The Great Unraveling: Fiscal Conservatism Just Isn’t That Popular

Fight For $15 on 4/15 Credit: All-Nite Images

If there is one thing that this election proves, it’s that fiscal conservatism, as a stand-alone ideology, just isn’t that popular. Trump ran within the Republican Party on a message of economic populism that makes most fiscal conservatives cringe… and he crushed it.

He championed anti-trade messages, pillorying NAFTA, threatening China with punitive tariffs and opposing the TPP, an agreement that, before Trump, had widespread Republican support on the hill. Three years after Republicans almost caused a government default because they didn’t want to raise the debt ceiling he said he would never default because he could “print the money.” He’s promised increased infrastructure spending and frequent use of eminent domain laws. In many ways, he sounds more like a “big-government” democrat than Hillary Clinton does, and certainly nothing like small-government fiscal conservatives a la Ted Cruz.

How did Trump do that? How did he desecrate the “fiscal conservative” values of the Republican Party and move it so far to the left on economic issues? The same party that hosts the “Freedom Caucus” a group of fiscal conservative fanatics that recently toppled John Boehner because he wasn’t far enough to the right on fiscal issues.

Former Bush speechwriter David Frum asked that question in his Atlantic piece titled “The Great Republican Revolt.” To Frum, those that flocked to Trump weren’t the “superconservative” nor were they ideological in how they viewed the world, they just felt that they had lost out in this bold new world where the free movement of capital and labor created a “multi-ethnic” elite that moved jobs to China and left them destitute.

But it wasn’t just the “multi-ethnic” Democratic Party that pushed for free-trade, weakened collective bargaining rights, hampered environmental regulation and dismantled welfare provisions that left the White Middle Class in America economically stagnant. These were all policies advocated by the Republican Party which these communities voted for.

Which leaves us with the question of why. Why would communities who only have the option of sending their kids to public school, vote for candidates who openly talk about abolishing the Department of Education? Did they believe in the theory of trickle down economics advocated by fiscal conservatives? Were they so enamored by the logic of supply-side economics that they decided to vote for McCain in 2008 and Romney in 2012?

Or, perhaps, they voted for these candidates despite the candidates’ belief in free-market economics?

For a long time Republican leaders, who married social conservatism with free-market policies, thought that their voters bought into the neoliberal economic policies that they were peddling. But these Republicans voted for them in spite of Republican Party leaders’ dogmatic fixation with small government, free-market ideology, not because of it. They saw immigration and affirmative action to be a bigger threat to their way of life than deregulation and reduced government services. They weren’t satisfied with their choice but it was the lesser evil.

Then along came Trump and offered them the exact mix of ideologies they needed: social conservatism AND fiscal liberalism. Finally, they were able to jettison the fiscal conservatism (along with Ted Cruz) and have their cake and eat it too.

Republican leaders were caught off guard and some of them continue to extol the virtues of “true” (read: fiscal) conservatism to this day and lament Trump’s, at best, tenuous relationship with it. Some have latched onto third party candidates like Gary Johnson that promise to combine social liberalism with fiscal conservatism.

But here’s the dirty little secret that “establishment Republicans” and “limousine liberals” don’t seem to get: fiscal conservatism just isn’t popular. 61% of Americans think the rich don’t pay enough in taxes, and that number hasn’t dipped below 50% in more than 25 years. Only one third believe the current income distribution is fair, with more than half wanting income to be more evenly distributed. And that’s after an eight year campaign that has decried Obama as a Socialist.

And this isn’t a US-only phenomenon. Far-right parties in Europe fuse social conservatism with left-wing economic populism, most notably in Poland, France, the UK and Greece. These parties have captured support from the centre-right AND the centre-left in Europe. Centre-left parties that embraced fiscal conservatism have tanked in the polls and parties that tried to blend fiscal conservatism with social liberalism, like Spain’s Citizens Party, have fared poorly in the polls.

So, what does this mean?

One option for political “elites” is to ignore the will of the electorate and to plough ahead with policies that aren’t too popular with the hope that the economic situation turns around fast enough to head off the populist moment at the pass. And, if that sounds crazy to you, it shouldn’t. Following the Brexit vote many in the UK openly talked about ignoring the vote, with Winston Churchill’s quote “the best argument against democracy is a five minute conversation with the average voter” going viral.

But that would be playing with fire. Already populists movements are on the rise across Europe and have captured one political party in the US, and might even capture the White House this November. If elites in the US and Europe are serious about wanting to beat the populists then the economic centre of gravity will need to move to the left. Sweeping free trade agreements like TPP and TTIP should be abandoned, slavish adherence to fiscal austerity should be revised and countries should focus on increasing real incomes for the middle class.

It also means coming to the realization that fiscal conservatism just isn’t that popular…

This piece is part of an ongoing series called “The Great Unravelling” on the shifting alliances and ideologies in Western Democracies.

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