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What the working class GOP is and isn't
Tough-guy populism vs. Welfare State Lite
A few days ago, Oren Cass’ American Compass released a poll with the bold conclusion that “GOP voters have abandoned the traditional Republican Party focus on tax cuts, deregulation, and free trade.” As the author of a forthcoming book on the GOP’s working-class realignment, this naturally piqued my interest.
Cards on the table: I appreciate the contribution Cass is making to the conservative policy space, and he was very generous with his time in letting me interview him for the book. I’ve also sparred with online critics of Cass’ work, who I think miss the forest for the trees. Telling American workers the economy is largely working just fine while gesticulating wildly in the direction of some statistic or other is just as politically ruinous when it comes from conservatives as from the Econ Twitter defenders of Bidenomics. Americans currently think the economy is poor. Validating these concerns makes it more likely that conservatives will wield power come 2025.
On the other hand, I also happen to think that the GOP’s working class transformation is happening largely without many of the economic policies that American Compass advocates—from industrial policy to friendliness towards labor unions. And the Compass poll shows why: the GOP’s populist turn on economics is largely a function of Trump-like rhetoric against globalization and trade—taking on foreign countries who are “eating our lunch” to use a Trumpian term. What this populism is largely not is about is reversing the party’s longstanding commitments against high taxes, regulation, or an expanded welfare state.
Others on Twitter/X have pointed out that the poll shows that conservatives are focused elsewhere: on cultural issues not economic ones. And that goes equally for the priorities of the New Right as well as the Old Right. Aside from bemoaning globalization, these priorities pale in comparison next to cultural concerns.
The survey uses this data to create a New Right and Old Right grouping of voters where the New Right outnumbers the Old Right, but this New Right grouping is almost exclusively carried by support by a statement about globalization that “American manufacturing has been gutted by globalization and trade with China,” with statements like “Workers have little control over their jobs and can’t do anything about it” and “People make more money working on Wall Street than building real businesses” receiving only fractional support by comparison. Going by these numbers, Republican voters seem much more interested in directing their ire at China rather than Wall Street. And that’s hardly a remaking of GOP economic policy. This was
Donald Trump’s Mitt Romney’s campaign platform in 2012, pledging to call China a currency manipulator and impose tariffs.
As for Donald Trump, the idea of “getting tough” and “getting smart” with other countries has been something he’s been dining out on since at least 1987, when he first floated his name in the political arena. The vibe is perfectly captured by one of Trump’s pre-campaign manifestoes:
What was just as true in the Reagan era as it is today is that conservatives have made room for critics of foreign trade in a way that they haven’t for critics of Wall Street “financialization” and supporters of labor unions. In the 1980s, it was Japanese auto manufacturers undercutting Detroit. Today, it’s China. To say that any of this is new is to pretend that the Pat Buchanan candidacies of the 1990s didn’t exist. Trump has surely expanded support for these views through the sheer force of his personality, in much the same way that Reagan expanded support for marginal tax rate cuts through the sheer force of his. But in neither case was the Republican grassroots uniquely motivated by questions of economic philosophy. The animating force behind the Trump phenomenon was immigration and cultural issues, which continue to rank about globalization and all other economic issues in the Compass survey. Trade protectionism, the most popular plank in the new conservative populist economic agenda, has mostly been along for the ride.
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Tough-guy populism is very different than “welfare state lite”
Trump reflects a tough-guy populist style that’s historically been a proven vote-winner whenever a candidate could adopt it convincingly. But the New Right vision of “pro-worker” GOP aspires to be more than just about protectionism, defending American manufacturing, and more effectively competing with China—the latter two of which are broadly popular, not just on the populist right. It’s also about breaking bread with private sector unions like the UAW, opposing Wall Street, or using the power of the state to promote family formation through the creation of a family benefit. It also means openness to tax increases on corporations and the rich, something some polls say many Republicans support, maybe as comeuppance for those corporations being excessively woke.
