Reconciling the Right's Parallel Universes

Reconciling the Right's Parallel Universes
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There are two parallel universes in conservative politics, each with its own tribes and conflicts, its own narratives and debates. These universes are isolated from each other, just as the tribes within them are divided.

In one universe, the Congress returns from recess to address legislative priorities like a year-end funding bill, the timing of which will have great consequence on the first 100 days of the next presidential administration. In this universe, other legislative debates, from federal Zika funding and internet sales tax proposals to the impeachment of IRS Commissioner John Koskinen, also loom in the background.

The other universe doesn’t know or care about these debates. It sees bigger things going on, like rapidly heightening racial tensions, with black Americans feeling out of place in the country that is their home and police increasingly afraid to do their job for fear of being called racist. The ruling class’s march towards a flatter world – from free trade to the European Union – seems stalled by popular backlash. And in many parts of anxious America, even these developments are irrelevant as the persistent miseries imposed by drug addiction and family breakdown give many the sense they are losing the America they once thrived in, irrespective of any headlines.

Over the last several years, many on the right have had a theory of how to unite these universes, or at least given them common purpose. The Washington that is ignoring anxious America is not broken, we said. It ignores the non-Washington universe by design, we argued. It is a finely tuned machine aimed at advancing the interests of an increasingly out-of-touch ruling class. Other concerns are distractions from its insular priorities.

By taking on this routine cronyism at its nexus with big government, conservative populists hoped to provide the space for a modern conservative reform agenda, which would give opportunity to all Americans, to emerge. Failure to do so, we worried, might give rise to a different sort of politics – an anti-Washington populism unmoored entirely from conservative principles.

There is a lot of evidence from the last year to support the theory we have advanced. From Sanders and Trump to Brexit, it is clear the elite consensus is losing the consent of the governed. Preserving the status quo in Washington – or “governing” as it’s more politely called by our nation’s elites – makes sense in the universe of congressional campaigning, vote counting and conference meetings, but makes no sense out in the real world.

At the same time, populist conservatives should ask ourselves some tough questions. Are the children of Reagan Democrats upset at big government for its overreach, or is their anger tangential to the size of government debate, rooted in deeper frustrations and channeled indiscriminately into the political process? From the perspective of forgotten America, what does our message, which appears to them to be a call for limited government and liberty for their own sake, have to offer someone who does not know what the regulatory state is, let alone how it affects his or her employment prospects?

While there is plenty to learn for conservative reformers from this cycle about the errors in our attempts to reconcile the alternate universes on the right, the Establishment has a deeper challenge. Its brute force is not a unifying tactic. Its inherited authority is not a substitute for a coherent rationale for the power the people have vested in it.

For the past several years, the Washington establishment has chosen to treat each expression of populist unrest as an isolated incident of voter anger – the Tea Party electoral victories of 2010, Majority Leader Eric Cantor’s primary defeat, the ousting of House Speaker John Boehner – rather than recognize the energy building throughout the country and finding ways to incorporate it.

In this environment of anxious energy, the establishment’s response has been to try and jam policy through with shows of power – incredible sums of money spent lobbying for the Trans-Pacific Partnership, coordinated public campaigns to paint opponents of amnesty as xenophobes, the tens of millions of dollars raised by Gov. Jeb Bush.

Charitably speaking, the establishment continues to demonstrate a complete lack of grace towards anxious Americans and does nothing to make them feel included in the American political project. An example from across the pond is illustrative of how Western elites view their anxious countrymen.

Imagine if Brexit had narrowly failed. Does anybody believe global elites would have paused momentarily in their quest to achieve Thomas Friedman’s manifest destiny of a flat world? Would anybody have said, “Maybe half our fellow citizens have a valuable perspective on the right balance between transnational economic integration and preservation of national identity”? Of course not.

As members of Congress return to Washington to do the people’s work, it is important they take seriously the tasks ahead of them. The matters that will be debated this month will indeed be consequential. But to justify our efforts in Washington, Congress and those of us who work with it must first meet people where they are – and anxious America is not particularly concerned about whether the internet sales tax is origin, destination, or hybrid based.

It will be easy for all of us to return to our familiar roles in the DC debate, running the routes that have become habit for us. The hard work will be taking time to reflect on the dissonance between the conversations here and the conversations the country is having out there. Reconciling the two parallel universes, building a project that all members of our coalition – and millions of others – feel invested in pursuing will be essential if we are to preserve the movement we have inherited and pass it on to the next generation of conservatives.

Michael A. Needham is chief executive officer of Heritage Action for America.

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