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Is There a Case for Principled Populism From the GOP?

| Dec 18, 2020

“Populism” is a term that since the modern era has been generally trotted out to mean a political attitude that reflects widespread anger and resentment against powerful elites, while among stenographers for the power class, populism has been reflexively trotted out to warn against the passions and wants of the mob. Who is using that word and projecting it onto the endless array of evolving political constituencies tells us a lot about the political moment we are in. 

Since the financial crises of the post-Reconstruction era, it was a term embraced by reformers and democratically minded movements to argue for universal social programs and public-interest regulation at the federal and state level. In the early part of this century, we saw populism used to describe the nationalist counter-politics that emerged in response to the European integration process, from Italy to Hungary to Poland.

In the past 10 years we have seen a new entrant make use of populism to further its political mission. A cohort of leading conservatives in the US have increasingly adopted the term as part of a wider sales pitch to seize on the steady deterioration of the working class bloc that underwrote Democratic party power and politics from FDR to the end of the Clinton years. 

There was a good amount of ascendancy of the term in the Trump years: blue collar/Red State Trump voters were often labeled populists, as was his message and political aesthetics to recruit them. But in practise, there was little achievement: Trump’s greatest signature legislation was a tax law that massively enriched the elites and further filled up the swamp he had promised to drain. And the much vaunted “get tough” on China trade policy achieved very little in terms of inducing additional redomiciling of American manufacturing, or indeed, reducing Washington’s chronic trade deficit with Beijing. 

Consequently, ascribing a principled populist credo to Trump—aka “Trumpism without Trump”—is a slogan too far. It sounds catchy, but it’s problematic for a number of reasons, not the least because the president’s own incompetence and inconsistent policy positions on a host of issues make a mockery of the idea that “Trumpism” in any way has constituted a coherent governing philosophy. While rhetorically attacking globalization, free trade, and international financiers, in actual policy terms  Trump did little to genuinely advance the interests of workers, let alone cement them as a featured part of a broad new governing coalition of the Republican Party. The present-day reality is that the real political force of gravity isn’t so much rooted in blue collars as it is a matter of rural-urban experience, and proximity to economic precarity, both of which reflect the gradual abandonment and betrayal of the Democratic party’s voters .

Certainly the circumstances are ripe for a major voting bloc shift: the Democratic Party is a prisoner of the finance and tech industry, and showed little sign of shifting its focus during the presidential primaries in 2020. Furthermore, the victory of Joe Biden (along with the vast majority of his Cabinet appointments) indicates that a return to an Obama-style restoration is more likely than an emerging populist movement that will address longstanding grievances from ordinary middle- and working-class Americans.

Can such a movement credibly emerge from the other side of the political aisle? In the wake of Trump’s November defeat, it is striking to note the rise in attacks against conservative politicians (and their supporters in various think tanks), such as Josh Hawley, Marco Rubio, or Tom Cotton, who are all in their own way testing out messages and policies to shore up the blue-collar precariat.  Hawley has initiated legislation from the Senate to secure future U.S. medical products supply chains in the wake of this year’s coronavirus. More recently, he has worked with Senator Bernie Sanders in insisting that the next coronavirus stimulus package include relief checks for lower income households whose livelihoods have been devastated by the pandemic, and advocating a presidential veto should they not be included. During the summer Rubio too co-sponsored legislation calling for $1,000 stimulus checks to be sent to all Americans, regardless of their age or dependent status (the absence of means-testing marking a significant break with traditional Republican Party orthodoxy). Lastly, Cotton has been a driving force behind legislation to support further semiconductor manufacturing in the U.S. 

While noting that “[t]he Republican Party is genuinely more ideologically unsettled today than at any time since Reagan’s election,” and conceding that figures such as Hawley have recently made common cause on a host of issues with leading progressives such as Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, commentator Eric Levitz nonetheless argues that this group’s embrace of economic heterogeneity will invariably be constrained by powerful corporate interests within the GOP. 

Donor class pressures are often cited as reasons to doubt the GOP’s capacity to evolve in this direction. But this ignores the fact that equally strong donor class considerations exist in the Democratic Party. As Michael Lind has observed, both Republican and Democratic Administrations have largely catered to the interests “not of domestic manufacturers and parts suppliers but of Wall Street (seeking to liberalize foreign financial systems), Silicon Valley and Hollywood and pharma (seeking more intellectual-property protection through trade treaties), and U.S. agribusiness, which by its nature cannot be outsourced and which can flourish even in a deindustrialized, weak U.S.”

