Backlash against whom?
By Scott Sumner
There’s a sense that the current wave of populism sweeping the globe is a sort of backlash against . . . something. But it is surprisingly difficult to pin down exactly what the backlash is against. What do Trump supporters oppose?
One theme emphasizes issues such as the disastrous war in Iraq, or the policy of expanding trade with China, or the sort of entitlement reforms recommended by Simpson and Bowles. These are basically conservative policies, advocated by people like George W. Bush.
Another theme emphasizes cultural liberalism, open borders, radical feminism, political correctness, Black Lives Matter, and other ideas associated with the left.
The Trump phenomenon can be seen as a backlash against recent trends on both the left and the right, which is probably why the term ‘alt-right’ gained traction.
In politics, binaries such as left/right are always a bit misleading. The fight occurs in both the arena of values and the arena of implementation. I see more than two groups. On the values front, you have the utilitarians and the traditionalists (who support natural rights and/or traditional cultural values.) On the implementation front you have the interventionists and the libertarians.
Here’s my (presumably oversimplified) theory of history. Over time, the arrow of history moves in a utilitarian direction. Culture gradually changes in the direction of giving more and more people rights, and redistributing money from the rich to the poor. Conservatives initially resist these changes, but eventually accept them.
This “progressive” agenda is led by the left, which always seems to win the long run. Occasionally they move to fast, get overextended, and a reactionary backlash slows or briefly reverses the changes. Then reform starts up again.
So far I’m describing things as viewed by intellectuals on the left. And for many issues this sunny view is essentially correct. On the other hand, any ideology will tend to be blind to weaknesses within their group, and the left is no different. Progressives have a sort of convenient amnesia about how they used to support eugenics, or how they used to say good things about Stalin and Mao.
From my libertarian utilitarian vantage point, history seems a bit different from the comforting left/liberal perspective. The left is too optimistic about the ability of government initiatives to achieve utilitarian goals. Ironically, an economic regime constructed by natural rights conservatives is often better able to achieve utilitarian objectives than a regime constructed by well-meaning left-wing utilitarians.
This means that occasional periods of “reaction” actually reflect multiple issues. Reactionary periods may occur when traditional conservatives are made uncomfortable by the speed of cultural change. In general, conservatives do not end up reversing these cultural changes, merely slowing them down. Think about when the voters in California rejected gay marriage. For how long was that reaction successful?
Reactionary periods may also occur when liberals have been overly optimistic about the ability of government economic intervention to make things better. Now the reaction is led by libertarians, not traditional conservatives. But in a country with a two party system and three ideologies (progressivism, libertarianism and traditional values), you need to accept the fact that each party will contain “strange bedfellows”. In America, the Democrats contain both progressives and minorities, whereas the Republicans contain both traditionalists and libertarians. White traditionalists see minorities as a strange and alien culture, which pushes them into the Democratic Party. Libertarians think progressive interventionists don’t understand economics, so they join the opposition party (the GOP.)
Yes, I know that it’s far more complicated. Thus military intervention can reflect a wide range of conservative or liberal values. But overall, this view of politics allows me to make better sense of what’s going. For instance, here’s Ross Douthat:
Not so Trump: All instinct and solipsism, he simply doesn’t care enough about Trumpism to find people who might carry his impulses forward once he’s gone. And so he’s bidding to do for monetary policy what he’s done in domestic policy and foreign policy already: Pursue a somewhat heterodox and populist agenda, but leave its implementation — and therefore to some extent its future — in the hands of men like Moore or John Bolton or Mick Mulvaney who represent the consensus that he once campaigned against.
Trump ran on a sort of Steve Bannon alt-right ideology, but when faced with the task of filling hundreds of positions in his administration, with little knowledge of inside Washington politics, he relied on the advice of people like Mike Pence. His hard-core supporters might have preferred that he pick Steve Bannon as his VP, but that’s not how politics work. You can’t win a presidential election appealing to just a narrow segment of the population. Pence reassured moderate suburban GOP voters. They are not Trump’s “core”, but he needs them to get to 270 electoral votes.
Trump’s most notable policy achievement was the tax cut, with deregulation and Supreme Court picks also cited by his supporters. What do all three of those achievements have in common? They are all supported by libertarians, the sort of people that Steve Bannon dislikes.
On rhetoric, the alt-right won. Trump’s twitter feed often appeals to alt-right people. But on policy the alt-right lost and the libertarians won.
At a superficial level, it might seem that politics is a fight between three groups, the progressives, the libertarians and the traditionalists. This is misleading, as only two groups actually matter in the long run, progressives and libertarians. Ross Douthat accepts many aspects of the modern world that would have horrified Catholic conservatives from earlier centuries. Traditionalists slow the rate of change, but don’t really alter the course of history. Technology, trade, education, and migration will make the world increasingly cosmopolitan. The real battle is between left wing interventionist utilitarians and right wing libertarian utilitarians.
But then I would say that, wouldn’t I? After all, I’m a utilitarian. Feel free to disagree in the comment section.
PS. I hope this post doesn’t come off as condescending toward cultural conservatives like Douthat (who is much wiser than I am.) Just as natural rights libertarians are often right about economic policy for the wrong reason, there’s a decent chance that traditional religious conservatives are right for the wrong reason. Tyler Cowen often cites the success of the Mormons in Utah, for instance. That success doesn’t necessarily imply that specific Mormon religious teachings are “true” in some deep metaphysical sense.
PPS. Eight years ago, “W.W.” (Will Wilkinson?) commented on one of my earlier attempts at sorting out politics. Today, my earlier attempt seems to be missing some important perspectives: