Democracy in Chains (part 3)

July 13, 2017

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Here we turn to some efforts to implement the libertarian views discussed in the last post. Their goal is primarily to protect and expand the freedom of the private sphere by placing limits on collective action in the public sphere. MacLean sees them as potential dangers to democratic governance.

The Chilean connection

The undemocratic potential of this program is best seen in James Buchanan’s support for the Pinochet regime in Chile. In 1973 General Augusto Pinochet overthrew the democratically-elected government of Salvador Allende. Buchanan, along with some other Chicago-trained economists like Milton Friedman, became an advisor to the Pinochet regime. What he had in mind went far beyond narrow economic goals like fighting inflation. He saw an opportunity to enact the kind of broad reforms he wanted for the United States, along the lines of “privatization, deregulation, and the state-induced fragmentation of group power.”

The Pinochet regime banned industry-wide labor unions. It privatized the social insurance system, essentially replacing company contributions and government-guaranteed benefits with the expectation that workers save for their own retirement. It created a school voucher system for primary and secondary education.

The Pinochet plan for higher education sounds exactly like what Buchanan recommended in Academia in Anarchy:

As the nation’s premier public universities were forced to become “self-financing,” and for-profit corporations were freed to launch competitors with little government supervision, the humanities and liberal arts were edged out in favor of utilitarian fields that produced less questioning. Universities with politically troublesome students stood to lose their remaining funding.

Buchanan also advised the regime on how to rewrite the constitution to limit the power of the majority to undo the changes. For example:

A cunning new electoral system, not in use anywhere else in the world and clearly the fruit of Buchanan’s counsel, would permanently overrepresent the right-wing minority party to ensure “a system frozen by elite interests.”…It also barred advocating “class conflict” or “attack[ing] the family.”

The economy did grow rapidly, at least for a time, but economic inequality and poverty got worse. “A nation that once stood out as a middle-class beacon in Latin America now has the worst economic inequality it has seen since the 1930s.” While voices on the right continue to hail Chile as an economic success story, MacLean and other critics see Pinochet’s main accomplishment as greater wealth and freedom for the few at the expense of the many. After being voted out of office, he would go on to be indicted on many counts of human rights abuses (thousands were tortured or killed), embezzlement and tax evasion. (He died before he could be convicted, however.)

As for the new retirement system, it:

proved so disastrous that after the dictatorship ended, a nearly universal consensus emerged on bringing back key elements of social insurance. The system of individual accounts proved a huge boon to the financial corporations that received the automatic deductions from workers’ paychecks. The companies exploited that access mercilessly, achieving an average annual profit rate of more than 50 percent over a five-year period, thanks, not least, to their taking between a quarter and a third of workers’ contributions as fees.

MacLean links these failures directly to the bias in Buchanan’s philosophy. The problem was that “he valued economic liberty so much more than political freedom that he simply did not care about the invitation to abuse inherent in giving nearly unchecked power to an alliance of capital and the armed forces.” To this day, many conservatives regard Chile as a model of freedom for other countries to emulate.

I cannot resist adding that we now have a U.S. president who also professes great admiration for an authoritarian foreign leader associated with a wealthy oligarchy. How few of today’s Republicans have a problem with that is troubling.

Organizing at home

The web of connections that has developed between the Virginia School of Political Economy and a host of far-right organizations is very elaborate, and I can only hit some of the highlights here.

During the 1970s, Buchanan and his close associates began building relationships with conservative politicians, especially then California Governor Ronald Reagan. They worked with Ed Meese, Reagan’s chief of staff and later U.S. Attorney General, to start the Institute for Contemporary Studies to connect academics, politicians and businessmen. The ICS in turn worked closely with Henry G. Manne’s Law and Economics Center at the University of Miami, which conducted summer workshops to train legal experts from all over the country in libertarian legal thought. Private foundation money was available to fund academic positions for right-thinking scholars. Some law schools, the University of Virginia being one of the first, became “bastions of Manne’s approach to the law.”

One of the financial contributors to this effort was Charles Koch. He had inherited a successful business at the age of 32 and grown it into America’s second-largest privately held company. Like his father, who was a cofounder of the John Birch Society, Charles Koch held views far to the right of other conservatives of his time. He regarded thinkers like Milton Friedman and Alan Greenspan as sellouts because they wanted, in his words, “to make government work more efficiently when the true libertarian should be tearing it out at the root.”

