THE BLOG
01/14/2016 11:49 am ET Updated Jan 14, 2017

Republicans See the Light?

The media is full of the antics of various Republican candidates about who came close to match Trump's last vulgarity, or who seems to be even less informed than the other ones. Meanwhile, with little fanfare, heavy duty conservative thinkers are contemplating what new policies could allow the GOP to do better. As George Packer finds in a seminal article in The New Yorker, these Republican intellectuals start from the observation that the GOP lost four of the last six presidential elections. They note that when the Democrats lost five of the preceding six presidential elections, Bill Clinton repositioned the party, pulling it to the center. Several of the major Republican thinkers, Packer reports, believe that the Democrats deliver (or at least promise) various goodies to the middle class, while the GOP tends to speak mainly about less government, fewer taxes, less deficits. Republicans should provide their own goodies and thus recapture the middle class.

The Republican offers to the middle class are going to differ from the Democratic ones in that they will not be government services -- but various government allowances that will enable the middle class to get what it wants in the private sector, in the free market. For instance, instead of Obamacare, people will receive individual health care accounts. Similarly--instead of welfare, they will receive increased Earned Income Tax Credit. It is far from clear to what extent voters are moved, even in much more tranquil periods, when one party tries to outbid the other with such offerings. But this is not the main question faced by this conservative revival (which, so far, has not been adopted as an agenda by any of the leading candidates and is rarely mentioned by the others).

The main issue is that large segments of the public, on the right and on the left, the Trumplings and the Sandernistas, are angry not because the government did not properly stuff their Christmas stocking. They have many good, and quite a few far from good, reasons to be very angry. They are the people who lost their homes, a good part of their life savings, and jobs during the recent Great Recession. Those who got new jobs are now paid much less and receive fewer benefits. And for each one who was directly screwed by the system, there are a dozen family members and friends who did a bit better but empathize with those who did not. Offering them a few goodies will not do. What must be done is to redirect their anger to the proper address.

The Trumplings fault the government, while actually the main problem is that the government has been captured by narrow special interests, which makes it serve the few and deny the many. A most recent case in point: astronomical increases in the costs of essential medications were followed by next to no government reaction because Congress is under the thumb of the pharmaceutical industry. Hence, the masses continue to pay and the drug makers wallow in billions. These kinds of grab all you can, no holds barred, no noblesse oblige, leave millions of Americans not merely short of funds, but also with a feeling that they have been had -- and abandoned by their government. It makes them feel disempowered and furious.

The Sandernistas are closer to the mark, and could marshal a majority for major changes if they recognize that not all the narrow interest groups that hold Americans hostage are on Wall Street. They include local real estate associations, the beloved high-tech corporations (led by Apple), several labor unions, the Church, and the NRA, among others. The followers of Sanders miss that only an inclusive rather than a left-centered populism can carry the day.

Speaking to these alienated Americans about private health care accounts and some increases in their tax credits is like offering someone seriously injured in a car crash annual Caribbean vacations and a facial. Unless these Americans see a government free to respond to them rather than to narrow but well-heeled special interests, no smattering of goodies will get them to vote for the GOP. Hillary Clinton may carry the day -- not because she offers more goodies (e.g. free college tuition) but because the Democrats in Congress seem a little less captured by special interests than the Republicans. However, the large number of Sandernistas and all the Trumplings will continue to feel angry and alienated until someone runs on the agenda that she or he is out to free the government from the special interests that captured it.

Amitai Etzioni is a University Professor and professor of international relations at The George Washington University. His latest book, Privacy in a Cyber Age, was released in 2015 by Palgrave MacMillan. You can follow him on Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube. Send an email to icps@gwu.edu to subscribe to his monthly newsletter.