 7:16 am

I don’t understand the concept of economically populist Republicans. The GOP has traditionally been the capitalist party, or the rich man’s part. A capitalist is a person who owns capital and who uses it in order to increase the amount of capital he has. A necessary side effect of this process is rising economic inequality. Thus the GOP is the party that is in favor of rising inequality. Now you don’t have to advertise that fact (and the GOP doesn’t). But it is at the very core of what the GOP is for.

Ross Douthat gets is almost right:

the GOP is a *successful* party of moneyed interests posing as a culturally conservative party

Note there is no conflict between being social conservative and wanting to grow your capital as the maximum possible rate. There IS a conflict between being a capitalist party and saying things like “allowing the wealthy to pay very low tax rates while interest on the war debt accumulates, deficits continue, and middle-class incomes deteriorate is just not fair”.

You cannot *mean* that statement and be a republican or a member of the capitalist party. Now you could simply be lying about it, saying it to win votes but having no intention of even increasing taxes on the rich. But why resort to dissembling?

The GOP formula of social conservatism has been SUCCESSFUL. Why argue with success? The big threat people fear is the rising numbers of Latinos. But most Latinos are not black and so have the potential to become white some day and be Republican voters. So what’s to worry about?

#2 Comment By Icarusr On February 12, 2015 @ 9:00 am

Pitchforks as in “Get your government hands off my Medicare”? The pitchforks are always there. That is not the problem. The problem is that they are driven by the politics of resentment against the Other rather than a true philosophy of equality of opportunity.

#3 Comment By Reflectionephemeral On February 12, 2015 @ 9:55 am

It seems to me that [11] in his response to Edsall: “The evangelical Christians, the Tea Party pseudo-libertarians, the hawks in the military industrial complex, the billionaire donors like the Kochs; none of the relevant, powerful interests within the party particularly care if the tax credit for children is expanded. … here’s what a closer look at the ballyhooed reformicon movement reveals: a relatively small group of relatively young writers speaking to a relatively small audience about a few relatively modest tweaks they’d like to make”.

Conservative populism is about kicking down, not kicking up.

#4 Comment By TZ On February 12, 2015 @ 10:10 am

All well and good, however I consider highly likely that what GOP candidates campaign on and what they do once in office will largely be different. Mr. Bush Jr’s 2000 campaign rhetoric most certainly bore little resemblance to what he did in office. Did anyone hear GOP candidate this past fall campaign on dismantling Social Security? The first day of the legislative session they took steps to potentially undermine that.

I understand that conservative/Right politics tends to favor the uppermost classes. That said, is this actually inherent in the conservative mind or just coincidental? Can the conservative mindset come up with legal and tax systems that maximize a middle class and not leave a poverty stricken subclass of people destitute in the streets? My 45+ years of following politics here in the USA leads me to doubt it.

#5 Comment By the unworthy craftsman On February 12, 2015 @ 10:27 am

Those economic-populist, possible-GOP-voters are certainly out there. I know, Republicans! How about a program of tax cuts for the wealthy (to stimulate investment), de-regulation (to reduce drag on business), union-busting (to bring industry back to this country) and extraction-industry giveaways (jobs!)? More of the same, you say? Perhaps, but now it’s “populist”!

#6 Comment By QE 99 On February 12, 2015 @ 10:59 am

The Clintons, with their scores of millions, are indeed part of the plutocratic elite. They made their pile peddling the influence and access that bridges Wall Street and Washington. They proved that “public service” can be the road to riches.

Wall Street owed Bill for the single most profitable bit of legislation in history – the repeal of Glass Steagel, which might have protected American taxpayers from the disaster that ensued in 2008 – and rewarded him with a New York Senate seat for Hillary and the undying love and support of big banks and financial services firms.

Anyone handling the Wall Street end of GOP fund raising must face the fact the Hillary is Wall Street’s girl. More Wall Street money will flow to her than to any other candidate. Wall Street fervently wants the Clintons back. It yearns for the glory days of strippers, coke whores, mystery meat investment “products”, and megabonuses, for the security of knowing that no matter what you do, Bill and Hill have got your back with a blind and toothless SEC, a leashed FBI, a compliant Fed, and lots of printing presses in case another bailout is needed.

#7 Comment By Johann On February 12, 2015 @ 11:09 am

Every time someone comes up with the idea of eliminating loopholes, like the Simpson-Bowles commission, its shot down by Republicans and Democrats alike. The Republicans shoot it down even if the idea includes a reduction in wealthy tax rates. That should tell people something. Its special interests controlling both sides. The tax rates are not as important as the loopholes.

A modified flat tax could be the solution. The bottom 30% income pay no tax, then the tax rate ramps up from 0 to X% for the 30-50% income, and then the 50% and above income pay the flat X%. No loopholes for anyone. Corporations pay no tax since the individuals in the corporation are already paying tax on their incomes with no loopholes, and the profits if not re-invested are taxed as dividends or capital gains.

A flat tax would make much the IRS unnecessary. It would eliminate not all, but much of the business of tax lawyers and professional tax preparers, but so what? That money will be used for things more beneficial to the economy.

