Conservatism vs. Populism: How We Got So Confused

Much like a confused and rebellious teenager, the Republican party is currently caught in an identity crisis. Words like “establishment,” “conservative,” and “populist” have been thrown around and pushed together, confusing voters and the nation’s leaders alike. The rise of Trump and other ultra-conservative leaders has brought a significant and widely welcomed change to the party, but are these new ideologies really conservative? To truly understand the growing pains of the Republican party, one must examine the robust history of modern liberalism.

The term “liberal” has not always denoted the far-left wing of social democrats as it does today. Rather, in the 18th century, a “liberal” person would simply have been defined as someone capable of freedom, while a “conservative” would have described someone cautious toward risk and change. It was only around the time of the American Revolution that the term “liberal” adopted a political meaning. These “liberals” sought to bring freedom to all – well, all white male landowners, but it’s a start. Classical Liberals wanted to rid themselves of the reign of the aristocracy and establish a rule for the people, by the people. They believed that there were three fundamental ways to do this: protection of natural individual rights, a free market economy, and a democratic government. Thus, conservatives became those who sought to maintain the old aristocratic system and rule by the select few.

The birth of the modern industrial society in the 20th century brought about world war, revolution, and economic depression. The Classical Liberal free market system was collapsing and needed saving. Insert Franklin Delano Roosevelt and a new faction of liberalism, “Reform Liberalism.” Whereas government was once seen as the biggest threat to individual freedom, liberals began to see government as the only protection against powerful corporations and the failures of the free market. Roosevelt and his New Deal sought to bring freedom through regulation and redistribution of income within the free market system, and it was during this time that conservatives adopted the Classical Liberal belief of an unregulated free market system.

At first glance, it seems like conservatives have drawn the short straw throughout history. However, by the end of the 1970’s, the policies of Reform Liberalism were quickly failing. The election of Ronald Reagan brought new life to conservatives who sought to bring back the free market policies of Classical Liberalism. However, while these conservatives sought a return to an unrestricted free market system, the development of a consumerist culture sought to break free from the Protestant influences of Classical Liberalism. Consequently, since the 1980’s, economic policies in the United States have become increasingly more conservative while social policies have trended more liberal. A good example of this is the decline in tax rates over the past few decades. In 1969, under the Republican administration of Richard Nixon, the highest tax rate on regular income was 77 percent compared to just 39.6 percent in 2015 under President Obama.

The resurgence of these conservative principles has been labeled as Neo-Classical Liberalism. Neo-Classical Liberals tend to champion a society of self-expression as opposed to the strict Protestant work ethic of Classical Liberals. While Reform Liberals sought to assuage the inequality produced by the free market through government intervention, Neo-Classical Liberals acknowledge this inequality, but accept it as an inevitable result of the free market. Government intervention in the economy, and therefore the restriction of one person for the benefit of the other, is detrimental to their expressive way of life.

Until recently, most conservatives found themselves somewhere between Classical and Neo-Classical Liberalism – including Senator Ted Cruz, Senator Marco Rubio, and Congressman Gary Palmer. However, a new ideology is rapidly growing among conservatives, which ultimately culminated in the election of President Trump (though trump to his credit has appointed a conservative cabinet), the rise of Steve Bannon, and the controversial nomination of Roy Moore.

That new ideology is populism. Largely regarded as an extension of conservatism, populism is actually quite a shift from the Neo-Classical Liberal beliefs typically associated with modern conservatives. As it was born out of discontent with the current system and fear of the repercussions of globalization, populists tend to emphasize economic nationalism, increased national defense, and a stronger focus on the working class. Despite sincere intentions of putting those in the nation first, populism poses a dangerous threat of severe isolationism and prejudice.

So, for now, Republicans continue to run around like a chicken without its head. The confusion and disunity within the party threaten its own agenda and chances of maintaining its majority in 2018. However, iron is forged in fire, and as conservative ideals will always be a staple of American politics, the Republican party has an opportunity to emerge from chaos with a stronger message, stronger leaders, and stronger vision for America’s future. Let’s just hope it doesn’t take too long.




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