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Toward a Conservative Popularism

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Toward a Conservative Popularism

If they want to win majorities, Republicans should emphasize issues on which the public supports their positions. November 11, 2022
Politics and law

Three days before the midterm elections, Donald Trump headlined a rally in Pennsylvania for his handpicked gubernatorial and Senate candidates, Doug Mastriano and Mehmet Oz. At the rally, the former president’s remarks focused not only on the midterms but also on preliminary polling for the 2024 presidential primary. As he ran down the list of his potential future competitors for the Republican nomination, Trump tagged Florida governor Ron DeSantis, the GOP candidate running closest to him in the polls, with a derogatory nickname: “Ron DeSanctimonious.”

Mastriano, who attended the January 6 protests, and Oz, best known as a celebrity doctor, had won their primaries following Trump’s endorsement. But they came up short Tuesday night, with Mastriano losing in a blowout to a self-described moderate and Oz falling to a progressive who has struggled to speak coherently after suffering a stroke. Meantime, in Florida, Trump’s home state and once the quintessential political battleground, Senator Marco Rubio and Governor DeSantis won reelection by huge margins. For context, Trump won Florida by less than two points in 2016 and less than four points in 2020. DeSantis defeated his opponent by nearly 20 points—even winning longtime Democratic stronghold Miami-Dade County by double digits.

Across the country, Trump’s preferred candidates—usually political novices who skated through primaries thanks to his backing—underperformed expectations in red, blue, and purple states. In Arizona, Kari Lake and Blake Masters made Trump’s theories about the 2020 election a central part of their campaign, but both trail in the vote tallies for governor and senator, respectively. In Michigan and Wisconsin, Tudor Dixon and Tim Michels failed to capitalize on Trump’s alleged midwestern appeal. In Georgia, Herschel Walker, the football star and Trump ally accused of fathering secret children and paying for past girlfriends’ abortions, ran well behind fellow Republican and incumbent governor Brian Kemp and faces a runoff for the Senate. In Maryland and Massachusetts, two of the most popular governors in the country—moderate Republicans Larry Hogan and Charlie Baker—saw Trump-endorsed candidates beat their chosen successors and go on to lose the governor’s mansion to Democrats. In New Hampshire, Governor Chris Sununu, who has called the former president “f***ing crazy,” won reelection by north of 15 points, while his counterpart, Trump-backed Don Bolduc, lost his Senate race. Perhaps the most prominent Trump endorsee to win a general election—J. D. Vance, who won convincingly but ran behind Ohio’s centrist Republican governor Mike DeWine—did not mention or thank Trump in his victory address.

The president’s party almost always loses major ground in the midterms. George W. Bush called 2006 a “thumping”; Barack Obama labeled the 2010 midterms a “shellacking”; and Trump, despite an attempt to spin things positively, dealt with a blue wave in 2018. Not so this year, despite soaring inflation and crime, widespread voter dissatisfaction, and a perception that Republicans were more trustworthy stewards of the economy. Fury from parents about Covid-era school closures and wokeness in curricula helped send President Biden’s approval rating into the gutter, but they didn’t deliver Republicans the sizeable congressional majorities they had expected.

Why did so many Trump-backed candidates perform so poorly in an election year where the conditions were ripe for success? And what explains DeSantis’s overperformance in America’s third-most-populous state in that same cycle?

To answer those questions, Republicans should consider a debate going on across the aisle, one inaugurated by David Shor, a left-wing data scientist and Democratic pollster. Shor’s own politics skew to the democratic-socialist left, but he champions a political strategy called “popularism” that has been the source of much controversy.

As defined by New York Times columnist Ezra Klein, popularism stipulates that “Democrats should do a lot of polling to figure out which of their views are popular and which are not popular, and then they should talk about the popular stuff and shut up about the unpopular stuff.” Examples of popularism in action might include Colorado governor Jared Polis’s refusal to reinstate statewide mask mandates as Omicron surged, Pennsylvania governor-elect Josh Shapiro’s defections from his party on school choice and law enforcement issues, or Maine congressman Jared Golden’s advertisement criticizing the Biden administration’s positions on spending and energy. All these Democrats defeated their Republican challengers this cycle.

The strategy has proved intensely controversial on the left. Progressives have criticized Shor for counseling moderation and abandoning allegedly urgent moral crusades. Activists have sought to develop their own version of “inclusive populism” that essentially amounts to recommitting to the politics of class and identity. And many have observed that popularism amounts only to a strategy for winning elections, not to a rigorous or well-developed philosophy. Yet progressives and conservatives alike must win elections to implement their political visions. And popularism need not entail a move to the center: as Klein has written, “one of the highest-polling policies in Shor’s research is letting Medicare negotiate prescription drug prices”—a policy favored by Bernie Sanders and rejected by Kyrsten Sinema.

