Building a Coalition That Builds
The Republican Party has changed. It is now home to more working-class (non-college) voters than the Democrats. In 2022, Republicans carried the nationwide working-class House vote by 13 points. In 2020, Trump carried the nationwide working-class presidential vote by four points. Modeled estimates by the States of Change project indicate that Trump carried the working-class vote in 35 out of 50 states, including in critical swing states like Arizona, Georgia, Michigan, Nevada, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin.
A key task—perhaps the key task—for conservatives is figuring out how to deepen their burgeoning advantage among working-class voters. Naturally, that means being attentive to what the working class wants and needs. This entails engaging with concrete problems and actually improving lives. Campaign slogans, however effective in the short run, are no substitute for policies that deliver real benefits.
What should these policies be? Start with what they shouldn’t be. They should not reprise the traditional Republican playbook of cutting taxes and shrinking government on the theory that doing so will allow the free market to enrich everyone. That ship has sailed. Working-class voters do not have a knee-jerk hostility to government and government spending and do not believe that unleashing corporate capitalism, based on its track record, is likely to benefit them. They certainly do not believe that tax cuts skewed toward the wealthy and corporations, as in the one major legislative achievement of the Trump era—the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act of 2017—are going to do much to improve their lives or opportunities.
Conservatives must advocate a robust policy program for national economic renewal, not a tired rerun of Reagan-era policies. That most assuredly includes a role for government, albeit one that is consistent with conservative principles of individual responsibility and dynamic entrepreneurship and commitments to the social bedrock of family and community. After all, America has worked best when public policy and private initiative have collaborated in service of great national goals. That goes all the way back to the early 19th century American System of infrastructure investment and industry promotion initiated by Alexander Hamilton and includes the great surge of innovation, widely shared prosperity, and American global leadership after World War II.
One could imagine a world in which progressives were themselves attempting to claim the mantle of American investment and economic renewal. But that world is not this one. The recent Inflation Reduction Act (IRA), the $1.5 trillion cornerstone of the Biden administration’s economic agenda, provides a case in point. The largest category of spending was on climate—more than half a trillion dollars centered on promotion of renewables and related infrastructure, with only limited funding for nuclear, geothermal, carbon capture and sequestration (CCS), and cleaner fossil fuels. The imbalance of support between renewables and alternatives like nuclear and CCS undercut the potential efficacy of the spending but did correspond to the preferences of the educated elites that dominate the Democratic Party.
The bill could not have passed without West Virginia Senator Joe Manchin’s support, and the price for that support was a side deal with Manchin on permitting reform, which would have enabled completion of the natural gas Mountain Valley Pipeline in his home state. Permitting reform would have helped other energy projects move forward as well—not just oil and gas but also renewables. But progressive opposition blocked the reform.
That opposition was remarkable. As has been widely noted, for the IRA’s investments to achieve the administration’s goals, an absolutely massive build-out of infrastructure is necessary, especially interregional high voltage transmission lines. It is very hard to build such things fast in the United States, given permitting and regulatory obstacles. Even with the permitting reform bill, the pace at which this infrastructure could plausibly have been built was likely far below what would be needed to hit administration timetables. Without permitting reform, the pace has been truly glacial.
More broadly, the flood of federal spending—not only the IRA, but also the infrastructure package and the Chips & Science Act—was supposed to trigger an investment surge, resulting in boom conditions like the “morning in America” of Ronald Reagan’s first term. That has not happened, despite some positive trends like rising construction spending in the manufacturing sector.
As liberal economist Noah Smith has noted:
The U.S. is clearly not experiencing any kind of a revival in either private or government investment. The employment boom is due to increased consumption and exports, not to businesses or the government buying new capital. … [M]any of the investments [from the administration’s bills] won’t actually be made at all—or not within a reasonable time frame.
In addition to delay, there’s the issue of America’s ruinously high construction costs. Transit projects, including both roads and trains, cost much more in the U.S. than in other countries, and these costs have exploded in recent decades. Costs feed into delays, and delays feed into costs. This is just as true for the private sector; unsurprisingly, the TSMC [Taiwanese Semiconductor Manufacturing Company] factory that Biden is trumpeting in the U.S. is hitting major delays because navigating local rules is proving more expensive than expected. Of course, factories and roads and trains and power lines that never get built don’t actually boost labor demand, because the workers don’t get hired. … If Biden really wants to boost investment, both at the government and private level, he needs to tackle this basic problem, not just spend more money.
This is where conservatives should focus. Progressives like Smith, Ezra Klein, and Derek Thompson are trying to get their party to embrace what is sometimes called “supply-side progressivism.” But theirs is very much a minority view on the Left; the obstacles are steep given that the very reforms that are needed are fiercely opposed by a wide variety of interest groups for whom such reforms are anathema.
Conservatives have many problems of their own but making it a lot easier to build stuff should not be one of them. They are well-positioned to advocate for what their opponents cannot: sweeping away the obstacles preventing a new era of public-private cooperation to achieve great national goals and widespread prosperity.
That focus would consolidate and expand the advantage among working-class voters. Cultural issues are not enough; only a robust program for national economic renewal—not just advocated for but implemented—can do the trick.