The Siren Song of “Pro-Worker” Conservatism
Some “anti-elitists” on the Right say they want the GOP to be the party of the working class. But what they’re really offering is a PR campaign that won’t fundamentally change the lives of workers.
There’s a new, increasingly assertive, tendency on the Right. These conservatives are not rabid free marketeers, hawkish neocons, or religious fundamentalists. They hate Beltway elitism and think both major parties have sold out the working class.
This cohort has elements that flirt with the most reactionary segments of online conservatism, but its most well-known figures — like Julius Krein and Michael Lind of American Affairs, Saagar Enjeti of HillTV’s Rising, Oren Cass of American Compass, Chris Buskirk of American Greatness, and Fox News’s Tucker Carlson — have built audiences behind economic nationalist rhetoric.
As Tablet’s Park MacDougald summarizes, this new Right sees US economic decline and cultural malaise as largely the result of “a short-sighted American elite [that] has allowed the country’s manufacturing core — the key to both widespread domestic prosperity and national security in the face of a mercantilist China — to be hollowed out.” In response, they promote a modest economic protectionism in the hopes of restoring American manufacturing to its former glory. Writers like Gladden Pappin extend this ambition further and insist on corporatist political reforms — wherein big business, organized labor, and elected officials in government work together to negotiate the terms of national renewal.
These corporatists still pay homage to market efficiency but cast themselves as realists in the face of the threatening rise of China and the hollowing of the American core: as Dov Zigler puts it in American Affairs, “a more perfect market system in itself is not a substitute for an awareness of national priorities or the strategic pursuit of national goals.”
At first blush, their statist program sounds more sensible and attractive than most of what was politically thinkable — from either side of the aisle — before 2016. A radical reorganization of the American industrial structure is needed in order to deliver any real and enduring economic gains for working people. And it is undoubtedly true that too much of US policy is dictated by a professional class free from democratic accountability or the everyday experiences of working people.
But the new Right is not a promising new expression of working-class mobilization — it’s an intellectual symptom of mass political demobilization. The Republican Party is hardly on the verge of revolting against its wealthy anti-tax voters.
Workers Aren’t All Becoming More Conservative — Most Are Dropping Out of Politics Entirely
It’s worth spelling out the nature of the particular niche that the new workerist Right occupies, as well as how the reality of their popularity differs from their own self-conception. According to them, after decades of betrayal from liberals, blue-collar workers have finally had enough and bolted into their arms — for God, country, and restricted immigration. Armed with protectionist policies and blue-collar values, only the workerist Right can offer a true vehicle for the aspirations of American workers today.
This, at least, is their animating fantasy. But what often goes unsaid is that, while a significant group of working-class voters have gambled on right-wing populists, a startling share of formerly Democrat voting workers have simply abandoned politics altogether.
In places where the populist, corporatist, or nationalist Right have made inroads, they have done so as a result of decades of declining turnout. This is the case with the National Front in France, the Five Star Movement and Lega in Italy, Viktor Orbán in Hungary, and Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil. Right-wing populism is only politically viable amid the general demobilization of working-class voters. As a recent study shows:
Global voter turnout was fairly stable between the 1940s and the 1980s, falling only slightly from 78 per cent to 76 per cent over the entire period. It then fell sharply in the 1990s to 70 per cent, and continued its decline to reach 66 per cent in the period of 2011–15 . . . In Europe, the region which experienced the highest level of voter turnout between the 1940s and the 1980s, voter turnout has decreased significantly since the 1990s.
This is not to say that these parties haven’t benefited greatly from working-class support in recent decades –– quite the contrary. Many workers are rightly frustrated with how unresponsive their governments have become, and decades of soldiering for parties of the center-left has yielded very little. In America, it was Bill Clinton’s Democrats who authored and signed off on job-killing bills like NAFTA. With friends like these, what exactly do workers have to lose?
The populist right not only offers a fresh campaign message — built around how they will renew their countries’ manufacturing base, restore national pride and cohesion, and rebuild crumbling towns in forgotten rural areas — they also come complete with demagogic political leaders who eschew all political conventions, thumb their nose at the media, and rightly treat elite politicians with the kind of contempt they deserve.