#8 Comment By Clint On February 12, 2015 @ 12:55 pm

Maybe they could examine corporations’ federal,state and local taxes that are then passed on to consumers.

#9 Comment By RP_McMurphy On February 12, 2015 @ 2:25 pm


“The bottom 30% income pay no tax, then the tax rate ramps up from 0 to X% for the 30-50% income, and then the 50% and above income pay the flat X%. No loopholes for anyone.”

You realize what you’ve just proposed would massively increase the tax burden of the upper middle class relative to the plutocrats, right? The reason the loopholes in question are so hard to kill is that the bulk of the tax savings don’t accrue to hedge fund managers, they accrue to nurses and firefighters with mortgages and health insurance.

#10 Comment By Patrick On February 12, 2015 @ 2:26 pm

These are all great comments.

Sadly, the rightwing populism that might be the most successful would be racially charged, and nobody wants that I hope. Think about it: Barry Goldwater and George Wallace were probably the most successful rightwing populists in policy – not rhetoric – since the New Deal, but of course they were popular because those times were racially charged. Take out race, and rightwing populists Bob Taft, Pat Buchanan, Ron Paul and arguably Ross Perot weren’t very successful. Reagan and Nixon were successful with populist rhetoric, but then their actual policies weren’t that populist.

Anyway: it is difficult to see a rightwing populism that is successful and not racially charged, and I don’t think most people want that “cure” for the donorist disease.

#11 Comment By The Other Sands On February 12, 2015 @ 2:32 pm

I would welcome the GOP becoming genuinely concerned about the bottom 50% (not just as an incarceration challenge.) But I’ll believe it when I see it.

The only response to the latest “concern” *ahem* over inequality from the likes of Cruz and McDonnell is to say: “Fantastic! Glad you are finally worried about inequality. I can’t wait for your many sincere recommendations to alleviate it.”

“The unworthy craftsman” nailed what this means in practice. It means dummying up a new narrative explaining how all the same policies, up to include more tax cuts for the 1%, will somehow alleviate inequality.

QE99, while I agree with your critique of the Clintons enriching themselves, you are also describing every elected official in Washington, and many of the unelected ones as well.

#12 Comment By panda On February 12, 2015 @ 5:14 pm

“You realize what you’ve just proposed would massively increase the tax burden of the upper middle class relative to the plutocrats, right? The reason the loopholes in question are so hard to kill is that the bulk of the tax savings don’t accrue to hedge fund managers, they accrue to nurses and firefighters with mortgages and health insurance.

Yep. If anything, given that the biggest story in the economy is that even among the top 10% of population, income growth is focused on the top 0.1% of families, we need more tax brackets, not less. A family making 250,000 a year should not pay same rate as family making 500,000, and that family is in a totally different place than the family making 5 million, and the 5 million family is not the same as the family making 50 million. (In real life, of course, the family making 250,000-500,000 is paying higher rate than the family making 5 million). We simply must tax the hyper-class, because that is where the money is at (and where is at, power follows..)

#13 Comment By panda On February 12, 2015 @ 5:17 pm

“hink about it: Barry Goldwater and George Wallace were probably the most successful rightwing populists in policy – not rhetoric – since the New Deal, but of course they were popular because those times were racially charged.”

Wallace was indeed the classical southern racially-charged populist, but Goldwater was no populist of any sort, economically speaking.

#14 Comment By RP_McMurphy On February 12, 2015 @ 8:32 pm

Yes, Hillary Clinton is a flawed vessel for economic populism, but no, it’s not going to matter: the GOP would sooner denounce Christianity than ask a rich man to part with more of his fortune. Candidates and parties occasionally execute flanking maneuvers, but this would be more akin to fratricide. Basically, the squad that went left would find itself gunned down by the squad that went right well outside of the objective. But the situation isn’t going to make it that far because, quite independent of the influence of wealthy donors, no subset of the GOP wants to move left. Which points to, I think, an important truth of American politics.

One of my professors in college, a native of Canada, once asked why it was that the U.S. welfare state is so diminutive relative to much of the West. I gave a response citing pioneers and rugged individualism, but I now see that my upbringing in Minnesota blinded me to the truth: the correct answer is race. How else to explain why poor whites in the South overwhelmingly (and increasingly) support a political party dedicated to defending the fortunes of plutocrats from the ravages of confiscatory taxation? Do those saintly paupers simply lack self-interest? Certainly, other factors exist, the social liberalism of the national Democratic Party being one. But what about at the local level? We have pro-life/traditional marriage Democrats in Minnesota. Where are the Republican populists?

My suspicion is that, absent the fear that hedonistic minorities are draining the public coffers, the appeal of unbridled capitalism is limited to cranks and trust fund babies. In places with substantial ethnic diversity or very little at all, the electoral potency of the ideology is minimal. Which, to make a long story short, is largely to blame for the GOP’s growing presidential predicament. Hispanics aren’t buying the supply side scheme — a much bigger problem than immigration reform, by the way — leading some to propose Midwestern whites as a plausible alternative. Unfortunately, the pigment has shifted, but the problem is exactly the same: my neighbors aren’t Democrats because they cherish abortion and gay marriage, they’re Democrats because they view politics more through the lens of class than race.

