When the Biden administration proposed and Congress passed nearly two trillion dollars in economic stimulus via the American Rescue Plan, conservative lawmakers and right-leaning media seemed not to care very much. Instead, they focused mainly on recent cultural controversies involving Mr. Potato Head, Dr. Seuss, and, eventually, photo-ops at the border. 

While ignoring the biggest spending bill in the history of the United States and allowing President Biden a major victory could be written off as a tactical error, the confounding political episodes of March 2021 may be better explained by this fact: 54 percent of Republican voters said they support the American Rescue Plan. 

In response to this persistent grass-roots populism, an increasing number of Republican legislators have, in recent weeks, expanded their support of economic policy positions that fiscal conservatives had hoped would go away along with President Trump. Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) has come out in support of the  minimum wage, and Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fl.) voiced approval of unions. On healthcare, one of the most important issues of the last decade, conservatives seem to have maintained their stance against government incursion, except for when they don’t

The new reality in contemporary politics has thus become impossible to ignore: fiscal conservatism is homeless. The question is, why? 

The new reality in contemporary politics has thus become impossible to ignore: fiscal conservatism is homeless. The question is, why? 

For many years now, political scientists have identified two dimensions that define the political spectrum: economic issues and cultural issues. If you’ve ever taken the popular Political Compass Test, you have seen how this can be represented on a graph: from left to right are one’s economic attitudes, and from top to bottom are one’s cultural attitudes. 

For a long time, elected Republicans could be counted on to be on the right half, with some trending more toward libertarianism and others trending more toward cultural conservatism (labeled in the test as authoritarianism). With some exceptions, most elected Democrats have tended to be fairly fiscally moderate and generally more on the libertarian side of the spectrum. In other words, Republican politicians tended to be a fusion between the top right and the bottom right, while Democratic politicians were mostly in the bottom left.

That reality was seemingly given vivid life during the Tea Party’s ascendance in 2010. A grassroots wave of conservative activists mobilized in opposition to two “big government” incursions—the Obama administration’s stimulus package and the Affordable Care Act—and helped elect Republicans up and down the ballot, wresting the House majority from Democrats and stymieing the advance of the president’s future legislative priorities. Gradually, that fiscally focused fever subsided in Obama’s second term, as new issues regarding foreign affairs and climate change took center stage. 

Then came Donald Trump. The best way to understand his election, I think, is this chart from the Democracy Fund’s Voter Study Group, which is laid out like the political compass test.

It turns out that while Republican candidates have long campaigned with putative appeals to the top right and bottom right boxes, a large number of Trump’s voters were in the top left. Trump won these fiscally liberal and socially conservative voters by a three-to-one margin (compared to Romney’s two-to-one margin in 2012). 

Even more striking, though, is the dearth of voters in the bottom right, the fiscal conservatives and social libertarians. In theory, these should have been the voters previously animated by the Tea Party, whose gospel of small government had won over so much grassroots support during the Obama administration. But in 2016, they were nowhere to be found. 

This leads one to conclude that perhaps it was never really about fiscal conservatism at all. It’s even arguable that the Tea Party turned fiscal conservatism into a culture war, appealing to voters who had been in the top-left all along, and Trump mobilized these same voters plus millions more who felt aggrieved by the establishment.  

One of the apocryphal stories of the early Tea Party town halls was the senior citizen who angrily admonished his congressman to “keep your government hands off my Medicare.” Apocryphal or not, it gestures to the key finding of the political scientists Christopher Ellis and James Stimson, who, in their 2012 book Ideology in America, provide data showing that a significant portion of Americans are “symbolically conservative”—meaning they support the idea of small government and a so-called traditional lifestyle—and “operationally liberal”—meaning they like government entitlement programs.

Political scientists have long espoused the median voter theorem: the idea that parties will naturally compete for voters at the center of the political spectrum as they try to expand their coalitions of support. We’re seeing this theorem play out with the top-right and the bottom-left boxes acting as “poles,” and the top left box being the home for the symbolically conservative but operationally liberal “median voters.” Republicans, then, find themselves competing in the top two boxes, whether they know it or not, while Democrats compete in the left two. Republicans win these voters by amplifying a culture war and lose them by preaching a gospel of tax cuts and deregulation, while Democrats win these voters by putting money in their pockets and lose them by talk of defunding the police.

With economic populism increasingly in vogue among Republicans and doubt being cast on the danger of debt and deficits, these fiscal conservatives are increasingly homeless in the Republican Party, and certainly not welcome in the Democratic Party. 

It is not hard to see, then, why Republicans like Sens. Pat Toomey, Rob Portman, and Roy Blunt might decide it is time for them to exit stage right. They were first elected to the Senate in 2010 on the Tea Party wave. They are all true believers in small government and fiscal conservatism and have strong reservations about the anti-elite populist culture war. While a GOP coalition composed of the top-right and bottom-right boxes worked for them, a coalition built on the top-left and top-right simply does not.

With economic populism increasingly in vogue among Republicans and the emergence of modern monetary theory casting doubt on the danger of debt and deficits—at least in the short term—these fiscal conservatives are increasingly homeless in the Republican Party, and certainly not welcome in the Democratic Party. 

So, is fiscal conservatism doomed? Is American politics destined for two coalitions talking past each other? Can these political dynamics shift in upcoming election cycles? These are the questions on the table for part two of this column. Coming soon.

Benjamin Pontz is a Lancaster native researching governance and public policy on a Fulbright Scholarship at the University of Manchester.

Editor’s Note: This article originally ran under the headline “Just who are the real moderates exactly?”

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