The GOP's Identity Crisis

Can the Republican Party reinvent itself?

March-April 2014

IN 1958, after the Republican Party suffered a stinging defeat in the midterm elections that compounded the 1954 loss of its briefly held control of Congress, Whittaker Chambers sent a letter to William F. Buckley Jr. Buckley, who had founded National Review three years earlier, was trying to create a conservative insurgency. Like many other conservatives, including Ronald Reagan, he revered Chambers for his searing break with Communism and his exposure of Alger Hiss as a Soviet agent, which he chronicled in his memoir Witness. Chambers had warned the youthful Buckley against consorting with the radical Right, arguing that politicians such as Senator Joseph McCarthy discredited rather than bolstered a fledgling conservative movement. Now Chambers diagnosed the woes of the GOP:

If the Republican Party cannot get some grip of the actual world we live in, and from it generalize and actively promote a program that means something to masses of people—why, somebody else will. There will be nothing to argue. The voters will simply vote Republicans into singularity. The Republican Party will become like one of those dark little shops which apparently never sell anything. If, for any reason, you go in, you find, at the back, an old man, fingering for his own pleasure some oddments of cloth. Nobody wants to buy them, which is fine because the old man is not really interested in selling. He just likes to hold and to feel.

If this sounds familiar, it should. Then, as now, the GOP faced an identity crisis. Then, as now, ideologues attacked pragmatists. In the late 1950s, the trends seemed clear enough. Though the Democrats went into the 1958 election already controlling Congress, they won a historically unprecedented fifteen seats in the Senate (including two in a special election upon Alaska’s statehood) as well as forty-nine additional seats in the House of Representatives. When the newly elected Eighty-Sixth Congress started its first session in 1959, the Democrats enjoyed a thirty-seat majority in the Senate and a 130-seat majority in the House. Republicans also lost thirteen of twenty-one gubernatorial elections.

At the time, analysts attributed the outcome to several factors, including a recession, intra-Republican divisions and the Soviet Union’s successful Sputnik satellite launch, which Democrats used to attack President Dwight Eisenhower. But the GOP’s message also had clearly fallen short. After the election, the political scientist Frank Jonas, an expert on the western states, pointed to the superficiality of Republican candidates’ “glittering generalities” and appeals to “faith and freedom” when voters were more interested in “their stomachs and their pocketbooks.” Rather than “recognizing and meeting issues which arise from the needs and desires of the people,” he wrote, “gimmicks were invented and straw men set up.”

Since then, Chambers’s view has been confirmed again and again. It occurred most immediately and dramatically in Barry Goldwater’s dismal showing in 1964. And it was repeated in congressional elections over the subsequent decades. As MSNBC commentator and former Republican House member Joe Scarborough has recently written in his book The Right Path:

In the early 1950s the Republicans began a gradual but unmistakable shift from being a political institution that was a pragmatic collection of various factions to being an ideological institution that would, when at its very worst, choose nominees in state and national elections who could check every box required to advance an ideological agenda except one: winning.

In fact, a dispirited Republican Party struggled to define an agenda throughout the 1960s and would not win control of the Senate until 1980. Republicans would not prevail in the House until the revolution of 1994. Though Republican Richard Nixon was seen as the biggest loser of the 1958 election—an assessment strengthened by his 1960 defeat, which he discussed at length in his book Six Crises—he absorbed the political lessons of these losses as well as Goldwater’s and won the presidency in 1968. Nevertheless, neither Nixon’s election nor his landslide reelection in 1972 would significantly shape the Democrat-dominated Congress. The GOP’s later success on Capitol Hill took place only after a fresh generation of conservatives had emerged, with a new agenda and message.

ONCE AGAIN, Republicans are energetically debating the reasons underlying the GOP’s recent electoral losses. In the aftermath of what then president George W. Bush memorably described as the party’s 2006 midterm “thumping” in the Senate and the House of Representatives, followed by President Barack Obama’s 2008 and 2012 presidential election victories, the GOP is engaged in a fresh bout of soul searching. Yet even after seven years, not to mention losing the popular vote in five of the last six presidential elections, neither leaders nor rank-and-file Republicans have managed to agree on the causes or cures of the party’s troubles, even as a new election looms.

