The European right and the GOP
By Scott Sumner
Politics is a moving target. Political parties are continually evolving over time, and over decades the changes can be quite stark. Many “blue states” used to be red when I was young, and vice versa. In the South this partly reflected a realignment over race, but in most of the country other factors were involved, such as a shift in the economy from producing physical stuff to producing ideas. The GOP is increasingly the party of people who produce physical stuff.
I thought about this issue when reading the following description of the new right wing government of Poland:
The PiS core are not natural capitalists: They are hostile to free-market economics, regard businessmen as “speculators” and believe in government control of everything, including property rights. Their fiscal policy is anything but right-wing. They have promised to crack down on banks, lower the retirement age and give massive monthly cash handouts to parents for each child.
They are conservative only in that they view the liberal center ground of Western politics — and the modern world in general — with suspicion. Their conservatism is essentially provincialism, their politics populist. They beat the drum of patriotism and talk of preserving national sovereignty, but their idea of patriotism is to wallow in the martyrology of the Second World War and the talk of sovereignty is mostly an expression of xenophobia.
Their idea of “Polish values” is selective; they display the same hatred for the pre-war elites and landowning class as did their communist predecessors, and in a recent interview Foreign Minister Witold Waszczykowski poured scorn on “cyclists” and “vegetarians” as somehow un-Polish.
For years I’ve been fascinated by the fact that there was no US equivalent to the sort of populist right wing parties you see in France, Hungary, Poland, and many other European countries. To give you a sense of the difference from America, consider my own politics, which are broadly internationalist, socially liberal and free market. In Poland those views line up almost perfectly with the “left”, whereas in America their only home is the tiny Libertarian Party, and even that’s debatable.
I’ve noticed the GOP is now edging in the direction of the European populist right. Mitt Romney recently had this to say:
Mitt Romney reiterated his call to raise the federal minimum wage and said Republicans are “nuts” for not doing so already.
“I think we’re nuts not to raise the minimum wage,” he said in an interview with The Washington Post. “I think as a party, to say we’re trying to help the middle class of America and the poor and not raise the minimum wage sends exactly the wrong signal.”
The former Republican nominee for president also said that the party’s economic platform should get a new focus.
“As a party we speak a lot about deregulation and tax policy, and you know what? People have been hearing that for 25 years and they’re getting tired of that message,” he said.
The Washington Post story frames Romney’s comments as one of many potential options for a Republican party hoping to appeal to the white working-class vote in the 2016 election.
Of course Trump has also sounded some of the same themes as the European right, and has moved away from the GOP orthodoxy on issues like free trade. He even flirted with the idea of a single payer health care regime.
The easy prediction would be that the GOP will gradually become like the European right. And that may happen. But there are differences between the US and Europe that complicate this picture. For instance, the GOP can be thought of as in some sense representing the white “tribe”. That’s not to say that plenty of whites don’t vote Democratic, but rather that nonwhites tend to be quite hostile to the GOP. Thus any move toward “big government” will be limited to those areas where the GOP tribe is seen as benefiting. For instance, the GOP traditionally favors Medicare expansion (which helps older GOP voters) more than Medicaid expansion (which often aids low income minority voters).
It seems to me that the GOP is currently being torn apart along essentially this issue—to what extent should it evolve towards the European right-wing populist model? Given our ethnic diversity, it’s not clear to me where the GOP will end up, but I’m almost certain that in a few decades it will be in a very different place from where it is today, and there will be even more realignment between red and blue states.
I won’t be alive then, which is too bad because perhaps then I’d finally have a political home, instead of wandering in the wilderness as I have been doing for the past 45 years.