DeSantis’s unique approach to governing resembles a form of conservative popularism that Republicans would do well to emulate. The Sunshine State governor is frequently mischaracterized as an Ivy League brainiac doing a second-rate Trump impression to inherit the energy of the MAGA movement. And DeSantis is no moderate squish, bucking the scientific establishment and federal bureaucracy when they overstep their bounds. Yet his tenure in office suggests that DeSantis is an astute political entrepreneur who excels at doing things that voters like.

He identifies cultural issues on which broad majorities of Americans agree with his positions and aggressively prosecutes them over the howls of activists and the press. In office, he tunes out the noise when necessary and works to deliver efficient public services, quality education, commonsense environmental policy, and economic growth. He attacks wokeness while signing bills into law that enjoy significant support. He does not ignore the election-integrity concerns of the Republican base, but he channels that energy into solutions-oriented governing rather than wallowing in self-pity. He passes laws that rein in politically adventurous tech companies, aggressively prosecutes voter fraud, and presides over a state with the most secure, speedy, and efficient vote-counting process in the country.

It’s also worth recalling DeSantis’s bold approach to managing the coronavirus pandemic. Florida was among the first states to reopen for business. DeSantis was demonized by national media as early as March 2020 for refusing to mandate total closures of all Florida beaches. He was one of the first public officials to communicate the scant evidence for outdoor transmission of the coronavirus. Meantime, President Trump was ceding the podium at daily press conferences to his chosen face of the American Covid response, Anthony Fauci. More recently, Trump called out “gutless” GOP politicians who refused to disclose whether they had received a Covid booster shot—a foreshadowing of his direct attacks on DeSantis this week, in the wake of the midterms. DeSantis, unlike the boosted Trump, has refused to acknowledge whether he received a third vaccine shot, arguing it is a private medical decision for each person to make for himself. As of last month, the Florida surgeon general recommends against Covid-19 mRNA vaccines for men aged 18-39, citing a study from the Florida Department of Health. DeSantis is 44 years old. Trump is 76.

The point to take from the DeSantis example for Republicans is that they will squander future political opportunities if they take positions unpopular with or irrelevant to broad swaths of the electorate. Trump managed a stunning victory in 2016 and came close to a repeat in 2020, but not since George H. W. Bush has a president been able to win the White House by hanging onto his predecessor’s coalition. Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, Obama, Trump, and Biden all reached the presidency by rewriting the map, securing victories in states previously thought unwinnable. Set aside whether DeSantis—who won voters with postgraduate degrees by 7 percentage points on Tuesday—could do so in 2024. Any Republican capable of following a similar strategy could reap the political benefits.

What issues would a conservative popularism champion? New polling from the final weeks of the midterm election cycle could offer some answers. A Manhattan Institute/WPA Intelligence survey of 1,434 likely voters revealed some unremarkable findings: Joe Biden is unpopular; economic concerns are the most pressing among voters; most people believe that the government does not act in their best interest and that America’s best days are behind her. But the polling also suggests lessons for Republicans interested in winning large, durable majorities.

Crime and policing are winning issues for Republicans. Fifty-seven percent of likely voters, and 63 percent in urban areas, felt that there was more violent crime in their community than two years ago. Sixty-three percent of likely voters said that they wanted more police in their state, including 50 percent of blacks and 53 percent of Democrats, while only 7 percent wanted fewer police. Once again, urbanites—a predominantly Democratic demographic—outpaced the general public. Significant majorities said that police enforcement against quality-of-life crimes makes disadvantaged communities safer and more secure and opposed the progressive-prosecutor movement. Nearly all—91 percent—said that people who are arrested and considered a serious danger to their community should be put in jail while they await trial. As for homelessness and mental illness, majorities agree that not enough people are in psychiatric hospitals (61 percent) and that homeless people should not be allowed to sleep on sidewalks, in parks, or in other public places instead of in homeless shelters (65 percent). A 46 percent plurality felt that people with serious mental illnesses, such as schizophrenia, are more violent than people without serious mental illnesses.