Obama may have handed the GOP a powerful campaign issue in 2014 with Obamacare’s many problems, but party leaders should not allow optimism about 2014 to short-circuit Republicans’ continuing reflection. Obamacare can hardly form the basis of a political strategy beyond this fall. Without corrective action, the Republican Party may face yet another defeat in 2016. Still, there is a clear path that the GOP can follow to regain its former luster.

Finding the way ahead requires an honest assessment of where the Republican Party stands today. In fairness, much of the speculation is overblown—voters’ rejection of the war in Iraq, the 2008 financial crisis and a few weak but high-profile Republican candidates do not necessarily add up to a struggling party. Further, there is no shortage of commentators who have a vested interest in generating a sense of crisis, including ratings-driven media outlets, liberal activists and pundits rallying their own supporters, and political insurgents seeking to overturn the GOP’s established hierarchy to win roles for themselves and the candidates they support.

Still, it would be reckless to wave away the divisions inside the party. They exist, they are serious and they could bring it down. The Tea Party faction has crystallized widespread disenchantment with the mainstream Republican Party—and fear of the Democrats’ policy agenda—to raise millions of dollars and mobilize millions of voters. Though sympathy with the Tea Party faction in the GOP has fallen sharply, some 38 percent of Republicans continue to support it, according to a fall 2013 Gallup poll. The movement has also had a demonstrable impact, moving taxes and spending to the top of the national political agenda and contributing to major confrontations over Obama’s health-care law, the budget and the debt ceiling in the process. Perhaps most important to Republican politicians and Republican-leaning donors, Tea Party activists have demonstrated that they can defeat long-term incumbent GOP legislators. To paraphrase the eighteenth-century English essayist Samuel Johnson, the prospect of losing a primary election concentrates the mind wonderfully. It has visibly shaped the conduct of many Republicans on Capitol Hill.

What the Tea Party movement really represents is less clear, though some of its self-appointed leaders profess great ambitions. Speaking during the fall 2013 dispute over the debt ceiling, Matt Kibbe, president of the Tea Party group FreedomWorks, argued that the Republican Party was experiencing “a disintermediation in politics” in which “grassroots activists have an ability to self-organize, to fund candidates they’re more interested in, going right around the Republican National Committee.” Party leaders want to control this but can’t, he continued, and if they keep trying “there will absolutely be a split” in which Kibbe and his allies “take over the Republican Party” and the party establishment and its supporters “go the way of the Whigs.”

This is grandiose language. But while the Tea Party may have emerged as a self-organized movement, it seems much less so today. Now FreedomWorks and similar groups are commonly led by professional political operatives and funded by wealthy donors as well as the ordinary individuals who first defined the Tea Party, a combination that allows them to employ sophisticated and expensive methods to expand their organizations and increase influence. Whether one interprets this change as a necessary step in the Tea Party’s maturation or, conversely, as evidence of its capture by a new segment within America’s political establishment is a matter of perspective. Michael Medved and John Podhoretz, for example, suggest the latter in Commentary, writing that “the incentive to engineer and profit from conflict is even greater for those who are not running for office but who are making a name and an increasingly good living”—“a new class of political activists” that is “remarkably entrepreneurial” and “aggressively seeks marketing opportunities.”

On the other hand, could Tea Party voters have had a similarly significant and sustained role without this new class? Probably not. The activist-operatives provide a critical link between political leaders and a national constituency without which neither could be as effective. Senator Ted Cruz and other politicians identified with the Tea Party have had outsized impact in no small part because they have appeared to be riding a rising wave—and sympathetic voters are empowered by organizations that are far more well connected than most grassroots groups could hope to be.

