Scott Sumner  

The European right and the GOP

The Great Pacification, U.S. E... "Poor Programs" Bleg...

Politics is a moving target. Political parties are continually evolving over time, and over decades the changes can be quite stark. Many "blue states" used to be red when I was young, and vice versa. In the South this partly reflected a realignment over race, but in most of the country other factors were involved, such as a shift in the economy from producing physical stuff to producing ideas. The GOP is increasingly the party of people who produce physical stuff.

I thought about this issue when reading the following description of the new right wing government of Poland:

The PiS core are not natural capitalists: They are hostile to free-market economics, regard businessmen as "speculators" and believe in government control of everything, including property rights. Their fiscal policy is anything but right-wing. They have promised to crack down on banks, lower the retirement age and give massive monthly cash handouts to parents for each child.

They are conservative only in that they view the liberal center ground of Western politics -- and the modern world in general -- with suspicion. Their conservatism is essentially provincialism, their politics populist. They beat the drum of patriotism and talk of preserving national sovereignty, but their idea of patriotism is to wallow in the martyrology of the Second World War and the talk of sovereignty is mostly an expression of xenophobia.

Their idea of "Polish values" is selective; they display the same hatred for the pre-war elites and landowning class as did their communist predecessors, and in a recent interview Foreign Minister Witold Waszczykowski poured scorn on "cyclists" and "vegetarians" as somehow un-Polish.

For years I've been fascinated by the fact that there was no US equivalent to the sort of populist right wing parties you see in France, Hungary, Poland, and many other European countries. To give you a sense of the difference from America, consider my own politics, which are broadly internationalist, socially liberal and free market. In Poland those views line up almost perfectly with the "left", whereas in America their only home is the tiny Libertarian Party, and even that's debatable.
I've noticed the GOP is now edging in the direction of the European populist right. Mitt Romney recently had this to say:

Mitt Romney reiterated his call to raise the federal minimum wage and said Republicans are "nuts" for not doing so already.

"I think we're nuts not to raise the minimum wage," he said in an interview with The Washington Post. "I think as a party, to say we're trying to help the middle class of America and the poor and not raise the minimum wage sends exactly the wrong signal."

The former Republican nominee for president also said that the party's economic platform should get a new focus.

"As a party we speak a lot about deregulation and tax policy, and you know what? People have been hearing that for 25 years and they're getting tired of that message," he said.

The Washington Post story frames Romney's comments as one of many potential options for a Republican party hoping to appeal to the white working-class vote in the 2016 election.

Of course Trump has also sounded some of the same themes as the European right, and has moved away from the GOP orthodoxy on issues like free trade. He even flirted with the idea of a single payer health care regime.

The easy prediction would be that the GOP will gradually become like the European right. And that may happen. But there are differences between the US and Europe that complicate this picture. For instance, the GOP can be thought of as in some sense representing the white "tribe". That's not to say that plenty of whites don't vote Democratic, but rather that nonwhites tend to be quite hostile to the GOP. Thus any move toward "big government" will be limited to those areas where the GOP tribe is seen as benefiting. For instance, the GOP traditionally favors Medicare expansion (which helps older GOP voters) more than Medicaid expansion (which often aids low income minority voters).

It seems to me that the GOP is currently being torn apart along essentially this issue---to what extent should it evolve towards the European right-wing populist model? Given our ethnic diversity, it's not clear to me where the GOP will end up, but I'm almost certain that in a few decades it will be in a very different place from where it is today, and there will be even more realignment between red and blue states.

I won't be alive then, which is too bad because perhaps then I'd finally have a political home, instead of wandering in the wilderness as I have been doing for the past 45 years.

Comments and Sharing

COMMENTS (22 to date)
BrianH writes:

The internet and blogs, (modern wilderness?) may have to be the current home for liberty sympathetic folks, and could help spur a better alignment in the future.

Njnnja writes:

Usually I hate oversimplifications based on narratives instead of data, but I am a huge fan of the hypothesis in American Nations by Colin Woodard. Basically there aren't merely 2 divisions in America: red vs. blue, but rather, 11 different nations that have passed down their values since their foundings to subsequent generations and new entrants. Even military defeat and occupation was not able to fundamentally change the basic cultures of the South (plural intended).

Because there are so many nations, no one group can dominate all of the others. So there are alliances, some lasting longer than others, to try to form a governing coalition. You can trace current Trump supporters back to the same group that got Andrew Jackson elected. So the fear of America developing a "blood and soil" conservatism is about as great as it always has been. Not sure if that is comforting or not...

