Feature 11.19.2019 20 minutes

Understanding Conservative Populism


The new movement in American politics is unlikely to disappear anytime soon.

Colin Dueck’s latest book, Age of Iron: On Conservative Nationalism is out now with Oxford University Press. We here present an excerpted article from the book on the populist surge in American politics, followed by a series of responses from a range of perspectives. For F.H. Buckley the proper term for the recent shift on the Right is nationalism, not populism, but Henry Olsen argues that populist conservatism is consistent with a Reaganesque commitment to prudence. Meanwhile William Galston cautions that populism may threaten liberalism, pluralism, and self-government, while Richard Reinsch is concerned that preserving and restoring constitutional integrity should remain the Right’s most important goal. We present a snapshot of the dialogue on this movement, surely one of the most important political phenomena of our day, as a stimulant to further discussion.—Eds.

The rise of a conservative-leaning populist nationalism throughout much of the Western world in recent years has garnered tremendous attention. Discussion of this trend has been characterized by far more heat than light. The best evidence located by scholars such as Ronald Inglehart and Pippa Norris indicates that those voters most drawn to populist-nationalist parties and candidates on both sides of the Atlantic are indeed concerned by issues of economic inequality and globalization. Profound structural changes transforming the workforce and society in post-industrial economies—including the rise of the knowledge economy, technological automation, global flows of labor, goods, people, and capital, the relative decline of traditional manufacturing, and migrant inflow—have encouraged a sense of economic insecurity. To some extent this places such voters, candidates, and parties at odds with free-market conservative economics. At the same time, according to Inglehart and Norris, an even greater motivation for voters drawn to populist-nationalist candidates, parties and movements is a sense of cultural upheaval. The very same rise of post-materialist cosmopolitan, multicultural issues and values that inspire liberals has also triggered a culturally conservative reaction from those segments of the public unpersuaded by the benefit of such changes. As Inglehart and Norris put it, whereas cosmopolitan liberals embrace progressive values, populist nationalists embrace traditional values. This is simply a different dimension of concerns from that of free-market conservatives.[1]

One striking feature of Donald Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign was the way in which it rallied culturally conservative voters against cosmopolitan elites in both parties. Or to put it another way, that election represented a further step in the long-term transformation of U.S. party alignments since the New Deal era to incorporate new socio-cultural dimensions. The central finding of Alan Abramowitz on this matter is worth quoting at length:

The deep partisan divide that exists among the politically engaged segment of the American public as well as among political elites and activists is, fundamentally, a disagreement over the dramatic changes that have transformed American society and culture since the end of World War II, and that continue to have huge effects in the twenty-first century. The challenges posed by technological change, globalization, immigration, growing racial and ethnic diversity, and changes in family structure and gender roles have produced diverging responses from party elites and a growing alignment of partisan identities with deeper divisions in American society and culture. This “great alignment” has transformed the American party system and fundamentally altered American politics in the twenty-first century. On one side of this partisan divide are those who have benefitted from and welcome the new American society, including racial minorities, the LGBT community, religious moderates and skeptics, and more educated citizens who possess the skills to thrive in the economy of the twenty-first century. Those Americans voted overwhelmingly for Barack Obama in 2008 and 2012 and for Hillary Clinton in 2016. On the other side of the divide are those who find these changes deeply troubling and threatening, including religious conservatives and many less educated whites in small towns and rural areas. Those Americans voted overwhelmingly for John McCain in 2008, Mitt Romney in 2012, and Donald Trump in 2016.[2]

A couple of points are worth making regarding the above finding. The first, as Abramowitz notes, is that most voters never actually changed party allegiance between 2012 and 2016. Those changes in voting that did take place were at the margin. Nevertheless these marginal changes were significant, and especially notable from the perspective of bipartisan opinion elites. This brings us to the second point. Most Republican political, economic, and intellectual leaders do not feel personally harmed or displaced by technological changes, globalization, immigration, or growing ethnic diversity. This leadership class possesses the skills to thrive in a 21st-century economy. Furthermore, some Republican political, economic, and intellectual leaders do not feel any particular objection to the social and cultural changes that have altered American life over the years. For such opinion leaders, the spectacle of a GOP verbally at odds with numerous post-1945 domestic and international changes is certainly disorienting. But strictly speaking, if we reread the above description by Abramowitz of who now votes Republican and why, one word certainly applies to these voters’ perspective: Populist.

