A recent article published in the Kennedy School Review by American Affairs editor Julius Krein makes a strong case that conservatives have no future as a political force in America. The one flaw in this article, entitled “Can Conservatism Be More than a Grudge,” is it may be a little too pessimistic. It’s well argued and is a must-read for anyone serious about reviving conservative political power in places like California.
The only hope Krein offers is the power of populism, harnessing a multi-racial coalition of working-class and middle class Americans. But conservative populism, ascendant today in California, is about to be squandered by an establishment that lacks the leadership and authenticity to tap this extraordinary energy.
One of Krein’s understated but most powerful points regards patronage. He writes: “The Democratic coalition is no less incongruous than the Republican one. There are, however, two important differences between them. First, the Democratic economic base is composed largely of ascendant and prestigious economic sectors and firms, from Silicon Valley to Goldman Sachs, while Republicans are predominantly supported by declining sectors, like natural resource extraction. Second, the Democratic patronage system is coherent, even if the Democratic coalition is not. In other words, the Democratic Party is capable of using policy to directly benefit its various constituencies and to create new ones. Together, both of these factors ensure that Democrats’ patchwork constituencies have reasons to overlook their coalition’s internal contradictions. That is simply not the case on the Republican side.”
This single paragraph cuts to the heart of the Republican disadvantage, especially in California. “Using policy to directly benefit its various constituencies.” For examples, think no further than the ongoing “Blue city bailouts,” “green” mandates and infrastructure boondoggles.
These rivers of money enable Democrats to “overlook their coalition’s internal contradictions.” The Republicans have no such luxury. There’s no Silicon Valley coterie of billionaires with plans for everyone, and money to back it up. There’s no public employee union machine that, just in California, collects and spends nearly a billion dollars per year. California’s Republican big money, to the extent they ever have big money, comes from intermittent pop-up donors, willing to blow a few million on a pet project then disappear for another twenty years. Republican contenders often are dilettantes running vanity campaigns, or they’re vapid, underfunded establishment candidates, peddling Democrat-lite policies, thinking that makes them relevant. In a sea of pretenders, authentic candidates get stereotyped and dismissed.
Meanwhile, over the past year and by complete surprise, a grassroots populist movement has arisen in California. Out of nowhere, an army has formed, united in opposition to the symbol of Democratic one-party tyranny, Governor Gavin Newsom. In a few months, Newsom will fight for his political life in a special recall election. Disaffected Californians, by the millions, will vote against Newsom keeping his job, many of them indifferent to who replaces him. Newsom may or may not survive. But what’s next for California’s populist conservative movement?
One of the ways that Republican candidates to replace Newsom can distinguish themselves would be to embrace solutions to the problems that have put Newsom in trouble to begin with. These issues aren’t a mystery: Housing, homeless, education, law and order, water, electricity, transportation, forestry, to name the obvious.
Solutions to these issues are also not mysterious. Deregulate housing permits. End the disastrous “housing first” policies and instead give the homeless safe housing in inexpensive barracks where sobriety is a condition of entry. Repeal Prop. 47 which downgraded property and drug crimes. Build reservoirs, desalination, and wastewater recycling plants. Build nuclear power plants and develop California’s abundant natural gas reserves. Recognize that the common road is the future of transportation, not the past, and widen California’s freeways and highways. Let the timber companies harvest more lumber in exchange for maintaining the fire roads and power line corridors. Done.
Instead, the Republican’s titular frontrunner, Kevin Faulconer, has made a plan to cut taxes the centerpiece of his campaign. For this, big Republican donors are willing to spend millions of dollars. Imagine if Faulconer’s campaign centerpiece was spending public money efficiently on things that would make a difference: energy, water, transportation, while cutting spending in areas of failure by, for example, introducing private sector competition to the public school system, and releasing the timber industry to thin the overgrown forests? Imagine Faulconer betting his campaign on a promise to create millions of new jobs and lower the cost-of-living by making it easier to build homes and develop natural resources?
Don’t blame Faulconer. Blame the system that thinks the only “safe” campaign for a GOP candidate is to say they’ll lower taxes. Blame the conventional wisdom that polling and focus groups should govern political campaigns instead of leadership and vision. You can’t focus group your way to leadership. It has to come from the heart and the mind. Politicians have to be willing to challenge voters, defy the polls, and explain why what they believe is the right thing to do. They have to do the work of the policy wonk, and then translate the result into impassioned rhetoric while preserving the substance. They have to be willing to lose if their explanations are unconvincing, shouted down, outspent, or arrive before their time.
The saddest thing in this epic failure of leadership on the part of California’s Republican donors and the politicians they support is that as they concoct formula driven pablum in a futile attempt to out Democrat the Democrats, California’s populist conservative movement, coherent and active as never before, is not being offered anything that might motivate them to stay united and fight. This is a tragedy. Where is a new and daring contract with California? Where is a 21st century Fix California agenda? Where is the platform that dares to step on the toes of every special interest that owns the state – the public sector unions, the environmentalist lobby, the litigators, the tech billionaires, the Hollywood progressives, and every corrupted corporation and trade association that plays ball just to survive?
Without leadership, California’s populists will be offered solutions that are extreme. While the GOP’s handful of elected officials offer legislation that never makes it out of committee, that is, while these politicians go through the motions, and know they are just going through the motions, what could make a difference, ballot initiatives to fix all of the above – housing, homeless, education, law and order, water, electricity, transportation, forestry – are not given serious consideration.
Another two year cycle comes, another two year cycle goes. But this time, we will remember that there was an army, begging for logistical support. It costs as little as $10,000 to do legal work and file a California state ballot initiative with the California Attorney General. The filing deadline for something to appear on the November 2022 ballot is this August, because the entire process including signature gathering takes 15 months. Ten thousand dollars. Kevin Faulconer will spend more than that for just one 30 second spot in a major television market. Much more. So will his rivals.
Where are these initiatives? Why aren’t California’s trade associations putting some forward? Why aren’t donors funding initiative drafts to be filed for title and summary? Why don’t they get the process started, to provide populists – as well as potential big donors – with material to evaluate and possibly support? It’s cheap. Even the rivulet of ongoing GOP patronage can easily afford to do this. Just the dialog and excitement generated by a slate of initiatives that are filed and posted on the Secretary of State’s website, initiatives that might actually do some transformative good, would be worth the preparation expense.
Nature abhors a vacuum. Thanks to what is arguably negligence on the part of people who could do so much, demagogues and grifters will offer causes with extreme emotional resonance to California’s populist army. Causes guaranteed to animate about 5 percent of the population, while the other 95 percent either laugh at their Quixotic absurdity or cry at their wasted energy. Into this vacuum, California’s populist army will splinter and their energy will dissipate. Volunteers, fragmented and forsaken, will see their signature gathering energy wasted in the streets, with nothing to show for it but a suntan. And California’s Republican opposition will prove, yet again, that they are utterly irrelevant.