Koch set up his own Charles Koch Foundation in 1974, from which came the Cato Institute in 1976. According to MacLean, the arguments put forth by this libertarian think tank followed closely those of James Buchanan and his associates.

Buchanan at George Mason

In 1981, Buchanan moved to George Mason University, where his presence attracted millions of dollars in funding. He created the new Center for the Study of Public Choice, helping the university gain a reputation as “the Pentagon of conservative academia,” in the words of one Wall Street Journal writer. George Mason was in Fairfax County, Virginia, in convenient proximity to Washington, where Ronald Reagan was sworn in as President the same year.

Libertarians had high hopes that the Reagan administration would dismantle the “collective order,” but they were largely disappointed. Reagan did cut taxes and roll back some government regulations, but he did not seriously take on the many constituencies that relied on public programs. Without politically impossible cuts in domestic spending, Reagan’s tax cuts and higher military spending dramatically increased the federal deficit.  Many libertarians concluded that if they wanted to put an end to popular programs like Social Security, they would have to proceed cautiously and quietly, without publicizing their real objectives. They could, for example, undermine support for Social Security by questioning its long-term financial stability and by setting one group against another: tell the young that they are paying in more than they will ever get out, and tell higher earners that their taxes will have to be raised to support lower earners.

In 1985, George Mason University acquired a law school and brought in Henry Manne to serve as its dean. It soon became known for its advocacy of unregulated corporate capitalism and its criticism of environmental and consumer regulations in particular. By 1990, over 40% of federal judges had received Manne’s summer training in how to apply free-market principles to legal decisions.

In 1997, Charles Koch pledged $10 million to support a new James Buchanan Center for Political Economy, formed by merging the Center for the Study of Public Choice with another conservative center, the Center for the Study of Market Processes. The governing board of the new center was co-chaired by Koch and Buchanan. In later years, even Buchanan became concerned about how much partisan political activity the center was engaging in–technically it could lose its status as a non-profit charity if it went too far in that direction–but his complaints to the university administration were to no avail. He eventually lost control of the center that bore his name and retired.

As I write this, the New York Times is reporting that the Senate is considering the nomination of Neomi Rao to head the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs, “placing her at the heart of President Trump’s politically contentious agenda to overhaul government rules and regulations.” Rao is currently a law professor at George Mason, which recently received another $10 million from the Charles Koch Foundation, one condition being that the university name the law school after Antonin Scalia, which it did. The article mentions that foundations affiliated with Koch have donated at least $50 million to George Mason in the past decade. Many faculty and students are troubled that a rich donor with a political agenda can so strongly shape the curriculum of a public university. Advocates of free markets ought to ask themselves if they want a university to be a free market in ideas, with each set of ideas evaluated on its merits, or whether they want certain ideas to prevail over others because they are better funded. That is just one aspect of the larger question of whether we want an open, democratic society or an oligarchy where might makes right.

The ascendancy of the far right

MacLean ends her book with a number of examples of how radical-right operatives backed by big money are making their mark on American government. All of the organizations mentioned below have been well funded with Koch donations.

The State Policy Network is a collection of state-level think tanks, of which Michigan’s Mackinac Center for Public Policy is the largest. It was the Mackinac Center that pushed for legislation allowing the governor to appoint emergency managers for financial troubled cities like Detroit, Benton Harbor and Flint. “The powers of these unelected managers to impose austerity measures would be vast, including the authority to unilaterally abrogate collective bargaining agreements, outsource services, sell off local resources to private companies, and change suppliers at will.” Flint’s emergency manager made the decision to save money by switching the city’s water supply to a source that was not protected from lead contamination.

The State Policy Network has also pushed for spending cuts for public education. One example is MacLean’s own state and mine. “North Carolina, which during the twentieth century, through wise investments in public education, had climbed from the poorest of southern states to one of the best-off, now ranks beneath Mississippi in per-pupil spending.”

The Cato Institute and other libertarian think tanks carried out a “misinformation campaign” to deny the scientific consensus on climate change, while the Club for Growth funded primary challenges against any Republican who failed to go along. “By 2014, only 8 of 278 Republicans in Congress were willing to acknowledge that man-made climate change is real.”

