Democrats have had a tough year–a really tough year. Much of the struggle resulted from the decision to count on demographic change and the awfulness of Donald Trump to deliver the White House for Hillary Clinton with little regard for Clinton’s weakness as a candidate and the realities of polling. Democrats, if they wish to regain a governing role and move the country toward a more progressive future need to figure out a coherent platform that grows and stabilizes the middle class while protecting the progressive gains of postwar America.
Republicans, on the other hand have appeared to have a great year. They continue to control the majority of statehouses and governorships. They have the appearance of a decisive majority in House of Representatives and managed to retain a slim majority in the Senate despite an unfriendly election map. But Republicans don’t seem particularly joyful about their victory and with good reason. Taking back the White House under the banner of Donald J. Trump is at best bittersweet for Reagan’s acolytes. The House majority has so far proven itself unable to pass important legislation without caving to Democratic pressure–the House majority rests on three dozen or so recalcitrant “conservatives” who retain their seats by voting against every bill and trash-talking the House leadership. This morning’s New York Times Opinion section offers a cautionary note for the GOP in three articles by conservatives and religious commentators. R.R. Reno, editor of First Things, urges Republicans to embrace nationalist ideology as their touchstone to replace Reaganite small governance. Robert P. Jones, chief executive of the Public Religion Research Institute, details the collapse of a unifying American ideology into two opposed, and perhaps irreconcilable camps and Katelyn Beaty, editor at large for Christianity Today, takes conservative Christians to task for their reflexive defense of powerful men who harass and assault women, . Each is interesting in itself, but taken together they tell a story of current power without a clear path forward and with potentially dire implications for the country as a whole.
Reno quite correctly points out that middle and working class Americans have abandoned the Democratic party and the Reaganite core of the Republican party because they sense that they “no longer count,” and Reno lays that blame firmly on both parties. He does not, however, explicitly acknowledge the historical arc that he himself articulates. He begins with the observation that, “Over time, however, that iteration [Buckleyite small government] of Republican conservatism became less salient, in large part because it won.” Later he tells us, “The once vast and unifying middle class has eroded over the last generation. Today we are increasingly divided into winners and losers.” He fails to draw the straight line between those two statements. The “last generation” that saw its wages stagnate and its place in the middle class erode was the generation that grew up during the full fruition of Reaganite taxation and spending policies. A 35-year-old today who cannot find steady employment with a pension and health insurance was born in 1982. Even more telling, Donald Trump outperformed Mitt Romney in counties that skewed older–in other words with the voters who moved to the Republican party in droves in 1980 and 1984 but never saw prosperity trickle down as they were promised. Reno places the blame for that stagnation on globalization and blames both parties for embracing it, but he does not even acknowledge the correlation between the implementation of laissez-faire tax and labor policies and the collapse of the working middle class. For Reno, the answer is an overtly nationalist politics that rejects multiculturalism and globalization for policies that explicitly benefit Americans. The question he implicitly raises and fails to answer is what those policies might be. Republicans have told us for generations that unfettered free markets are the only economic system that builds generalized prosperity. Is he now rejecting that philosophy and asking us to trust its proponents to embrace its opposite?
The more pressing worry that Reno’s prescription raises is the uses to which such a governing philosophy is likely to be put. He offers no coherent economic theory to employ in his America First philosophy, and history tells us that populist economics, whether from the right or the left, rarely lead to generalized prosperity. When they fail, the alternatives are obvious and dire. Robert Jones tells the story of the parting of American philosophy–the abandonment of a nation built on a shared ideal in favor of one built on two irreconcilable world views. In one, associated with both the New Democrats and the Republican corporatists, ethnic and religious diversity, free trade, and commitment to a global commons are admirable goals, purely beneficial and even necessary for our continued functioning in an interconnected world. Opposed to this view are the white Christian conservatives who feel increasingly threatened as they move from majority to plurality to minority. White Christians are demographically threatened from both directions–minority races and ethnicities continue to grow as a percentage of the overall population while fewer and fewer Americans align themselves with organized religion. The combination of white Christian nationalist politics with the shrinking percentage of white Christians in the population raises an obvious danger. If the GOP forms a winning coalition of white Christian traditionalists today, how do they function in a few years when white Christian traditionalists are no longer a majority or even plurality? Do they willingly surrender their political power to opponents who espouse diametrically opposed values? History may not provide clear answers, but it furnishes plenty of warning signs. We see the future today in states like North Carolina and Texas, in which the non-white, non-Christian, non-traditionalists populations are growing. The reigning party responds with ever more extreme gerrymandering, voter suppression, and red meat legislation to hang onto power. Further, it is difficult to envision how a national politics that benefits white working-class voters can fail to benefit minorities and non-Christians unless the GOP completely guts the federal court system. Perhaps GOP nationalists will not demand that it do so, but that is unlikely. Perceived advantage is far more powerful than absolute prosperity. Republicans have historically been disappointed by Supreme Court justices, most recently John Roberts, who fail to be completely partisan once they reach the highest court. A court dominated by Republican appointees will certainly prove more conservative than it might otherwise have been, but it may not be willing to transform the United States into a white nationalist state. Pending cases regarding state support for religious institutions will provide an interesting test, but the court may not be willing to privilege Christian institutions as overtly as GOP constituents would like, and that could place states in the position of funneling public dollars to mosques and temples as well as churches, or reversing themselves completely on the blending of church and state.
Which brings us to Katelyn Beaty’s challenge to conservative religious communities’ tendency to rally around powerful men and forgive their sins while blaming their victims. Combined with the conservative embrace of overt nationalism and the declining demographic share of white Christians, the evangelical propensity for, “insular organizations that resist external checks and revolve around authoritative men” is exceedingly dangerous. When faced with scandalous behavior by their charismatic leaders, and Beaty catalogues a disturbing but merely representative sample, these organizations too often defend institutions and leaders rather than their professed values. They have shown an obscene willingness to blame powerless victims for their victimization, as when John Piper claimed that, “‘a lot of Christian women are oblivious to the fact that they have some measure of responsibility’ in managing men’s lust.” Organizations that are already predisposed to easily forgive the sins of powerful white men while blaming women cannot be expected to restrain the uglier tendencies of white Christian nationalism in the face of rising demographic challenges. Moreover, without a functional economic model that improves the lives of their core supporters, they will ultimately face a choice between admitting failure or distracting the disappointed. In advocating a turn to nationalism, R.R. Reno does not argue that its protectionist rhetoric will work economically, only that globalist economics have not worked for the middle and nationalism is popular. Beaty’s criticism of evangelical leaders–and indeed we have examples from other faith communities as well–point to an explosive destination for the current trend of conservative policies.
The short history of the Trump administration to date indicates a continuation of white nationalist rhetoric, sops to conservative Christian voters on hot-button issues, and economic policies that continue the consolidation of wealth and reinforce the power of large corporations and the financial industry. Advocates of nationalism like R.R. Reno had better look long and hard at what they’re advocating and consider how it ends. Their criticism of the real effects of globalization are accurate up to a point–the point where they have to accept the role of conservative tax policy–but that doesn’t make nationalism any more appealing or viable except in the immediate electoral sense. To those jumping on the white Christian nationalist train, beware you don’t burn down the country to win an election.