#15 Comment By LarryM On February 13, 2015 @ 10:39 am

Responding to the comment above regarding an anti-corporatist right/left libertarian alliance …

I think the biggest problem with this is the lack of a large number of left libertarians. I say that as one who somewhat sympathizes.

Here’s what I’d like to see – admittedly somewhat tailored to my own priors:

-anti corporatist
-anti national security state
-a truce in the cultural wars (live and let live)
-retain a reasonably generous welfare state (but simplified from the current myriad of programs)
-otherwise scale back the scope of the federal government

Some of the above is already a compromise for me, and I’d be willing to further compromise on other issues. As a man of the left, I’d be curious to see how many of the traditional/paleo conservatives who comment here would embrace such a grand bargain. Or am I asking too much?

#16 Comment By Johann On February 13, 2015 @ 11:27 pm

Without any loopholes, a flat rate tax would be surprisingly low.

RP McMurphey, hedge fund managers are a case in point. Much or most of what they earn is considered capital gains. No, not for risking their own money. The capital gain rate is for the portion of what they earn based on a percent of the fund’s performance above a set amount. It many times amounts to 10s of millions of dollars. And its taxed at the capital gains rate, thanks to Chuck Schumer and others ram-rodding that little – no wait – big gem through.

#17 Comment By RP_McMurphy On February 15, 2015 @ 6:32 pm


“Without any loopholes, a flat rate tax would be surprisingly low.”

Yes, and the middle class would wind up paying more. You refer to the carried-interest loophole, which provides a tiny number of extremely wealthy individuals with significant tax savings. It should be eliminated, but its reach is so narrow that the additional revenue isn’t going to let you drop the top marginal rate by much. In order to achieve a rate of 20-30%, you have to go where the money is: 1.) employer-based health insurance contributions; 2.) pension contributions; 3.) mortgage-interest deduction. Obviously, the primary beneficiaries of these tax expenditures are middle class individuals, so eliminating them in exchange for reducing the top marginal rate transfers wealth upwards.

#18 Comment By Patrick On February 15, 2015 @ 11:12 pm


Sadly for the grand alliance, the culture wars motivate probably one third of the country’s voters: the GOP base and the Democratic donors. I’d happily vote for a Russ Feingold as regards wars/civil liberties/social welfare…and yet my primary voting issue is abortion which means the national Democratic Party isn’t getting my vote (not that the GOP will, either.)

Also sadly, these hot-button social issues will continue to be decided in federal court, which is basically going to divide the country in Presidential voting.

Would that we could agree to some de-centralizing of decisions…otherwise, while I desire alliance with the decentralist Left, I’m pessimistic about the chances.

#19 Comment By Hibernian On February 16, 2015 @ 11:03 pm

@ R_P Mc Murphy: “We have pro-life/traditional marriage Democrats in Minnesota.”

How much respect do they get? How much influence do they have?

#20 Comment By RP_McMurphy On February 18, 2015 @ 1:13 am


“How much respect do they get? How much influence do they have?”

Well, one of them is the ranking member/former chairman of the House Ag Committee. Obviously, it’s a minority position within the party (DFL), but still very much present. Point being, you can hold such positions and still belong to the Democratic Party. Can you favor higher marginal income taxes and still run on the Republican slate? I haven’t seen any indication you can.

#21 Comment By karlub On February 18, 2015 @ 5:22 pm

@ R_P Mc Murphy:

There are a lot of civil-union/pro-choice Republicans, too. So I am not entirely grasping your point.

Unless, that is, to illustrate the larger point: The notion the GOP is uniquely plutocratic is preposterous. For all of my life– and I am 42– the middle class in the United States has been getting the shaft.

Yet, through that time, great swaths of the nation have been locally run exclusively by Democrats, Congress has mostly through that time been run by Democrats, and a Democrat is President about half the time.

It is tautological, then, that the Democrats are every bit as much the party of plutocrats as the GOP. Otherwise things would not be as they are. I suppose you could make the case that all those Democrats are enormously incompetent and hence unable to forward their agenda. But that is not an argument that much recommends them, is it?

Without understanding the fully bipartisan nature of the plutocracy no populist framework will ever gain traction. Because every time a groundswell starts it will get immediately tamed via the elites (of both parties) distracting it into internecine theatrical expressions of political tribal loyalty.

#22 Comment By RP_McMurphy On February 19, 2015 @ 11:40 pm


“There are a lot of civil-union/pro-choice Republicans, too. So I am not entirely grasping your point.”

That is my point: there are socially liberal Republicans, but no economic populists. That makes the GOP “uniquely plutocratic.” Now, growing income inequality is likely rooted in market forces, so the trend persists despite generally higher income taxes during Democratic administrations. But Republicans, almost without exception, want to exacerbate the problem by slashing the top marginal rate. So the label is well deserved.