But workers’ gamble on the Right is likely part of a greater downward spiral in voter mobilization and political participation — not a rising tide of Gaullist militancy. We’ve already seen how it plays out: center-left voters in rural former manufacturing towns attempt to punish their former party leaders and governing elites by defecting to the Right; the Right, once in power, fails to reverse the downward slide in wages and living conditions — and most often helps to accelerate it; finally, with nowhere else to turn, these voters just stop turning up. In America, that means the abstention of 100 million eligible voters.
Unsurprisingly, it’s the most depressed parts of the country where voter turnout is the lowest. In McDowell County, West Virginia, where unemployment consistently hovered in the double digits, barely a third of eligible voters voted in 2016 — and that was the year Donald Trump captured the county by 75 percent.
This is all to say that when parties of the Right promise to renew the postwar glory days, they might be able to win over a significant portion (or even a majority) of working-class voters, but they do so in accordance with the rules of what Peter Mair calls the “void” — a hollowed-out party system, enfeebled unions, and historic levels of demobilization and disorganization for the working class. And once in government, maintaining power requires managing that void, not restructuring it.
This is certainly the case for Trump, who campaigned in 2016 on being the voice for “laid-off factory workers” but, after his election, quickly settled into “conventional Republican, market fundamentalist policy,” in the words of Julius Krein.
“They Have a Plan for That!”
The new workerist Right has always eagerly trumpeted industrial renewal, but only recently have they confronted the limited appeal of manufacturing jobs without the promise of unionized manufacturing jobs. In September, American Compass made a splash with a statement “on a conservative future for the American labor movement”: signed by Marco Rubio, Jeff Sessions, and other prominent Republicans, the letter urges conservatives to ensure that workers “have a seat at the table” by “reform[ing] and reinvigorati[ng] the laws that govern organizing and collective bargaining.”
This pivot to the hard hat isn’t new — it was pioneered by Richard Nixon as a strategy to destroy the New Deal coalition by picking off labor leaders and dividing the organized working class. The problem for the new workerist Right, however, is that Nixon could credibly claim that his party defended the interests of working people. Dwight Eisenhower was just a decade removed from being president, and there was widespread belief in the New Deal project across partisan lines. Could we say the same today?
When Jeff Sessions speaks of workers in heroic terms, does he mean the same workers he has actively prohibited from organizing through the curtailing of collective bargaining rights? And when he talks about “American greatness,” does he mean the kinds of policies that have made his home state the fifth poorest in the country, thanks largely to his “leadership” opposing bills to reshore jobs or raise the minimum wage, and his support for nearly every free-trade agreement and corporate tax-cutting proposal?
The American Compass letter, a kind of manifesto for the new Right spearheaded by former Mitt Romney adviser Oren Cass, is only seven paragraphs long, and even still, the authors couldn’t protect their hand. While committed to the abstract assertion that “[s]trong worker representation can make America stronger,” they also feel the need to clarify that “many unions have become unresponsive to workers’ needs and some outright corrupt.” Cass claims to want to “save labor,” but he also thinks that “the labor movement is slowly dying out of its own dysfunction internally, and its own poor design in the statutory framework it’s operating under.”
Like many traditional conservatives, Cass blames workers and their organizations for their own sorry state — despite the fact that it was the Republican Party who spearheaded union-killing policies like Taft-Hartley, right-to-work legislation, and Trump’s own miserable labor board.
In fact, it’s notable that the word “union” is mentioned only in negative or neutral terms in the American Compass letter. This is not just nitpicking — for all their serenading of the working class, it’s unclear if the new workerist Right would really tolerate actual expressions of working-class organization, which famously tend to disrupt the operations of industries that conservatives want to get up and running, no questions asked, to be competitive with China.
Cass insists on “creating a much more collaborative model of labor-management relations” meant to “take that kind of action [striking] out of the relationship between workers and management at an individual firm.” But it is those disruptive and adversarial expressions of trade-unionism that are responsible for building up labor’s internal democratic culture and workers’ capacities to wring concessions from the boss.
