A breach has opened between the Republican party’s business interests and the party’s activists. It has always existed, of course, but not so widely as now. While the issue of immigration might be the most significant policy consideration that divides them, there is also a very important institutional divide. The Republican business establishment, from K Street down to the local Chamber of Commerce, has functioning institutions, while the party’s populists do not. This is why conservative populists get ripped off by corrupt organizations and cynical candidates over and over.
A recent story on conservative Super PACs makes for some appalling reading. Conservative Super PACs claim to advance the conservative movement by fundraising for promising candidates. But in a number of cases, “the real goal of the PAC is to line the pockets of its owner.” Notable disgraces include Sarah Palin’s Sarah PAC that raised a little over $3 million and donated only a little over $200,000 to candidates. She also advanced the cause by posing for red-carpet photos with Al Sharpton.
What is perhaps more depressing is something called the National Draft Ben Carson for President Committee. This Super PAC, which is unaffiliated with Ben Carson (a man who seems to be quite interested in running for president even without the encouragement of the committee) raised an astounding $12 million dollars, but managed to donate a little over half-a-million. This money could have gone toward running a real campaign. It could have gone to an eventual Ben Carson campaign.
The absurdity doesn’t stop with the Super PAC wastage. Even if the money from the National Draft Ben Carson for President Committee had somehow managed to get to a Ben Carson campaign, it would not have led to a Ben Carson presidency. Ben Carson is an admirable man, but the United States does not elect candidates with Carson’s lack of political or senior military experience to the presidency. Carson seems, for all the world, to be well-meaning (which is more than can be said of some presidential candidates from the 2012 cycle), but he is an unrealistic presidential candidate.
Shady fundraising doesn’t end with the scammers and the unelectable candidates. Mike Huckabee is a former longtime governor of Arkansas and arguably the most charming Republican in captivity. He has a powerful base among conservative evangelical Christians. Some critics dismissed him as unqualified in the early stages of his 2008 cycle presidential campaign, but Huckabee’s debate performances showed that he had a shrewd mind and a quick wit. He should be among the strongest of the prospective 2016 cycle candidates.
Instead, even as he has formed a presidential exploratory committee, Huckabee has turned himself into a hostile caricature of a Southern Christian conservative in order to sell books about grits and gravy, while picking cultural fights more appropriate for a conservative Kanye West than a potential commander-in-chief. Whether Huckabee goes ahead with a full presidential run or (after much consideration and many book signings) decides to pass up a presidential campaign and officially reenter the entertainment business, he is less likely than ever to be elected president.
The draft-Carson fiasco, the Ben Carson campaign, and the Huckabee pseudo-campaign all have costs. They waste the limited money of small donors. They misuse the limited attention of ordinary, stressed Americans who have families and only a little time and energy to devote to public affairs. Most of all, they squander trust, as rank-and-file conservatives see their time, money, and emotional investment turn into nothing at all. Compared to these charades, the Republican establishment, buttressed by its business interests and institutions, is fated to win regardless of the merits of its platform.
The coordination problem on the populist right can’t be solved by the emergence of a miracle candidate (though good candidates do emerge), and it won’t be solved in time for the next presidential election. The coordination problem (which is at least as much a trust problem) requires institutions that can connect small donors and activists to credible candidates and office holders. This is where conservative activists, journalists, academics, and office holders (both current and retired) could work together to build a series of organizations that are both independent of the Republican establishment and trustworthy.
Conservative activists like Erick Erickson have gone after “scam PACs,” and are right to do so, but taking them down individually is treating the symptom rather than the disease (though you want to treat the symptoms, too). There are many frustrated conservatives who are alienated from the Republican establishment. They have a little money and a little time, but no clear way to leverage those into effective politics. The scammers offer those conservatives the hope of effective activism. Until populist conservatives build (and sufficiently publicize) effective alternative institutions and cultivate plausible candidates, the scammers will have an audience and an income.
There is, perhaps, an even worse scenario. If effective populist conservative institutions do not emerge, the scamming might only come to an end when frustrated conservatives leave politics altogether.
Pete Spiliakos is a columnist for First Things. His previous articles can be found here.