Of course, any new class must contend with the current order—and establishment figures, not to mention many Republicans on both Wall Street and Main Street, seem newly motivated to fight to preserve the status quo. Notwithstanding the hype surrounding the Tea Party, the establishment has many advantages in such a contest precisely because it is the establishment and thus largely controls the organizational levers of power within the Republican Party, including the Republican National Committee as well as state and local party bodies and a lot of political money. In Congress, establishment-oriented leaders control the allocation of committee posts—which Republican House leaders have now reportedly linked to votes in support of the party’s House leadership. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and House Speaker John Boehner have also each publicly expressed frustration with outside groups exhorting members of Congress to vote against leadership preferences.

GOP officials can also influence the selection of candidates and seem newly motivated to do so. Charged with securing a Republican majority in the Senate, Rob Collins, executive director of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, has implicitly rebuked Tea Party groups. He said, “The path to getting a general election candidate who can win is the only thing we care about”—a clear reference to the failed and sometimes loopy Republican Senate candidacies in the 2010 and 2012 election cycles, including Nevada’s Sharron Angle, Indiana’s Richard Mourdock and Missouri’s Todd Akin. Other Republican officials have expressed similar sentiments.

Influential outside groups are also aligned with the establishment. One pillar of Republican politics, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, recently helped an establishment Republican defeat a Tea Party candidate in a special election for an Alabama seat in the House of Representatives and, according to the Wall Street Journal, has committed at least $50 million to support establishment candidates in 2014 Republican primaries, particularly the Senate, with the goal of “no fools on our ticket.” State and local business leaders are reportedly supporting establishment candidates as well, including a Republican challenger to incumbent Michigan Tea Party star Representative Justin Amash.

By comparison, FreedomWorks reported consolidated total revenue of just $20 million in its unaudited 2011 annual report, the latest disclosed. The like-minded Senate Conservatives Fund, which does not provide an annual report on its website—audited or otherwise—and states that it limits donations to $5,000, spent $16 million in the 2012 election cycle, according to federal records.

So is the GOP nearing a truly historic collapse brought about by this internecine warfare? Probably not.

Until now, establishments in both major political parties have prevailed far more frequently than insurgent movements. America’s winner-take-all elections structurally privilege a two-party system and marginalize niche groups that cannot build a winning coalition—meaning that emerging political forces can become one of the two dominant parties only by destroying an existing party or, alternatively, by transforming one from within. The Whigs disappeared over 150 years ago, and no major party has disintegrated since. Though the Republican establishment has thus far failed to co-opt the Tea Party and channel its energy—an intensely valuable resource—it may yet succeed. If the Tea Party simultaneously redefines the GOP, it might too.

However, if the two groups continue to fight rather than merging, time favors the Republican establishment. Eventually, Tea Party groups will need not only rhetoric but also practical accomplishments to maintain the support of their donors and voters, and they will need them even more so if they hope to win sufficient power to determine or heavily influence the Republican Party’s agenda, strategy and tactics over time. In a divided party within a divided government, positive accomplishments will require the kind of compromise that many Tea Party figures have thus far rejected. The GOP’s fall 2013 surrender on the debt ceiling after poor handling of an ill-chosen fight and its early 2014 support for a budget compromise illustrate just how difficult it is to sustain a strategy of governance by obstruction.

THE BIGGER problem facing the Republican Party lies outside rather than inside, in defining an agenda to win elections beyond red-state Senate seats and gerrymandered House districts. Intraparty divisions exacerbate this problem by forcing candidates to make statements and adopt positions that alienate potential supporters (a regular problem in GOP primaries) and by muddling the party’s national message (as with the varied formal responses to the president’s last State of the Union address), but disunity is not the main challenge. As Whittaker Chambers wrote of the party in 1958, the real threat to the GOP is that despite its widely supported principles, the Republican Party has failed to define a constructive agenda that can win national support. As a result, according to a December 2013 Gallup poll, just 32 percent of Americans have a favorable view of the Republican Party—ten percentage points below the share that see the Democrats positively.

