In his earthier moments, former Canadian prime minister Brian Mulroney was fond of the saying “You dance with the one that brung ya.” Politically, this can be an exhortation to loyalty. But it can also be a warning of the mortal peril awaiting any political party that loses touch with its base.
Today, two historic entities, the American Republicans and the British Conservatives, are dealing with precisely that danger.
It’s instructive to note their differences in approach.
Huge swaths of the Republican establishment – elected and non-elected officials, donors, intellectuals and long-term activists – are apoplectic at what they see as Donald Trump’s hijacking of their party. In their eyes, he’s not really a Republican and he’s certainly not a conservative. And he will, they believe, bring electoral disaster in November.
How did this happen?
In part, it’s down to the ill-starred candidacy of the hapless Jeb Bush. On entering the race, Bush sucked up much of the establishment oxygen, even deterring Mitt Romney from giving it another go. Although it quickly became obvious that family name, connections and money weren’t going to turn Bush into a winning candidate, he stubbornly hung on, pouring resources into tearing down the potentially more viable Marco Rubio.
That, however, wasn’t the biggest problem. Not by a long stretch.
Early on, it was obvious that Trump had tapped into something very real, a tangible alienation among large chunks of the Republican electoral base. And caught entirely unaware, the party’s establishment had no idea as to how to respond.
Leaving aside the theatrical flamboyance and rhetorical provocations of Trump’s style, several of his key themes are reasonable subjects for political discussion. Trumpism without Trump puts legitimate issues on the table, and a political party that’s caught flat-footed when its own base responds to those issues is a party that’s living in a bubble.
For instance, it’s not unreasonable to be agitated about rampant illegal immigration. Nor is it unreasonable to question whether economic globalization has gone too far too fast, creating too many American working-class casualties along the way. And it’s certainly not unreasonable to think about dialing back America’s global policeman role and insisting that other countries pull their weight on defence.
But having totally bought into the orthodoxies of economic globalization and hawkish internationalism, establishment Republicans were caught offside without any facility to constructively engage their base on these concerns. And having been unable or unwilling to effectively address illegal immigration when they had the power to do so, there was no credibility on that front either.
Courtesy of Brexit, Conservatives in Britain have found themselves in a similar quandary, which they’ve handled differently.
Prime Minister David Cameron, most of his cabinet and the majority of the party’s MPs campaigned for the Remain side during the referendum. And it was an intensely contentious process, full of hot rhetoric and inflamed passions.
When it was over, though, the party accepted the result, no doubt encouraged by the knowledge that an estimated 58 percent of its own voters opted for Leave. If your base speaks to you that emphatically, it’s prudent to pay close and respectful attention.
So Cameron is gone and the new prime minister – the lukewarm Remain supporter Theresa May – has publicly resolved to implement the electorate’s chosen path out of the European Union. There’ll be none of the traditional EU practice of sending voters back to do it again until they get it right. Or at least that’s the story.
Columnist Mark Steyn, acerbically astute as always, has a keen way of describing this kind of situation. It is, he says, “a lot easier for the base to get itself a new elite than for the elite to find itself a new base.” Accordingly, the pragmatic Conservatives remain in power while the less adaptable Republican ruling class is side-lined and estranged.
Ironically, Mulroney, who spoke of the need to “dance with the one that brung ya,” presided over the 1993 disintegration of his own party with half of the old Progressive Conservative base abandoning it for Reform.
Then again, preaching has always been easier than practising.
Pat Murphy casts a history buff’s eye at the goings-on in our world. Never cynical – well perhaps a little bit.