President Trump’s chances of winning the election through court challenges and state legislatures diminish day by day. In the likely—though not yet certain—event that he does not prevail, the Republican Party will go back to the drawing board as it did when Mitt Romney lost in 2012. The populist, libertarian, and neoconservative factions of the party will no doubt make their cases. But the GOP establishment will push hard for a return to their comfort zone of talking about tax cuts, deregulation, and other policies that may be sound tactically but have little appeal outside of committed activists and think tanks.
For all the conservative establishment’s many faults, these policies aren’t bad in theory or practice. Lowering taxes, particularly on working-class and middle-class Americans, has salutary effects. It’s also a good idea to cut our bloated state and federal bureaucracies and the ever-growing list of regulations they produce as a way of justifying their own existence. Generally reducing government interference in people’s lives is a worthwhile objective.
Limited government is not an end in itself, however, and it doesn’t really sell in a nation with a massive social welfare system that’s popular with voters across the spectrum.
Most people want functional governance first and foremost, and it’s the conservative movement’s job to explain how the ideological framework of limited government can help to achieve this. In a serious country, limited government is a deterrent against unsustainable policies that will eventually turn disastrous.
In present-day America, limiting government is a tactic to protect the interests of moderates, conservatives, and anyone trying to shield themselves from the dysfunction of progressive rule and the hostile cultural agenda which increasingly comes attached to government policies—a cultural agenda which is certain to escalate under a Biden-Harris Administration.
Center-right and right-wing voters understand this. Most of them don’t share the near-religious devotion of libertarian publications like Reason to the free market—“what could be lovelier . . . prodigiously ingenious . . . beautiful!”—and they aren’t going deep into the weeds on topics like corporate taxes and innovation. Right-leaning Americans oppose big-government policies less due to their specific effects and more due to a general distrust of a micro-managed system that dictates how their communities should function, how their children should be educated, and how much of their paycheck they should have to give up for the pleasure of being governed by elites who look down upon them.
Unfortunately, Republican politicians don’t understand this. They tell their voters to trust that limited government is a good thing for its own sake, then they abuse this trust by focusing on marginal tactics like corporate tax cuts instead of creating a broad philosophical agenda that puts the American people first by making government smaller and better in ways directly that benefit those voters. If the party wants to expand the support that President Trump gained with Hispanics and blue-collar workers, it needs to create policies that tangibly reduce the system’s pressure on them.
This center-to-right segment of American society is also increasingly aware of the fact that the authorities overseeing their lives are no longer limited to those who work for the government directly. At work, on social media, and increasingly in person, their words and actions are monitored by various entities whose ability to inflict consequences is a de facto law enforcement power, even if they can’t fine you or lock you up. Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube can effectively cut off whomever they desire from the modern public square. Banks and payment processors can stop right-wing activists and conservative business owners alike from earning and saving money. The SPLC, ADL, and other groups act as privatized secret police who can harass them and destroy reputations at will.
These entities don’t report to the government—though they often receive government grants and bailouts—but their own prosecutorial discretion mirrors the priorities of America’s ruling class. Their power is an extension of state power.
Mainstream conservative leaders have yet to receive this update to their thinking. They continue repeating “government bad, private business good” even as “private” entities shut them down along with their supporters—or worse, they watch with smug detachment as the hammer comes down on their more right-wing competitors, only to develop grave concerns the moment they themselves become a target. This isn’t just an unsustainable approach for the conservative movement: it’s a path to turning half the country into powerless subjects with no means of promoting or protecting their interests.
Conservative leaders need to incorporate limited government into a broader strategy to explain how state power affects the real people they represent. The mistake the political consulting class makes is thinking that it’s either “the base” or “everyone else.” Trump will likely lose the White House, but he proved that a broad coalition can exist when he won 10 million more votes than he did in 2016.
Republicans should lower taxes, but primarily for working-class and middle-class Americans, not corporations that promote far-left values and ship American jobs overseas. They should cut regulations, but start with the ones that restrict the livelihoods of individuals and small businesses, not ones that most directly affect faceless corporations. They should protect right-leaning Americans against attacks on individual freedoms, including those attacks that come from private monopolies.
In short, Republicans need to start applying their principles in a way that serves their constituents. In the aftermath of the 2020 election, they can start doing this most quickly at the state level, where they have significant power. This would allow the national party and movement leaders to see what works and what doesn’t when it comes to showing ordinary Americans that they come first—not powerful interests or abstract ideas.