Though the reasons for these attitudes are widely discussed, and Republican pollsters and political operatives have studied them extensively, the Republican Party as a whole has been unable to draw shared lessons or come to agreed conclusions about how to proceed. Until recently, Republicans have devoted more time to debating how conservative the party and its candidates should be than to defining what it means to be a conservative in America today and proposing policies that apply conservative principles to public concerns. Republicans must change this if they want to be seen as something other than the party of “no.” Standing athwart history yelling “stop” may sound like a glorious cause, but history almost always wins.

Nothing illustrates Republicans’ failure to “promote a program that means something to masses of people,” as Chambers put it, as clearly as the GOP’s abysmal handling of the Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare. Simply put, Republicans have been fighting a losing battle to overturn the law because they were not able to make a meaningful health-care proposal of their own of sufficient appeal either to force compromise or to create a deadlock on Capitol Hill by putting real public pressure on moderate Democrats. In that environment, the president’s imperfect effort was for many Americans better than no effort at all.

The GOP’s inability to produce an attractive alternative to Obamacare was particularly unfortunate because the law’s clear weaknesses provided a very real opportunity for practical reforms. Leaving aside conservatives’ philosophical concerns, as a policy and political matter the Affordable Care Act may well expand access to health care in the future but has been decidedly mixed in its impact on costs, particularly for those who already had insurance. This group makes up a much greater share of the voting population than the uninsured.

Finally, while the jury is still out on the public’s eventual attitudes toward Obama’s health-care plan—and many Republicans clearly hope that its flawed implementation will be a potent weapon in the 2014 midterm elections—Obamacare’s fundamentals appear likely to stick regardless of the election outcomes in 2014 or even in 2016.

Consider whether a Republican-controlled Congress could actually repeal Obamacare in the real world as opposed to the fantasy world of direct mail and online fundraising appeals. If Republicans win the Senate and keep the House in 2014, or win control in both houses while a Democrat follows Obama in the White House in 2016, this would require a veto-proof majority at both ends of the Capitol Building—a remote prospect. But even if Republicans achieve a national-level political trifecta in 2016 by taking the presidency and winning majorities in both houses of Congress, GOP leaders may quickly find that repeal is much more attractive as a campaign issue than a legislative program. A newly elected Republican president would be sorely tempted to discourage repeal, as the divisive effort could easily dominate and define a first term much as the law’s passage did for Obama. Blue-state Republicans, who would mathematically have to make up an important part of any GOP-controlled Congress, would probably be even less enthusiastic. It seems likely that a new Republican president and Congress would have bigger priorities—starting with the economy and jobs.

THE REPUBLICAN Party is ceding considerable territory to the Democrats in other policy areas as well—some much more promising than post-Obamacare health care. While Republicans have been more successful in blocking flawed legislation on energy and climate change (like a cap-and-trade bill to set limits on greenhouse-gas emissions) and have continued to press the Obama administration to approve the Keystone XL pipeline, they have otherwise offered little on energy, a potent issue that routinely leads surveys of the public’s domestic and international policy priorities. Like health care, energy touches Americans deeply in daily life—as we heat or cool our homes, drive to work or to shop, and plug in more and more new electronic gadgets. Because Republicans have offered little on energy policy, Americans believe the Democrats do a better job on energy; a 2013 NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll showed 36 percent preferring the Democrats and 26 percent the Republicans, with 18 percent saying that they were “about the same” and 15 percent suggesting that neither would do well. The 33 percent who today see no difference between the parties provide a huge opportunity for Republican ideas and policies, especially when combined with the collapse of President Obama’s misguided “green jobs” agenda.

The central lesson of America’s energy sector over the last several years is that government programs to subsidize existing technologies like solar and wind have not delivered on their promises even as a private-sector revolution in oil and gas production has created enormous new economic activity and huge numbers of jobs. The contrast powerfully demonstrates both the critical role of technology in generating growth and jobs and the validity of conservative economic principles. Republicans can and should find a way to combine these two facts to develop a strong energy program.