Strong fighting unions are necessary to rebuild US labor and to move millions of workers to want to join and organize new shops. Good wages and benefits are won on the picket lines, not through sweetheart deals. The “cooperative” vision Cass promotes typically results in enfeebled company unions where labor officials act as another arm of management’s corporate structure.
But even if Cass’s arrangement could provide modest wage gains, a renewal of American democracy and civic life requires the messy and contentious renewal of the voluntary organizations that serve as its foundation — and the union local is still at the heart of that process. Weakened as they have become, unions that bargain at the firm-to-firm level remain the largest and most democratic organizations of working people that exist in this country.
The expansion of the labor movement would, quite literally, be an expansion of democratic expression and provide a means for mobilizing the some 43 percent of eligible voters who choose not to vote at all and remobilizing the workers who –– disgusted with both major parties –– have dropped out of politics altogether.
Corporatist arrangements are not capable of engendering this kind of revitalization because they seek to domesticate, tame, and integrate already weak unions into a new bargaining process far removed from the workplace and their members –– where business has the distinct upper hand. The corporatist solution for the union movement is to ask these voluntary associations to give up their organizations and surrender both their ability to bargain at the firm level and their capacity to strike in the hopes of material rewards from sector-level negotiations.
The result would not be an expansion of working-class associational capacity, or the empowerment of leaders that come from the ranks of ordinary workers, but instead the further bureaucratization of the labor movement.
The New Right’s Fool’s Gold
Figures on the new Right are scathing critics of the Left, which they see as a ruthlessly guarded urban professional-managerial-class project dressing itself up as a working-class movement. They deride this “false consciousness,” which prevents the Left “from recognizing where their interests diverge from the purported beneficiaries of their projects and impedes their ability to effect any larger political realignment.” And they loathe everything “woke,” which they see as destructive cultural preening “mainly adopted in intra-elite competition for positions and influence.”
The new workerist Right’s critique is not always without merit — our movement is still too detached from working-class communities. But it is ironic that a group of elite-educated young Republicans with generous stipends from various high-powered institutions in DC wag their fingers at the Left for being too upscale to understand workers.
Predictably, the Sanders moment is completely misdiagnosed by the new Right — it’s simply wrong, for instance, to say that the “group he primarily attracts are the most radicalized elements of the professional class (the young, academics, underemployed college graduates, and so forth).” This might describe his activist base, but Sanders supporters very much were the working-class voters he said they were.
In fact, his favorability among the very group the Right caricatures as his base — the professional class liberals — always lagged behind that of his rival, policy wonk darling Elizabeth Warren. While it’s plausible to suggest that advocating for student debt forgiveness is evidence that Bernie’s “insurgency [is] driven by certain disaffected segments of the elite,” it’s delusional to say the same of Medicare for All at a time when 60 some million lack health insurance and another 80 million are underinsured.
The new workerist Right think they have a better proof of concept for their own program in Trump, and a better path forward through the Republican Party. But as they themselves recognize, Trump is an erratic hustler. People read his politics like they do tarot cards: you can see xenophobic conspiracy theory as much as you can economic nationalism.
Bernie’s authenticity and message discipline made it crystal clear where he stood, and his record of principled commitment is unparalleled. It’s clear that his democratic socialist political platform bears mass appeal and an undeniable future, given his overwhelming strength among voters under forty-five. Plus, “Sandersism” is much more popular among existing Democratic constituencies than any kind of government intervention is among actual Republicans.
It makes sense that the corporatist Right is hostile toward Sanders, given that they frame their own project as a healthy alternative to socialism. But why didn’t these rightists support Joe Biden?
The incoming president’s “Made in America” program is far closer to their vision than Trump’s ever was. Biden advocates an industrial policy complete with a $300 billion investment in research and development, and he promises to use federal money to buy American-made goods. In fact, Biden’s whole platform promises far more investment in manufacturing, a state-subsidized demand-side stimulus, a public works program, and a major infrastructural overhaul. Plus, there was little woke sloganeering from Biden on the campaign trail. So what gives?
The answer is simple: Biden is a Democrat. For the workerist Right, given the perceived gentrification of the Democratic Party, it’s the GOP who are ripe for a working-class realignment. In fact, this seems to be their main charge to the Left — how could any progressive be so naive as to play ball with the Democratic Party when the Republicans are where the workers are — or soon will be? It’s a faulty premise from the start.
