Working-Class Conservatism

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Like so many others who have been closely following current events, I can easily be caught up in the outrage over President Trump’s latest tweet or poorly thought-out policy proposal. Nevertheless, I do try to stay focused on issues that transcend any one personality, no matter how–um–large. Even if Donald Trump were to be impeached, the wave of popular anger that helped elect him would not entirely subside. The fact that so many of his supporters keep sticking by him, almost without regard to what he does, indicates that he has tapped into a strong current of public opinion that will continue to shape our politics. The country will have to come to grips with what Trump represents to people, even if his own presidency is a colossal failure.

In some of my earlier posts, such as “A Leap into the Dark” just after the election, I acknowledged Trump’s general appeal to conservative voters (using that term rather broadly), but questioned his authenticity as a champion of the working class. He did, in the end, get the support of most Republicans across the socioeconomic spectrum, and much of what he is trying to do has the support of the Republican establishment. Now however, having recently read Michael Lind’s article on “The New Class War,” I want to ask if there is a distinctly working-class brand of conservatism, even if Donald Trump represents it rather inconsistently. I want to explore how the interests of working-class Trump supporters and establishment Republicans may diverge on certain issues, even as they converge on others. An angrier and more outspoken working-class conservatism could be helping the G.O.P. win elections, but it could also prove to be a divisive force that could weaken the party and create opportunities for Democrats.

Convergent interests

Climate change is a good example of an issue where the interests of many blue-collar workers seem to converge with those of the Republican establishment. Even as the scientific consensus on climate change  grows stronger, and more and more Democrats support action to control carbon emissions, most Republican leaders support President Trump’s withdrawal from the Paris Accord and his renunciation of President Obama’s Clean Power Plan. In this respect, the Republican establishment most represents the interests of fossil-fuel industry executives and shareholders. Led by Americans for Prosperity, a group financed by the Koch brothers, the industry has poured millions of dollars into the effort to influence–perhaps I should say mislead–public opinion, support its political allies, and defeat its political opponents.

Almost by definition, the main concern of working-class conservatives is saving jobs in those established industries. For Republican leaders like Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, constituent pressures combine with fundraising incentives to motivate conservative environmental policy. Of course, those leaders almost always frame the issue as opposing “job-killing” regulation, not preserving corporate profits.

Continuing to do what one has always done, whether or not it makes sense to do it, is a simple conservative impulse that cuts across class lines. Conservative columnist Ross Douthat, who has voiced skepticism about climate change, now admits that “in actual right wing politics no serious assessment of the science and the risks is taking place….Instead there’s just a mix of business-class and blue-collar self-interest and a trollish, ‘If liberals are for it, we’re against it’ anti-intellectualism.”

Without sacrificing their environmental concerns, Democrats who wish to appeal to working-class voters need to emphasize the ways that government can promote job creation in clean-energy industries, as well as facilitate the retraining of displaced workers for new jobs. Just talking about the potential dire consequences of future climate change may not impress someone trying to make ends meet right now.

Divergent interests

Global trade and immigration are issues where working-class interests diverge in many ways from the traditional positions of the Republican establishment. In the recent past, Republicans have been the biggest advocates for free trade, consistent with the belief that unrestricted markets can best create wealth for all. They have been less united on immigration, but advocates of global free markets often welcome the flow of labor across borders to supply the labor needs of expanding industries. Cultural conservatives may worry about the threat to American culture from “alien” ideas or practices, worries enhanced by the threat of terrorism. Donald Trump’s proposals to build a wall between the U.S. and Mexico and ban travel from Muslim countries appeal especially to cultural conservatives.

If there is a distinctly working-class position on globalism, it is based again on concerns about jobs and incomes. The free flow of capital and labor across borders has enabled corporations to profit by seeking out cheaper labor, but a lot of that has come at the expense of  workers born in the United States. That is one reason why labor’s share of national income growth has been falling. (Another is replacement of human labor through automation.) This strengthens the anti-trade, anti-immigrant sentiment within the Republican Party. It is a kind of conservatism, but not the pro-capital kind that has dominated the party in the Reagan-Bush era.

The G.O.P. is unlikely to renounce its support for globalism anytime soon. Although the United States is now a debtor nation with an embarrassingly large trade deficit, trade is still a two-way street. American companies want foreign buyers and American consumers like inexpensive foreign goods. Powerful retailers like Walmart oppose new taxes on imports.

Some new policies might benefit American workers, but Democrats are at least as likely to propose them as Republicans. International trade agreements could include stronger protections for workers. Displaced workers could have more opportunities for education or retraining. American industries could compete globally on the basis of quality–more like the Germans do–rather than on cost-cutting.

Another area in which working-class interests diverge from Republican establishment interests is taxation and spending. Wealthy Republicans have the most to gain from tax cuts and the least to lose from cuts in social spending. Working-class people have less to gain from tax cuts, since they are taxed at a lower rate already, and more to lose from cuts in social programs on which they increasingly rely.

