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A Multi-Ethnic, Working-Class Conservatism

| Nov 05, 2020 | Politics

The wags are having their fun with an election result that hinges upon whether Joe Biden garners sufficient support from white voters to negate an apparent surge toward Donald Trump among minority groups. The president owes much of his margin in Florida to strong gains in Miami’s Cuban-American community, while in Texas he won largely-Hispanic Zapata County along the Mexican border, which Hillary Clinton won by more than 30 points four years ago. Not everyone is amused.

Writing today in the New York Times, columnist Charles Blow declares himself “stunned” by the “personally devastating” news that exit polls (all disclaimers apply) show minority groups continuing their rightward trend of recent years.  In what must surely be among the most noxious claims printed in recent years by the New York Times, he concludes that, “All of this to me points to the power of the white patriarchy and the coattail it has of those who depend on it or aspire to it. … Some people who have historically been oppressed will stand with the oppressors, and will aspire to power by proximity.”

Blow’s gross accusation follows “analyses” from several other writers blinded by staring incessantly through the same racial lens. Nikole Hannah-Jones of 1619-Project fame solves her conundrum by deciding that some minorities who support President Trump actually are white while The Root’s Michael Harriot explains that such support is how they become white. Washington Post reporter Eugene Scott says they “support white supremacy” and his colleague Karen Attiah describes them as “going along to get along” with white supremacists as a “survival strategy.” A befuddled Paul Krugman, perhaps looking backward through his binoculars, declares that he has “no idea what the true lessons are.”

Turn the binoculars around, and it is easy to see a realignment of working-class voters, regardless of race, toward the party that expresses an interest in their economic concerns. The Democratic Party has become the party of college-educated professionals, focused on forgiving student debt and a “transition” from uncouth industries, ensuring the unfettered flow of unskilled immigrant workers, and framing education policy around the interests of teachers rather than students. Yes, they will raise taxes, but they will fight tooth-and-nail for the “SALT” deduction that gives a discount to owners of expensive homes in high-tax states. They will expand government programs, but their idea of “pro-family” policy is free childcare so both parents can work full-time. What they’d really like to talk to you about, if you have a minute, is climate change and racial justice.

The Republican Party has problems too. Certainly, it has its own struggles with questions of race. The tax-cut and free-trade playbook that has dominated right-of-center economic policy for the past 40 years is ill-suited to contemporary challenges and the party’s faith in a “supply-side” strategy, whereby the pursuit of profit by business owners and investors leads automatically to widespread prosperity for workers, has proven misplaced. The only major legislative achievement of 2017–18, when the GOP held both chambers of Congress and the White House, was, yes, another tax cut.

Still, Donald Trump has clearly changed the equation. While he has offered little in the way of substantive policy, and governed mostly as a conventional supply-side Republican, there is a way in which, as the Roosevelt Institute’s Mike Konczal observed in a 2016 essay, “Trump is Actually Full of Policy.” In politics, policy is as much a matter of defining problems as offering concrete solutions; voters want to know who is focused on the issues in their lives. And there, Trump has spoken to workers in a way that other candidates in either party have not.

On the campaign trail, Trump emphasized people’s jobs, the importance of industries like manufacturing and professions like the trades, and the value people placed on their own places—the towns where they lived, and their roles as productive contributors to their communities. The problem was not a tax rate that discouraged investors from creating jobs, it was that investors preferred creating jobs in China. His “plan” was not to get everyone a college degree, or retrain them in some exciting new field, or help them move somewhere with greater opportunity, it was to make those things unnecessary. He was interested in “law and order,” not “critical race theory”; in “clean air and water,” not solving “global climate change”; in advancing American interests through foreign and immigration policy, not abstractly “reflecting our values”; in rising wages that allow you to support your family, not government programs that support your family because you cannot. Many people of all races feel the same way.

Translating such concerns into a durable coalition and a governing agenda takes time, and an attention that Trump has not given it. Existing institutions like think tanks and publications must change their own approaches, or else new ones must develop. Political leaders and young staffers alike must decide whether the approach is for them. The actual work of policy development and implementation must occur.

In all these areas, green shoots are emerging on the right-of-center. The quarterly journal American Affairs has been publishing in-depth critiques of economic orthodoxy, and innovative alternatives, for several years. Here at American Compass, we’ve been elaborating on the nation’s tradition of robust economic policy, strategies for reshoring manufacturing, and a conservative future for the labor movement; we host a burgeoning membership group of policy staffers and writers building their own careers in this direction. Senators Marco Rubio, Josh Hawley, and Tom Cotton have all distinguished themselves with thoughtful speeches, essays, and legislation, while administration officials like Robert Lighthizer, the U.S. Trade Representative, have changed the trajectory of American policy.

The idea of conservatives as the vindicator of workers’ interests may sound strange, but only because we have forgotten what conservatism means. The market fundamentalism that we call “conservative,” celebrating growth and markets without concern for their effects on family and community, and trusting that the invisible hand will invariably advance the interests of the nation, is libertarian. Conservatives are moving beyond it. And experience now suggests that, as they do, a broad-based, multi-ethnic coalition of working families could be eager to join them.

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Oren Cass

Oren Cass is the executive director at American Compass.

@oren_cass

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