Proof of populism’s pull is found in the surprisingly strong candidacy of Bernie Sanders on the Left and the bewildering rise of Donald Trump on the Right. Neither candidate likely has the infrastructure or the base to secure their party’s nomination, but they will influence the 2016 election nonetheless.
While the billionaire Trump may seem like an odd choice to raise the populist banner, his campaign has an unmistakable populist message. Rather than providing canned, poll-tested responses in interviews and forums, Trump is unfiltered and brash. And for a conservative electorate fed up with a political class that has failed to deliver, Trump is channeling those frustrations in a way that others in the pack have not.
Even Trump’s attack on illegal immigration that has gained him much notoriety is textbook class warfare: keep immigrants out because they are taking our jobs and changing our culture. In fact, until the labor unions recently fell in line on this issue, they too were sounding the alarm about the evils of immigration.
On the Left, Bernie Sander’s shtick is nothing new. Ever since the 1896 presidential election, when William Jennings Bryan embarked on the first whistle stop tour to preach socialism disguised as the gospel of economic redistribution, class warfare has been a staple binding the Democratic Party’s playbook.
Until the 2008 presidential election, however, open class warfare never successfully lured a critical mass of voters. Barack Obama finally cracked the code, but even then he was forced to recalibrate his message during the general election sounding conservative notes like reminding voters that he was raised by “values straight from the Kansas heartland like responsibility and self-reliance.”
“Class warfare has been a staple binding the Democratic Party’s playbook”
But as the incumbent in 2012 running against Mitt Romney, Obama freely embraced a campaign vilifying corporate America and the affluent. And if the Hillary Clinton campaign is any indication of what to expect, Democrats seem poised to double down on this strategy.
Some on the right might argue that it’s a losing proposition for conservatives to win in a campaign dominated by themes such as poverty, income inequality and outliers like calls to raise the minimum wage and the alleged gender pay gap. The Left can always out-promise and outbid the Right, they contend. So why bother?
If these voices prevail, Republicans may once again be scratching their heads after yet another presidential election defeat.
Thankfully, voices like Arthur Brooks, president of the American Enterprise Institute, and U.S. Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Ohio) are providing the conservative movement and the GOP with a blueprint of how to package economic conservative principles as a force for widespread prosperity and empowerment.
Battling poverty and income inequality are front and center in Brooks’ new book, “The Conservative Heart.” And in the House of Representatives, Republicans have in Ryan a happy warrior chairing the influential Ways and Means Committee. Ryan articulates persuasively how replacing a culture of government dependency with a culture that values human dignity, self reliance, and hard work is the surest way to permanently reduce poverty and hunger.
Far from apostasy, this is the cheery optimism that helped Ronald Reagan win the White House twice in the 1980s, and narrowly carried George W. Bush in the 2000 presidential election.
Screaming at the top of their lungs about how conservative principles like globalization, free trade and capitalism have done more than any government program to reduce poverty around the world is not enough to secure a presidential campaign victory in 2016. Republicans and conservatives will need to support this message by taking on crony capitalism and corporate welfare if they hope to have the moral grounding to also tackle entitlement reform and pare back the number of means-tested welfare programs.
By surfing this populist tide, results conservatism can help Republicans move out of the wilderness and back into the White House.
Israel Ortega is a contributor for Opportunity Lives. You can follow Israel Ortega on Twitter @IzzyOrtega.