The American Legislative Exchange Council writes model laws for adoption by the states. Between 2010 and 2012, legislators backed by ALEC introduced over 180 bills putting new restrictions on voting. Republican legislators have also been passing “preemption laws” that stop cities from passing laws that businesses don’t like, such as measures to provide broadband internet access, raise the minimum wage, combat gay or transgender discrimination, or restrict fracking.

The Reason Foundation promotes the privatization of prisons, with funding from both Charles Koch and the Corrections Corporation of America. The CCA stands to profit from the construction of new private prisons and from tough sentencing laws to keep them full.

In The Limits of Liberty, James Buchanan expressed his dismay that public employees like teachers or social workers could benefit from promoting the programs from which they derived their income. Libertarians seem much less bothered by such feedback loops when they involve private enterprises. Once they are unmasked by public choice analysis, public institutions are exposed as sinister schemes for personal gain at public expense. But privatized institutions like for-profit prisons, or for-profit colleges receiving most of their revenue from student loans are okay, even if they are explicitly set up for private gain at public expense. Somehow their freedom to promote their own interest with money is more legitimate than the freedom of a public employee union to promote public services by organizing to influence public opinon. What’s “public” is really just for private good, but what’s “private” is really for the public good. This convoluted reasoning explains why someone like Education Secretary Betsy DeVos can be both unsupportive of public education and complacent about students being ripped off by private, for-profit colleges. She is currently being sued for failing to implement regulations to protect such students.

How fair a description?

In calling attention to the ascendancy of radical views within today’s Republican Party, MacLean does not make subtle distinctions among diverse perspectives. Not everyone in the academic centers or think tanks she mentions thinks the same. There is always the danger of coloring too many people with the same brush and exaggerating the extent of a far-right conspiracy. For example, MacLean has been accused of making Tyler Cowen, “the man who succeeded Buchanan and now directs the cause’s base camp at George Mason, the Mercatus Center,” sound more extreme than he is, by taking quotations from his work out of context.

Nevertheless, I think that the book gives us fair warning about a dangerous combination of great wealth and radical political thought. I agree with MacLean that this combination has moved the Republican Party farther to the right than at any time since the early 1900s. I believe that under conditions of great inequality, one group or institution’s excessive liberty can come at the expense of another’s liberation. And excessive hostility toward government can easily become hostility to the democratic majority who depend on government to protect their fundamental human rights and expand their opportunities.

In the end, MacLean convinces me of her central point. The same core ideas that supported oligarchy in the ante-bellum South and in 1950s Virginia can do so in the nation as a whole:

The United States is now at one of those historic forks in the road whose outcome will prove as fateful as those of the 1860s, the 1930s, and the 1960s. To value liberty for the wealthy minority above all else and enshrine it in the nation’s governing rules, as Calhoun and Buchanan both called for and the Koch network is achieving, play by play, is to consent to an oligarchy in all but the outer husk of representative form.



Democracy in Chains (part 2)

July 12, 2017

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Nancy MacLean argues that James M. Buchanan’s theory of political economy has provided the primary intellectual foundation for a right-wing movement that now threatens American democracy. I’ll describe that foundation here, and then in the next post go on to discuss how big donors liked Charles Koch helped translate it into political action.

The myth of the public good

In 1962, Buchanan published The Calculus of Consent: Logical Foundations of Constitutional Democracy, with co-author Gordon Tullock.

Buchanan refused to take at face value concepts like the “public good” or the “general welfare.” He wanted to know how government decisions are actually made. Who makes them? Who influences the decision-makers? Who wins; who loses? How do public decisions affect people with different economic interests? Do they really advance the cause of freedom?

These are all legitimate questions, and Buchanan’s work on “public choice” theory would eventually earn him the Nobel Prize in Economic Sciences in 1986. However, underlying his theoretical interests was a strong ideological hostility to the public sector and a deep-seated conviction that government was becoming an increasing threat to the free-market economy.