So has there been—or is there likely to be—a “populist” realignment within the GOP? And if so, what does this mean with regard to foreign policy issues?

In part, the answer depends upon our definition of populism. In American politics, there is a tradition of using that word to describe nothing more than a folksy style or demeanor on the part of individual politicians—like breakfast served with a Southern accent. Current academic definitions of populism, however, tend toward the extremely sinister. Drawing on comparative historical analysis, scholars such as Jan-Werner Muller define populism as nothing less than authoritarian. According to this definition, populists by their very nature oppose political pluralism and minority rights; claim to represent the majority of a given nation’s ordinary citizens against a small, privileged, and self-interested elite; regularly indulge in conspiracy theories; favor aggressive forms of identity politics; disparage political opponents including “the establishment” as downright illegitimate; erode constitutional norms; deliberately undercut civil society; press toward authoritarian forms of government; and thereby threaten the very bases of liberal democracy itself. Hugo Chavez, Benito Mussolini, Vladimir Putin, and Donald Trump are then commonly placed by concerned observers into the same category as real or potential populist authoritarian leaders, past and present. Indeed there is already a small cottage industry of prominent non-fiction books and articles categorizing recent populist trends in this way, and decrying the trend as fascistic.[3]

The trouble with this sweeping definition of populism as necessarily authoritarian, however, is that it fails to capture the historical reality of the matter within the United States. European and—increasingly—U.S. scholars have imported European categories of analysis into the study of American populism that do not entirely apply. This has encouraged transatlantic analyses of American populism that both take it too seriously, and not seriously enough. They take it too seriously in claiming that it is a harbinger of fascism. Yet they do not take it seriously enough, in terms of actually listening to any specific or valid complaints of populist voters. The American experience with populism is not identical to that of Venezuela or the Balkans. There are democratic as well as authoritarian forms of populism internationally, and within the United States at least, it is democratic versions—on both left and right—that have had much more lasting effect.

American Populism

To say that populism is anti-establishment is clearly correct. Certainly, populism at its worst can and sometimes does tend toward conspiracy theory. But any built-in tendency toward authoritarianism is hardly inevitable. As Roger Kimball points out, populism may be an attempt to press the question of who rules. And for populists, the proper answer to that question is never the nation’s managerial elite per se, but rather the people as a whole, through their elected representatives. In other words, populism is a periodic effort to reassert the core principle of popular sovereignty against established elites.[4] In this sense populism is precisely the oppositeof authoritarian or undemocratic.

Apart from its anti-establishment premise, perhaps the single most striking feature of American populism historically is its sheer variety in terms of attitudes, platforms, and specific issues of concern.[5] The American experience is that populist movements on both left and right have periodically informed and reshaped one or both political parties, to refresh a sense of small-d democratic politics, however unwelcome to existing elites. Populists change the subject, in terms of issue specification, and attack elite privileges. For established elites to decry this tendency as morally outrageous is a bit hard to take seriously. Naturally, existing elites look to defend their own status, interests, values, privilege, influence, and sources of income. But within the United States, these power struggles take place—as America’s founders believed they would—within the framework of a federal constitutional republic. For example, one defining wave of populism within the United States was the agrarian movement of the late 19th century, eventually capturing the presidential nomination of the Democratic Party in 1896 under the leadership of William Jennings Bryan.[6] Bryan’s agrarian radicalism remade the Democratic Party to some extent, picking up electoral support in the West while losing it east of the Mississippi.[7] Bryan never became president, but succeeding generations of Democrats from Woodrow Wilson to Harry Truman had to factor in Bryan’s core constituency of western agrarians in order to build politically winning coalitions nationwide. FDR’s New Deal certainly had its own populist aspect, directed against the nation’s wealthiest financial elites. GOP conservatives have rarely found any lasting political success since that time without at least a populist coalitional component. The great question has always been its specific content.

