Randy Simmons, the libertarian mayor of the small town of Providence, Utah, opines that “Most elected Utah Republicans are populists, not conservative. They want to run people's economic and private lives.”

Simmons complains that he “once thought the Republican Party believed in individual rights, free markets, and property rights,” but that nowadays “Republicans want a big government (look at the TARP vote in the Senate for example) and Democrats want a bigger one.” He charges that “City Councils are even worse as they are infected with a do-gooder mentality. Instead of asking what the proper role of local government is they assume they can fix things.”

The definition of the term populist is kind of slippery, since it has different or layered meanings. It almost always denotes competition between the elite class and the broader populace. It was once tightly associated with the briefly tenured and fairly radical Populist (or People’s) Party of the late 19th and early 20th Centuries, but it has since obtained a more varied definition.

Simmons’ use of the word populist, however, seems to simply denote the political class employing government power in the name of the people — using a top-down approach to place burdens on some for the benefit (or presumed benefit) of ‘the people.’ Using ‘the people’ to justify political actions is a common trick employed by politicians of almost all persuasions.

Whether the politicians’ belief that they are accomplishing overall public good through government coercion is genuine or not, it does not necessarily follow that their actions are morally correct, the majority agree with the particular policy at hand, the rights of the minority have been properly respected, or the claimed benefits are actually achieved.

The frustration Simmons expresses with the Republican Party seems to be twofold. 1) The GOP is comprised of such a broad conglomeration of viewpoints that it is difficult to define what the party stands for. 2) The general center or prevailing view of the GOP has become less libertarian and more populist in recent years.

On point #1, Simmons is right that the GOP doesn’t currently know what it stands for. Following the spectacular implosion of the GW Bush doctrines that were in many ways a repudiation of the doctrines of the 1994 revolution, there is currently a huge struggle for power and ideology going on within the party. Although the Left has succeeded in uniting the GOP in opposition to leftist policies, there is otherwise little internal coherency as to what direction the party ought to go.

Point #2 also has some validity. Although his actual policies were far less than libertarian, Ronald Reagan succeeded in infusing the GOP with the idea of limited government. The 1994 Republican revolution was ushered in on a promise to actually implement these ideals.

While the GOP congress held the line on government expansion to some degree during the Clinton years, the effort to maintain a ‘sustainable majority’ led the inheritors of the revolution to engage in every type of corruption of which they had accused the Democrats. With the advent of GW Bush’s compassionate conservatism, all pretence of limited government and devotion to liberty went out the window.

Today, not only do the ragtag remnants of the Republican Party have little clue as to what principles the party stands for, the faction that claims to stand for limited government has no legitimacy inside or outside of the party. Any limited government bona fides that ever existed were run through the shredder during the preceding decade and it will take a long time to earn them back.

Although the GOP has suddenly found some backbone to stand up against big government policies (just at the moment when such opposition is completely meaningless on votes where it really matters), is there anyone — anyone — out there that thinks matters would be substantially different if John McCain had won last November, even if he had by some miracle gotten a Republican congress? Maybe some priorities would be slightly different, but populist sentiments and political paybacks would still be the order of the day.

The Utah GOP has a strong ‘conservative’ base. But if you attend the conventions and listen to what these ‘grass roots Republicans’ want, you will have to conclude that Simmons is right. They are mostly populists. And most elected GOP officials in Utah are also mostly populists. The arguments between the ‘conservative’ and ‘moderate’ camps devolve down to which populist policies ought to be pushed.

This leaves the question as to whether it is more profitable for liberty-minded people to work within the GOP to help shape the party’s future or to scrap that approach as futile and work from the outside. I have been told (see comments) that working from the outside is the only way to effect real positive change. As I note in my responses, I remain unconvinced that this is so.

Like Simmons, I am very dissatisfied with the Republican Party. But I find myself even more at odds with the Democratic Party. Are my only choices to be a pariah inside of the GOP or else a pariah completely outside of mainstream party politics?

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