Buchanan noticed that popular support for increased government spending remained high not only in bad times, when a stronger economic case could be made for it, but in good times as well. As MacLean summarizes his concern, “simple majority voting thus ‘tend[ed] to result in overinvestment in the public sector….There are no effective limits’ in the current rules to the resources that might be steered to public coffers, even when those monies would be ‘more productive if left in the private sector of the economy.'”

Buchanan believed that the political system failed to place adequate constitutional limits on the majority’s ability to claim more and more benefits for themselves at the expense of economic liberty and economic growth. He looked back with some appreciation to the “Lochner era” of constitutional law, the forty-year period from 1897 to 1937. Then the Supreme Court had interpreted the Constitution as precluding the federal government from doing things like regulating wages and work hours.

The coercive state

In 1975, Buchanan published The Limits of Liberty: Between Anarchy and Leviathan. The main premise was reasonable enough, that human liberty depended on finding some middle ground between completely unbridled self-interest and government-imposed order. Without any government rules and protections, people could just take what they wanted instead of earning it by their labor. Too much government, and people wouldn’t be free to achieve and to enjoy the fruits of their success.

A strong anti-government bias may have prevented Buchanan from reaching a happy medium. He was most intent on limiting the power of government, since he viewed state power as inherently coercive. The economy, on the other hand, was the realm of voluntary exchange, which for the sake of liberty needed to be left alone as much as possible.

I think MacLean puts her finger on the essential problem with this reasoning when she says that “libertarians steadfastly refused to acknowledge wealth as a form of power.” As a sociologist, I would argue that power exists in some form in every social institution. It can take the form of legitimate authority if it is used on behalf of others, as when parents exert power for the good of their children; but it can take the form of domination if it is used against others. Often it is both: authority over an in-group for the purpose of more effectively dominating an out-group, as in wartime.

From that perspective, to regard public power as inherently coercive while regarding private economic power as benign is arbitrary and one-sided. Concentrating political power through voting can lead to domination, but so can concentrating economic power through corporate organization. If a business pollutes the air or water, doesn’t that force people to breathe dirty air or drink dirty water? If it discriminates against a class of workers, doesn’t that force those workers into a restricted labor market with fewer economic opportunities. If it pays subsistence wages, doesn’t that force families to go without health insurance? The economically powerful have always wanted to claim that what is good for them is good for all. By treating the power of the slave-owner as benign (since it was blessed by Providence), Calhoun could conclude that “slavery is…favorable to personal and national liberty.” Libertarians like Buchanan want to treat the power of corporations as benign (since it is blessed by the free market), and thus conclude that corporate power is favorable to personal and national liberty, no matter how concentrated and unregulated that power may be. Nowadays some multinational corporations command more resources than some national governments, but in Buchanan’s view only government is the Leviathan to be feared.

Buchanan singled out the Great Depression as the turning point when government began to infringe on liberty by over-managing the economy and allocating too much of the wealth. While many economists praise the post-New Deal era as a “golden age” when the middle-class expanded and equality increased, Buchanan praises the pre-Depression period of greater inequality as the peak of economic liberty. MacLean notes that Buchanan ignores the possibility that the extreme inequality and lack of economic regulation of those pre-Depression years might have had something to do with the severity of the Depression itself.

The threat of majority rule

One of the worst crimes of the coercive state, in Buchanan’s view, is taxing the wealthy at a higher rate than the middle class or the poor. As far as he was concerned, that is just the majority using its collective power to take something from a wealthy person who prefers not to pay for whatever the state wants to spend money on. He could see no difference between that and “the thug who takes his wallet in Central Park.”

I would say that this argument too is reminiscent of Calhoun in its portrayal of the wealthy as the real victims of social conflict. Their power is a benign expression of freedom, but the state’s attempt to curb that power in order to enhance some larger group’s freedom is coercive and unjust.

Buchanan also wrote an essay called “The Samaritan’s Dilemma,” in which he questioned any transfer from the haves to the have-nots, even for charitable purposes. The danger was that the recipients would take advantage of the givers’ good intentions by doing less for themselves than they otherwise would. “By this logic, what seemed to be the ethical thing to do–help someone in need–was not, after all, the correct thing to do, because the assistance would encourage the recipient to ‘exploit’ the giver rather than to solve his own problems.”

