Chris Buskirk asks what is the future of conservatism.
“Where do Republicans go from here? Is it more populism? Trumpism without Trump? Trumpism with Trump? Warmed-over Reaganism? Will the party embrace a middle-class agenda? Or maybe it will just return to the anodyne mediocrity that gave Donald Trump an opening in the first place.
These questions are being hashed out on social media, on chat shows, in magazines, journals and other public spaces. But in my experience the most interesting and honest conversations are happening in private, with people trying to answer the question, “Who are we and what comes next?
“So far these questions have been mostly theoretical. But the debate about the nature and direction of the American right became much more concrete when the Biden administration included a child allowance as part of the Covid relief bill that just passed. While most of the attention was focused on the terms of the $1,400 stimulus payments and the proposed increase in the minimum wage, the child allowance is a major initiative that received comparatively little attention. …”
What is the future of conservatism? We’re strapped into a demographic roller coaster ride for the next thirty years. The imminent future of conservatism even in the short run is the death of the Silent Generation, the decline of the Boomers and the rise of the Gen Xers and Millennials. Rush Limbaugh’s death symbolizes the inevitable big shift in power that is coming in the 2020s.
True Conservatism is demographically collapsing within the Republican Party. This is partially due to sheer generational turnover because everyone younger than the Boomers is financially worse off. It is also due to affluent, college-educated suburbanites with modernist and cosmopolitan values voting for the Democrats on the basis of virtue signaling instead of tax cuts, deregulation and endless wars. The advancing columns of working class populist voters have eclipsed the True Cons wing within the GOP. They haven’t quite taken over the joint and overrun the old guard just yet but the day is coming.
White Populism is clearly the future of the GOP. The Trump base is converging with the Alt-Right on nearly every issue now including the growth of White racial consciousness. It is not because “white supremacy” is on the rise. Rather, it is because Millennials went in two different directions with those who went Right defining their sense of identity against the political correctness and wokeness of the brats. Unlike Boomers, they don’t remember the Civil Rights Movement. They are completely unburdened of White guilt and reject the notion that the likes of Ta-Nehisi Coates or Ibram X. Kendi – who have been put up on a pedestal by White liberals for their entire lives – possess any moral authority whatsoever. Older Conservatives are 10x more likely to believe racial equality is a very important issue. We still live in a country ruled by older people who are keeping the status quo in place … just barely, for now.
This will come as a surprise to “journalists.”
How can younger White working class voters be becoming more “racist” and ethnocentric and yet also much more populist on economics and more non-interventionist in foreign policy?
Consider our history before the Sunbelt era and its suburbs.
The South voted for William Jennings Bryan three times in 1896, 1900 and 1908. It was populists who called for the income tax, dumping the gold standard and the regulation and nationalization of railroads and the telegraph. The income tax was passed under the Wilson administration as was the Clayton Antitrust Act. The FTC was established under Wilson. The Federal Highway Act of 1916 which provided federal aid to states to build highways and was the first such bill since the Jackson era was authored by Alabama senator John H. Bankhead who used to be known as “the father of good roads.” During the Great Depression, the Glass-Steagall Act which regulated Wall Street was sponsored by two Southerners. Back then, it was the rural South and West which were being crushed and exploited by Eastern capital.
Sen. Lister Hill of Alabama had a long and distinguished career in Congress. He sponsored the TVA bill, the GI bill and the Hill-Burton Act which built hospitals in rural areas. He was heavily involved in the creation and funding of the National Institutes of Health. In the 1940s and 1950s, Alabama had the most “liberal” congressional delegation in the country because of Hill’s leadership. He opposed the Brown decision which desegregated schools. Rep. John Rankin of Mississippi was one of the most “racist” men to ever serve in Congress, but he was the co-author of the bill that created the TVA and sponsored the GI bill. Sen. Huey Long’s “Share Our Wealth” agenda would have created Universal Basic Income and Universal Maximum Income, a thirty hour work week and free college for students with high IQ in the 1930s. George Wallace was the education governor in Alabama and created community colleges around the state.
The South in the 20th century during the fourth party system (Populist and Progressive era) and fifth party system (New Deal liberalism and conservatism era) was generally on the populist side. White Southerners were Democrats and the cornerstone of Bryan, Wilson and FDR’s New Deal coalition. The reason that Medicare and Medicaid exist today is because there wasn’t lockstep opposition to the Social Security Amendments of 1965 in the South and West. The South voted for Bryan three times, Wilson twice, FDR four times and supported Truman, JFK and LBJ to a lesser degree. Jimmy Carter was the last hurrah of the Southern Democrat. Afterwards, most White Southerners became Republicans as the region became wealthier and more developed and suburban and caught up with the national average.
America turned the corner in the early 1900s. This was followed by a long period in which life got better until the early 1960s. What changed in the early 1900s and ended in the early 1960s?
In both cases, the answer is related to religious awakenings, culture wars, the growth of sectionalism and the race question in the South.
In the 1830s, the abolitionist movement arose in the North after the Second Great Awakening. It began a long period of Northerners condemning Southerners as immoral. It polarized the country, destroyed the Whig Party and culminated in the War Between the States. The standard of living continued to plummet for the majority of Americans through the Gilded Age as the Civil War generation continued to “wave the bloody shirt” and fight over dead issues. America was essentially two countries at this time. It was a Northern nation that was victorious in the Civil War and was lorded over by Eastern capital which had reduced the Southern and Western states to the American equivalent of Ireland.