Over the past seventy years, the GOP has become a more populist party by realigning itself in a conservative direction on social and cultural issues. Realignment is a process whereby the axis of division between political parties rotates and shifts to include new issue dimensions. And while the pursuit of mathematical formulas for lasting majorities has proven to be chimerical,[8] there really are shifting bases of division between the two parties, and those bases are worth understanding. After the U.S. Civil War, for example, the Republican Party’s base of support was primarily sectional, in the North. In 1896, William McKinley ran on a platform of sound money, against the agrarian populism of William Jennings Bryan. This solidified GOP support in the industrial Northeast, and among economic conservatives. McKinley’s successor Theodore Roosevelt straddled the divide between conservatives and populist progressives within the GOP, while trending toward the latter—especially after leaving office. But Republican opposition to FDR’s New Deal during the 1930s cemented the GOP as clearly the more conservative of America’s two major parties on economic issues. This gave Republicans some new source of electoral support, but on balance they lost more than they gained, especially among urban, progressive, and working-class voters. The GOP became a party based narrowly among conservative, native-born, rural and small-town Protestants outside of the South. This left it homogeneous, but at a definite disadvantage in relation to the Democrats’ dominant New Deal coalition.[9]

Over the long-term, Republicans were only able to escape mid-20th-century minority status by emphasizing a second dimension of issues, the social or cultural, as opposed to the domestic economic. Most Americans never wanted a complete rollback of FDR’s New Deal. There was, however, a latent center-right majority waiting around concerns related to religion, civil rights, law and order, national security, social transformation, moral tradition, and issues of national identity.[10] The social and political changes and upheavals of the 1960s, in particular, highlighted these new concerns, fracturing the old Democratic coalition.[11] Over time, as Democrats moved to the left on these issues, and Republicans moved to the right, the two parties rearranged their own bases of support. Socially liberal candidates and voters moved out of the GOP, into the Democratic Party. Socially conservative candidates and voters moved in the opposite direction.[12] It took decades for this process to work itself out. Barry Goldwater, Richard Nixon, and Ronald Reagan played especially important roles in marking out the basic direction.

  • Goldwater reached out to white Southerners on the issue of civil rights.
  • Nixon aimed at a new Republican majority with a conservative populist platform. In the words of Republican strategist Kevin Phillips, the aim circa 1970 was to construct a center-right coalition based upon “middle-class realpolitik” against the “ambitious social programming” of LBJ’s Great Society liberalism, with the South newly positioned as “the pillar of a national conservative party.”[13]
  • Ronald Reagan, for his part, made clear his desire for a new GOP coalition with blue-collar appeal uniting social and economic conservatives around his own sunny demeanor, and achieved more than any other modern Republican in doing so.[14]

By the late 20th century, the GOP was left as the more ideologically conservative party on both economic and social issues, with the Democrats taking up precisely the opposite position.[15] This left Republicans with increasingly strong support from white working-class voters—once the mainstay of the New Deal coalition—on the basis of numerous cultural concerns. The GOP was now an alliance between economic and social conservatives—enough to be highly competitive at the national level. Yet it also left the party with inevitable tensions between the two wings.[16]