We have probably all heard some conservatives attributing this country’s high rate of poverty to overly generous welfare programs that encourage “welfare dependency.” If that were true, we would expect countries that provide more public assistance than we do to have even more persistent poverty. Instead, they usually have greater equality and less poverty. In my recent discussion of Viking Economics, I discussed how Nordic countries make benefits such as health insurance universal, and thus avoid giving people incentives to remain poor or unemployed. They achieve better results than we do with more generous government, not less.

Buchanan worried that the American political order had already moved so far in the direction of majority power that the changes were irreversible. Why would the majority now give up all the benefits they have voted for themselves? “How can the rich man (or the libertarian philosopher) expect the poor man to accept any new constitutional order that severely restricts the scope for fiscal transfers among groups?” he asked. He concluded his book on a pessimistic note: “Despotism may be the only organizational alternative to the political structure that we observe.” So the critic of government coercion ends up hinting that coercion may be the only way to save the democratic state from itself.

By 1975, when Buchanan published that, he was already working with Charles Koch and other wealthy donors for political changes that would curb the power of the democratic state. They would soon be achieving at least some of the results they craved.



Democracy in Chains

July 11, 2017

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Nancy MacLean. Democracy in Chains: The Deep History of the Radical Right’s Stealth Plan for America. New York: Penguin Random House, 2017

Nancy MacLean is Professor of History and Public Policy at Duke University. She describes her book as “the true origin story of today’s well-heeled right.” It is the story of how a particular political philosophy joined with a particular source of funding to propel the right-wing movement that has come to dominate the Republican Party.

The political philosophy in this story is the Virginia School of Political Economy, whose founder was James McGill Buchanan. The source of funding was Charles Koch and other conservative millionaires with a rather hostile attitude toward the federal government.

MacLean’s principal source of information is the archive of James Buchanan’s papers at George Mason University. What she found there enabled her to trace the connections between the centers of study Buchanan established at the University of Virginia and later at George Mason, and the think tanks and foundations financed by the Koch brothers and other wealthy donors (such as the Cato Institute, Heritage Foundation, Americans for Prosperity, Club for Growth and State Policy Network). What began as a academic program to advance libertarian ideas expanded into a massive national project to train political operatives and legal experts to transform American government.

MacLean sees something rather sinister about this nexus of ideas, money and political action. The movement’s criticism of government goes beyond critiquing particular policies to question the very foundations of democracy, especially majority rule. It places a higher value on capitalism than democracy and is more receptive to rule by the wealthy few than rule by the majority. (Its advocates might contest that oligarchic characterization and argue that they only want a constitutional democracy with protections against the tyranny of the majority.) Another troubling element is the movement’s reliance on stealth to achieve its objectives. Since many of its proposals–such as Social Security and Medicare privatization–lack majority support, its operatives have to gain power without being entirely candid about their true agenda.

Racial origins

MacLean says that “attacks on federal power pitched to nonelites have almost always tapped white racial anxiety, whether overtly or with coded language.” The underlying message is that the government is coming to take what is yours and give it to those people. Hopefully such appeals play a smaller role in right-wing thought and action than they used to. Nevertheless, the movement MacLean is describing has inherited some of its core ideas from southern defenders of slavery and segregation, notably John C. Calhoun.

Calhoun spoke for the wealthiest men in the wealthiest state (South Carolina) at a time when the South’s prosperity built on slave labor made it the wealthiest region in the nation. Slaves were property, he believed, and the acquisition and free use of property was a matter of liberty and unalienable right. (The liberty of the slave was not an issue, since slavery was “ordained by Providence, honored by time, sanctioned by the Gospel….”) The government’s proper role was to protect property rights, not abrogate them. In addition, state’s rights took precedence over federal rights. MacLean notes that Calhoun preferred to concentrate power at the state level, “the level that men like him could most easily control,” going so far as to take powers away from the local level in order to do so.

From this perspective, any attempt by the federal government to restrict or abolish slavery was an infringement upon liberty. In Calhoun’s view, it was the government that created the battle over slavery, and it was the Southern states and their slaveholders who were the victims, not the slaves themselves.

MacLean sees a common oligarchic theme that connects libertarian thought from Calhoun to Buchanan and Koch: “Now, as then, the leaders seek Calhoun-style liberty for the few–the liberty to concentrate vast wealth, so as to deny elementary fairness and freedom to the many.”

