The story of the last decade in American life is, indeed, a story of consolidation and self-dealing at the top. There really is a kind of “court party” in American politics, whose shared interests and assumptions — interventionist, corporatist, globalist — have stamped the last two presidencies and shaped just about every major piece of Obama-era legislation. There really is a disconnect between this elite’s priorities and those of the country as a whole. There really is a sense in which the ruling class — in Washington, especially — has grown fat at the expense of the nation it governs.
The problem for conservatives isn’t their critique of this court party and its works. Rather, it’s their failure to understand why many Americans can agree with this critique but still reject the Republican alternative.
They reject it for two reasons. First, while Republicans claim to oppose the ruling class on behalf of the country as a whole, they often seem to be representing an equally narrow set of interest groups — mostly elderly, rural (the G.O.P. is a “country party” in a far too literal sense) and well-off. A party that cuts food stamps while voting for farm subsidies or fixates on upper-bracket tax cuts while wages are stagnating isn’t actually offering a libertarian populist alternative to the court party’s corrupt bargains. It’s just offering a different, more Republican-friendly set of buy-offs.
Second, as much as Americans may distrust a cronyist liberalism, they prefer it to a conservatism that doesn’t seem interested in governing at all. This explains why Republicans could win the battle for public opinion on President Obama’s first-term agenda without persuading the public to actually vote him out of office. The sense that Obama was at least trying to solve problems, whereas the right offered only opposition, was powerful enough to overcome disappointment with the actual results.