This will require more than quoting Adam Smith or Ronald Reagan and then standing back to see what happens—it means writing policies to promote genuine energy innovation, with respect to both fossil fuels (which generate enormous benefit and will be with us far longer than some seem to think) and other sources. Many Republicans are tempted by the myth that hydraulic fracturing and horizontal drilling, the key technologies of the energy revolution, spontaneously burst out from America’s energy companies like the ancient Greek goddess Athena springing from the forehead of Zeus. As a result, some think, there is no need for government-supported research. This is wrong. In reality, both fracking and horizontal drilling began as federally funded research projects before being combined and commercialized by energy companies.

There is an important role for government here, though it must be precisely defined. Needless to say, a conservative energy agenda should not increase the size of government—and it need not, if Republicans can reallocate resources away from subsidies to existing technologies that can’t compete in the marketplace in favor of research to produce genuinely new ways to generate and transmit energy. When necessary to avoid disruption, the GOP can apply creative approaches like reverse auctions to phase out tax credits or other subsidies over time, asking those who seek U.S. government support to compete in part on the basis of how little federal funding they seek.

The Republican Party’s approach to immigration reform is worse than a missed opportunity; it is a significant political liability. Many in the GOP have taken the first step toward recovery by admitting that the party has a problem, but too often the intra-Republican policy debate on immigration conflates two separate issues—U.S. policy toward illegal immigrants and the Republican Party’s political appeal to America’s expanding population of Hispanic voters—and misunderstands the relationship between them. The GOP’s future electoral prospects depend in no small part on understanding each challenge separately and redefining their connection.

The core misunderstanding is the idea that supporting an immigration-reform bill can fix the GOP’s weak support among Hispanic voters. This is unlikely to prove true for three reasons. First, it is not clear how much credit the Republican Party and individual GOP legislators would receive for supporting an immigration bill, especially because they are unlikely to outdo the Democrats in rhetoric. Second, and more seriously, congressional Republicans appear unlikely to be unified on immigration reform—particularly in the current environment inside the party—and bitter debate is entirely possible. This debate is bound to include precisely the kind of nasty rhetoric that has alienated many Hispanic voters in the past. Third, immigration reform is not in fact the top policy priority for Hispanic voters, who, like other Americans, are more concerned about issues that affect their daily lives. This is regularly demonstrated in polls; for example, a 2012 Gallup survey showed that among Hispanic registered voters, immigration ranked fifth in importance after health care, unemployment, economic growth, and the gap between rich and poor—and only slightly above the federal budget deficit.

This suggests that America’s immigration-reform debate may well be less important to Hispanic voters for its policy consequences than for the GOP attitudes they believe it reveals. Thus, a political strategy to attract Hispanic voters should focus first and foremost on avoiding hostile rhetoric and on repudiating those who continue to use it. This includes Republican politicians who publicly decry Hispanic immigration, which essentially tells Hispanic Americans—twenty-three million eligible voters, and possibly forty million by 2030, accounting for 40 percent of the growth in the electorate—that the GOP doesn’t like them and doesn’t consider them to be true Americans. It’s hard to win votes that way.

After it stops some individuals from repelling potential supporters, the Republican Party should reach out by concentrating on the same concrete, real-life issues that the party needs to address anyway—and doing it in a way that draws a stark contrast between Republicans and Democrats. The GOP can have a clear message: while Democrats approach Hispanic Americans and other minority groups on the basis of their ethnicity and propose collective solutions that make few distinctions among those in diverse circumstances, Republicans care about individuals and are pursuing policies to generate jobs and expand opportunities for real people rather than applying labels so that they can easily check a political box. Republicans themselves must recognize the fundamental fact that appealing to group interests rather than individual interests means ceding the terms of debate to Democrats. Conversely, if Republicans have a policy that appeals to Americans—no hyphenation needed—and avoid offending potential voters in whatever social group, they can do quite well.

