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Is there a case for principled populism from the GOP?

Marshall Auerback, DCNF

“Populism” is a term that, since the modern era, has generally been trotted out to mean a political attitude that reflects widespread anger and resentment against powerful elites, while among stenographers for the powerful, it has been used reflexively to warn against the passions of the mob.

Who is using that word and projecting it onto the endless array of evolving political constituencies tells us a lot about the political moment we are in.

Since the financial crises of the post-Reconstruction era, it was a term embraced by reformers and democratically-minded movements to argue for universal social programs and public-interest regulation at the federal and state level. In the early part of this century, we saw populism used to describe the nationalist counter-politics that emerged in response to the European integration process, from Italy to Hungary to Poland.


In the past 10 years, we have seen a new entrant make use of populism to further its political mission. A cohort of leading conservatives in the U.S. has increasingly adopted the term as part of a wider sales pitch to seize on the steady deterioration of the working-class bloc that underwrote Democratic party power and politics from FDR to the end of the Clinton years.

Most recently, blue-collar Trump voters were often labeled populists, as were Trump’s message and political aesthetics. But in practice, there was little achievement: Trump’s greatest signature legislation was a tax law that massively enriched the elites and further filled the swamp he had promised to drain.

And the much-vaunted “get tough” on China trade policy achieved very little in terms of inducing additional re-shoring of American manufacturing, or indeed, reducing Washington’s chronic trade deficit with Beijing.

Consequently, ascribing a principled populist credo to Trump—aka “Trumpism without Trump”—is a slogan too far. It sounds catchy, but it’s problematic for a number of reasons, not the least because the president’s own incompetence and inconsistent policy positions on a host of issues make a mockery of the idea that “Trumpism” constituted a coherent governing philosophy.

While rhetorically attacking globalization, free trade, and international financiers, Trump did little to genuinely advance the interests of workers, let alone cement them as a featured part of a broad new governing coalition of the Republican Party.

Certainly, the circumstances are ripe for a major voting bloc shift: The Democratic Party is a prisoner of the finance and tech industries and showed little sign of shifting its focus during the 2020 presidential primaries. Furthermore, the victory of Joe Biden (along with the vast majority of his Cabinet appointments) indicates that a return to an Obama-style restoration is more likely than an emerging populist movement that will address long-standing grievances from ordinary middle- and working-class Americans.

Can such a movement credibly emerge from the other side of the political aisle? In the wake of Trump’s November defeat, it is striking to note the rise in attacks against conservative politicians, such as Josh Hawley, Marco Rubio, and Tom Cotton, who are all in their own way testing out messages and policies to shore up the blue-collar precariat.

Hawley has introduced legislation to secure U.S. medical supply chains in the wake of COVID-19. More recently, he worked with Senator Bernie Sanders to insist that the coronavirus stimulus package include relief checks for lower-income households whose livelihoods have been devastated by the pandemic, and advocating a presidential veto should they not be included.

During the summer, Rubio co-sponsored legislation calling for $1,000 stimulus checks for all Americans, regardless of their age or dependent status (the absence of means-testing marking a significant break with traditional Republican Party orthodoxy). Lastly, Cotton has been a driving force behind legislation to support further semiconductor manufacturing in the U.S.

Donor class pressures are often cited as reasons to doubt the GOP’s capacity to evolve in this direction. But this ignores the fact that equally strong considerations exist in the Democratic Party. As Michael Lind has observed, both Republicans and Democrats have largely catered to the interests “not of domestic manufacturers and parts suppliers but of Wall Street (seeking to liberalize foreign financial systems), Silicon Valley and Hollywood and pharma (seeking more intellectual-property protection through trade treaties), and U.S. agribusiness, which by its nature cannot be outsourced and which can flourish even in a deindustrialized, weak U.S.”

In that regard, the structural vulnerabilities exposed during the COVID-19 pandemic should inspire American policymakers to fix these shortcomings, notably by supporting necessary industrial renewal in the United States, as well as ensuring that the country’s national security interests are safeguarded. That means minimizing reliance on foreign nations and addressing gaps in global supply chains. “Blue collar conservatives,” to use a familiar but increasingly obsolete term, or “exurban and rural precariat,” to use a more contemporary and accurate one, could be well served by a strategic shift in this direction.

Melding a national re-industrialization policy to national security considerations is precisely the kind of policy marriage that makes it easier to keep a party’s oligarchs in line. It addresses a key point of contention among those who argue that precariat-oriented Republicans remain constrained by their party’s historic corporate interests. Republicans who come to recognize that it is nonsensical to make war on American workers while claiming to protect the same workers from Chinese competition, (especially as Beijing becomes the locus of an emerging Cold War 2.0), could put themselves in the driver’s seat for the party’s presidential nomination in 2024. Geopolitical competition, and even war, has historically encouraged national mobilization, consistent with broader public patriotism.

As counterintuitive as it may seem, a lack of geopolitical rivalry makes it hard to sustain a populism characterized by anti-elitism, because in such circumstances the rich can become antisocial monsters with no fear of punishment for putting profit considerations ahead of national security. By contrast, national developmentalism coheres with national security objectives, as Alexander Hamilton argued when he advocated a comprehensive strategy to make the U.S. “independent on foreign nations for military and other essential supplies.”

Rather than sacrificing American workers’ livelihoods on the altar of globalization, this approach could and should be combined with German-style co-determination or sectoral bargaining with workers, leveling up regions that have largely missed out on the fruits of globalization over the past half-century. Workers’ rights-averse GOP donors might not flinch once they see the long-term potential and stability that stems from these arrangements.

All the talk about Republican support for billionaires conveniently ignores the dominance of Silicon Valley oligarchs within the Democratic Party. How seriously can the latter, under a feckless neoliberal like Joe Biden, be willing to return to a time-tested and successful Hamiltonian industrial strategy of using whatever means are necessary to ensure that strategic industries necessary to U.S. military power remain here?

As for companies that are chartered in Ireland, hide their taxes via subsidiaries in Panama, and have 90 percent of their labor abroad: they should be banned from government contracts and treated as foreign entities, which in reality they are. If that means excluding Apple, so be it. That will certainly cause screams in Cupertino, but that should hardly be a concern of those wishing to promote broad-based prosperity that includes the millions who have hitherto been left behind.

Given that we’ve spent trillions over the past two decades supporting capital markets and bailing out banks, another few trillion dollars to support American technological leadership hardly seems like an extravagant ask.

Marshall Auerback is a researcher at Bard College’s Levy Economics Institute, a fellow of Economists for Peace and Security, and a writer for the Independent Media Institute. This piece was originally published on The Commons at American Compass.

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