Analysis: The New GOP Populists – Are Social Conservatives Welcome? (Pt.2)

Where do social conservatives fit with the new GOP populists? Part one of this series looked at a group of conservatives who want the Republican Party to fight for the concerns of poor and working class Americans. The social conservative wing of the Republican Party could play a key role.

The new populists argue: Big government benefits the rich and well-connected. If Republicans want to make the case for reducing the power and influence of the federal government, they should design rhetoric and policies that appeal to the working class. They should point out the rampant cronyism and seek to exorcize the privileges that politicians have doled out to the rich and powerful.

Looking at the GOP's recent past and near future, the politicians most likely to take up the populist-Republican cause are social conservatives.

In the last two presidential elections, the candidates most preferred by social conservatives were Mike Huckabee in 2008 and Rick Santorum in 2012. Besides their strength on social conservative issues, both of these candidates were also the most adept among all the Republican contenders at speaking to the concerns of those in the bottom half of the income scale.

In one of the 2008 GOP debates, the candidates were asked, "are Americans better off now than they were eight years ago?" Huckabee was the only candidate to say "no." Plus, his answer echoed some of the themes of the new populists.

"I don't think we are," he said, "and the real issue, ... we've got a Congress who sat around on their hands and done nothing but spend a lot of money and they're spending, leaving us $9 trillion in debt that we're passing on to our grandchildren. ... And all over our economy, with unemployment up to five percent across the nation, that means there are a lot of families today that don't have a paycheck and if you don't have a paycheck, then it's hard to put groceries on the table and it's hard to pay the rent.

"And I think what Americans are looking for is somebody to just be honest with them and straight with them and tell them that, no, it's not better and it's not going to get better unless we have some serious leadership in Washington that says that we're going to have to start having policies that touch the people not just at the top, but the people at the bottom. And they feel like they're invisible to a lot of people in government today."

Similarly, listen to Santorum's speech after the 2012 Iowa caucus. He spoke about his immigrant grandfather who worked in a coal mine.

"My grandfather," he said, "taught me basic things that my dad taught me over and over again: Work hard, work hard, and work hard. And I think about that today. There are so many men and women right now who would love to work hard, but they don't have the opportunity."

And, while the speech had the usual Republican attacks on Democrats – wealth redistribution, government dependency, and so forth – he also had a message to the Republican Party.

"Republicans have to look at those who are not doing well in our society" with a message that goes beyond just cutting taxes and reducing spending, he said.

Looking ahead, many of the potential 2016 candidates are also well liked by social conservatives and demonstrate the most potential to carry the new populist banner – Sen. Ted Cruz (Texas), Sen. Marco Rubio (Fla.), Rep. Paul Ryan (Wis.) and Gov. Scott Walker (Wis.).

Plus, if a Republican new populist leader does emerge, most of his or her support will likely come from social conservatives, or the "Christian Right," as well. Indeed, the traditional alliance that has maintained the GOP has been between pro-business economic conservatives and religiously devout social conservatives. The business forces have provided the financial backing while the Christian Right has provided the volunteers. Both are necessary for a successful campaign.

So, within the GOP already, the social conservatives will be more open to a message aimed at the working class because a social conservative Republican is more likely to be from the working class.

Social conservatism can also add another dimension to the new populist appeals to the working class. While the new populists are fond of talking about cronyism, jobs and the national debt, social conservatives are more adept at speaking about cultural issues, such as marital breakdown and fatherlessness, drug abuse, and pornography. These, also, are issues that impact those in the lower half of the income scale, and they are obstacles to overcoming the poverty and joblessness that many Americans struggle with.

A new populism with a heavy dose of social conservatism will have its challenges, though.

Some of the new populists like to be called "libertarian populists." Some, but not all, libertarian populists would prefer a Republican agenda that is antithetical to social conservatism – pro-gay marriage and pro-abortion rights.

As new populist Ben Domenech points out: "The anti-government populists of the Tea Party are largely pro-life and pro-family, regular churchgoers with a healthy respect for faith and traditional marriage (even if they do not prioritize this issue above others). Their close-knit communities of home schoolers and co-op moms are intelligent and engaged, but they are also devout. This causes problems for the more atheist and agnostic strands of libertarianism, particularly the urban variety."

Matt K. Lewis, senior contributor for The Daily Caller, argued that "compassionate conservatism," not libertarian populism, will save the GOP. One of the difficulties, he wrote, is that libertarian populism risks making the Republican Party "less cosmopolitan," by which he means fewer college graduates, urbanites and racial minorities.

Social conservatives will not help much with urbanites, but they could help attract racial minorities, if that were to become an issue as Lewis predicts. A point of tension within the Democratic Party currently is that many of the racial minorities in the party do not support the party's liberal agenda on social issues. They are with the Democrats for economic issues. So, if Republicans could make a better case than the Democrats on economics, there would be little reason left for socially conservative racial minorities to stick with the Democrats.

Perhaps the biggest challenge, though, to an alliance of new populism with social conservatism is the one already mentioned in part one of this series. Republican leaders, including social conservative Republican leaders, have been part of the system that the new populists want to abolish – a system in which government favors go to the rich, powerful and well-connected.

Free Religious Freedom Updates

Join thousands of others to get the FREEDOM POST newsletter for free, sent twice a week from The Christian Post.

Most Popular

Free Religious Freedom Updates

A religious liberty newsletter that is a must-read for people of faith.

More In Politics