A Working-Class Act for the GOP
By Rafael Hoffman
A potentially historic effort is underway among some in the conservative camp to transform the Republican Party into the vanguard of America’s working class. The working class, loosely defined as those earning a living at professions without holding a college degree, was once firmly in the Democratic camp, cemented by its strong support for labor unions, while Republicans were identified with white-collar corporate America.
This rubric has been shifting for decades. In the late 1960s, as some leading Democrats’ emphasis on social progressivism alienated many in Middle America, some gravitated toward the GOP and many others became less politically engaged. In more recent years, a pervasive left-wing orientation in higher education and other cultural factors tilted corporate America and the lion’s share of white collar urbanites to vote Democrat.
These trends were cemented in 2016 when former President Donald Trump’s emergence on the political scene attracted record numbers of the working class to vote Republican and simultaneously chased many college-educated moderates and independents solidly into the Democratic camp.
A recent poll conducted by The Wall Street Journal and NBC News showed that the share of the Republican electorate represented by working-class voters rose from 48% in 2012 to 62% in 2022.
The shift has set off a heated policy debate challenging many items once sacrosanct to the GOP, such as entitlement reform and free trade orthodoxy. It also calls for adjustments to once-hawkish foreign policy positions and more emphasis on taking on culture-war battles.
In the fallout of disappointing results in midterm elections, several prominent voices called for the party to take heed of the reality. Florida Senator Marco Rubio penned a piece in The American Conservative bylined, “The Republican Party must become a multi-ethnic, working-class coalition willing to fight for the country and usher in a new American century.” Ohio Senator Josh Hawley wrote an opinion for The Washington Post titled, “The GOP is dead. A new GOP must listen to working people.”
In an effort to gain a better understanding of what conservatives supporting this movement envision, Hamodia spoke with David Brog, President of the Edmund Burke Foundation, a leading voice in efforts to embrace this shift.
Please describe your vision for a GOP as the party of the working class.
If the Republican Party wants to be the majority party, it must be the party that stands up for the interests of the working class — both economic and cultural.
For decades, very few Republicans wanted to hear this message. Instead, they emphasized small government and low taxes to the exclusion of most other issues. National Conservatives like me certainly want to see smaller government and lower taxes, but this isn’t our exclusive focus. We’re passionate about protecting American industry and borders and restoring reverence for America’s history and heritage.
Since Donald Trump’s win in 2016 we’ve seen an unprecedented opening on the right to broaden our agenda to include these issues. Trump, DeSantis, Rubio, and others have raised these issues and voters have responded well. Now that this change is underway, we have an opportunity to consolidate our gains.
The Democrats are handing us a huge opportunity here. While conservatives are starting to address these working-class concerns, Democrats are increasingly abandoning them. Democrats have allowed themselves to become the party of what, for lack of a better term, we’ll call the coastal elites. They’re promoting an exaggerated woke cultural agenda that has limited appeal beyond certain campus and coastal outposts. The more they push this agenda, the more they will push working-class voters to look for a new home. Republicans must have the welcome mat out. This means honoring their work and caring about their challenges. Even if the cultural issues are what force these voters to first look at us, it is our position on economic issues that will seal the deal.
What prompted you to take this view?
I grew up outside of Atlantic City, before the casinos got there. Atlantic City was a tourist town that thrived until the advent of cheap airfare in the 1950s. Then we lost our only industry and declined rapidly. Like a lot of people, I got out, went to college, and sought opportunities elsewhere. But there were many people I knew who stayed to be close to family or who just didn’t want to leave the home they loved and knew so well. And for too many of them, it did not end well. I saw in a very personal way how the decline of a local economy can crush the very people we should most value — those who are most committed to their families and communities.
This experience planted deep within me a belief that a true conservative does not turn his back on people like this. He does not abandon community and tradition. True conservatives will champion these communities.
For several years, I worked as chief of staff for [former Pennsylvania Senator] Arlen Specter at a time when Japan was dumping cheap steel onto the American market. This unfair trade practice threatened the steel industry in Western Pennsylvania and the towns that depended upon it. This was an opportunity to act upon my deepest beliefs to protect U.S. steel from unfair trade. But these ideas were highly unpopular in a Republican Party dominated by libertarians who often defended free trade at the expense of fair trade. For my efforts, I was largely ostracized by “mainstream” conservatives.
President Trump’s election in 2016 changed everything. Suddenly, there was space in the party to talk about unfair trade practices and the devastating toll they take on domestic industries and communities. We could discuss the toll that illegal immigration takes on American workers. Suddenly, we were welcomed in from the cold.
What kind of market controls or interventions would you support to strengthen U.S. industry?
There’s an important preface that has to be given to this discussion. National conservatives are devoted to the free market — we know that it’s the engine which drives our growth. Where the left sees business as the enemy, we see it as the source of our prosperity. But that doesn’t mean that we must oppose all restrictions and regulations. When international trade is not free and fair, then government must intervene. When competition at home is not free and fair, then government must intervene. Our deference to the free market does not demand pure laissez-faire.
The reality is that we are currently facing competitors like China who engage in unfair trade practices detrimental to our industries here at home. We dare not ignore this in the name of a pure free trade that has never existed. We must act to level the playing field.
We have a good deal of precedent in how to deal with this, going back to the founding of our Republic. Back then, it was Great Britain that was engaging in unfair trade practices by both subsidizing and protecting its industries. American nationalists like George Washington, Alexander Hamilton, Henry Clay, and Abraham Lincoln recognized this and saw that the only way to secure our economic independence was to do likewise. They all supported protective tariffs and government subsidies to build domestic manufacturing.