From a political perspective, Republicans on Capitol Hill may do best by deferring legislative action on immigration; in the current situation, pursuing a bipartisan bill may actually damage the GOP brand rather than improving it. And waiting need not have damaging political consequences if Republicans take other needed steps to appeal to Hispanic and other voters. Meanwhile, congressional Republicans should consider policies to offer an extra helping hand to recent legal immigrants who need it (whatever their origin) in finding jobs and integrating themselves into American society; this is important both in ensuring that new immigrants do not become long-term recipients of government assistance and in assimilating them. It could also help in demonstrating sympathy to those who follow the rules when they enter the country.

Controversial social issues, and particularly gay marriage, seem likely to remain a problem for the Republican Party. Socially conservative positions appear increasingly to be alienating many younger voters, who see the GOP as not only the party of “no” but also the party of “don’t”—a major factor in the appeal among the young of libertarianism and libertarian candidates inside or outside the Republican Party. The libertarian desire for a combination of less government with social permissiveness is already draining support away from Republicans in general elections. This trend may become worse; Virginia’s 2013 gubernatorial election demonstrated the cost starkly, when Democrat Terry McAuliffe prevailed over the state’s socially conservative Republican attorney general, Ken Cuccinelli, by only 2.5 percent of the vote even as Libertarian Party candidate Robert Sarvis won 6.6 percent. Cuccinelli’s positions on abortion and other social issues clearly turned off some Republicans. Like McAuliffe’s election, Colorado’s voter-driven legalization of recreational marijuana was made possible by an alignment of libertarians with Democrats against social conservatism. Watch this space.

The answer to this, as many have argued, is for Republican Party leaders to de-emphasize social issues as campaign issues—they are too polarizing and may push libertarians and many independents into the Democrats’ arms or into staying home on Election Day. By 2011, two-thirds of Americans under thirty-five supported gay marriage, a share that has grown significantly over the last decade and continues to rise. Perhaps most significant, policy on social issues tends to follow public opinion rather than the reverse—suggesting that social-conservative activists should work harder to shape opinion and strengthen the values they care about from the bottom up rather than looking for rule-based answers that may not last beyond the next election, referendum or judicial appointment and contradict the Republican Party’s overall limited-government philosophy.

IT WILL be very difficult to define a new agenda for the Republican Party that can simultaneously unify a divided party and appeal to new voters in the wider electorate, but some of the ideas above could be components in such an effort. Of course, this agenda must include other key areas as well, starting with a jobs plan that goes beyond tax policy—an issue that despite its great importance has fueled considerable cynicism. There may also be opportunities in education policy, particularly in vocational education; two-thirds of Americans between twenty-five and twenty-nine do not have a college degree and many are unemployed. Finally, Republicans must build a foreign policy that establishes a clear strategic framework, sets priorities and advances U.S. national interests without relying excessively on military force.

Republican political leaders must redefine the party as a home for principled but pragmatic problem solvers rather than ideologues. In a left-leaning echo of Whittaker Chambers, former Democratic Leadership Council policy director Will Marshall argued that in the 1980s, “voters had heard what Democrats were selling. They just weren’t buying.” The DLC’s new ideas and practical approaches helped propel Bill Clinton to the presidency and set the stage for much of what followed. No less important—as Clinton’s case demonstrates—the Republican Party will need a presidential candidate who can personify and persuasively articulate its message.

Moving forward, the GOP does have many important strengths. First, America remains a center-right country in many respects. This provides favorable terrain. Second, some congressional Republican leaders—including strong conservatives and even Tea Party favorites—now see the need to respond to what voters want. Speaking to Virginia Republicans in the wake of his party’s failure to secure any of the state’s top three offices in November 2013, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor said this clearly: “If we want to win, we must offer solutions to problems that people face every day. We have not done this recently and it has allowed Democrats to take power.” Likewise, Senator Mike Lee, who deposed Utah’s Republican establishment Senator Robert Bennett in 2010, recently argued that “there is a hole within the Republican Party that is exactly the size and shape of a conservative reform agenda.” The recognition that it is not enough for Republicans to fight higher taxes, spending and borrowing when Americans want solutions that help them in their daily lives is a significant step.

