Who are the 99 Percent?
Frank Buckley's 3-Part Playbook for Ending the Left's Monopoly on the Inequality Issue
In April 2016, fully half a year before the election that would put Donald Trump in the White House, George Mason University law professor Frank H. Buckley released a book that would later form the first installment of an unplanned trilogy.
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The Way Back: Restoring the Promise of America made no mention of Trump, and yet it captures the mood in which his rise to power came about. The bombastic rhetoric aimed at the DC establishment “swamp culture” echoed Buckley’s characterization of a “New Class,” which has used government to entrench a quasi-aristocratic status and limit the economic mobility of the average American. The book makes the case against unjust inequality—an argument we’ve come to expect from the left wing. One reviewer calls it a capitalist approach to achieving social ends.
In that sense, it’s not a libertarian book per se, but I have benefitted from reading this and Buckley’s more recent books, and believe they are essential to understanding our current political landscape. Without this understanding, libertarians will remain largely irrelevant as a political force.
Buckley expanded his arguments from The Way Back in his 2017 The Republican Workers Party. The Trump years allowed Buckley to observe what happens when a political outsider attempts to implement a populist agenda against the entrenched special interests of the DC bureaucracy, and gave him data for his most recent book. The trilogy was completed in 2022, with publication of Progressive Conservatism, written partly in response to the bad taste that Trump’s disgraceful exit left in everybody’s mouth.
Was there anything positive we could salvage from the Trump years, or is the swamp destined to be a permanent fixture of Federal Government?
I interviewed Buckley about each book upon publication, and recommend you read them all or listen to our conversations:
Progressive Conservatism? July 24, 2022
Since most of us are busy, however, I will endeavor to summarize the key points—drawing on the notes for our conversations.
I believe that this trilogy will go down as a “sleeper hit” and its prescience may not be understood for years or decades. With a few tweaks, it might even offer hints at what a principled, libertarian populism might look like.
Part 1 - The Rise and Fall of Donald J. Trump
Buckley, a former speechwriter for Trump's 2016 campaign, noted as early as the inauguration speech in January 2017 that Trump had already aligned himself with the wrong elements to fulfill his promise to “drain the swamp.”
And yet there were still glimmers of hope. By the time The Republican Workers Party was published, Trump had already accomplished much:
Added three million new jobs.
Raised consumer confidence.
Withdrawn from Paris Climate Accords.
Replaced Scalia with a Supreme Court nominee in his mold.
Approved the Keystone Pipeline.
Most of these accomplishments were particularly relevant to the working class, and cemented Trump’s popularity among those voters.
Hillary Clinton had fumbled in 2016 by failing to conceal her contempt for the American worker. What is so progressive about sneering at working-class “deplorables”, Buckley wonders? Old-fashioned Democrats, Buckley says, would be horrified at the current state of the Democratic Party—a coalition of woke culture warriors and corporate cronies in bed with an unwieldy administrative state.
Unfortunately, as a Washington outsider, Trump was unable to exercise the levers of power and wound up squandering many more opportunities he had to generate lasting reform. January 6 was the last straw in destroying Trump’s viability as a political figure. Now, Buckley says, we must move on from the man, but not the movement.
The populist wave Trump created endures, and where it leads depends largely on which ideas prevail when the next crisis comes along.
Part 2 - Economic Mobility & The Republican Workers Party
Two years into Trump's presidency, Buckley published The Republican Workers Party, suggesting real reforms that could genuinely improve working Americans’ lives, unlike the Democratic Party’s empty rhetoric about inequality. These include repealing excessive licensing laws restricting economic freedom and misguided welfare policies that incentivize cycles of poverty.
Mitt Romney’s presidential candidacy exemplifies the failed GOP establishment that abandoned the working class. When Romney spoke of the “47% who would always vote for bigger government to receive the benefits,” he was roundly rejected by voters.
Buckley notes that he does not oppose aiding the truly needy. However, boosting average Americans' well-being requires more than welfare—it requires increasing their productivity. That’s where the welfare state has failed, and where Republicans have an opportunity to offer the alternative solution to inequality of economic mobility.
Unlike some libertarians who want to eliminate the state—or at least shrink it to the size where it could be drowned in the bathtub—Buckley advocates an alliance of social conservatives and economic liberals, along with more moderate libertarians, around largely free-market solutions to issues like education, healthcare, and immigration.
There is already a re-alignment taking place since Trump broke with the long-standing alliance of evangelicals and religious conservatives with economic libertarians. His trade policies, in particular, made him seem like a champion of the middle class and an enemy of the “New Class.” Although Buckley is loath to give too much credit to Trump’s trade policies for actually helping the working class, he implies that their symbolic power for morale of American workers might compensate for the small negative effects on global prosperity. Ultimately, however, he recognizes that American competitiveness must be based on genuine free markets – not tariffs, and certainly not corporate welfare.
