Former Gov. Michael Huckabee responding to a question about the state of the economy
Huckabee on stimulating the economy:
Mike Huckabee, his above response notwithstanding, has never really earned a reputation as an economic oracle, but his sensitivity to struggling breadwinners and anxious wage earners throughout America has struck a nerve with voters. Huckabee made another direct appeal last night in California -- "I think what Americans are looking for is somebody to just honest with them and straight with them and tell them that, no, it's not better and it's not going to get better unless we have some serious leadership in Washington that says that we're going to have to start having policies that touch the people not just at the top, but the people at the bottom. And they feel like they're invisible to a lot of people in government today."
While economic populism is not the stuff of orthodox Republican conservatism, Huckabee's message landed him in the top tier of candidates for the GOP nomination, much to the consternation of mainstream conservatives. Huckabee is fading fast, but it has not stopped leading conservative voices from warning such positions would destroy the movement. Many have scrambled to describe how the Reagan coalition can address such concerns and remain united into the future.
The key shortcoming in such an effort is assuming that Huckabee’s constituency, the socially conservative and pro-defense, but economically populist, supporters of the party -- the Reagan Democrats – are an organic component of the coalition established by Ronald Reagan in the 1980s. As characterized by this author previously, Huckabee and Reagan Democrats represent both the triumph and tragedy of the Reagan Revolution. They delivered historic majorities to Ronald Reagan, but they were fellow travelers to the conservative revolution whose core beliefs were at cross-purposes with tenets of the conservative philosophy.
Discerning who they are and what motivates them provides an insight on how conservatism should proceed and what opportunities there are.
Reagan Democrats are in fact the modern heirs of Andrew Jackson and the defiantly populist tradition of the American commoner he represented.
First, a little history. Prior to Jackson’s election in 1828, American government and political discourse was
the domain of the nation’s elites. In the newly born American Republic, the common laborer could only focus on daily survival while the matters of state were left to the propertied classes. Jackson's election, titled the “Revolution of 1828 ” was derided as a a triumph for the "mob," but it did herald the triumph of the common man and a new departure in American politics. Future contests and administrations could increasingly appeal to popular concerns and seek their mandates from the entire American body politic, not just the elites.
President Jackson did not proceed on the basis of ideological liberal or conservative arguments, but in concert with the fundamental preoccupations of his constituency -- their livelihoods, their identity, and their pride in America. Jackson abolished the Bank of the United States, a symbol of plutocracy. Jackson waged continuous war against the Indians, seeing continental expansion simply part of Americans' manifest destiny. Slavery was inherently divisive, but Jackson steadfastly stood by the preservation of the Union.
Identifying livelihood, identity, and pride in America is not a breakthrough insight, because nearly all American political movements have claimed them as their motivation. However, observers can readily acknowledge the two major parties' platforms have evolved over time while other movements have been short-lived.
Conversely, the Jacksonian constituency has been enduring, recurring throughout American political history in many guises. Coming after the first great ideological split in American poltiics (Hamilton vs. Jefferson), but before the rise of the two party system, this constituency were attracted to Andrew Jackson's defense of their priorities and never really became attached to either of the two major parties. The Jacksonian mob arises amidst periods of great (usually economic) turbulence. Jacksonians raise their voice and demand action until a movement or leader emerges to address their concerns. In this sense, this constituency trusts outsiders and insurgencies, not the mainstream parties.
For the Jacksonian mob, democracy is a transaction - if you're trustworthy, we'll give you a mandate. In between elections, we need to work to make ends meet so leave us alone until we have to meet again. And if you don't deliver, you can be sure we take our trust and votes elsewhere.
In the period between Andrew Jackson and Franklin Roosevelt, this dynamic occurred over and over. In post-Civil War America, rapid industrialization and the rise of the robber barons spurred tremendous anxiety on the part of agrarian and urban laborers. The period witnessed great clashes over labor rights, the tariff, and monetary policy. The Jacksonian mob turned first to the People's Party and then the Democratic Party under the radically pro-silver candidacy of William Jennings Bryan from Nebraska. Bryan's challenge was valiant but insufficient. The Republican victory in 1896 marked the end of populism in America, but it laid the seeds for re-emergence in the Progressive movement sixteen years later. In the 1912 election, President William Taft, the candidate of the status quo, lost decisively to Woodrow Wilson and Theodore Roosevelt, two men devoted to reforming an America still in the adolescence of economic change.
When the stock market crashed in October 1929 and President Herbert Hoover failed to address the economic catastrophe, a Jacksonian rebellion was redundant because virtually all Americans were preoccupied with their livelihood. The Democrats led by FDR turned out the Republicans and captured the government for the next twenty years. Under FDR’s New Deal, the full energy of the federal government was directly committed to addressing the economic well-being of the country. As such, the Jacksonian constituency became a longstanding pillar of the Democratic coalition, repeatedly voting for New Deal Democrats right through the 1960s.
