December 2007

Populism in the Republican Party


By Thomas Ragazzi


            A fascinating phenomenon that has been observed in the Republican Party of late is their embrace of populism.  The GOP always has had a reputation for combating populism, especially economic populism of the kind that has often been coupled with socialism and more governmental regulation of the affairs of business.  But the Grand Old Party has indeed embraced a particular form of populism that also has profound economic consequences.  This form of populism is anti-illegal immigration populism.  It is part of an effort to paint the Democrats as the elitists and the Republicans as the party that is truly in touch with the concerns of the common voter.

            This brand of populism has spit the Republican Party, as there is a core conservative constituency whose ranks would be adversely affected in an economic way if no partial amnesty bill becomes law.  In other words, if a partial amnesty bill is eventually passed, then businesses would have a greater supply of cheaper labor they could choose to legally hire, which in effect would increase profits as the cost/production ratio would be a more favorable one.

            Case-in-Point: The Wall Street Journal vs. Laura Ingraham.  Laura Ingraham, a staunchly conservative radio talk show host who has just written a book entitled Power to the People (note the conspicuously populist title), recently scuffled with the Wall Street Journal, a down-the-line conservative publication in domestic and foreign affairs.  The Journal had an article criticizing Ingraham’s stance on immigration in which she attacked a bill supported by President Bush and Senator McCain, calling it an amnesty bill.  The Journal called her attacks “alarmist” rhetoric.  Ingraham responded that the Journal did not have the ability to put aside its business interests for the sake of national security.

            What is revealing about this exchange between conservatives is that it shows the GOP does have the ability to modify its economic policy.  You will almost never see a Republican embrace anything that smacks of socialized medicine or an increase in the capital gains tax.  But the immigration debate causes the party to turn on itself and foments war between core constituencies.

            The idea that the GOP can embrace populism, even when there are great economic interests at stake, is at once refreshing and disturbing.  Like with all forms of populism, anti-illegal immigration populism can and indeed has been tinged with racism.  Arguments such as “it is not fair to those who waited years to come to America legally if we do not stop illegal immigration,” “illegal immigration is breaking the law and we do not want to promote the idea that it is okay to break the law,” and “it is critical to national security that we screen out those who broke the laws in their country through our legal immigration procedure,” are pertinent political arguments.  But when comments are made about the “browning of America” or there being too many Hispanics and too few whites in our neighborhoods, they cease to be part of any appropriate political discussion and verge on racism.

            Perhaps there is a reason why many conservatives seem to be going against the economic interests of the party.  Perhaps it is because the GOP needs to hold populist beliefs due to its low poll numbers, as the American people see an ineffective foreign policy and an economic policy that has brought no tangible benefits to the average citizen.  But whatever may be the rationale for the shift in Republican strategy, one that embraces racism is one the GOP would be wise to avoid, as it would be disastrous for not only the nation, but for the party itself.