Thus by the turn of the twenty first century America had a bona fide ruling class that transcends government and sees itself at once as distinct from the rest of society – and as the only element thereof that may act on its behalf. It rules – to use New York Times columnist David Brooks’ characterization of Barack Obama – “as a visitor from a morally superior civilization.” The civilization of the ruling class does not concede that those who resist it have any moral or intellectual right, and only reluctantly any civil right, to do so. Resistance is illegitimate because it can come only from low motives. President Obama’s statement that Republican legislators – and hence the people who elect them – don’t care whether “seniors have decent health care…children have enough to eat” is typical.
A problem with this formulation is that most Americans don’t see Obama “as a visitor from a morally superior civilization.” In the 2012 exit poll, Obama beat Romney by ten percent on the question “Who is more in touch with people like me?” The majority of voters saw our Liberal-Ivy president as less distinct from the rest of society and less elitist than his Republican opponent.
And what of those who did not vote? Henry Olsen has noted that, in some predominately white rural counties, Romney in 2012 won a larger percentage of the vote than McCain in 2008 but that the overall voter turnout in those counties was lower. Olsen described the choice these voters faced as: the liberal Democrats will institute regulatory policies that will shut down your factory/mine/energy plant while Republicans promise that if you give more leverage to management, your factory/mine/energy plant might not shut down for a little while longer. Facing a binary choice of which party is more elitist, these working-class whites voted present by not voting at all.
So this was a Romney problem right? He was a rich guy who was a son of another politician rich guy. He obviously had zero principles on matters of public policy. He came across like the kind of guy who would walk through your place of work, fire half the employees, end the pension plan, and make raises contingent on productivity quotas that are designed to be just out of reach. He was almost a parody of a country club Republican politician even before the forty-seven percent remark became public. So what we needed was an insurgent populist Republican who could have spoken for the “country class” right?
Well, yes and no, but let’s start with the no. Romney was the “establishment” candidate and the problems with his persona and policy platform were real, but the Republicans who tried to challenge him from the right were not the antidote but were instead more concentrated versions of the same political poison (Rick Santorum – who had different problems – excepted.) Rick Perry, Tim Pawlenty, Newt Gingrich, and Herman Cain all had plans that cut taxes on high earners far more than Mitt Romney. Michelle Bachmann proposed balancing the budget in one year without tax increases and vaguely proposed raising taxes on the working-poor – if only by a nominal amount. In a general election, any of these candidates would have seemed more economically “elitist” than Romney to all but those with the strongest preexisting commitment to the Republican party.
This gets to the problem of Codevilla’s “country club Republican” vs. “country class Republican” dynamic. The two sides aren’t too different. They are too similar. As Ross Douthat has pointed out, the self-proclaimed insurgents of 2012 didn’t offer to the establishment’s preferred policies. They just took the problems with the establishment’s views (too much focus on marginal tax rates of high earners, too little interest in the taxes paid by the middle-class), and made them worse. This means that, unless something changes, whoever wins the intra-Republican civil war, the Republican party and the country lose. We need a conservative populism, but it has to be one that transcends the sterile intra-Republican debates of 2012 (and the debt ceiling, and the sequester… ) The good news is that the policy skeleton for such a Republican populism exists if we can only find some insurgent and/or establishment Republicans to support it.