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How the GOP Can Hang on to the Working Class

Donald Trump's election shows this political courtship is real. But it will only continue if Republicans respond in kind.

Our news feeds this year have been saturated with dispatches from Donald Trump’s America. Media outlets deployed journalists to regions besieged by rapid globalization, technological advances, and demographic change, where they attempted to explain the anger that inspired voters to embrace a figure like Trump. Their written pieces created a kind of niche journalism, presenting stories of what our nation failed to address with its transitioning economy. A number of these articles were accurate and empathetic portrayals of struggling communities, but too many of them patronized their subjects and reeked of condescension.

Typical was for journalists to decamp to down-and-out bars, where they’d score quotes of rage, racism, and radicalism from afternoon drinkers. Then it was on to boarded-up downtowns, shabby diners, and blighted street corners to paint a picture of human decay. Yes, there is a darker side to many of these post-industrial cities and towns. It’s also true that economic discontent often triggers political extremism. But too many of these accounts read like the field notes of colonial administrators visiting an uncivilized hinterland. Working-class regions are far more culturally fractious, economically diverse, and politically complex than what has been presented in the press.

The accumulating literature has also left political questions unanswered. As president, Trump happens to be leader of the GOP, but his past defies party allegiance. Likewise, if anything, his stalwart supporters are less devoted to the Republican Party than to the commander-in-chief. So what does this betoken for Republicans? What does conservatism even mean for the working class in post-industrial America?  

The answers to these questions lie outside the typical conservative canon. An alternative starting point is an essay by legendary journalist Pete Hamill in New York magazine. In 1969, Hamill composed one of the most prescient pieces about working-class alienation ever written. He described the working class as standing “somewhere in the economy between the poor—most of whom are the aged, the sick and those unemployable women and children who live on welfare—and the semi-professionals and professionals who earn their way with talents or skills acquired through education.”

Hamill profiled residents of New York’s boroughs, typically disgruntled ethnic Catholics who resented dwindling finances, signs of disrespect, rising crime, and politicians’ indifference to their plight. He observed how the “information explosion” affected this slighted and tribal group. “Television has made an enormous impact on them, and because of the nature of that medium—its preference for the politics of theatre, its seeming inability to ever explain what is happening behind the photographed image—much of their understanding of what happens is superficial.” As a growing medium, television intensified racial tension and ignored the common socio-economic ailments shared by working-class families of all backgrounds. Urban rioting only heightened this divide. Hamill observed that it was “almost impossible to suggest any sort of black-white working-class coalition.”

Hamill reported that working-class whites directed their anger toward New York City’s Mayor John Lindsay, the liberal Republican who presided over a metropolis reeling from fiscal distress and skyrocketing criminal activity. They felt overlooked by their mayor, vulnerable in their neighborhoods, insecure in their jobs, and doubtful about their futures. “The working-class white man feels trapped and, even worse, in a society that purports to be democratic, ignored,” Hamill wrote. He warned of a brewing revolt, one that would ominously involve the use of guns. He concluded that this aggrieved group was simply “in revolt against taxes, joyless work, the double standards and short memories of professional politicians, hypocrisy and what he considers the debasement of the American dream.”

Hamill’s words, nearly 50 years old, could have been lifted from an analysis of today’s working-class grievances. His essay reminds us that the present revolt is not necessarily driven by ideology or party allegiance. The working class that Hamill described flocked to Republicans like Richard Nixon in 1968 and Ronald Reagan in 1980, but they also appreciated Gary Hart’s message in 1988, which sounded the alarm over how the global economy would affect blue-collar workers. Hart’s campaign attracted cross-party appeal, but his famously scandalous downfall in 1987 ruined any chance he might have had to be president. In 1992, Bill Clinton brought the working class back to the Democrats from George H.W. Bush. They then rallied around George W. Bush after September 11 and ensured his re-election in 2004. Disillusionment over the Iraq war and the economic crash inspired hope in Obama’s 2008 campaign. Eight years later, they embraced Trump after feeling alienated by Obama and rejecting Hillary Clinton’s vapid “Stronger Together” message.

