As the pundits, campaigns, and lawyers continue to unpack this election, there are a few things we know for certain.
First, the pollsters and mainstream media in this country do not speak for the majority of America. Not even close. Second, identity politics is an elite fetish without resonance or meaning to most people in the country, including minorities. And third, the political realignment in this country is further along than anyone in DC was ready to acknowledge.
This last point is going to be particularly meaningful for the Republican party. Oren Cass has written a thoughtful piece touching on the broad elements of what this may look like as a policy emphasis.
And it really is worth noting, again, the extraordinary transformation taking place in the Republican party, one that has affirmatively decimated the Bush-Romney-McCain consensus of the past and is pushing the GOP decisively in a new direction.
There is a remarkable data visual of political contributions that makes this plain. Based on the source of contributions alone, the GOP is now the lunch-pail party of plumbers, truck drivers, homemakers, farmers, and machinists. The Democrats, by contrast, count their support among Silicon Valley, university academics, lawyers, software engineers, and consultants. It’s also of note that the majority of Wall Street money in the 2020 cycle went to Biden, not Trump, and in amounts that dwarfed prior giving.
This begins to make sense when you consider where Biden voters and Trump voters live. According to the AP VoteCast survey, nearly half of Trump voters hail from small towns or rural areas – areas largely abandoned by the economic policies of both parties. By contrast, the majority of Biden voters live in urban areas. Polling from Public Opinion Strategies suggests that “shy Trump voters” reflect larger support for Trump in the suburbs than originally thought.
Election outcomes appear to bear this out. Trump won four swing states – Florida, Iowa, Ohio, and Texas – by boosting turnout from small towns and rural areas. The states that have historically comprised a reliable “blue wall” for Democrats – Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, and Michigan – were barely reliable in 2020.
It’s worth noting that the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, as solid as any union-friendly, working class Democrat newspaper as you will find in this country, endorsed President Trump, largely along the lines of his economic policies. Trump was the first Republican the paper has endorsed since 1972.
But perhaps the sharpest example of how this new Republican coalition manifests is in Florida. Voters there sent the state to Donald Trump, but also overwhelmingly approved a $15 state-wide minimum wage. While it’s my opinion that a $15 minimum wage would cause more problems than it solves, it indicates that the concept of a “fiscally conservative, socially liberal” Republican was potentially more a coastal think tank creation than a widespread matter of fact.
Can the institutional GOP rise to the moment?
In his post, Oren touches on a point that I feel is worth expounding upon. As he points out, it’s not enough to merely acknowledge that the shape, nature, and priorities of the GOP base are changing, it requires a governing agenda and careful policy formation.
In other words, for the GOP to remain relevant to the people who will now elect them, they have to work for it. But I am not so sanguine as to say that the GOP is ready or willing to do it.
Many in the institutional GOP spent the last four years wishing away Donald Trump, half-heartedly supporting his agenda with strongly worded letters and limp press releases, but ultimately waiting for the moment they could regress back to Bush, Romney, and McCain-style corporatist neoconservatism. All of the incentives of greater Washington, in fact, will be pulling in that direction: K street interests, corporate funded think tanks, and a donor class who is generally more economically conservative than the GOP base.
And, a week after the election, it is already happening. Trump isn’t even out of the White House and neoconservative think tanks are banging on the drums of war, deficit-minded libertarians are crowing about returning to a party that largely cares about government spending, presumably to the exclusion of other policy issues. The David French wing of the party is unironically claiming that the entire agenda of “Trumpism” has been dealt a “stinging, crushing defeat.”
The pressure to revert back to a party of the Bush years is real, and it’s beginning. But the election results – even if they are not ultimately in Trump’s favor – reflect a changed GOP base.
If the GOP wants to remain relevant, it is going to have to respond to those issues that motivate its base: taking a real stand in the culture war which includes taking on woke corporate power, an emphasis on economic policies that help working families, a relentless prioritization of small business and middle class job creation over catering to big business and their demands for cheap foreign labor, a rejection of liberal internationalism, and far less military adventurism than the GOP has historically been keen to embrace.
Government spending is an important issue and should remain an area of focus for the GOP. But as a matter of emphasis, it can no longer solely define the party’s policy focus to the exclusion of other issues.
Like it or not, the 2020 election has confirmed that the GOP base is transforming from voters who were largely corporate class, toward voters who are working-class, non-college educated, economically conservative and moderate, as well as culturally conservative.
Donald Trump’s tenure created opportunities for the GOP to embrace a younger, more diverse, working class, and ultimately, more durable coalition than the ones before it. Whether or not the GOP seizes on this opportunity is what is at stake. The party has a choice: regress, or continue the work.