Oren Cass, the executive director of the conservative think tank American Compass, is trying to reposition conservatives toward a more populist vision of economic policy, one with sectoral bargaining and an emphasis on quality of life. “The fusionist coalition that has characterized the Republican Party is one that was built to beat the Soviet Union,” he told me. “It is not one that has anything useful and coherent to say about the rise of China, about deindustrialization, about big tech, about worker power generally.” But what does that actually mean in real life, especially given the negative view even these populists hold of big labor in America today? And how would he actually persuade other Republicans to take up his viewpoint?
This interview has been edited for length and clarity and is part of an Opinion Q. and A. series exploring modern conservatism today, its influence in society and politics and how and why it differs (and doesn’t) from the conservative movement that most Americans thought they knew.
Coaston: Can you break down for me how you get more conservatives to embrace labor-backed populist economic policies when they don’t like the “labor” piece of it?
Cass: When we talk about a conservative embrace of labor, what we mean is an embrace of workers’ interests and an emphasis on enhancing worker power. The “labor” piece that conservatives don’t like is, generally speaking, the dysfunctional labor unions that characterize the American system of organized labor today and have become appendages of the Democratic Party rather than genuine representatives of workers’ economic interests. An obvious and concrete example of the distinction here is on the question of immigration policy. Strong immigration enforcement, reduction of immigration into low-wage segments of the labor market and the elimination of guest worker programs are pro-labor policies by any useful definition of the term and ones that conservatives should endorse and increasingly are endorsing. They are also policies that labor, as defined by progressive labor unions, tends to oppose.