On the day that retiring Republican senator Jeff Flake denounced the sitting Republican president, the Pew Research Center released a lengthy survey that highlighted the deep split in Republican ranks between the two groups who most identify with their party—“Core” conservatives who continue to espouse Ronald Reagan’s playbook and “Country First” who embrace a more nationalist and populist approach.
Both groups are overwhelmingly white. But Core (Reaganite) conservatives are twice as likely as Country First (populist) conservatives to have college degrees and to enjoy annual family incomes of $75,000 or more. They agree on some matters—for example, that government is almost always wasteful and inefficient and that African Americans who can’t get ahead are responsible for their own condition. But on many basic issues the gulf between them is wide.
For example, 75 percent of Reagan conservatives but only 48 percent of populist conservatives say that the U.S. economic system is generally fair to most Americans. 70 percent of the populists, but only 46 percent of the Reaganites, say that economic inequality is a very or moderately big problem in today’s America. 76 percent of populist conservatives believe that immigrants burden the country by taking jobs, housing, and health care; only 43 percent of Reagan conservatives agree.
The two groups disagree on the basic direction of the tax reform legislation on which the Republican Party is pinning its hopes after its failure to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act. 51 percent of Core conservatives believe that taxes should be lowered for households making $250,000 or more per year; only 36 percent of Country First conservatives agree. The gap on corporate taxation is even wider: 67 percent of Core conservatives but only 35 percent of Country First conservatives believe that taxes should be lowered for large businesses and corporations.
Reagan conservatives are more libertarian on some social issues. Only 37 percent believe that society should discourage homosexuality, compared to 70 percent of populist conservatives. 73 percent of populist conservatives oppose legalizing same-sex marriage, compared to 49 percent of Reagan conservatives. On the other hand, 43 percent of populists, but only eight percent of Reaganites, think that significant obstacles remain that make it harder for women to get ahead than for men. More broadly, 52 percent of Reaganites think that it is possible to be moral without believing in God; only 28 percent of the populists agree.
The two key Republican groups disagree in their assessment of the past half-century. 53 percent of Reagan conservatives say that their family has achieved the American Dream, compared to 35 percent of populist conservatives. 53 percent of Reagan conservatives say that life is better for people like them in today’s America than it was 50 years ago; only 27 percent of populist conservatives agree. This is why populists were so responsive to the final word in President Trump’s famous campaign slogan. Neither group is optimistic about the future, but then, neither is the country as a whole. Just 28 percent of Americans say that life for the next generation will be better than life today, while 48 percent say the opposite.
President Trump’s pledge to put “America First” also divides these Republican groups. 50 percent of Reagan conservatives, but only 19 percent of populist conservatives, believe that it is best for the United States to be active in world affairs. 68 percent of Reaganites but only 39 percent of populists think that U.S. involvement in the global economy is good for the country’s economy; conversely, 45 percent of populists but only 24 percent of Reaganites think that global economic involvement lowers wages and costs American jobs.
A great Republican leader may eventually emerge to synthesize these discordant views into a new 21st century conservatism. For the foreseeable future, however, the battle between traditionalists and populists now playing out in retirements and nomination contests will rage on.