In that regard, the structural vulnerabilities exposed via the Covid-19 pandemic should inspire American policymakers to fix these shortcomings, notably by supporting necessary industrial renewal in the United States, as well as assuring that the country’s national security interests are well safeguarded. That means minimizing reliance on foreign nations for procurement capacity for key materials, and more broadly addressing the issue of gaps in global supply chains and America’s corresponding dependence on them. “Blue collar conservatives,” to use a familiar but increasingly obsolete term, or “exurban and rural precariat” to use a more contemporary and accurate one, could be well served by a strategic shift in this direction.  

The economic nationalism of the populist right seems curiously retrograde in a world of ever-expanding global interconnectedness, where it has become an axiomatic belief that a more open and interconnected world will be a better world. But the downsides of such interconnectedness have been conveniently ignored by globalization’s leading advocates, especially among Democrats who purport to represent America’s common men and women, but who instead have become complicit in tolerating the evisceration of the country’s manufacturing core via incessant outsourcing to China and other parts of the world. Many dismiss advocates of a revived American industrial renaissance as impractical nostalgists who are unrealistically embracing an unsustainable autarky, all the while ignoring the lost economic competitiveness and skilled job losses that have occurred as a result of existing policies.

Melding a national reindustrialization policy to national security considerations is precisely the kind of policy marriage that makes it easier to keep a party’s oligarchs in line. It addresses a key point of contention among those who contend that precariat-oriented Republicans remain constrained by their party’s historic corporate interests, such as the libertarian Koch family and others whose funding priorities have historically been hostile to unionization, minimum wages, increased voting rights, and which favor the privatization of popular entitlement programs such as Social Security. That is all true, but it is worth recalling that a number of Republicans are geopolitical hawks first and market libertarians a distant second. Figures such as Hawley and Rubio (along with think tanks within the anti-Establishment Right) increasingly see that it is nonsensical to make war on American wage-earners while claiming to protect the same wage-earners from Chinese competition, especially as Beijing becomes the locus of an emerging Cold War 2.0. Geopolitical competition, and even war, has historically encouraged national mobilization, consistent with broader public patriotism. 

As counterintuitive as it may seem, a lack of geopolitical rivalry makes it hard to sustain a populism characterized by anti-elitism, because in such circumstances the rich can become antisocial monsters with no fear of punishment for putting profit considerations ahead of national security. By contrast, national developmentalism coheres with national security objectives, as Alexander Hamilton, the first U.S. secretary of the Treasury, argued in his Report on Manufactures, when he advocated a comprehensive strategy to make the U.S. “independent on foreign nations for military and other essential supplies.” Rather than sacrificing American workers’ livelihoods to the altar of globalization, national developmentalism could and should be combined with some sort of German-style co-determination or sectoral bargaining with workers, levelling up regions that have largely missed out on the fruits of globalization over the past half century. Workers’ rights-averse GOP donors might not flinch once they see the long-term potential and stability that stems from these arrangements. 

All the talk about Republican support for billionaires conveniently ignores the dominance of Silicon Valley oligarchs within the Democratic Party. How seriously can the latter, under a feckless neoliberal like Joe Biden, be willing to return to a time-tested and successful Hamiltonian industrial strategy of using whatever means are necessary—tariffs, subsidies, local content procurement, tax breaks, even overseas development loans to countries that purchase U.S. manufactured exports—to ensure that strategic industries necessary to U.S. military power are introduced to America or remain here? As for companies that are chartered in Ireland, hide their taxes via subsidiaries in Panama, and have 90 percent of their labor abroad, they should be banned from government contracts and treated as foreign entities, which in reality they are. If that means excluding Apple, so be it. That’s certainly going to create screams in Cupertino, but that should hardly be a concern of those wishing to promote a broad-based prosperity that includes the millions who have hitherto been left behind. Given that we’ve spent trillions over the past two decades supporting capital markets and bailing out banks, another few trillion dollars to support American technological leadership hardly seems like an extravagant ask or a political ask too far.

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Marshall Auerback

Marshall Auerback is a researcher at Bard College's Levy Economics Institute, a fellow of Economists for Peace and Security, and a writer for the Independent Media Institute.

@Mauerback

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