Economic mobility, he argues, is the most effective social program in the history of mankind. Therefore we must do everything possible to eliminate unnecessary government barriers that prevent upward mobility among the poor—regulations like occupational licensing and environmental red tape.
Rather than waste money on foreign wars, Buckley proposes funding a few well-run welfare programs—vouchers for school choice, for example, and perhaps a single-payer system for those who can’t afford health insurance, alongside a free market for the rest.
Simultaneously, he says we must end the special privileges of the elite class that allow them to pass on their status to the next generation as in the old days of the “peerage system,” which the founders despised. Think of the revolving door between Wall Street (or any other industry) and the regulatory agencies in DC.
Buckley also criticizes Trump for scapegoating immigrants and urges Republicans to gain more populist support by prioritizing high-skilled immigration, as in Canada's system. The current approach protects elites from competition by skilled immigrants while disadvantaging the middle and working class. At the same time, Buckley admits that free trade and immigration can have negative effects on certain workers, and that we should try to help the less-educated Americans who lose the most. I may favor an approach that allows more low-skilled immigration to the United States as well, but I’ve had to soften my open borders position over the years. I also reject the idea that the government owes a job to anyone displaced by immigration or globalization. However, considering that politics is the art of compromise, I would accept some concessions to less Americans who would be harmed by a more liberal immigration policy.
Part 3 - Progressive Conservatism & Liberal Nationalism
Following Trump’s disgraceful exit from the White house, Buckley proposes “Progressive Conservatism” as the path to keeping the dream of historical American greatness alive. It turns out that the way forward looks a lot like “the way back.”
The Progressive Conservative agenda has three parts:
Each plank supports the others and plays into a vision of a nation restored to greatness through a belief in the ideals that made America great in the first place. It’s meant as the realization of Trump’s ubiquitous mantra in reality—not just written on a sea of red hats at a Trump rally.
One of Buckley’s gifts as a writer lies in bringing the reader into an atmosphere with strong visuals, through which gets the reader to feel nostalgic for the loss of “Republican virtue”:
“For Americans, purity is a dream of republican virtue, a shining city on a hill, free from baseness and corruption and peopled by secret romantics who are hard on the outside and soft on the inside. Our heroes aren’t kings or princes, but common folk, the knights-errant of the dusty trail and mean streets in search of their private grail. When surrounded by cynics they keep their integrity, like John Wayne in ‘Stagecoach’ and Humphrey Bogart in ‘Casablanca.’”
In short, Buckley aims to make American patriotism glamorous and respectable again.
“The left,” he observes, “no longer seems to like America.”
Patriotism is mocked and scorned. Nationalism has become a dirty word.
However, Buckley is careful to distinguish between the dangerous kind of nationalism based on ethnic chauvinism (like Nazi Germany's) and American nationalism, which is inherently cosmopolitan.
American nationalism means believing in the founding values. It means feeling bonded to other Americans, but fundamentally it is a liberal nationalism.
Progressive conservatism may sound anti-libertarian because it allows for some economically liberal and socially conservative policies. However, it urges compromise in ways that preserve most of what libertarians want: low taxes, less regulation, and the freedom to govern our own lives apart from Washington DC’s paternalistic values. According to Buckley’s definition, progressive conservatives support markets and genuine competition, but not cronyism.
He encourages Republicans to moderate some of their economic stances, while holding onto traditional values, in order to reclaim in their role as America’s natural governing party, as in the days of Abe Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt, and Dwight Eisenhower.
Part 4 - Hope in the Great American West
In Progressive Conservatism, Buckley leans heavily on Frederick Jackson Turner – the great progressive historian who saw in the rise of the American West the passing away of the reign of aristocracy.
Here, we must confront the paradox inherent to the book’s title: Conservatives oppose radical change, yet they need a revolutionary movement to reclaim culture from the far-left. They must break up leftist strongholds in academia, Hollywood, and media.
Progressive conservatism, however, also represents one of the oldest American traditions according to Buckley. George Washington was the original “ProgCon,” and the sentiments and ideals keeps cycling back when they are most needed, such as during the McCarthy Era, when moderate Republicans had to keep their more extreme members at bay. Gerald Ford kept the ideal alive by pardoning Nixon.
He borrows from Neil Howe and William Straus’s The Fourth Turning to engage in his own political prophesying about the future of America. In doing so, he identifies four turnings of Progressive Conservatism throughout our history.
The First Turning was Abraham Lincoln, who opposed the backward-but-popular ideas of George Fitzhugh—a slavery apologist who believed the master-slave relationship was the natural order of things.
Lincoln believed instead that slaves deserved to be free workers, able to advance themselves. To him, America promised economic and social mobility, and a clean break from the past.