The period between 2001 and 2009 in particular tainted the conservative movement’s purity, with the mammoth growth of the national security state, expanded entitlements, an overcommitment to warfare in the Middle East, and a catastrophic economic crash requiring government intervention. In that short time, the productivity gains enjoyed by all Americans in the 1990s disappeared. What followed was a sobering reality. As John G. Fernald of the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco and Charles I. Jones of Stanford wrote in 2014, “Growth in educational attainment, developed-economy R&D intensity and population are all likely to be slower in the future than in the past.”

Sluggish growth contributed to the country’s ongoing labor challenges, ranging from stagnant wages to declining workforce participation. In an important essay for National Affairs this fall, Eli Lehrer and Catherine Moyer wrote about the consequences of this phenomenon, particularly how technological progress in a transitioning economy has impacted men. They took note of the scores of men “who are unemployed, unengaged with civil society, uninvolved in family life, and, therefore, finding little meaning in their lives.” And they provided an unsettling statistical comparison. In 1948, 86.7 percent of men were either employed or searching for employment; that dropped to 69.9 percent in January 2017, reflecting a multi-generational pattern of declining labor force participation among men. 

The New York Times’ David Leonhardt recently presented a similar historical comparison for the nation’s economic viability. Leonhardt observed, “By 2019, a prime measure of the economy’s health—gross domestic product per working adult—will likely have recovered less in the 12 years since the crisis began than it did during the 12 years since the Great Depression.” Massive mobilization during World War II provides some context, but America has clearly suffered from a declining standard of living. Technological advances transformed how we communicate and process information, but that didn’t necessarily translate into an improved quality of life. This was especially the case for working-class Americans.

In The Retreat of Western Liberalism, Edward Luce, the Financial Times Washington columnist, provides a brilliant historical and political synopsis of how populism thrives under these circumstances. His book reminds us how a prevailing tenet of post-war conservatism—limited government—rings hollow with working-class voters today, and how the “populist right only began to do really well at the ballot box after they began to steal the left’s clothes.” His explanation is worth quoting at length:

In each case, including Donald Trump, populists broke with the centre-right orthodoxy to argue in favour of a government safety net. This is what the old left used to promise and largely delivered (you might say over-delivered). It was the implicit bargain of modern Western democracy. In most countries, including the U.S., it took the form of social insurance. The link between the duties of citizenship and the right to draw benefits was a form of social contract. Even in relatively generous Sweden, future retirees must work for fifteen years before they are eligible to draw a pension. It was an unfortunate coincidence that immigration started to surge just as the value of these benefits began to erode. That was a double whammy. The same governments that were cutting welfare payments were also allowing recent arrivals to join the system. It offended people’s sense of fairness. “You cannot cut entitlement spending and simultaneously widen access to them,” says Francis Fukuyama. “Sooner or later, something has to give.”

Luce’s summary explains blue-collar frustrations. Contrary to prevailing arguments, the working class aren’t members of the far right. They resented the failures of Obamacare, for example, but were also willing to accept some form of universal health insurance. Obamacare’s passage was a boon for grassroots advocacy organizations, especially post-Citizens United. But the foundation for those organizations—the Tea Party movement—testified to the weakened condition of the GOP’s political infrastructure. This vulnerability allowed Trump to thrive in 2016, defeating 16 opponents in the primary and rallying against the previous Republican president. The long-term challenge for Republicans is that Trump courted votes from traditionally Democratic regions. Moving forward, Republicans must identify and support the salient issues confronting these working-class voters. The party must extract the core elements of Trump’s campaign message without inheriting the darker elements of Trumpism. And that means, first and foremost, Republicans must accept that the séance with Ronald Reagan should end.