The current debate over repealing and replacing Obamacare has dramatized this difference. Establishment Republicans have long advocated repeal, while giving little thought to replacement. Their main aim was to eliminate the new taxes on the wealthy that financed the new insurance subsidies. Trump supporters apparently believed him when he promised better health insurance coverage at lower cost. Then he double-crossed them by endorsing a House Republican bill that accomplished no such thing.  Similarly, the President’s tax “reform” bill turns out to be mainly a huge tax cut for the rich. His budget proposal includes not only that tax cut, but extreme cuts in programs that benefit many of his own supporters.

Working-class attitudes toward social spending are a little complicated, however. The American Dream is having a good enough job so that you don’t have to rely on any government programs. You want to get good health benefits at work, so you don’t need to obtain insurance from a government exchange or an expansion of Medicaid. Working-class conservatism often takes the form of anger that so many Americans do rely on Medicaid, or food stamps, or housing subsidies. In many ways, a vote for the Republican Party is a vote for a mythical America in which everybody is successful and nobody needs such things. Just as a vote against a clean energy policy is a vote for a mythical planet where human activity has little impact on the weather.

That gives the Democratic Party the opportunity and the challenge of presenting itself as the party of the real America. That’s the America where rapid economic change creates the need for a stronger safety net, since working-class incomes have become less reliable. It’s the America where enhanced threats from foreign competition and automation force us to create new and better jobs by investing more in the talents of our own people.

In short, the Democratic Party does not have to become the party of some “liberal elite” consisting of upper-middle-class professionals. It does not have to cede working-class voters to the more conservative party, where their interests are often overshadowed by those of the wealthy. Donald Trump may have gotten a lot of their votes this time, but they are very much up for grabs if he and his party let them down.

The complexities of race and class

In many of the discussions about how the Democratic Party is losing the middle class, it’s the white working class that is the focus. That raises the question of whether the attitudes of working-class voters have a racial–or even racist–component that attracts those voters to the more conservative party. That’s true to a degree, but any such conclusion has to be carefully qualified.

Much has been written about how the Republican Party–the party of Lincoln and in many respects the liberal party of the nineteenth century–became the more conservative party on racial issues. To make a long story short, the Democratic Party outraged much of its base in the “Solid South” by aligning itself with the Civil Rights Movement from the 1940s on. Then the conservative movement that captured the Republican Party in the 1960s and 70s built its majority largely by relying on a “Southern strategy.”

As with the immigration issue, establishment Republicans often take a free-market position on race. That view treats racial discrimination as an anachronism that free-market competition and equal opportunity should eliminate. Rational employers have an interest in hiring the best person for the job, and workers can succeed if they do the right things, like work hard, stay in school, and avoid having children before getting married (without the help of Planned Parenthood, of course!). The G.O.P. is also home to some cultural conservatives who believe, deep in their hearts, in a predominantly white, Christian society. But most Republicans just tend to minimize the problem of racial discrimination and prefer to solve it more by individual changes of attitudes than by government mandates.

White working-class attitudes about race tend to be conservative for at least two reasons. First, less educated people tend to be less enlightened about race. They are less aware of how systematic and enduring racial discrimination has been in American history. They are more likely to attribute the present condition of Black Americans to defects of character like lack of will power. But in addition, they do not have the greater economic security that comes with solid job credentials. Whites who cannot claim high status on the basis of educational attainment or income may take pride in being white, just as lower-achieving men may take pride in being real men, whatever they think that is. Putting down non-whites or women is one way of bolstering one’s own status. People who feel that way, whether they consciously articulate it or not, are more likely to be drawn to the political party that is less associated with movements for racial or gender equality, and less supportive of government assistance to the “undeserving” poor.

That, however, is not an unmixed blessing for the Republican Party. Racial and gender attitudes have changed so much in this country that no major party wants to be known as the party of white or male supremacy. The party establishment has to walk a fine line, tolerating some unenlightened attitudes without fully embracing them. The Democrats, on the other hand, will remain–and should remain–the party identified with the struggle for equality. Their best hope for winning over working-class voters is to try to alleviate the causes of working-class status anxiety. Again, promote investments in education and job creation, so that working people of all races and ethnicities can get ahead without having to be afraid of one another.

Although I thought that Donald Trump was going to lose the election because of his own failings, I did not agree with Hillary Clinton’s campaign strategy of attacking him and his followers instead of focusing primarily on economic issues. I thought it was a big mistake to describe his followers as “deplorable” racists and other kinds of bigots. Racial attitudes are now too complex and subtle for such a large segment of the population to be characterized that way. Economic insecurity and class tensions are no doubt complicated by the country’s unfortunate racial history. But I think that the best course for the more liberal party is to address the economic concerns that working families of all races have in common. Reject outright bigotry where it does exist, for sure, but do your best to convince people that a flourishing society has no need for it.

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