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May 26, 2010 [LINK / comment]

Populists make waves in the GOP

Events last week in Utah and Kentucky provide fresh evidence that the anti-establishment insurgency in the Republican Party is as strong as ever. In Utah, Sen. Robert Bennett came in third in a party convention whose purpose was to certify names to appear on the primary ballot. Given that Bennett has rock-solid conservative credentials, the fact that he wasn't even given a chance to run for a fourth term is absolutely stunning. It appears that tea party activists were determined to punish him for voting in favor of the TARP bailout in September 2008; if so, that's a shame. (Personally, I was against the bank bailout, but I can see why someone might have thought it was necessary, in the context of the ongoing collapse of Wall Street.)

In response to Bennett's defeat, Sen. Ron Wyden (D-OR) had an op-ed piece in the Washington Post: "Bipartisanship shouldn't be a political death sentence." He said that he and Sen. Bennett were virtual opposites ideologically, but nevertheless agree

that once elections are over we have a duty to try to govern even if it means working with people with whom we don't always agree.
Working in a bipartisan fashion can lead to watered-down legislation, yes, but principled bipartisanship can also lead to a value-added, better result.

For most populists on the right as well as the left, however, the mere suggestion of compromise for the greater good is outright heresy. They seem to assume that engaging in political give-and-take will always lead to messy, incoherent policies. It's too bad they can't absorb the lesson from Bob McDonnell's victory in the Virginia gubernatorial race last year: there is no necessary contradiction between appealing to results-oriented centrists and remaining faithful to one's own ideological convictions.

In Kentucky, meanwhile, the son of Texas Rep. Ron Paul -- Rand Paul (as in Ayn Rand) -- won the GOP primary election by a landslide, undermining the prestige of Sen. Mitch McConnell, the arch-establishment conservative curmudgeon. Since then, the younger libertarian Paul has created controversy by suggesting that the 1964 Civil Rights Act should not have been passed. My comment on Facebook:

Rand is obviously way outside the mainstream of the GOP, and that has good aspects and bad aspects. I'm hopeful that he will generate a serious debate on long-overdue policy reforms, but I fear that his populist constituency would make that difficult. Rand's opposition to the 1964 Civil Rights Act is a perfect example of how Libertarians are often guilty of pursuing a dogmatic vision, even when it clashes head on with political reality and backfires.

I would, however, take issue with the statement in Bruce [Bartlett]'s article [ADDED HYPERLINK], "As we know from history, the free market did not lead to a breakdown of segregation." If there are legal prohibitions against sales based on race, then ipso facto it's not a free market. We might say that *capitalism* as a social force (as opposed to free-market policies or principles) helped undermine Southern segregation, as it did in South Africa. But ironically, the South's economic renaissance seemed to FOLLOW the imposed breakdown of racial barriers to economic activity. Rationality and economic growth in the Sun Belt were forced down their throats, you might say.

I still think that the biggest stumbling block that prevents the right wing Republicans from properly diagnosing the party's recent setbacks is their failure to understand what happened during the Bush administration. The White House consciously encouraged and mobilized the populist, social conservative "base" of the party, shoving aside conservatives of a more mainstream mindset (Bruce Bartlett would be the classic example), even as it was pursuing policies that were not conservative at all. Until the populist "base" faces up to the reality of their own origins, I don't think they are going to have much long-term success. They may achieve spectacular gains in this November's elections, but the candidates they put into office won't be able to get much done in terms of actual governance.

Tea Party populism

Speaking of which, Facebook friend Andrew Murphy recently wrote a very good piece on the Tea Party movement, warning conservatives not to be led astray. (See Unfortunately, it came out at the end of the semester when I was totally occupied by teaching responsibilities, and I just didn't have time to read it until now. Anyway, he cites Russell Kirk to emphasize that "conservatism is not populism." Indeed. He goes on to invoke Richard Hofstadter's "the paranoid style in American politics," which I tentatively explored in October 2006; scroll down. I fully agree with Murphy that the Tea Party is a "populist-driven movement," which does raise certain dangers, but not necessarily fatal ones. (I remain thoroughly ambivalent about the Tea Partiers; see Feb. 7, for example.) As long as wise leaders are in charge, conservatism can become reenergized from Tea Party activists without losing touch with the fundamental conservative principles of prudence and respect for tradition.

Murphy made reference to a 1950s-era French politician whose name was not familiar to me: Pierre Poujade. He was a right-wing populist who paved the way for the dissolution of the Fourth Republic and the return of Charles DeGaulle and the Fifth Republic in 1958. From Time Magazine on Mar. 19, 1956:

Pierre Poujade's instrument is not reason but resentment, not plans but protest. It is the resentment of the provincial against sophisticated Paris, of poverty against the prosperous, of nationalism against the crumbling of empire, of common man against politicians. He raised the ancient French rallying cry, "We are betrayed."

Wow! That sentiment has familiar echoes in our own place and time...

Averill wins 6th District

At the convention in Lynchburg on Saturday, long-time party activist Trixie Averill won her bid to replace Fred Anderson as chair of the Republican Sixth District Committee, overwhelming her rival Danny Goad with 73% of the vote. According to the Washington Examiner,

Mrs. Averill pulled out the moderate and conservative vote while Mr. Goad pulled out the further-right conservative and tea party vote. Tempers flared as the two sides clashed through speeches, resolutions, and votes for other leadership positions prior to voting for chairman.

I came across an video of a debate between Goad and Averill at, not very flattering to the winner. From what I could tell, Averill is more of an establishment party insider, and Goad is more of a grassroots activist. I'd be willing to bet that personalities and connections played a much bigger part in the outcome than ideology, however. I talked to each of them briefly at party meetings a couple months ago. In a campaign statement, the losing candidate Danny Goad stressed "the importance of the Republican Party being run in a 'Bottom-up"' manner in lieu of a heavy handed "Top-Down" approach as it is now run." I could not possibly agree with him more about that. Hopefully, Ms. Averill will be able to keep the party together in these turbulent and momentous times. She bears a heavy burden.

For the record, I registered to participate as a delegate to that convention and paid the required fee, but was unable to attend.

Posted (or last updated or commented upon): 26 May 2010, 4: 25 PM

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