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Towards a Republican Counter-Elite

The campaigns of Barry Goldwater and Donald Trump highlight the danger of attacking the elite without developing a viable counter-elite to replace it with.
GOP Senate Candidate JD Vance Holds Election Night Event In Cincinnati

Amidst the dark cloud of the GOP’s 2020 election defeat, many post-mortems pointed to a silver lining, the substantial growth of GOP support among working-class minorities and immigrants. In something of a tell, this growth was often heralded in outlets normally quite hostile to the GOP and its interests. “The GOP is really assembling the multiracial working-class coalition that the left has always dreamed of,” said David Shor, a Democratic operative who was a leading Obama advisor.

While the GOP should of course welcome an expanded electoral base, the narrative of a multicultural, working-class-led GOP is a briar patch that the often-dimwitted GOP leadership should avoid. That narrative presents two dangers to the party: First, that in its laudable efforts to reach out to minorities, the GOP will abandon or attack the legitimate interests of its existing, predominantly white, voter base; and, second, that in focusing its efforts on building a working-class coalition, it will alienate the elites that it ultimately needs to win over to govern successfully. 

Contra Shor, a multi-racial working-class coalition, much like the current GOP’s white and increasingly working-class base, would be completely incapable of exercising decisive political power, even if it won elections. To change the GOP’s losing dynamic, the party must reach out to a portion of the hated elites, because without the support of some meaningful portion of those elites, it will be unable to effectively govern the modern American state, no matter how many elections it wins. The dramatic recent moves by Elon Musk to take over Twitter and reopen it as a platform on which conservatives can speak freely, after years of legislative failure and largely fruitless grassroots organizing against big tech, shows the decisive power of elites in our politics. 

While the GOP should strive to be the party of middle- and working-class interests, it should do so in the mold of Disraeli’s “One-Nation” Toryism that dominated late 19th-century British politics, in which elites consciously made efforts to transcend class interests and govern in the interests of the whole nation. 

J.D. Vance’s GOP primary win in Ohio was largely built on his appeal to working-class Republicans. But while Vance’s focus on the real needs of working-class Americans is a laudable model for the party, it is not that focus that will make Vance an effective power broker. It is not the J.D. Vance of the holler, but the Vance of Yale Law, the venture capitalist with deep connections to billionaire Peter Thiel and media powerhouse Tucker Carlson, whose wife was a clerk for Chief Justice Roberts, who can exercise power within the American system. As the writer and conservative podcaster Alex Kaschuta wrote, “all politics is elite politics. The only thing that changes is the client class and their level of obligation felt to it.” 

The GOP’s core “deplorables,” who are typically whiter, more rural, predominantly middle and working class, and often not college educated, represent a declining demographic with less and less access to the power structure with each passing year (almost two-thirds of voters were white non-college when Reagan won in 1980; today, the number is approximately half that). Depending on those voters to lead a new-right coalition is a losing strategy. And while reaching out to a multicultural and working-class coalition is good, it will not solve the GOP’s problems in the corridors of power. If the poor white voters of Appalachia cannot meaningfully assume political leadership in 2022, neither can the poor Hispanic voters of South Texas, among whom Trump performed so strongly in 2020.

While Trump accelerated the GOP’s problem among American elites, it preceded him by many years and was evident even when he was not on the ballot. Twenty-six of the 27 wealthiest congressional districts are represented by Democrats. Meanwhile, Trump won white suburbanites by 4 points in 2020, down sharply from his 16-point win in 2016. At the same time, he increased his rural-vote share from 59 percent to 65 percent. Even Trump’s vaunted gains among Hispanics were achieved down-market: He won 41 percent of non-college-educated Hispanics and only 30 percent of college-eductated Hispanic voters.

This breakdown mirrored Trump’s performance with white Americans. He beat “working-class Joe” 65-33 among white non-college voters. Meanwhile, Trump lost white college grads 57-40, a number that was almost certainly worse among graduates of top-tier colleges from which the elite draws their leadership. Against Hillary Clinton in 2016, Trump won 56 percent of white voters who make $100,000 or less  but lost 53 percent of white voters making $175,000 or more. Millionaires favored Biden 56-39. Biden out-raised Trump, a billionaire who has spent his entire life in wealthy circles, almost two to one. 

Even the relatively dire numbers cited above overstate true elite support for the GOP. In most of the key institutions of our society, the right is almost non-existent. The most prestigious newspapers favored Biden almost unanimously. Polls of liberal-arts faculty have shown a 12-to-1 disparity in support for Biden over Trump. More representative of truly elite academia is Harvard, where more than 99 percent of faculty donations went to Biden and only 2 percent of faculty voted for Trump in the 2016 election. At Harvard, 99 percent of student donation money also went to Biden. 

In technology, the industry at the commanding heights of our current culture, 98 percent of corporate donations went to Democrats. In government, Joe Biden took 92 percent of the vote in the city of Washington, D.C. itself and 80 percent in inner suburbs like Arlington and Alexandria in Virginia and Prince George’s and Montgomery County in Maryland. Only approximately 5 percent of senior civil servants are conservative Republicans. It is the same story in Hollywood, where 99.7 percent of the donations of the top Hollywood power players went to Democrats

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James Burnham argued in his influential 1941 book The Managerial Revolution that in the future post-industrial world, a managerial class would control the commanding heights of economy and society, displacing the previous ruling class of petit bourgeois capitalists. His vision has been vindicated. How can we initiate a counter-revolution against the managerial class? 

