November 17, 2023 - 6:30pm

In American politics, the “radical middle” has often been the favoured territory of populists who pit themselves against the party establishment of both the Democrats and the Republicans. Think Ross Perot, the professional-wrestler-turned-governor Jesse Ventura, and — of course — Donald Trump. In the 2024 Republican primary, Nikki Haley inverts those tendencies in her emphasis on policies which combine neoliberal economics with regulatory controls. This neo-managerialism has piqued the interest of pundits and high-finance donors who are nonplussed by the ascent of populism in the GOP. Whether that policy vision will appeal to Republican voters is another question.

Such an approach is partly about affect, but it’s also about policy. Haley’s proposal to end anonymity on social media sites, for example, is textbook managerialism. Despite her campaign’s attempts to clean up her position by saying that she is mostly concerned about bots from abroad, others remain less convinced, arguing that it is a vehicle for more authoritarian controls. Haley’s appeal to “national security” as a justification for the loss of online anonymity highlights the way that invocations of “security” and “safety” (as the Covid pandemic recently demonstrated) have been a key component in expanding the role of administrative bureaucracies in American life. 

This managerial attitude also extends to immigration. In addition to increased border security, Haley supports defunding sanctuary cities and using E-Verify to establish the legal status of American workers. On legal immigration, however, the former South Carolina governor argues that the Government should partner with businesses to increase the migration of workers from abroad. In practice, this could threaten the economic position of the working-class voters who are increasingly important in the Republican coalition. It is distinctly un-populist.

Haley’s presidential campaign has followed in the footsteps of her business-friendly record as governor. Tax cuts, slashing Government spending, entitlement reform, and the repeal of the industrial-policy elements of the Inflation Reduction Act are at the core of her economic agenda. In the battle between Ron DeSantis and Disney, she pointedly sided with the Mouse. She has also criticised DeSantis for his support for Florida environmental protections that prohibit drilling for oil in the Everglades and other coastal areas.

It’s no wonder, then, that Haley has generated interest from Wall Street donors. However, the very things that endear her to some corporate donors could be electoral vulnerabilities. Running against even the idea of entitlement cuts was central to the Obama-Biden 2012 campaign reboot, and Biden has telegraphed that he will launch the same broadsides against Republicans in 2024 if they give him an opening. 

So far in the 2024 primary, Trump has also tried to undercut Republican rivals by saying entitlements should be left alone — though as president he also mused about eventual reform. If he were ever to view Haley as a serious threat, having thus far treated her as a negligible challenger, he might try to play the entitlement card against her. His allies have spent over $25 million attacking DeSantis while basically ignoring Haley. For her part, the former South Carolina governor tends to settle for only oblique criticisms of Trump at most. 

Trump’s apparent indifference to Haley might be a blind spot of historic proportions. But it could also reveal his conviction about the shape of the GOP: that populists still have the advantage in the contemporary party and that a non-populist challenger ultimately has a lower ceiling. A skilled politician, Haley has been the victorious underdog before, so some political observers think it’s too early to count her out. More is on the line than the fate of these candidates. A Haley victory would restore some of the policy imperatives on immigration, economics, and foreign affairs that Trump shouldered aside eight years ago.

Fred Bauer is a writer from New England.