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Mike Pence says Republicans 'face a choice' in 2024: populism or conservatism

Republican presidential candidate former Vice President Mike Pence speaks at the Northside Conservatives Club Meeting, on August 30 in Iowa.
Charlie Neibergall
Republican presidential candidate former Vice President Mike Pence speaks at the Northside Conservatives Club Meeting, on August 30 in Iowa.

At an event in New Hampshire, former Vice President Mike Pence took aim at his former boss, calling for the Republican Party to abandon populism in favor of good, old-fashioned conservatism.

At the New Hampshire Institute of Politics on the campus of St. Anselm College in Manchester, N.H., and billed as a "major speech" by the Pence campaign, Pence said that Donald Trump had promised to run as a conservative in 2016.

"It's important for Republicans to know that he and his imitators in this Republican primary make no such promise today," Pence said.

Noting New Hampshire's status as an early-primary state, Pence said Republican voters "face a choice ... will we be the party of conservatism, or will we follow the siren song of populism unmoored to conservative principles?"

In the speech, Pence argued that the party should be guided by what he described as longstanding conservative principles, such as a hawkish foreign policy and free-market economics, rather than a populism he argued is rising on both the political right and left.

Pence repeatedly invoked the memory of Ronald Reagan, calling for a return to what Pence described as the "limited government" and "traditional moral values" that he said the Republican Party had stood for for 50 years. Pence warned that the GOP stands "at a crossroads" and described populism as a path of "decline" and irrelevance.

Pence's speech confronting the rise of populism comes at a time when he and other Republican presidential hopefuls are trying to distinguish themselves in a crowded field that's been consistently dominated by Trump.

So far, Pence has walked a careful line when it comes to his former boss: stressing that he obeyed the Constitution rather than Trump during the January 6, 2021 attack on the Capitol, while also saying that he would support Trump if he becomes the Republican party's 2024 presidential nominee, even if Trump is convicted of charges he's facing related to his efforts to overturn the 2020 election results and other matters.

The former vice president also took aim at "liberal progressives" and what he described as failed policies by the Biden administration, including President Biden's economic and immigration policies.

But Pence focused some of his most pointed remarks on his former boss and his own party, describing the divide between conservatism and populism as a "fundamental divide between these two factions is unbridgeable."

The definition of populism — and the usefulness of the term itself — has been widely debated. According to Oxford Bibliographies, populism is an "anti-establishment, anti-elite ideology and political strategy" which tends to focus "on the tensions between the 'pure people' and the 'corrupt elite.'"

The meaning of "conservatism" is also a subject of contention. Oxford notes that conservatism is associated with the political right, "which was defined as defending inequalities and differential entitlements, concentrating matters involving rights around preserving property rights, shoring up public and social order, and promoting traditional values and conventional social relations."

Populism, meanwhile, is neither an exclusively right-wing or leftist phenomenon; the idea gained increasing prominence in the early 2010s with the rise of grassroots movements like the Tea Party on the right and Occupy Wall Street on the left. While the two movements offered starkly different visions for a way forward, both drew supports with the idea that individual citizens had to organize and push back against government and corporate interests that were not serving them, whether because of incompetence or by design.

The political ascent and election of former President Donald Trump in 2016 — with his promises to remember "the forgotten man" left behind by the political establishment — moved Trump'sform of populism from from the fringes to the mainstream of the Republican Party.

As Trump's vice president, Pence watched those policies unfold up close. While conservatives marked major wins in the Trump administration, like the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act, many traditional priorities shifted under Trump. Most notably, Republicans long advocated for free and open markets, including international trade with few, if any, regulations.

Trump, however, took on a protectionist stance on trade, enacting tariffs on allies and adversaries alike to try to force concessions.

Pence added that he understands why many Americans across the political spectrum may be drawn to populist movements, pointing to economic inequality, widespread addiction, and other social trends as likely causes. But he said those movements on both the right and left "fellow travelers on the same road to ruin."

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Sarah McCammon is a National Correspondent covering the Mid-Atlantic and Southeast for NPR. Her work focuses on political, social and cultural divides in America, including abortion and reproductive rights, and the intersections of politics and religion. She's also a frequent guest host for NPR news magazines, podcasts and special coverage.