Conservative Populism

by Victor Davis Hanson

National Review Online

The conservative failure in 2012 was not an inability to appeal to hyphenated groups on the basis of ethnic, gender, and age identification. Instead, there was a general cluelessness about how to reach the middle and working classes of all races and ethnicities by explaining how conservative principles are not just for the rich.

Consider what messages candidates send by the issues they choose to address. Rather than write off the 47 percent of Americans who receive entitlements and do not pay income taxes, conservative candidates needed to wade into those groups to talk with them and debate them rather than merely lecture them. Why not a symbolic minimum $500 income tax on everyone who is working, if only to remind all of us what April 15 portends? Getting booed for supporting school vouchers is a lot better than not talking about them at all to those who would most benefit. The Michigan episode reminds us that when the message is democracy and freedom to choose rather than union-busting, liberals lose. Hundreds of millions of dollars given to Washington and New York PACs and consultants is not a good bargain, at least in comparison with funding grass-roots registration and get-out-the-vote efforts in key states.

Vocabulary should change as well. It would be wiser to rail against “wasteful” or “callous,” rather than just “big,” government. “Borrowing” is preferable to the drier “deficits.” Republicans always lose when “taxes” become “revenues,” “borrowing” becomes “investments,” and mega-borrowing becomes “stimulus.” “A trillion” means nothing to most people; “a thousand billion” might still shock a little. The “campus” (Latin: “field”) is much better referred to as a “country club.” If you wish to cut PBS funding, then focus not on Big Bird but on the insiders who expect six-figure salaries for providing public-television entertainment in a largely uncompetitive environment of crony capitalism. Can’t expensive and government-subsidized wind and solar power be seen as the obsessions of the affluent, while cheap, free-market natural gas is a lifeline to the poor and the middle class?

Conservatives might rethink the tactical approach to key issues. Why get trapped in the Obama notion that $250,000 qualifies one as “rich”? Most Americans aspire to make a six-figure income, but few hope to make a seven-figure one. Eight out of the ten wealthiest counties in the nation went for Obama; so did Hollywood millionaires and Silicon Valley grandees. When a George Soros, Steven Spielberg, or Michael Moore is a beneficiary of the very tax policies he despises, it is time to become creative and take a hard look at tax breaks, incentives, and federally backed loans. Should municipalities be allowed to issue blank-check tax-free bonds, often for social-engineering purposes far beyond street or sewer maintenance?

Barack Obama keeps begging us to raise taxes on those like himself. But most of his affluent supporters in Greenwich or La Jolla do not receive the free housing, travel, food, and entertainment the Obamas do, and might resent the president’s professed magnanimity at their expense. If Republicans cannot stop tax hikes, then perhaps they might draw the line at the $1 million income level and spare the dentist and auto-repair-shop owner below that line. The Republicans are more the party, anyway, of those who aspire to be rich than of those who are so rich that they can afford to donate to and vote for Obama — an act for those in Carmel and Cambridge increasingly analogous to a tasteful indulgence like granite counter tops and wood floors.

Google, many of whose executives and employees are fervent Obama supporters, has off-shore tax havens in the Caribbean. Why do we neglect such liberal craftiness in a season in which Mitt Romney was crucified? The truth is that everyone from the college president who gets his taxes paid by his university to Jay-Z is a beneficiary of Republican advocacies that he damns. The Republicans may not be able to save the zillionaires in their midst from Obamaism, but they could protect those who make a little over $250,000. If Obama wishes revenue, then why not slap surtaxes on sports, movie, and concert tickets to the point that Sean Penn, Barbra Streisand, and LeBron James may have to pay a little more of their fair share? Why not go after the hyper-salaries of nonprofits’ executives? If Obama wants “taxes on the rich,” perhaps he should start with new surcharges on the well-paid executives of government-subsidized or tax-exempt entities such as PBS, NPR, the Rockefeller Foundation, and the Tides Foundation.

I think ending deductions for state taxes is a large mistake, as well as ending the home-mortgage deduction — given that greater taxation leads to more government spending and debt, which slow the economy and usually make the lives of those who are supposed to be helped worse. But if we are to go over the cliff, then Republicans might suggest that they cannot save those of us who live in blue states, and so will concede that Californians and New Yorkers should not get their 10 percent-plus state-income-tax deductions at the expense of others, mostly in red states, whose state taxes are so much lower. If someone chooses to live in Menlo Park or the Upper West Side, then why must others subsidize his $1.5 million mortgage?

Rather than worry about estate taxes on billionaires, could not the Republicans draw the line above the $5 to $8 million estates that include most family businesses and farms? Better yet, they should focus on the shameful avoidance of inheritance taxes by the mega-estates of the $1 billion sort. When Warren Buffett and George Soros make arguments — only now, when they are in their 80s, rather than back when they were in their 30s — that the heirs of those who left behind a business must pay the government 45 percent of its value above $1 or $2 million, there is a good case for populism. If Buffett’s estate is worth about $50 billion and if he is giving most of it to various charities whose agendas reflect his own, he will be shorting the Treasury as much as $20 to $30 billion.