As City Journal contributing editor Charles Fain Lehman writes, public safety is not a losing issue just because some Republicans who talked about it didn’t win this week. Republican gubernatorial candidates Lee Zeldin in New York and Christine Drazan in Oregon fell short, but they overperformed dramatically compared with GOP predecessors in their state and Republicans around the country. In fact, the Zeldin campaign’s disciplined messaging on crime may well have secured Republicans their narrow House majority. Meantime, ex-Republican Rick Caruso is still in the lead to become mayor of Los Angeles, one of America’s bluest cities, after campaigning aggressively on crime, homelessness, and government corruption.

What would embracing conservative popularism mean for, say, abortion? The popularity of a political position doesn’t determine whether it is morally right. Still, in post-Dobbs America, the pro-life movement has seen a string of defeats. Drazan and Zeldin’s pro-life convictions likely hurt their electoral prospects in deep-blue states, while voters fortified protections for abortion rights and rejected new restrictions everywhere the issue appeared on the ballot this cycle: Vermont, California, Michigan, Montana, Kansas, and Kentucky. Policies such as a ban after 15 weeks—which DeSantis signed into law earlier this year, Governor Glenn Youngkin is pursuing in Virginia, and a plurality of Americans support—could fare better than more-sweeping restrictions.

A popularist conservatism would also seek pragmatic territory on immigration. The hawkishness on border security and illegal immigration that Trump advocated remains popular: 75 percent of all likely voters agree that illegal immigration is a serious problem, including heavy majorities of Democrats (58 percent) and Latinos (67 percent). Yet 62 percent of these voters believe legal immigration should be kept at its present level or increased, with half saying that high-skilled immigration should be increased. That mix looks like selectionism—the idea that it is perfectly acceptable for Americans to choose whom to admit and whom to exclude on the basis of promoting the national interest. Data suggest that the most important factor for all likely voters (35 percent) and for Latinos (27 percent) in determining whether people should be allowed to immigrate to the United States is that they do not need to rely on public welfare benefits.

Concerns over dependency on government aid are not limited to immigrants. A majority of Democratic likely voters veer away from the positions of their party on the question of work requirements for welfare. Nearly eight in ten respondents—and more than seven in ten Democrats—said that poor people should be required to work, or at least look for work, in order to be eligible for temporary assistance payments from the government.

While a majority of likely voters (57 percent) believe that the United States is only a little prepared or not prepared at all for another viral outbreak like Covid, the numbers are actually highest among Republicans, at 63 percent. Twice as many Republicans (31 percent) as Democrats (16 percent) feel as though we are not at all prepared for another such outbreak. Republicans’ dissatisfaction with Covid stay-at-home orders, school closures, mask mandates, compulsory vaccinations, and forced shutdowns of private businesses should not be confused with indifference toward biosecurity. Seventy-seven percent of Republicans feel that the federal government should be investing in preparing for a future pandemic that could be similar to or worse than the coronavirus. Republicans’ beef is with Covid theater, cloth-mask virtue signaling, and overall government incompetence, not with serious pandemic preparedness policies.

Finally, only two demographic subgroups believe that America’s best days lie ahead: Democrats (54 percent) and Latinos (56 percent). As Republicans try to build a multiethnic, working-class GOP by courting the Hispanic vote, they may benefit from ditching the doom-and-gloom messaging focusing on American carnage and adopting the upbeat tone of DeSantis and Youngkin. In the process, they may even peel off a few disaffected Democrats perturbed by their party’s openness to radicalism on “gender-affirming” care for minors and teaching gender-identity ideology in schools.

According to NBC News exit polling, a plurality of people who “somewhat disapprove” of President Biden voted for Democrats on Tuesday. That’s a pool of potential GOP voters that Republicans simply cannot afford to lose again in 2024.

In its Democratic incarnation, popularism essentially amounts to the commonsense view that left-wing politicians should avoid the more overwhelmingly reviled elements of their own agenda. That’s a thin reed on which to build a political philosophy. And gauging American public opinion is easier said than done; any advocate worth his salt will proclaim that his preferred positions also happen to be both popular and correct.

But a conservative agenda that focuses on effective governance, economic growth, anti-wokeness, and public order is more likely to prevail in general elections than one that deteriorates into petty personal disputes or grievances about past elections. Republicans interested in winning majorities should own the idea that government-mandated lockdowns, soft-on-crime policies, lax election security, and ideological excess in public schools are all moral failures. A large slice of the American electorate agrees. DeSantis has been a bulwark on these issues; others have fallen short. Looking ahead to 2024, Republicans should be candid and confident about the broadly popular convictions they hold. Detractors can borrow from Trump’s lexicon and accuse popularist conservatives of being sanctimonious, but they may find themselves out of political power while they do it.

Photo by GIORGIO VIERA/AFP via Getty Images

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