Daniel Klein writes:

Scott, you write:

To give you a sense of the difference from America, consider my own politics, which are broadly internationalist, socially liberal and free market. In Poland those views line up almost perfectly with the "left"...

I don't know anything about Poland, but, still, I find the statement surprising, particularly the "free market" part.

Also, the passage is a little dodgy, in that you suggest that "those views line up almost perfectly with the 'left'" but without addressing the welfare state.

Jim writes:

To the extent that the US remains a unified nation in the future the internal politics of the US will be dominanted by racial/ethnic conflict.

Scott Sumner writes:

Brian, Yes, that's right.

Njnnja, That's an interesting way of looking at things. The "nationalism" bloc in America is clearly on the rise, as is the "socialism" bloc.

Daniel, In Poland the left is more supportive of classical liberal economic policies, whereas the right is more supportive of statism and redistribution. At least that's what I've read, someone should correct me if that's wrong. And in general, the far right in Europe is opposed to free market policies, relative to the center.

Richard writes:

Regarding civil liberties and human rights, can anyone tell me why the new Polish government or Orban are supposed to be worse than Western Europe, where several governments put people in jail for opposing immigration? How many people have Orban or the Polish government jailed for their opinions?

Does "democracy" mean anything other than attitude towards homosexuals and immigrants? It's not clear that it does.

Jamie writes:

The republican party seems torn between the populist Trump wing that is nationalistic and accommodative of a large, muscular government and the more libertarian "constitutionalist" wing with Rand Paul and Ted Cruz (as a transitional figure). Right now it seems the populist wing in both parties is gaining strength.

On a less dire but murkier note, from personal anecdotes I was surprised by how many democrats line up behind libertarian issues (especially on fiscal and foreign policy) in the nyc area but refuse to even consider voting republican over social and cultural identity issues. The current republican brand is unacceptable.

Seeing a trend of wealthier, younger, educated group shifting more libertarian while older, more blue collar shifting towards populism. Let's see where the parties end up. Maybe the adage about silicon valley being libertarian and not knowing it yet will actually become true.

Scott Sumner writes:

Richard, Do you have a link for people being put in jail for their opinion on immigration? I ask because lots of people in Western Europe oppose immigration, but are not being jailed. Who was jailed?

(Of course I oppose jailing people for any opinions, no matter how outrageous they might be.)

Jamie, Good comment.

Jim Glass writes:

Politics is a moving target. Political parties are continually evolving over time, and over decades the changes can be quite stark. Many "blue states" used to be red when I was young, and vice versa. In the South this partly reflected a realignment over race, but in most of the country other factors were involved...

All entirely true and greatly underappreciated generally, as over history the major parties have totally flip-flopped over the biggest issues (war/peace, isolationism/internationalism, protectionism, taxes, civil rights) in pursuit of the marginal voter as the world has changed. Neither party has any fundamental principle *at all* apart from "win the next election". And do note that in the South the political realignment started long before the 1960s...

There Are No Permanent Majorities In America

For years I've been fascinated by the fact that there was no US equivalent to the sort of populist right wing parties you see in France, Hungary, Poland, and many other European countries.

The USA's 'first past the post' voting system channels politics into two big-tent parties, with very odd-looking internal alignments, while in Europe proportional voting and the parliamentary system fosters many small, one-or-few issue parties left-to-right and off sideways.

The USA's two party system gives the illusion of a left-right line scale of voter positioning, with the "outside" minority activists determining primaries, and a "moderate centrist" majorty of middle, swing voters determining the final election outcome. (Thus Nixon's: "Run outside during the primaries then inside to election day.")

But a lot of research indicates voters actually are widely spread over four quadrants divided along "big govt v small govt" and "business-economic freedom v personal-social freedom" lines, with almost *nobody* at the center point of the four. The largest concentrations are in the SociallyLiberal&BusinessRegulated and BusinessLiberated&SociallyConservative quadrants, so the Democrats and Republicans are centered there respectively.

But neither quadrant has a majority. So the parties try to seek deciding votes from the party-less Populist (SocialConservative&BusinessRegulated) and LibertarianLeaning quadrants. Though when Democrats seek economically liberal voters they risk losing the Sanders vote, while when they seek Populist voters they risk losing their social left -- with Republicans having the mirror image problem.

So the two parties keep probing the two 'off' quadrants, hoping to pick up more than they lose at the margin, with each adding to its "big tent" what the other does lose in the process. And as the world changes and issues evolve, this process leads them to change and eventually flip-flop their positions ever more -- with the dynamic of competition preventing any permanent majority from ever arising.