In other words, Buffett — well aside from his sizable investments in life-insurance companies, which profit from high estate taxes — is asking the heirs of tens of thousands of family businesses worth $2 million or so to pay estate taxes to make up for the revenue that he avoids contributing by so self-indulgently giving to a favored cause. And in the case of his ally George Soros, is it really liberal for him to fund Media Matters at the expense of Health and Human Services or Head Start? The GOP effort should be to protect smaller successful enterprises, and not to allow those with $1 billion-plus estates to escape federal estate taxes by setting up tax-free foundations or diverting capital to pet causes.

The point, again, is not that high taxes are good, or that the real problem is not overspending. But the country voted for Obama, and the politics of cliff jumping mean a greater likelihood of taxes’ rising than being cut. As we go over, let us ensure that those who wanted more revenue are precisely those who pay their fair share.

Consider, too, the populist argument against illegal immigration. How did the Republicans get tagged as the heartless party for their support of honoring federal immigration law? Instead of falling into destructive arguments over the proper height of the border fence, as we saw during the Republican primaries, or, alternatively, pandering to the Latino vote by dreaming up all sorts of versions of amnesty lite, why not make the populist argument for border enforcement?

How liberal is it to allow into the US hundreds of thousands of illegal aliens who undercut the wages of the American working poor, in many cases minorities and, especially, Latinos? How liberal is it to order the world’s legal applicants — who worked to learn English, get a college degree, and apply for legal immigration — to wait for years while others, who came here illegally, crowd into the front of the line? How liberal is it for La Raza (“the race”) to demand that immigration policy be predicated on racial solidarity, in its efforts to obtain amnesty for one particular ethnic group without any worry about the plight of others struggling to obtain legal status? Diversity should be the Republicans’ criterion for immigration reform.

The fact is that illegal immigration is illiberal to the core; it represents an unholy alliance between corporate employers who want cheap labor and elite activists in the media, politics, and academia who count on an expanding ethnic base to ensure their own status as representatives of collective grievances. In contrast, the populist position is concern for entry-level American workers whose wages are undercut by illegal immigration, support for a racially blind policy that does not predicate special treatment on the basis of tribe and ethnicity, and an insistence on legality that does not privilege those who break the laws over those who pay dearly to honor them. In short, the supporter of illegal immigration is the illiberal. Nearly $50 billion in remittances leave this country each year for Latin America — a large percentage of that sum from illegals. Thus, everyone who tolerates illegal immigration is willing to force the American middle class to provide entitlements that subsidize remittances sent to foreign nationals abroad — to the delight of a corrupt Mexico City elite that has systematically failed to care for millions of its country’s own indigenous peoples.

Examine also that most reactionary of institutions, the university — which fuels many of the cultural and academic arguments against conservatism. For decades tuition has risen far higher than the rate of inflation to subsidize everything from rock-climbing walls and designer dorms to superfluous race/class/gender “studies” courses and reduced teaching loads. So it is time for academia to pay its fair share. Republicans should make the argument against all sorts of tax-evasive compensation. Why do many professors get tax-free tuition waivers for their children? Surely if a well-paid professor can have his children receive sizable reductions in tuition, he should pay taxes on that perk. Do we really wish to subsidize the lifestyle of the Elizabeth Warren household? Universities should not be able to create Byzantine tax-avoidance programs for administrators, who have become veritable CEO grandees without the stigma of belonging to the 1 percent. I am not aware of other professions — doctors, lawyers, accountants — whose members demand lifetime tenure after six years. Why should students have to borrow for inflationary tuition in an era of near deflation, for the benefit of the elite whose commercial practices are secretive and mostly hidden from the public? If the point of tenure was to ensure free speech and diversity, then it has utterly failed, given that the university is the home of speech codes and monolithic ideologies. I know of none outside the campus — not farmers, not 7-Eleven workers, not nurses — who enjoy lifetime tenure or have their children given nearly free college educations.

The new Democratic party is an alliance in large part between those on entitlements and in labor unions, and those so wealthy that they either don’t mind paying for big government in exchange for alleviation of liberal guilt, or have various means to avoid the very high taxation they support. What do Tom Daschle, Timothy Geithner, John Kerry, and Hilda Solis all have in common? As Obama cabinet appointees or would-be appointees, they sought to avoid the sort of taxes that they advocate as necessary and patriotic for others. In contrast, the Republicans are the party of those in between, who are getting killed both by protecting those who despise them and by advocating beneficial policies of self-help for those addicted to entitlements who vote for their enablers.

Republicans need to find positions that avoid these paradoxes — and populist candidates who look and act like the scrappers they represent. The Democrats have nominated wealthy prep-schooled, Ivy League candidates for the last four straight elections — and run them as “men of the people” as they were showered with billionaire cash. It is time for Republicans to try something new.

©2012 Victor Davis Hanson

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