The first step in a right-wing counter-revolution is accepting the low place we currently occupy in America’s power hierarchy. We must understand ourselves as a fundamentally dissident movement seeking to supplant much of the existing managerial order. The new right must not be “conservative,” or it will be doomed to failure. As Julius Krein wrote in American Affairs, speaking of the current GOP’s failures: “By failing to correctly recognize the nature of the managerial elite and its sources of power, [the right’s] opposition has been misdirected. Indeed, the effect of recent conservative policy, whatever its intent, has been the strengthening of the managerial class.”

Burnham understood that in the modern managerial society, the managerial elite could only be displaced by a counter-elite, one comparable in talents and abilities to the current elite, but whose interests were not being served by the current regime. Thus Burnham, the acknowledged intellectual leader at early National Review (including by Buckley himself), had been one of the few at the magazine to support the decidedly non-conservative Nelson Rockefeller over Barry Goldwater in 1964. As Neal Freemam recounted, Burnham argued that “Rockefeller was an Ivy Leaguer, a well-connected establishmentarian, a sophisticated candidate who could expect more positive treatment from the [E]astern press.” 

But National Review’s editors supported Goldwater, who lost in a landslide. The Democrats used those supermajorities to create Medicare, the National Endowment of the Arts, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, the Department of Transportation, and the Department of Housing and Urban Development. Congress soon passed the Voting Rights Act and the Civil Rights Act, the latter of which was identified by Christopher Caldwell in his book The Age of Entitlement as a new constitution based on group identities that was fundamentally incompatible with America’s existing constitutional order. All of this was enabled in part by the right’s selection of elite-phobic Goldwater as their standard-bearer.

George Will wrote in the wake of Reagan’s election that “Goldwater won in 1964. It just took 16 years to count the votes.” But looking at today’s political landscape, it would be more accurate to say that George McGovern, the Democratic candidate blown out by Richard Nixon in 1972, won his election, and it just took a half-century to count the votes. Our current political battlespace bears far more resemblance to McGovern’s radical interest-group-based left-wing politics than it does Reagan’s ’80s idyll. 

Retrospectively, as emotionally appealing as Goldwater’s politics were for the frustrated right, his candidacy was a strategic disaster for the right’s political priorities, and ushered in an era of liberal hegemony, which was only interrupted, and not fundamentally altered, by Reagan’s two terms in office. As Trump’s campaign would a half century later, Goldwater highlighted the dangers of attacking the elite without developing a viable counter-elite to replace it with.

Where might we find counter-elite today? By far the richest prize to win from the Democrats, because of the demographic’s size, its current institutional power outside of politics, and its alienation from Democratic Party power centers, is white men. 

At first glance this assertion may appear implausible; the GOP is not exactly suffering from a dearth of white men in leadership, and the Democrats have not won the white vote since LBJ’s 1964 landslide over Goldwater. But it is not that the GOP needs more white-male leaders. In fact, much of the GOP’s problem has been that its white-male leadership has been too cowardly to advance the legitimate interests of white voters. Rather, the GOP needs more leaders, of all demographics, who will fight unapologetically for the just interests and civil rights of white voters, willing to contrast their efforts to the Democrats’ racial vilification of white voters. What is remarkable about the white vote is not that the Democrats have lost it for 60 years, but that the GOP does not win it by the sorts of margins the Democrats have regularly won Hispanics and Asian Americans, if not African Americans.

It can appeal to elite white men by showing them that the Democrats’ class and cultural claims on them are swamped by the overwhelming racial discrimination they suffer under the Democratic regime.  And here the numbers are compelling: Between 26 and 28 percent of Joe Biden’s 2020 voters were white men. Yet, other than the addled figurehead of Biden himself, white men are increasingly absent in elite Democratic politics. Incredibly, none of Biden’s 25 cabinet members are white Americans of Protestant background. And though they make up the overwhelming majority of the white population, there are only five non-Jewish white Americans in Biden’s cabinet, running the generally less prestigious departments (Agriculture, Commerce, Labor, Transportation, Energy, and Veterans Affairs). Just 27 percent of Biden’s judiciary picks have been white, which is only about half of the percentage of white voters who joined his coalition, and perhaps one-third as representative of the source of his donor funds. Even more starkly, just two of Biden’s first 41 judicial picks were white men (about 5 percent) even though white men likely contributed (if donor profiles are accurate) the majority of Biden’s campaign funds. 

Elite white voters who support the Democrats are supporting a party that rhetorically despises them and works against their fundamental material interests. Contrast the treatment of white men within the Democratic Party to the status of white American men outside of Democratic Party politics. This is not a stable equilibrium.

Even today, white men make up more than 85 percent of Fortune 500 CEOs. At approximately 60 percent of the population, white Americans hold 86 percent of the household wealth. Some 90 percent of published American authors are white, a number that perfectly matches their percentage of best-sellers last year, and overall, a substantial majority of these authors are white men. 

Looking at successful “unicorn” startups, among those that achieve more than $1 billion market value as private companies, 77 percent of the founders were white. And, as a recently complied list of the 40 best (highest-return) venture capital investments of all time showed, of the 43 U.S.-based founders, 39 were white men. A party that relentlessly marginalizes a successful and numerous group should not long be able to remain in power, as long as that group is offered an attractive alternative. The GOP must create this alternative. 

The white working class is a declining social and political force. The minority working classes, while rising in numbers and needed as an important part of the right’s electoral coalition, still have even less cultural and political clout. While the GOP should certainly seek their votes and advocate for their interests, winning those votes will only provide a possible path to office, not a path to attaining culture-shaping power, for which winning elections is useful but insufficient. The managerial class has ruled America for decades, whether their representatives were in or out of office. 

Only a counter-elite can challenge our current managerial masters, and it is to the unashamed development and cultivation of that counter-elite, particularly among white voters excoriated by the Democratic regime, that the right must devote the lion’s share of its political energies. 

Jeremy Carl is a senior fellow at the Claremont Institute.