No matter how much they fool themselves to the contrary.

JK Brown writes:

I just happen to be at the section where Mises discusses political parties in his 'Liberalism'. It is rather illuminating

With the advent of liberalism came the demand for the abolition of all special privileges. The society of caste and status had to make way for a new order in which there were to be only citizens with equal rights. What was under attack was no longer only the particular privileges of the different castes, but the very existence of all privileges. Liberalism tore down the barriers of rank and status and liberated man from the restrictions with which the old order had surrounded him. It was in capitalist society, under a system of government founded on liberal principles, that the individual was first granted the opportunity to participate directly in political life and was first called upon to make a personal decision in regard to political goals and ideals.


All modern political parties and all modern party ideologies originated as a reaction on the part of special group interests fighting for a privileged status against liberalism. Before the rise of liberalism, there were, of course, privileged orders with their special interests and prerogatives and their mutual conflicts, but at that time the ideology of the status society could still express itself in a completely naive and unembarrassed way.


To understand the true character of all these parties, one must keep in mind the fact that they were originally formed solely as a defense of special privileges against the teachings of liberalism. Their party doctrines are not, like those of liberalism, the political application of a comprehensive, carefully thought-out theory of society. The political ideology of liberalism was derived from a fundamental system of ideas that had first been developed as a scientific theory without any thought of its political significance. In contradistinction to this, the special rights and privileges sought by the antiliberal parties were, from the very outset, already realized in existing social institutions, and it was in justification of the latter that one undertook subsequently to elaborate an ideology, a task that was generally treated as a matter of little moment that could easily be disposed of with a few brief words. Farm groups think it sufficient to point out the indispensability of agriculture. The trade unions appeal to the indispensability of labor. The parties of the middle class cite the importance of the existence of a social stratum that represents the golden mean. It seems to trouble them little that such appeals contribute nothing to proving the necessity or even the advantageousness to the general public of the special privileges they are striving for. The groups that they desire to win over will follow them in any case, and as for the others, every attempt at recruiting supporters from their ranks would be futile.

Mises, Ludwig von (2010-12-10). Liberalism (p. 161). Ludwig von Mises Institute. Kindle Edition.

So really the labels are pure propaganda. Conservatives in American are not very conservative on many issues, but do seem, if we consider Paul Graham's 'The Refragmentation' to seek to retain the cultural/religious conformity of the post war period, while the Progressives are not much for progress and seek to retain the privileges of the labor union/government-guided and privileged large corporations of the post war period. As diversity has expanded, the parties, with particular success by the Democrats, have sought to entice minority groups with entitlements.

Looking at it this way, it doesn't seem like we could say with any success which way the conservative/progressive divide would occur in other countries with different histories and ethnic makeups.

John Thacker writes:

Jim Glass's point is basically correct. In a two-party system (especially one without strong whipping and candidate selection like ours) parties are coalitions-- the outcome is not that different from coalition government in areas with proportional representation. (This is also true in one-party systems.)

It is impossible for you to find a home without (y)our basic worldview converting people. Otherwise, there will always be compromises made for the other members of the electoral coalition, some of which will be repugnant to you.

Richard writes:


Perhaps saying people were jailed for their views on immigration was an exaggeration. But people have been put on trial for opposing immigration, including political leaders like Geert Wilders and Marine Le Pen. To take one example of many, Michael Hess in Sweden was put on fined for posting statistics about Muslim migrants and rape.

As you may know, David Irving was put in jail for casting doubts on parts of the Holocaust.

All this goes way beyond what's been done regarding free speech in the supposed "retreat from democracy" in Eastern Europe.

Aaron J writes:

Richard- Orban has done a number of ridiculous things that have nothing to do with immigration. He basically enacted Roosevelt's court packing plan, clamped down on the media (internet taxes, firings), and has restricted freedom of religion. Not to mention he espouses illiberal democracy.

Scott- I agree the GOP is shifting and that it will be a defining political issues for years to come.

Richard writes:


And Merkel pressures Facebook to ban comments critical of immigration, and conspires to cover up their crimes.

My question remains. Has Orban arrested fined a single person for their opinion? Has he had a member of the opposition arrested? Because such behavior is common in the so-called western democracies.

Scott Sumner writes:

Everyone, Lot's of very good observations.

