Tevi Troy is a really smart guy who has written really smart things about the evolution of the Ideas Industry in Washington: See his excellent National Affairs essay on the evolution of the think tank. Troy’s latest, for Politico, looks at the trial separation between the 2016 Republican presidential candidates and GOP policy intellectuals:
It’s easy to lay the blame at Donald Trump’s feet (after all, it’s hard to imagine another Republican candidate of the last four decades rejecting National Review so cavalierly), but this year’s split between intellectuals and the rank-and-file GOP goes beyond the front-runner. In fact, neither of Trump’s remaining rivals, Ted Cruz nor John Kasich, is particularly cozy with the conservative intelligentsia. (Think tankers tended to coalesce behind Scott Walker, Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio, who are long since out of the race.) What’s really going on is that the ideas that the conservative intellectual community has been peddling for decades have failed to appeal to an angry blue-collar voter base. What worked in Reagan’s era just doesn’t work anymore, and Trump is simply exploiting the divide.
Troy has a point. As my Washington Post colleague Elise Viebeck notes, Trump supporter and anti-immigration senator Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) is fully conscious of the differences between his policy preferences and those of GOP elites:
“The elites have become international and they’ve ceased to have a primary loyalty to the nation-state,” Sessions said. “Republicans and Democrats do their fundraising cycles, and they go to Manhattan and they have their cocktails and they hear the whining of some billionaire and ask him for money, and they read the Wall Street Journal, bless its heart — great organization that it is, it’s not perfect. The American people are not Darwinian. We’re not Randian, in a total, brutal survival of the fittest.”
This raises the question about what the GOP’s intelligentsia will do in response. One possible counter is to offer an intellectual patina of respectability to Trump’s cri de coeur. One could see “reformicons,” who have focused on how Reaganite policies yield limited benefits for lower-income Americans, moving in this direction. Indeed, Reihan Salam has already done yeoman work on this front.
There is another possibility, however, that Troy speculates about at the end of his Politico essay. The original neoconservatives, remember, started out as disaffected Democrats who migrated to the GOP — either temporarily (see Daniel Patrick Moynihan, pictured above) or Jeane Kirkpatrick. Is a reverse migration possible?
Today’s conservative intellectuals appear to be splintering, over Trump, over Cruz, over questions like immigration and America’s proper role in the world. If they scatter, the loss of conservative intellectuals as a somewhat unified force could mean the end of the era of the GOP as the party of ideas. The battle of ideas is already an uphill battle for Republicans, especially given Democratic advantages in the faculty lounges and in the mainstream media — and without a reliable phalanx of intellectuals to help defend it in the larger marketplace of ideas, the Republican Party would eventually lose the respect of conservative-minded voters as well, potentially dooming it to suffer long-term electoral damage or outright disintegration. This could mean that the Democrats would take the initiative in shaping the country’s policy directly for years or decades to come. …
We have already seen some of the most adamant #NeverTrump folks suggest that they would vote for Hillary — it’s possible that Democrats take advantage of this defection and recruit some of the top foreign policy intellectuals who signed a letter pledging never to back Trump into their party for the long-term. Such an effort could mirror the way Republicans drafted Democratic neocons like Kirkpatrick and Bennett in the 1970s and 1980s. Some “liberal-tarians”— libertarians who care about social issues more than economic ones and thereby sympathize with the Democrats — have already moved in the Democrats’ direction. Under Trump, even more could follow.
So is this scenario possible? Color me skeptical.
The neoconservative migration took place at a time when the two political parties were just starting to distinguish themselves as ideologically coherent organizations. Whether one calls this movement “polarization” or “partisan sorting” doesn’t matter too much for our purposes. What does matter is that neoconservatives realized that they were a better fit for the GOP as a result. That political migration made ideological sense.
The thing is, that polarization has been going on for four decades now. Elites within the major political parties of 2016 are more ideologically distant than they were in, say, 1971. Indeed, this election cycle has exacerbated that polarization at the presidential level. So disaffected GOP intellectuals would have to travel a much longer ideological space to feel comfortable as Democrats.
That doesn’t mean that it couldn’t happen, however. Foreign policy is an issue that’s tougher to fit onto simple left-right axis, so maybe there will be some migration on that front as the GOP nominees sound more rejecionist about the rest of the world. Political scientist Lee Drutman has been arguing that American politics has hit peak polarization and that this trend might be reversing.
I’m still skeptical. But the very fact that Troy is postulating such a scenario is, in and of itself, worthy of note.