Between 1964 and 1980, the Democratic coalition flew apart and its hegemony over American politics ended. A long and vicious debate between Republicans and Democrats over the role of government, the economy, crime, civil rights, and national security resulted in a very fluid political environment whereby the Jacksonian constituency would continually seek a standard bearer and platform they could support.
In 1964, the first rumblings of new Jacksonian discontent emerged with the burgeoning conservative movement under Arizona Sen. Barry Goldwater. Jacksonians were receptive to his opposition to civil rights and calls for a more vigorous fight against global communism. Goldwater was trounced in the 1964 election, but the unprecedented turbulence of the late 1960s only aggravated the growing anxiousness of Jacksonians. After the Republican Party forsook Goldwaterism in the 1968 election and the Democrats coming apart at the seems, the Jacksonian mob turned to Alabama Democrat turned independent George Wallace. Railing against civil rights, the counterculture, and the paralysis in the country, Wallace famously declared there wasn't a "dime's worth of difference" between the two parties and the Jacksonian mob angrily agreed.
Wallace lost in 1968 and was then unable to run again in 1972 having been wounded in an assassination attempt. With the Democrats nominating a hopelessly out of the mainstream George McGovern, Jacksonians turned en masse to the champion of the "silent majority," Republican Richard Nixon, handing him one of the largest re-election victories in U.S. history.
In 1976, Jimmy Carter won narrowly as an "outsider" but his presidency was an unqualified disaster. The nation was ravaged by stagflation, endured growing apprehension over a permissive popular culture, and was humiliated by the spectacle of American hostages held by radical Iranians for over a year. Jacksonians in search of a savior readily turned to Reagan's message of economic renewal, traditional values, and optimistic patriotism in 1980.
Reagan's victories in 1980 and 1984 were turning points in modern American politics. Key to his massive re-election were the votes of the Jacksonian mob -- "Reagan Democrats" -- southern whites and northern blue collar ethnics wholly turned off by Democratic economic, cultural, and national security policies. In Reagan, the Jacksonian constituency end its search for a standard bearer. Soundly detached from the Democratic Party presidential coalition, their switch signified the legitimacy of Reagan conservatism.
Reagan Democrats became a sought after prize in subsequent presidential elections. Republicans aimed to retain their affection while Democrats debated how to regain their trust. However, as the label emphasizes, Reagan Democrats were still Democrats. They continued to elect liberal Democrats to Congress in stark contrast to their votes for conservative Republicans to the presidency. True to their heritage, the Jacksonian mob did not become a permanent component of the Republican conservative coalition and their independent status has continued to upend American politics.
Within four years of his leaving office, Jacksonians revolted against the Republican Party, joining Patrick Buchanan's insurgency against Reagan's successor. When Buchanan failed, they flocked to third party candidate, Ross Perot.
How did a hard-right Beltway commentator and a folksy Texas billionaire rouse millions of average Americans to their quixotic causes? Because Buchanan's and Perot's message protesting international free trade agreements, tax increases, and gargantuan deficits, resonated with traditional Jacksonian anxieties about their livelihood, identity, and patriotism. As always, the Jacksonian mob sought a standard bearer they can trust; when they were abandoned by Bush, they flocked to Perot and Democrat Bill Clinton.
Clinton promised to be a "New Democrat" but once in office he reverted to the old Democratic orthodoxy of big government and identity politics. In the very next election, voters delivered Republicans their first congressional majority in forty years. For the remainder of the decade, the political arena stabilized into a delicate balance where both party commanded just under a majority of the voters as well as opposing branches of the government. The arrangement, while increasingly partisan, produced results in the only area where both parties could compromise -- balanced budgets and lower taxes.
While liberals and conservatives clashed mightily on other fronts, the Jacksonian constituency retreated, content with the coinciding economic prosperity. Bush should have lost in 2000, but the Electoral College (and the Supreme Court) saved his bid for the presidency. In 2004, his bold leadership after 9/11 saved him, but barely - Bush received over 12 million more votes than his first bid, but he still only won by two percentage points.
Now, the Bush presidency is ending, limping across the finish line. Mismanagement of the war in Iraq, the failures during Katrina, and the collapse of the housing bubble has stoked tremendous angst in the electorate. The mantra of change has upended the presidential race in both parties as both Barack Obama and Huckabee defeated their parties' frontrunners in Iowa.
While Huckabee's viability is dwindling, his success in highlighting the economic anxiety of Republican voters should not be easily dismissed as mere populism. His candidacy is the canary in the coal mine for conservatism's electoral viability. The Jacksonian mob's affection for Republican conservatism is evident, but should not be taken for granted.
Amazingly, it has taken Obama's recollection of Reagan's success to remind us how the Reagan Democrats will continue standing with conservatives. Obama asserts Reagan convinced the middle and lower classes to vote against their economic interests because of cultural divisive appeals. This, however, is incorrect because of the priorities identified above. Reagan convinced the middle and lower classes to vote for their cultural values and patriotism and against a liberalism that practiced identity politics, accommodation of the Soviets, and promised a tax increase. (How raising taxes is in anyone's economic interest Obama hasn't explained yet.)