Richard, I agree that the Western European countries have restricted speech, and that this is unfortunate. I suppose the recent moves in Eastern Europe are especially newsworthy, and perhaps more worrisome, but your point about a double standard is valid. The US puts 450,000 people in prison for drug "crimes" and then complains about human rights in other countries.

Matt Moore writes:

I expect the UK Conservatives will end up looking very libertarian in one or two decades. The next generation of politicians. (Ie students) are essentially all socially liberal, and the only question is how they break on market issues.

The entire Cameron modernising project was designed to make the party more socially liberal and appealing to minorities and women. They just brought in gay marriage.

Big Shibboleths still to be tackled include drugs policy (nowhere near as bad as the US, still bad) and immigration (confused). But all the traditional right wingers left to join UKIP.

Scott Sumner writes:

Matt, I hope you are right. Will the Labour Party split over socialism?

Mark writes:

Jamie: "Seeing a trend of wealthier, younger, educated group shifting more libertarian while older, more blue collar shifting towards populism. Let's see where the parties end up. Maybe the adage about silicon valley being libertarian and not knowing it yet will actually become true."

Curiously, my experiences have been the exact opposite. Granted, I live on a university, but the views I've come across from the standard 20-something left-leaning types is that they are moving further and further away from libertarianism. Everyone loves Bernie Sanders, many call themselves socialists outright, and I am confident that if I were to try to argue with them against the legality of gay marriage (not something I've ever done) I wouldn't rouse as much indignation as if I were to argue against raising the minimum wage (which I have tried, and believe me, it makes them irate).

Also, progressives are getting less 'socially liberal' in some respects, a la wanting to send people to prison for publicly disbelieving in climate change or wanting to have people arrested for "hate speech" (which some already think includes opposition to affirmative action), both of which aren't exactly rare opinions among the college-aged 'liberals.'

So Scott may be right about the US becoming more like Europe, but I can't imagine he thinks the Social Democrats that democrats are increasingly emulating are remotely libertarian (I wouldn't even say there particularly socially libertarian; if they were prostitution wouldn't be illegal in the most 'liberal' countries in Europe).

Definitely true though that GOP is moving toward working class white populism, essentially becoming the party of William Jennings Brian. With the rise of the likes of Rand Paul and Justin Amash it looked they might finally be moving in the classical liberal direction, but that dream got quashed fast. My opinion: we're becoming more like continental Europe, in that we will soon have two major political parties that are wrong about everything.

Jose Romeu Robazzi writes:

Wherever the political environment goes, I hope at least that the word "conservative" becomes associate with the center left and social democracy, and that the left in general stop being associated with the word "progressive". I hope that true libertarian views become more and more associated with the word progressive. I don't know how utopic this is, but for me it is absurd associate "progressive" with social democracy.

Michael W writes:

I too feel like I'm in the political wilderness (socially liberal/free market libertarian) and not just in the U.S. As a US citizen but frequent traveler and p/t resident of an EU country, I'm not at all surprised by the rhetoric in Europe (both east and west).

The immigration pot has been on a slow 'boil' for some time that was safely ignored as long as the numbers remained relatively low and northern european economies continued to grow.

Now that immigration is on the front-page daily and there is open discussion of whether western values will survive a generation in central european countries, and economic growth continues to stagnate you can be sure that the 'center' will veer right to address immigration while remaining firmly in the camp of restrictive employment policies, and continuing their support of enormous subsidies for both industrial and farm activities.

All that's needed for some euro parties to align with the GOP is a push for increased military spending and for a BREXIT to cause other countries to question their membership in the Schengen agreement (and resurrect border barriers).

In a discussion I had today with a Luxembourg accountant, I was told the British would be "mad to exit the EU as they would commit financial suicide." Would they? It's definitely 'thinkable' and would re-orient EU politics.

I'd never have guessed Sweden is considering implementing a limited version of the draft to fill shortfalls in military recruiting -

unthinkable a year or two ago.

I'm not going long on European stocks until many issues like this are sorted and that may take awhile.

In the meanwhile back in the U.S., I can only hope that a Clinton election will cause many of those young people to take a hard look at the politics of both parties.

Michael W writes:

URL for Swedish MoD quoted on support for a draft reinstatement -

LD Bottorff writes:

The GOP is increasingly the party of people who produce physical stuff.

Thanks for the compliment, Scott. It doesn't quite make up for the offensive white tribe remark.

That's one thing I like about the market. Good stuff (gasoline, cars, houses) keeps getting produced. Bad stuff tends to go out of style. On the other hand, bad ideas (minimum wage, political control of speech, xenophobia) seem to be the most recyclable things around.

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