The great majority of those who voted for Donald Trump in the 2016 general election also voted for Romney in 2012. Similarly, the great majority of those who voted for Clinton in 2016 voted for Obama four years earlier. There was no massive voter defection on either side. For the most part, traditional party loyalties held firm.[17] Nevertheless, there were some significant shifts at the margins, and when these marginal shifts are enough to produce a surprising presidential win then they tend to be of interest. Some of the voters most likely to shift from Obama 2012 to Trump 2016—and to vote for Trump in the GOP primary that year—were white working-class, non-college educated voters in Rust Belt small-town counties. These voters tend to be center-left on economics but conservative on cultural issues: the classic populist position. These are also the voters who allowed the 2016 GOP nominee to win over a national electoral majority in key states such as Pennsylvania, Michigan, Wisconsin, and Ohio. They are to the right of the GOP donor class on immigration, but to the left of it on pocketbook issues such as Social Security and economic inequality. Viewed in aggregate, their politics are quite literally center-right. But the specific way in which they are center-right is the precise opposite of upper-income Republican elites, who tend to favor strict conservative economics combined with more open immigration. Naturally these substantive policy differences produce intraparty tensions, once brought out into the open. And so they have.[18]

Reports from both the Pew Research Center and the Democracy Fund Voter Study Group confirm there are now significant divisions between large groups of Republicans and Trump supporters over major policy issues, along the following lines. A plurality of Republican voters, typically described as staunch or core conservatives, favor conservative policies across the board on both social and economic matters, along with enhanced border security. They support President Trump. Another very large cluster of downscale Republican voters are suspicious of national elites, center-left on economics, less internationalist, often culturally conservative, protectionist-leaning, and anti-immigration. These were the voters most likely to rally around Trump early on.

Trump Republican Coalition (c. 2018-19)


Core conservatives 


U.S. global role



Use of force overseas


Less interventionist

View of U.S. allies



Trade policy

Free trade

More protectionist

Defense spending







Border security

Border security




Social issues




College educated

Non-college educated

2016 primary

Other candidates


Support Trump?



A third, smaller group—perhaps a quarter of Republican voters—are libertarian-leaning, conservative economically, more moderate on social issues, pro-free trade, pro-immigration, and the least supportive of Trump.[19]

The 2016 presidential primary and general election, in effect, affirmed the long-term movement of the GOP toward white working-class voters, and toward cultural conservatism, at the expense of some orthodox conservative economic positions.[20] Moreover the specific version of cultural conservatism endorsed by a plurality of voters in the 2016 Republican primaries was hardly a pious religiosity, but instead a rightward-leaning populist nationalism focused on questions of immigration, trade, criminal policing, citizenship, and national identity.[21] To an unusual extent, this brought the Trump campaign into tension with traditional economic conservatives. At various points in the 2016 campaign Trump broke with orthodox conservative economic positions and endorsed a more populist or center-left stance on a range of issues including the need for large-scale infrastructure spending, Social Security, taxes, and the minimum wage. At the same time he took a very hard line on illegal immigration. As it turned out, this exact combination was the preferred position of a great many Republican voters.[22] Yet these more populist voting groups still existed alongside traditional conservatives at all income levels who continued to prefer traditional Republican economics. Consequently the GOP could and can only be described as a big-tent coalition with some significant internal tensions and divisions over important policy questions. And of course this includes foreign policy along with related transnational matters. Trump’s most distinct core supporters tend to favor trade protection, immigration restrictions, and a rather less interventionist foreign policy. They are also more willing to question America’s traditional alliances. Traditional Republicans are more likely to support free trade, overseas alliances, and U.S. foreign policy activism. In sum, there has indeed been a long-term trend or realignment toward a more populist cultural conservatism within the GOP, with significant implications for U.S. foreign policy, and these pressures are unlikely to disappear anytime soon.


[1]Ronald Inglehart and Pippa Norris, “Trump, Brexit, and the Rise of Populism: Economic Have-Nots and Cultural Backlash,” Harvard Kennedy School Faculty Research Working Paper Series, August 2016. See also David Goodhart, The Road to Somewhere: The New Tribes Shaping British Politics(London: Penguin, 2017).

[2]Alan Abramowitz, The Great Alignment(New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2018), x-xi.

