God and American populism
In his column this week, Ross Douthat wonders why there is no real conservative populism.
But amid the bombast and identity politics, it’s still possible to discern a serious populist critique of how the Republican establishment does business — one that links Pat Buchanan’s primary campaigns in the 1990s to figures like Palin, Huckabee, Cain and Ron Paul today.
This critique accuses the Republican leadership of being too cavalier about illegal immigration, too forgiving of crony capitalism and Wall Street-Washington coziness, too promiscuous with overseas military interventions, and too willing to imitate Democrats and centralize power in Washington. Right-wing populists tend to argue that Beltway Republicans have lost touch with the party’s core constituencies: small-business owners, middle-class families and Main Street, U.S.A.
These arguments often have merit. The trouble is that no populist politician has been able to deliver an agenda to match. Having identified important problems, right-wing populists almost inevitably rally to unworkable solutions.
Tell me about it. Here’s a strange twist: according to new social science research from Baylor University, the more working-class, less educated, and and religious you are (that is to say, the more you fit into the natural populist class), the less likely you are to want the government to get involved in the economic system to level the playing field. Clearly, American populism circa 2011 doesn’t look like American populism in the era of the robber barons. Back then, William Jennings Bryan, inspired in large part by his robust Christianity, led a powerful populist movement against moneyed interests. Today, Baylor researchers find that many of the most devout Christians come down on the opposite side of the economic argument, not in spite of their faith, but because of it. Why? Because they tend to believe that God is in direct control of economic events, and will reward them financially for being faithful. In other words, Adam Smith’s invisible hand belongs to the Lord.
Magical thinking? Yes. But this provides a partial answer to Ross’s implicit question about why American conservatism hasn’t been able to come up with an effective, coherent populist response to conditions that should call it forth.