But these sorts of policies don’t attract anywhere near the support that the “get tough” policies do. Here’s the Republican base overwhelmingly opposing tax increases, with more opposition in the working and lower classes:
Here’s broad opposition to a family benefit:
Here’s the party expressing its traditional view of labor unions (though conservatives have long been keen to express support for labor union members against union bosses):
What’s more, the people who support a “get tough” anti-globalization agenda are an entirely different group of people than those who want the GOP to moderate further on other economic issues, so there’s not a cohesive bloc in favor of the entire “New Right” agenda. Take a look at the following breaks by ideology, starting with tariffs, where support is led by very conservative Republicans.
Where do these very conservatives stand on the other issues in the New Right issue bucket? On unions, it’s the opposite. Very conservative Republicans are more likely to say unions are a negative force:
The same goes for family policy. Moderate Republicans—who are the strongest constituency for free trade—support a more active government role in helping families raise kids.
Support for a New Right economic agenda doesn’t come from a cohesive base of people who consistently prefer populist economics. Rather, they are two entirely different groups: ultra-MAGA voters who think we’re being screwed over by other countries and moderates open to compromise with Democrats.
In fact, the ideological patterns of support in the GOP primary, where very conservative voters are the strongest supporters of Donald Trump. So it’s not surprising that they’re more likely to echo Trump’s rhetoric on trade and globalization. But on other issues, they’re more likely to default to a more conventionally conservative position because the other side of the argument sounds like something a Democrat would support.
It’s just negative partisanship all the way down
Issue polling can be tricky because respondents often haven’t thought about the issues before being asked in a survey. So they apply heuristics. And one heuristic they commonly apply is: Does this sound like something a Democrat or a Republican would say?
A “pro-worker” stance on trade and globalization no longer sounds like something a Democrat would say, thanks to Trump. People have associated free trade agreements with presidents in both parties, but Bill Clinton’s passage of NAFTA and Obama pushing for TPP allowed Trump to negatively polarize the issue against Democrats and also juxtapose himself with the “globalist” Republican establishment.
But on other issues, negative partisanship hasn’t taken root in the other direction. A new government benefit for families sounds like a Democratic idea. Support for unions sounds like that too. And so it’s no surprise that, again, the most conservative voters—the most pro-Trump—are also the most opposed to the “populist” or “New Right” position.
What then does it mean for the GOP to be a “party of the working class”? Senators like Josh Hawley and JD Vance are piloting various ideas along the lines of those proposed by American Compass, but mostly, this project has had limited success in rallying Republican voters beyond base-pleasing appeals against “globalists.” The data in this poll points to why it’s difficult to fuse these two parts of the New Right economic agenda together.
Much of the existing shift the GOP’s way has happened despite limited change to the party’s economic policy beyond trade. A lot of it is the style and affect of Donald Trump. And yes, a lot of it is standing up for the working class’ cultural concerns. All of the social issues will continue to be important in moving more of the nonwhite working class into the Republican camp—along with traditional Republican messaging on crime and high costs of the green transition. Regardless of which economic philosophy the working class might prefer—and I think voters are largely agnostic on questions of economic philosophy—Democrats are also struggling because working class voters think their performance on the economy and inflation has been poor.
Coming up, it was as automatic as the sun came up that Republicans would get painted as the “party of the rich,” and Democrats as the party of the working class, “the party of the people.” In fact, these were the most common attributes voters assigned to the parties in the American National Election Studies in all elections between 1952 and 2004. But new data reported last week shows Republicans have come a long way since 2016 in repairing their brand image problem on “cares about people like me,” where non-college voters are now more likely to say the Republican Party cares more and voters under $50,000 in income are almost as likely to say so. And they’ve done so with only tentative moves on economic policy—and very dramatic moves in their style of leader.
Party of the People — the book about the realignment of the working class into the Republican Party — is coming out November 7. Pre-order today.