Has Movement Conservatism become a Liability for Republicans?

Movement conservatism; that bizarre mix of absolute faith in free markets, small government and “traditional American values,” that has long been Republican orthodoxy, might be the party’s greatest liability.

There is evidence that Republican voters in the heartland have turned against movement conservatism and its mindless faith in capitalism. This proof includes the results of an April 11 special election to fill an empty seat in the U.S. House of Representatives from Kansas’s fourth district.

Republican Ron Estes won by just six points. Back in November President Trump won the district by 27 percentage points, Ballotpedia reported. Former Rep. Mike Pompeo; who resigned to become CIA director, won the fourth district by 31.3% in November.

This is obviously bad news for Republicans because the numbers indicate a percentage of Trump voters were willing to vote for a Democrat in Kansas. What’s worse is that the Fourth District is exactly the sort of place where Republicans should do well; it is 82.8% white, largely rural and just 26.9% of residents have college degrees.

Movement Conservatism has Lost Kansas for the GOP

Disturbingly movement conservatism might be at the root of Estes’ problems.

Republican Governor Sam Brownback turned Kansas into a proving ground for the policies recommended by movement conservative think tanks like the Heritage Foundation, Week columnist Ryan Cooper noted. The policy of big tax cuts backfired; leading to declining revenues and massive and unpopular reductions to government services.

This has made Brownback the second least popular Governor in the United States, The Kansas City Star reported. Brownback managed to achieve a disapproval rating of 66%. Many observers blamed Estes’ association with Brownback; he was state treasurer, for his lackluster performance.

Governor Brownback’s allegiance to movement conservatism; and some of its most extreme policies, is giving Democrats an opening in Kansas. The popular distaste for movement conservatism might even offset the popularity of President Trump. Donald even recorded a phone message for Estes, yet he still lost a lot of support.

Did Republicans Learn Anything in 2016?

Republicans it seems have learned nothing from last year’s presidential primaries in which the centrist Trump easily trounced a phalanx of movement conservative standard bearers.

Such developments as The National Review’s all-out attack on Trump seem to have helped him. Voters seeing movement conservatives bashing Donald rallied to his side.

Nor do they seem to have noticed the success of socialist U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders (I-Vermont). Sanders is the most popular national politician in America right now; he’s viewed favorably by 61% of voters according to a March Fox News poll.

Last year Sanders received 43% of the popular vote in the Democratic primary. A Real Clear Politics average of polls from May 6 to June 5, 2016, suggests Sanders would have been beaten Trump 49.7% to 39.3% in the presidential election.

Average Americans’ Thinking is closer to Bernie than Rush Limbaugh

There are some polls that suggest average Americans are more sympathetic to Sanders’ positions on issues than movement conservatism. Last year Sanders campaigned on a platform that included single-payer health insurance, taxpayer-subsidized college tuition, and a $15 minimum wage.

These polls suggest most Americans agree with Bernie on some issues:

  • A Gallup survey that found 60% of Americans are sympathetic to the idea of a single-payer healthcare system.

  • A poll from Inside Higher Ed that found 54% of Trump voters liked the idea of taxpayer-subsidized college tuition.

 

  • A Huffington Post poll that shows 66% of Americans favor raising the minimum wage.

 

  • The same poll found that 48% of Americans want a $15 an hour minimum wage.

 

  • A Gallup poll from June 2015 found that 69% of Americans between 18 and 29, and 50% of those between 30 and 49 were willing to vote for a Socialist.
Conservative commentator Rush Limbaugh and Speaker of the House Steven Tilley unveil a bust in Limbaigh’s likeness during a secretive ceremony inducting him into the Hall of Famous Missourians on Monday, May 14, 2012, in the state Capitol in Jefferson City, Mo. (AP Photo/Julie Smith)
  • Around 43% of Americans under age 30 had a favorable view of socialism, while only 32% in that demographic had a favorable view of capitalism a YouGov survey from February 4, 2016, indicates.

 

These polls; and Sanders’ popularity, indicate that mainstream American thought is far from the orthodoxy of movement conservativism. Instead of being the dominant ideological faction in the nation, movement conservatives are now a small and embattled minority. Unfortunately that minority still has control of the GOP for better or worse.

Movement Conservatism wins, Trump Voters Lose

Movement conservatism still has enormous sway over the Republicans. Even the Trump administration is being deeply influenced by it.

Trump has appointed a number of movement conservative diehards to his cabinet; including Secretary of Health and Human Services Dr. Tom Price who wants to cut Social Security and Medicare. He also appointed Betsy De Vos; who favors charter schools, vouchers and an end to student loan forgiveness, as Secretary of Education.

Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., speaks at a rally, Sunday, Aug. 9, 2015, at the Moda Center in Portland, Ore. (AP Photo/Troy Wayrynen)

This is not what Trump supporters voted for. Nor did they vote for a neoconservative foreign policy of regime change in Syria and North Korea yet that is what they may get.

One has to wonder if populist Trump voters are already punishing the GOP for swinging back to the movement conservative party line. That might explain why Estes did so poorly, and Democrat Jon Ossoff’s near victory in a race to fill an empty U.S. Seat in Georgia’s Sixth District.  Support for Trump was strong in both districts, but weak for other Republicans.

The Trump administration; like that of Mr. Brownback in Kansas, is out of touch with the American mainstream and its own base. That sounds like a recipe for unpopularity and a one-term presidency.

Can Movement Conservatism be replaced?

The greatest dilemma facing Republicans is that there appears to be no viable replacement for movement conservatism as the party ideology. Movement cons are dominating the Trump administration because there is nowhere else to turn for advice and expertise.

The most likely replacements; paleoconservatism and the alt-right, are probably more unpopular and out of touch than movement conservatism is. These movements also lack the money, resources, organizational skill, promotional ability and intellectual heft of the Conservative Establishment.

There are no alt-right think tanks or TV networks, few populist radio talk-show hosts, and only a handful of paleocon publications; none of which has the stature of The National Review. If Trump wants advice or intellectual ammo the Heritage Foundation is the only game in town. If he wants favorable publicity; outside of what Breitbart News can provide, Trump has to crawl to Fox News or Rush Limbaugh.

Movement conservatism still dominates the Republican Party and that might be the GOP’s greatest weakness. The Grand Old Party is still dominated by an unpopular ideology that is fast becoming a fringe belief. Unless Republicans can figure out a way to live without movement conservativism they face the prospect of massive electoral losses in the near future.