On this new working-class right, government is sometimes the answer, even if right now it isn’t putting forth a very good image. The federal bureaucracy exploded after September 11, inevitably creating redundancy and waste, while existing departments and agencies failed to create meaningful reforms for post-industrial regions. And the Trump administration has yet to show how it will improve the government’s response rate. The opioid epidemic rages, municipalities and school districts face fiscal collapse, roads and bridges crumble, and crime, poverty, and blight corrode community stability. Trump referenced this “American carnage” in his widely panned inaugural address, but that carnage exists and the working class needs to see a substantive governmental response to it. That means a real bonding endeavor—like the New Deal or New Frontier—that secures a sustainable voting coalition, one that sometimes looks to the government for help.

A working-class conservatism also means creating a labor movement within the Republican Party. Perhaps the days of demonizing unions has expired. Of course, many unions became a counterproductive force as the 20th century progressed, but in today’s global economy, labor reform experimentation at the state level can improve the startlingly low morale of blue-collar workers. Jonathan Rauch made the conservative case for unions in The Atlantic earlier this year. He highlighted how one in three private-sector workers belonged to unions in the 1950s, a number that today has fallen to less than 6 percent. “If 2016 taught us anything,” Rauch wrote, “it was that miserable workers are angry voters, and angry voters are more than capable of lashing out against trade, immigration, free markets, and for that matter liberal democracy itself.” 

Exasperation over immigration and trade policies should also be acknowledged. When it comes to U.S. immigration policy, Republicans have avoided supporting restrictive measures, fearing the possible alienation of donors, interest groups, and minority voters. But the immigration system is frozen in time, and it’s time to acknowledge that the Immigration and Naturalization Act of 1965, which opened the door to low-income migrants, created more burdens than opportunities. Massive chain migration from poor developing countries has had a detrimental impact on post-industrial regions, which are ill-equipped to process rapid demographic change and no longer house mass-production industries that can support a low-skilled population. It’s not an act of extremism to support legislative reforms like the RAISE Act proposed by Republican Senators Tom Cotton and David Perdue. Switching to an immigration regime similar to Canada’s merit-based system is a practical approach to supporting higher-skilled migration while easing the burden on America’s poorer regions. 

It’s also possible to support free trade while acknowledging its unforeseen consequences. The average working-class voter may not understand the complexity of trade agreements like NAFTA, but he did witness on an organic level how his region significantly declined since the deal went into effect in 1994. Small manufacturers closed shop in too many U.S. cities and towns. The idea of a living wage disappeared for working-class families. Republicans should remember that they can support future trade agreements that secure America’s global economic position while also ensuring that working-class regions stand to see real benefits.

Conservatism is evolving from its post-World War II origins. Republicans witnessed last year how Trump’s voting base had shifted towards expanded health care access, crackdowns on monopolistic sectors, tax increases for the wealthy, and a prudent foreign policy. They maintain a traditional conservative disposition on social issues, but their economic outlook is more in alignment with the New Deal era than the Republican Revolution of 1994. Preserving this coalition will require an inclusive approach. Working-class regions are geographically and culturally diverse, ranging from Appalachian villages to poor city neighborhoods. Republicans must compassionately respond to white senior citizens who cannot retire, Latino small business owners who struggle to finance their dreams, and African-American families in failing urban school districts. 

“The working class earns its living with its hands or its backs; its members do not exist on welfare payments; they do not live in abject, swinish poverty, nor in safe, remote suburban comfort,” wrote Hamill in his New York piece. The core of his observation remains timeless, but many of those hands and backs have gone idle as hope for their economic prospects slips away. It’s difficult to forecast whether the working class will even stick with Trump (a question that may be answered by the tax cut deal). But what is clear is that the administration must respond to the needs and aspirations of the working class. It must enact policies that address economic and social needs, from border security to job security. It cannot take their support for granted, the fatal mistake made by the Democratic Party. The working class’s flirtations with Republicans will continue only if the GOP offers them something in return.

Charles F. McElwee III works in the economic development sector in northeastern Pennsylvania. Follow him on Twitter at @CFMcElwee.