In the 1890s and 1900s, this dynamic finally changed. The older generations began dying off and younger people who did not remember the War Between the States and Reconstruction began to come to power in Congress. Gilded Age America was all that they had ever known. Americans were exhausted with endless fighting over the racial and cultural issues. Sen. Henry Cabot Lodge’s Force Act of 1890 was the last gasp of Reconstruction. The Plessy v. Ferguson decision of 1896 opened the door to the Jim Crow era in the South. Blacks were disenfranchised and a White electorate was created in the South. George Henry White gave his farewell speech as the last black elected to Congress from North Carolina in 1901. The race issue was buried and the Spirit of the Age was sectional reconciliation. Daniel Chamberlain wrote an article apologizing in The Atlantic for Reconstruction. Civil War veterans embraced in emotional reunions and let go of the past. Southerners fought in the Spanish-American War and World War I. Northerners became less satisfied with industrialism and the culture of the Old South came into fashion and was romanticized instead of condemned. In the wake of D.W. Griffith’s hit 1915 film The Birth of a Nation, the Second Klan swept the North in the 1920s. It was stronger in Indiana than South Carolina.
There was a long period in the early 20th century in which Northerners forgot about how much they hated the South. The Third Great Awakening and the Social Gospel movement redirected those crusading and reformist impulses which have been a perennial feature of the Eastern states away from blacks and fixated them on other causes like Prohibition, women’s suffrage and child labor. It wasn’t until the aftermath of World War II, which was when a new far left concept from Europe called “racism” was mainstreamed, that Northern elite opinion changed and Northerners returned to the race issue and forcing their views on the South. The rise of modernism in America in the 1920s and 1930s led to the obsession with psychology and interior psychological states and eventually to the proliferation of -isms and -phobias which replaced traditional morality after it was largely forgotten by the increasingly secularized and deracinated professional class. The effect was to undermine the New Deal coalition and reignite a new cycle.
The Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and the Cultural Revolution of the 1960s and 1970s were the events that sent the country into a nosedive:
- The Civil Rights Act of 1964 set off a round of backlash politics which enabled the libertarian Barry Goldwater to win in the Deep South. Ronald Reagan built on the inroads made by Goldwater and realigned Southern conservatives to the Republican Party.
- The Voting Rights Act of 1965 enfranchised black voters in the South. This is universally hailed by liberals as one of the greatest things to ever happen in American history, but the side effect of registering black voters was that the Democrats no longer had to cater to White working class voters in the South, which began to their long migration to the Republican Party.
- The enfranchisement of Southern blacks had the effect of empowering White suburbanites in the South which led to the rise of the True Cons. By dominating the South, the True Cons could dominate the Republican Party and by extension America and set the direction of economic policy.
- Effectively, the Bourbon Democrats were restored to power in the South. The culture war has raged for a generation. Income inequality soared during the Second Gilded Age (1980s to 2020s).
- In the 1990s, Bill Clinton and Al Gore transformed the Democratic Party into a neoliberal party and began to compete with the Republicans for college-educated, middle class, White professionals. They successfully began to court this constituency.
- As White professionals have moved toward the Democrats, White working class voters have moved toward the Republicans. During the 2012 election, college educated voters were split evenly between the two parties. Both political parties ultimately catered to PMCs and their preferences.
In 2016 and 2020, we had Donald Trump and this “Populism” thing happen, which was supposed to be over when Neoliberal Joe was elected president and everything was supposed to go back to normal. Instead, the True Cons being the modern day equivalent of the Bourbon Democrats are losing power within the Republican Party and retiring. They are shifting toward the Democrats along with the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. It might seem odd that upper middle class progressive activists and big business would be on the same side, but this is the way it was in the early 20th century under Theodore Roosevelt.
The Bulwark, 2021
What happened in the South after the Bourbon Democrats keeled over and died and fell from power in the wave of populism that swept the region in the 1890s and 1900s? In all the denunciations of cuckservatives who were bludgeoned by the Alt-Right in the 2016 election, we can hear from White Gen X’ers and Millennials the faint, but distinct and familiar echo of the populist politics of the past.
This guy over here sounds more like Tom Watson railing against Leo Frank and the Jews in The Jeffersonian than David Perdue. This guy over here sounds more like Huey Long and Uncle Earl Long than John Kennedy and Bill Cassidy. This one over here sounds more like “Big Jim” Folsom and George Wallace than Tommy Tuberville. This one over here sounds more like “The Great White Chief” James K. Vardaman, Theodore “The Man” Bilbo and John Rankin than Roger Wicker. This one over here sounds more like “Pitchfork” Ben Tillman than Lady G. This one over here sounds more like William Jennings Bryan and George W. Norris than Ben Sasse. This one over here sounds more like Theodore Roosevelt than Roy Blunt. We haven’t really seen who the Millennials who went Right will elect yet.
The Republican establishment has been trying for the past twenty years to keep a lid on it. They are shrinking though. They are dying off. Their grip is slipping.
Note: No one gives a shit about Mickey Edwards’s Republican Journey. People like that are on the way out … literally.