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.Image: Pullquote: Republican political leaders must redefine the party as a home for principled but pragmatic problem solvers rather than ideologues.Essay Types: Essay