Third, Republicans should take heart in the fact that Democrats have their own divisions and flaws. In a mirror image of the GOP, the Democratic Party is divided between a liberal activist wing and a more pragmatic establishment faction—and left-wing rhetoric and policy turn off many American voters, whatever its advocates may think. In addition, despite the obvious benefits of controlling the executive branch, President Obama is constantly torn between satisfying and disappointing the party’s most progressive elements. Since some of the steps necessary to placate them may also mobilize broad opposition, this is a lose-lose choice.

Finally, the elections of 2014 and 2016 will inherently be referenda on the president’s policies, at least in part, and Obama’s record has been mixed. This may be enough for Republicans to do well in the midterm elections. It will probably not be enough to win the White House in 2016.

In considering the longer term, Republicans should also pause to compare growing populist sentiments in the Democratic Party to those in the GOP and to reflect on both the origins and possible destinations of these trends. Although the Occupy movement may have quickly lost steam in the streets of Washington and New York, left-wing populism in general has been on the rise in parallel with the Tea Party’s populist messages. In both cases, the sentiments likely stem from a combination of rage at politicians and frustration with the country’s slow economic recovery after the 2008 financial crisis.

The fact that some have abandoned the Tea Party or its analogues on the left because of their ineffective tactics should not blur the reality that Americans are angry and that statistics across the political spectrum are disturbing. In a September 2013 Gallup survey, just 42 percent of Americans had a great deal or a fair amount of confidence in the federal government’s ability to handle domestic problems; a Pew Research Center poll earlier that year found only 28 percent had favorable views of the federal government. Congress enjoys historically low, single-digit approval ratings in several polls.

Even as Americans see the federal government as less and less effective, they also rate our economy and society as less and less fair. A Rasmussen poll found that just 32 percent of likely voters see the U.S. economy as fair to the middle class, while a Fox News poll found only 62 percent of Americans professing to believe that with hard work, it is possible to achieve the American Dream—down from 72 percent in 1997. A 2012 Pew Research Center study showed that 77 percent of Americans, including a majority of Republicans, say that big corporations and a small number of wealthy people have too much power. Here, the Tea Party and the Occupy movement appear to agree on the problem, though not the solution.

A critical question is whether today’s resurgent populism is a natural and ultimately ephemeral reaction to events or something more. While the former seems more likely, anyone seeing statistics like these for a foreign country in the news would not be surprised to hear about massive strikes, violent demonstrations and widespread instability, or even a crisis of legitimacy. Politicians of both parties who don’t want to see the same in America’s future should stop trashing their own country every day in the media—Democrats assailing its lack of fairness and Republicans its government. After decades of attacks on our government and society by our own elected leaders and what many see as growing dysfunction, who can be surprised that the American people are starting to believe what they hear? How long can a situation like that endure? Republicans, who often claim special pride in our form of government, should have no less commitment to maintaining it. Public frustration can be an indispensable force in improving policy and governance—or a wrecking ball tearing through American society.

From this perspective, defining a positive agenda that builds on conservative principles to address widespread public concerns could help not only to improve the Republican Party’s electoral prospects, but also—with some policy successes—to direct and defuse rising populist anger. The GOP’s little shop needs some new products, better lighting and a welcome mat if party leaders want to attract new customers. If the proprietors instead argue loudly on the sidewalk, pausing occasionally to insult onlookers, they should not be surprised by falling sales—or, eventually, a brick through the window.

Paul J. Saunders is executive director of the Center for the National Interest and associate publisher of The National Interest.

Image: Wikimedia Commons/Andrzej Kosiński. CC BY 3.0.

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