Today, China is playing the role Great Britain played back then. China is protecting and subsidizing its industries, and this unfair advantage has enabled it to crush our domestic industries. To have free trade and real competition, the U.S. needs to pursue our own trade barriers and subsidies.
This approach is not without risk. We must always be vigilant that these steps don’t devolve into mere corporate welfare that subsidizes the inefficient or the well-connected. Hamilton said that Americans needed tariffs, but not in perpetuity. Our goal must remain creating a level playing field where American businesses can fairly compete.
What policies do you support to curb monopolies?
If we look back at the heroes of economic nationalism, Hamilton and Lincoln loom large for their support of tariffs and subsidies as well as investment in infrastructure. But another important name on that list is Teddy Roosevelt, who believed that when a business gets too large it can stifle competition and work against the public interest in free markets.
Today we see this problem most acutely in the tech sector. Facebook, Amazon, etc., present their competitors with the option of being bought or crushed, thus co-opting — and limiting — competition.
A new wrinkle that did not exist in Roosevelt’s day is that these leading companies happen to dominate our political conversation — they’ve become the new public square. When they restrain trade, they also restrain speech. This makes the need to ensure free and fair competition more urgent than ever.
Republicans have traditionally been concerned with busting trusts and maintaining a vibrant free economy here at home. But we’ve ignored this heritage. It’s a mantle that needs to be reclaimed.
Americans are used to a wide variety of inexpensive and easy-to-obtain products. In this environment, has the ship sailed to significantly increase domestic production?
No. There are tradeoffs. And we must debate these trade-offs rather than ignore them.
Free trade has an enormous upside, especially when it comes to providing cheaper goods here at home and markets for our products abroad. But trade — especially when it’s not fair — also has a downside. And this is a downside that we have ignored at our peril. A lot of these trade deals helped hollow out our industrial base and crushed communities that depended on these industries. That doesn’t mean all these deals are bad — there simply needs to be a more comprehensive analysis on impacts that takes into account these other factors. Cheap products at Walmart are cold comfort to a community that’s lost industry, jobs, and hope.
The GOP has long been hostile to labor unions. As unions can be a vehicle to rehabilitate the dignity of work, do you think this should change?
A lot of today’s conservatives came of age in a time when unions were very powerful and leveraging this power to make excessive demands on employers that limited their ability to compete. I remember well the days when labor was a barrier to the very growth that would ultimately help workers thrive.
But things have changed. Especially in some industries it’s quite possible that corporate power has grown too large, and workers once again need help in asserting their legitimate demands. If you look at the recent disputes between Amazon and its workers, that was not the old paradigm of the manipulative unions making excessive demands. These workers were just advocating for decent wages and dignified conditions. It would be wise for us to revisit the anti-labor reflex.
Enemy No. 1 of many GOP Congresses was social welfare spending. Would a working-class orientation change this?
There are now many Republicans who want to protect entitlement spending. President Trump was outspoken on this issue. And even those Republicans who are worried about these expenses recognize that we’ve got more immediate challenges in front of us. The great challenge now is to stop the creation of additional entitlements and the passage of new trillion-dollar spending bills. If Republicans can hold government back from adding new spending to the trillions being spent now, that would be a real accomplishment.
Some pushing for a more working-class orientation to the party have spoken of the need to use government to make fewer jobs require four-year degrees. Do you agree with this proposition and what do you see as the means and benefits of doing so?
I don’t know if there is much the government can do about this. A lot of it comes down to a culture that puts too high a premium on four-year degrees. There is a lot of good and important work that simply doesn’t require this type of degree.
We need to insist upon the dignity and honor of such work. And we should remember that these jobs often pay far better than what Ph.D.s can earn. Let’s stop denigrating those who choose this path.
Do you feel that an attempt to connect to the values of working-class America supports a more strident cultural conservatism?
The present moment in some ways harks back to when Benjamin Disraeli transformed the English Tory party in the mid-19th century. Tories had been the party of landowners, but after a series of reform bills radically broadened the franchise, the Tories were doomed to becoming a minority party. Disraeli was the one who figured out how the party could succeed in an era of mass democracy. He recognized that England’s working class was a deep reservoir of support for conservative values. It was the working class — not the Whig merchants — who most honored country, church, and tradition. Disraeli had the foresight to see that by championing these values and defending this class’s economic interests, his party could win these voters. And that’s exactly what happened. From that period until World War I, the working class was loyal Tory voters.
There are a lot of parallels between that period and the current situation in America. The working class is still a vast reservoir of love of country, faith, tradition and, most of all, common sense. They are the natural constituents of a conservative party. They can and should be Republicans. We must join with them to do battle against the elite agenda that seeks to denigrate those things we hold dear. If this requires greater sensitivity to their economic agenda, so be it. We will be elevated by the embrace.
There is currently a diversity of camps in the GOP and the broader conservative movement. Do you see a path to uniting behind the model you advocate?
Electoral victory is the path to unity. Donald Trump’s 2016 victory opened the party to our ideas like never before. And others are joining the fight. Ron DeSantis provides the most compelling recent example. In one term, he turned a swing state into one he won by almost 20 points. He proved that our brand of governance is a model that connects with people, that united Republicans, and that drew in a lot of people who were not Republican voters before. Republicans who want to win can and will pay attention.
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