The Republican Party Is an Anti-Tax Party
Of course, as writers in Jacobin and Catalyst have often noted, American parties are porous semi-public institutions unlike any other political parties in the world. That openness is what allowed Bernie Sanders to compete as a Democrat and what allowed countless progressive insurgents to campaign openly against the party leadership on the party ballot line. The Republicans share that porousness, so why can’t it, too, have a labor wing? Surely the Tea Party proves that the party is vulnerable to a powerful insurgency?
Well, not quite. The Tea Party was an insurgency based on cutting taxes and deregulation — in other words, exactly the program many conservative elites wanted. Despite the obvious electoral risk of pushing the party to the far right, billionaires like the Koch brothers dumped tons of cash into supporting Tea Partiers. The same kind of coalition is not going to congeal for the workerist Right, because their stated aims threaten big business and are worrying to tax-obsessed high-income Republican Party primary voters.
The contradiction of right-wing parties making left-wing economic appeals has always resolved itself in one direction: upward. The economic program gets dropped as soon as the financial sponsors of the party — and their own anti-tax voters — have any say. This has obviously happened with Trump, who allowed libertarian Paul Ryan to run his domestic agenda, but it’s also happened all over the world.
Matteo Salvini in Italy, Bolsonaro in Brazil, Narendra Modi in India, Orbán in Hungary — all these right-wing populists promised worker power and ended up pushing massive corporate tax cuts. Trump’s own tax cuts — the greatest since Ronald Reagan — have kicked off a new furious global race to the bottom, heightening inequality, failing to raise wages, and starving the state of revenue needed to jump-start investment in jobs and industry. The Republican Party is fundamentally an anti-tax, pro-corporate machine — that’s not any less true because Tucker Carlson stopped wearing a bow tie.
The important point here is that, by insisting on corporate tax cuts, these parties will inevitably fail to deliver for their constituencies, and whatever support they may hold among workers will erode if nothing can be done to address the decline.
If we charge that Republicans in Congress will never threaten business interests, the workerist Right would no doubt respond that the same can be said of the Democratic Party. It’s true that neither party is in any sense a “workers’ party,” but Democratic voters are far friendlier to pro-worker reforms, and more at odds with its party’s establishment. Despite the best efforts of Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer, Democratic voters consistently insist on more spending on social goods and more taxation of the very wealthy.
The same dynamic just isn’t true for Republicans. Not only does the workerist Right have to contend with a party whose raison d’être is escalating the upward redistribution of wealth, it also must wrestle with a Republican Party constituency that has for decades been organized to vote for big corporate tax cuts, only 45 percent of whom approve of unions (organized labor boasts an 82 percent favorability rating among Democrats).
There’s no question that the road to winning workers back through progressive economic appeals is a long one, and that doing so requires prying the professional-class Left away from unpopular ultraliberal appeals. It’s a daunting and fraught task, but the path forward for beefed-up social programs, high-wage jobs, and strong unions on the Right side of the aisle, however, is a dead end.
The 2020 presidential election was a boon for the new workerist Right: many in the chattering classes are eager to follow Josh Hawley and Marco Rubio in claiming that the Republican Party is now the party of the multiracial working class.
There’s good reason to be skeptical of the insta-analysis: rightful disgust for the Democrats does not make the GOP any more of a vehicle for working-class advance. The Left has its problems, many of which are accurately diagnosed by the new workerist Right, but Bernie Sanders’s platform’s proposals for state-directed investment in infrastructure renewal, public works, increased minimum wages, and strengthened collective bargaining rights still offer the best vision for worker empowerment and economic revival today.
The workerist Right can only muster a poor facsimile of the Left’s program, and one that appears disingenuous on its own terms. Still, their challenge should be taken seriously — the political void that has swallowed up workers’ institutions over the past half century has its own deadly gravitational pull. It’s a black hole where a revived labor movement should be. And the worse conditions get for working people, the stronger the pull.
It’s up to us to win workers back from the edge of that precipice.