The Second Turning was embodied by Theodore Roosevelt. It came during a time when Democrats argued for price controls and extensive regulations in the Gilded Age. Roosevelt’s proposed regulations and anti-trust actions saved capitalism from itself and its own excesses.
The Third Turning lasted from Franklin Delano Roosevelt through Dwight Eisenhower. Buckley argues FDR likewise saved capitalism from itself by preventing socialist uprisings like in Russia. Later, Eisenhower called himself a modern Republican but “progressive” may be more accurate. He despised the racial prejudices of his time and invited Jesse Owens to the White House after previous administrations had snubbed him. More significantly, Eisenhower's presidency saw no wars and a balanced budget. He even warned us about the Military Industrial Complex upon his exit.
The Fourth Turning began with Donald Trump's presidency.
Barry Goldwater conservatism aimed to replace progressive conservatism but never fully succeeded. In lieu of a well-rounded Republican virtue, Goldwater promised purity through one principle: liberty.
Instead of liberty, we got Donald Rumsfeld, Lee Atwater, and Charles Koch, who Buckley refers to as “the Right Wing Version of the Altamont Rock Concert” (for my younger audience, that was the disastrous event that marked the end of the 1960s counterculture movement).
If the principle of extreme libertarianism has failed in practice, we might consider whether a compromise can be achieved without watering down the fundamentally radical promise of America.
Here, Buckley gives me hope that the West Coast—and my own state of California in particular—has an outsized role to play in challenging the bloated DC bureaucracy. For the most part, California has used its outsized cultural and electoral influence to move the country left-ward—forcing its values on the rest of the country in the form of stricter regulations that the rest of the nation is forced to adopt. If this represents California’s less admirable qualities, we can be comforted by our stronger virtues such as our innovative spirit and preference for meritocracy over the eastern aristocracy.
California might offer a model for the rest of the nation by pursuing a more extreme form of Federalism—declaring partial sovereignty from Washington DC in setting its own environmental and immigration laws. The principle of subsidiarity, or governing local matters locally and national matters nationally, resolves much of the tension between libertarians and progressives.
Perhaps Tom Campbell’s new California Common Sense Party can strike the right balance between populism and technocracy, as well as liberty and Republican virtue, to deliver a functional government—one that is strong enough to protect our rights and foster economic mobility.
Conclusion: What is To Be Done about the Corrupt Aristocracy?
In summary, Buckley has pointed out a glaring hypocrisy by the Left: Democrats have claimed a monopoly on the issue of inequality while being responsible for the most objectionable forms – namely, inherited privilege and cronyism. While free markets may enrich some and not others, libertarians and conservatives should stand against the all unjust forms of inequality and claim their rightful mantle of champions of the middle class. The real 99% versus the 1% is the politically privileged versus the rest of us.
Unfortunately, we can’t simply ban corruption, or expect that chanting “Drain the Swamp!” will make it happen. The Trump presidency proved that it’s too big a job for one man. Furthermore, conservatives should be suspicious about vesting more power in the executive branch, which has already assumed unprecedented authority through the growth of an unaccountable administrative state (see Buckley’s book 2015 The Once and Future King for an analysis of the “rise of crown government in America”). Who needs Congress’s permission when you can make an end-run around them with just a pen and a phone?
Likewise, Congress won’t help in its current form. The revolving door between industry and legislature is too lucrative for both parties to political transactions. Buckley proposes erecting a “Chinese Wall” around former Congress members — a lifetime ban on working as lobbyists. However, Congress has no incentive to pass such laws, so I’m not holding my breath.
Some conservatives find hope in the judiciary. However, even the hallowed judicial branch has been captured by special interests, as Buckley reveals in enraging examples of judges issuing draconian punishments at the behest of the prison industry.
Perhaps what we need is a strong political movement aimed at restoring the ideals of the common good and the American founding—liberty and justice for all.
At the conclusion to Progressive Conservatism, Buckley writes:
“We have come to a dead end, and we’ll not see a way back except through a recovery of the mystique of American purity in the republican virtue of the Founders and the GOP’s great leaders: Abraham Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt and Dwight Eisenhower, and the content they gave to our idea of the common good. That is the Party’s task, and in embracing it the Republicans will restore the American Dream and become the country’s natural governing party.”
Trump, according to Buckley, became a prominent figure by championing the ideas of an earlier generation of Republicans. He was a “Hegelian hero”—like a Caesar—whose objectionable actions may have been justified by historical necessity. Ultimately, though, Trump couldn’t operate the levers of power effectively and his downfall halted the progress of an otherwise popular political movement.
Now that Trump is gone, we would be wise to heed the words that one of America’s most admired presidents once wrote in his diary:
“The Republican Party must be known as a progressive organization or it is sunk.” - Dwight D. Eisenhower