1950s Virginia: Oligarchy resists desegregation

James Buchanan came to the University of Virginia in 1956, almost 100 years after the end of slavery. But it was only two years after Brown v. Board of Education, when privileged Southerners were employing arguments reminiscent of Calhoun to resist school desegregation.

Virginia was characterized by one student of southern politics as the state most thoroughly controlled by an oligarchy. MacLean describes it as the “veritable fiefdom of Senator Harry F. Byrd Sr., the archnemesis of Franklin Delano Roosevelt and the New Deal.” The Byrd Organization ran the state primarily for the benefit of a powerful minority, but remained in power by limiting the voting strength of the majority through measures like poll taxes and malapportionment to underrepresent city and suburban voters. Both practices would later be ruled unconstitutional by the Supreme Court, but not until the 1960s.

The Byrd Organization and its supporters, especially the editor of the Richmond News Leader, James J. Kilpatrick, portrayed the federal desegregation mandate as an unconstitutional violation of states rights and personal liberty.

The Virginia General Assembly responded to the challenge of Brown by ordering the governor to withhold funding from any school that obeyed a federal court order to desegregate. Because representation was so disproportionate, the senators who voted for this action represented fewer citizens than those who voted against it. The majority of Virginians probably wanted to keep their schools open.

Buchanan’s mission

That was the situation in the state when James M. Buchanan proposed creating a new center of study at the University of Virginia. The Thomas Jefferson Center for Political Economy and Social Philosophy would focus academic attention on the proper relationship between the government and the economy. Although trained in economics at the University of Chicago, Buchanan did not share Milton Friedman’s enthusiasm for scientific models and testable hypotheses. He was more interested in broad philosophical issues, especially the threat to liberty created by government’s tendency to over-tax, over-spend, and over-regulate. He theorized at length about such issues without always providing much empirical support for his ideas.

In his proposal for the new center, he avowed that it would not be home to any scholar who valued security over liberty, or wanted to “replace the role of the individual and of voluntary association by the coercive powers of the collective order.” “Collective order” was his term for all those who relied on government for their advancement, which made the democratic process itself sound rather socialistic and sinister.

In 1959, Federal and state courts struck down the decision by the Virginia General Assembly to withhold funding from integrating schools. While that would seem to settle the matter, Buchanan had a proposal for a new, less obviously racist, form of resistance. He proposed that the state close all the public schools, using the economic argument that a private market in education would create more competition and better education. Families would receive vouchers to send their children to whatever school they “chose,” [without, of course, worrying about whether the voucher would be enough to get a poor black child into a good school]. A resolution to end the state constitutional guarantee of free public education failed to pass, but one county, Prince Edward, did close its schools to resist integration. A federal court ordered them reopened five years later.

After Buchanan’s Thomas Jefferson Center came under criticism from the university for being too doctrinaire and authoritarian, Buchanan left for UCLA, arriving in the tumultuous year of 1968-69. Apparently shocked by the protest movements he saw there, he published Academia in Anarchy in 1970, with co-author Nicos E. Devletoglou. He did not advocate the complete privatization of higher education, but he did argue for running universities more like businesses. Students should have to pay the entire cost of their education; otherwise they were “parasites” on society. Faculty should stick to providing the product they’ve been hired to provide. Governing boards representing taxpayers and donors should exercise strict control. In this more businesslike atmosphere, students and faculty would then have less reason to waste time protesting, but those who did create disruptions should be punished or thrown out.

Later, when he taught at Virginia Tech, Buchanan recommended to the president a new “reward-punishment structure for faculty” to reduce funding for departments like sociology, literature and history that seemed to produce more dissent. He acknowledged that this would violate “sacrosanct precepts for ‘academic freedom’,” but hey, “this is a rough world.”

If there was one thing that was sacrosanct for Buchanan, it was economic freedom–the right of those who pay the piper to call the tune. Other forms of freedom, like academic freedom or freedom from discrimination, often took a back seat. As we’ll see, this bias would mar his work throughout his career, but at the same time make his ideas all the more attractive to the economically powerful. I’ll delve deeper into Buchanan’s thought in the next post.




Working-Class Conservatism

June 5, 2017

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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.