[3]Madeline Albright, Fascism: A Warning(New York: Harper, 2018); Sheri Berman, “Populism Is Not Fascism: But It Could Be a Harbinger,” Foreign Affairs95:6 (November/December 2016), 39-44; William Galston, Anti-Pluralism: The Populist Threat to Liberal Democracy(New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2018); Yascha Mounk, The People vs. Democracy(Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2018); Jan-Werner Muller, What is Populism? (Philadelphia, PA: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2016); Mario Vargas Llosa and Alvaro Vargas Llosa, “The Challenge of Populism,” Cato’s Letter16:1 (Winter 2018).

[4]Roger Kimball, “Populism, X: The imperative of freedom,” The New Criterion35:10 (June 2017).

[5]Michael Kazin, The Populist Persuasion: An American History(Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2017).

[6]The classic study is Lawrence Goodwyn,The Populist Moment: A Short History of the Agrarian Revolt in America(New York: Oxford University Press, 1978).

[7]James Sundquist, Dynamics of the Party System: Alignment and Realignment of Political Parties in the United States (Washington, DC: Brookings institution Press, 1983), chapter 7.

[8]David Mayhew, Electoral Realignments(New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2002), 8-32; Sean Trende, The Lost Majority (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2012).

[9]George Mayer, The Republican Party, 1854-1964(New York: Oxford University Press, 1964), 519-20; Sundquist, Dynamics of the Party System,chapters 10-12.

[10]Byron Shafer and William Claggett, The Two Majorities: The Issue Context of Modern American Politics(Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1995).

[11]Edward Carmines and James Stimson, Issue Evolution: Race and the Transformation of American Politics(Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1989); Sundquist, Dynamics of the Party System, chapters 16-17.

[12]Nicol Rae, The Decline and Fall of the Liberal Republicans(New York: Oxford University Press, 1989).

[13]Kevin Phillips, The Emerging Republican Majority(New Rochelle, NY: Arlington House, 1969), 25, 38, 105, 186, 471-74.

[14]Henry Olsen, The Working-Class Republican: Ronald Reagan and the Return of Blue-CollarConservatism(New York: Broadside Books, 2017).

[15]Edward Carmines and Michael Wagner, “Political Issues and Party Alignments,” Annual Review of Political Science9 (2006), 67-81; David Leege et al, The Politics of Cultural Differences(Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2002), 27-28, 254-58.

[16]Gary Miller and Norman Schofield, “The Transformation of the Republican and Democratic Party Coalitions in the US,” Perspectives on Politics6:3 (September 2008), 433-50.

[17]Gary Jacobson, “The Triumph of Polarized Partisanship in 2016,” Political Science Quarterly132:1 (Spring 2017), 9-41.

[18]Lee Drutman, “Political Divisions in 2016 and Beyond,” Democracy Fund Voter Study Group, June 2017.

[19]Emily Ekins, “The Five Types of Trump Voters,” Democracy Fund Voter Study Group,June 2017; Pew Research Center, Political Typology Reveals Deep Fissures on the Right and Left(October 2017), 1-3, 13, 19, 21-24, 48, 61-65, 74-76, 79, 84, 88, 95-98.

[20]Sean Trende, “The Emerging Democratic Majority Fails to Emerge,” in Larry Sabato, ed., Trumped: The 2016 Election That Broke All the Rules (Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield, 2016), 222.

[21]John Sides, Michael Tesler, and Lynn Vavreck,Identity Crisis: The 2016 Presidential Campaign and the Battle for the Meaning of America(Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2018).

[22]Gregory Holyk, “Foreign Policy in the 2016 Presidential Primaries Based on the Exit Polls,” Chicago Council on Foreign Affairs, April 7, 2016; Ronald Rapoport and Walter Stone, “The Sources of Trump’s Support,” in Sabato, Trumped, 139-40. See also Salena Zito and Brad Todd, The Great Revolt(New York: Crown Forum, 2018).

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