Huckabee signals that Jacksonians want to remain in the Republican Party. Obama reminds us their core beliefs need not be at cross-purposes with conservatism as it evolves. Fortunately as Michael Dougherty has pointed out in a recent American Conservative cover article, conservative thinkers are increasingly recognizing the need to focus on rising middle-class anxiety.
Consider the following examples of how conservative positions could be crafted to appeal to the Jacksonian constituency.
1) Livelihood -- Jacksonian anxieties should be re-packaging conservative calls for tax reform and mechanisms to overcome the turbulence of a globalizing economy. Instead of resurrecting tax cuts, conservatives should identify a flatter and more transparent tax structure as a matter of fairness. Once the tax structure is flatter, voters will clearly recognize the benefit of announced tax rate reductions, instead of cuts geared to certain income levels. Once the tax structure is more transparent and cleared of alternative minimums, exemptions, credits, and loopholes, voters will have greater faith the playing field is just and demands the same sacrifice of all.
Instead of advertising free trade as a principle, conservatives must be ready to support lesser skilled workers as they make the transition. Aiding the establishment of wage insurance mechanisms (via the private sector) and strengthening trade adjustment assistance will signal to voters that conservatives are support global trade as an opportunity for workers not a way for faceless corporations to abandon their years of hard work.
2) Identity -- Immigration apologists claim Americans won't take the jobs illegal immigrants take or hint darkly the opposition is simply borne of nativist scapegoating. To the Jacksonians, this is only further proof the elites are ignoring a direct challenge to their identity. As the children of immigrants either persecuted for their bloodlines or religion, they readily recognize newly arriving peoples, such as their forefathers, will have to take whatever jobs are available and overcome that first rejection borne of unfamiliarity. Moreover, Jacksonians recall the tremendous effort undertaken by their forefathers to become Americans - to become assimilated, to earn and proudly practice the civic rights American citizens are lucky to enjoy, and prosper spiritually as well as financially.
In the present day, illegal immigrants hover in the shadows, cling to their own safe ethnically separated communities and embrace only the consumer culture. And if illegal immigrants do participate in the civic debate, it is to protest with flags from their home countries and demand rights and privileges. Even worse, Jacksonians observe the nation's oldest political party appease their demands with calls for their amnesty and a refusal to consider making English the official language.
Conservatives must stand by the consensus of all Americans to secure the border. Moreover, conservatives should continue the fight against liberal identity politics and the manner in which multiculturalism and multilingualism creates a cleft country. Jacksonians know all Americans are the descendants of immigrants; what they resent are immigrants illegally entering this country to merely flourish as residents and not become full-fledged Americans.
3) Pride in America -- Jacksonians needed no academic sophistry or esoteric dissections of Middle East affairs to recognize the mortal challenge Islamist extremists presented on September 11th. The Jacksonian contingent in this country, especially its Southern component, heeded the call as they always did in America's wars and manned the force. Their husbands, wives, sons, and daughters all proudly serve in the military -- only to be told you go to war with less men than need and with the army you have, not the one you have. They braved the enemy and took fire - only to return home to scandalously decrepit facilities and neglect.
Conservatives given the reins to the US military need to resist the temptation of sexy but monstrously expensive and irrelevant weapons programs and the lure of exotic new theories of warfare that reduces fighting to a targeting exercise instead of the strategic undertaking history teaches it has always been. When half a trillion dollars cannot meet the needs of our citizen soldiers in the existential fight of their generation, conservatives need to vigorously re-evaluate their priorities and apply their purported expertise to strengthening the US military basis of its people not its platforms. The trust awarded to conservatives on national security needs to be reciprocated with pledges to support the warfighter to the fullest extent possible.
Some may assert the above closely resembles the idea of "Sam's Club Republicanism," a variant of Bush's big-government conservatism packaged as a way to out-maneuver the Democrats for the affections of the Jacksonian constituency. The difference lies in where conservatives should take a stand. Sam's Club Republicans urge conservatism to compromise its faith in the market by supporting the re-importation of prescription drugs from Canada and Mexico, increased government subsidies for alternative energy, and mandatory health insurance coverage -- proposals presented by Democrats. Liberals will always outbid conservatives in developing government programs and giveaways when appealing for votes so why should conservatives consider this approach. The above suggestions speak to conservative principles on lower taxes, border integrity, and military strength, not bigger government.
Jacksonians are anxious not because they've witnessed a dearth of government action, but a lack of principled and effective government. When gas prices soared, the work ethic was held up in contempt, and wild-eyed radicals held their fellow citizens hostage, the government acted -- it rationed gasoline, permitted inflation to undermine a lifetime of savings, and stood idly by for months until launching an ill-fated rescue attempt that failed tragically in the desert. Reaganite conservatism addressed those anxieties, righted the ship of state, and gained the loyalty of the Jacksonian mob for a generation. Conservatism can do so once again.