The GOP's Path to Economic Populism

As the Republican Party works to attract and retain blue-collar voters alienated by social liberalism, it’s likely to embrace universal social-benefit programs.

House Agriculture Committee Chairman Mike Conaway discusses the farm bill, officially known as the 2018 Agriculture and Nutrition Act, in Washington, D.C. (J. Scott Applewhite / AP)

Come the 2020 Democratic National Convention, it is entirely possible that the party’s presidential nominee will be committed to “Medicare for all,” at least two tuition-free years at a public college or university, a $15 minimum wage, a sharp increase in Social Security benefits, a dramatic expansion of wage subsidies, and a federal jobs guarantee. Bernie Sanders, who came very close to securing the Democratic nomination in 2016, has endorsed all of the above, and though most of the party’s younger presidential aspirants eschew the socialist label, all have been galloping in the same leftward direction. Most striking has been the evolution of Cory Booker and Kirsten Gillibrand, both of whom came of age at a time when Democrats felt obligated to present themselves as scrupulously moderate, and who earlier on flirted with various centrist and even conservative commitments, yet who have now reinvented themselves as stalwart progressives.

Whereas Sanders is notably comfortable with taking contrarian stands, having endured marginalization and ridicule for decades, Booker and Gillibrand are best understood as weathervanes: They see which way the wind is blowing among enthusiastic Democratic primary voters and small-dollar donors, and they have no intention of beating up against it. At times, the two junior senators seem to be duking it out to see which of them can one-up the other: Booker proposes a new jobs program, Gillibrand calls for a public option for banking, and so on. Though I doubt either of the two will ever call for, say, raising taxes on their upper-middle-income constituents—that would be dangerously radical—it is a safe bet that we will hear many more inventive ideas from them between now and the New Hampshire primary.

What I want to know, though, is how Republican doctrine might evolve in response to this ideological phase shift among Democrats. The most straightforward interpretation of what might be called the Democratic Party’s social-democratic turn is that the shock of Donald Trump’s victory has prompted a larger rethinking of its agenda. In light of Democratic defeats in the Rust Belt, the party could have responded by adjusting its cultural stance, to win back voters alienated by its social liberalism and its commitment to high immigration levels. Yet doing so risked alienating many of its core constituencies. And so mainstream Democrats are instead pursuing a more populist course on economic and fiscal issues, with an eye towards increasing their salience. Their hope, as I understand it, is that blue-collar voters who dissent from the party’s social liberalism will nevertheless embrace its economic populism, which would compare favorably with the faux populism of Trump. It is a strategy that makes sense. It’s worth remembering, however, that Republicans can make adjustments of their own.

In his 2012 book The Lost Majority, political analyst Sean Trende observed that predictions of durable partisan dominance are almost never realized in practice. Every emerging Republican majority soon gives way to an emerging Democratic majority, and vice versa. As the Democratic (or Republican) coalition expands, Republican (or Democratic) politicians have a powerful incentive to exploit its internal fissures, and to prize off some of its disgruntled supporters. We have seen this dynamic play out over the course of the Obama years: As the Democratic Party has grown more appealing to college-educated white voters, including some erstwhile Republicans, and to younger voters of color, the GOP has successfully wooed a large number of non-college-educated white voters, many of whom were once loyal Democrats. And as non-college-educated white voters have come to represent a shrinking share of the Democratic primary electorate, its politicians have adapted to the new dispensation, growing less solicitous of older whites with traditionalist cultural beliefs and more inclined to champion ambitious social programs, to be designed and administered by credentialed professionals. If Booker and Gillibrand were wooing the same primary voters Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton sought to win over in 2008, they wouldn’t be talking up job guarantees and free college; they might tout their fondness for charter schools and private equity, in the case of Booker, or gun rights and immigration enforcement, in the case of Gillibrand.

Which leads me to the GOP. Republican politicians increasingly depend on disaffected Democrats and independents who are more favorably disposed toward government than many stalwart conservatives, yet who find themselves alienated from the new Democratic consensus. It stands to reason that this influx of blue-collar voters will influence Republican sensibilities, if only out of the desire of politicians for their own political survival. So far, we have seen the GOP consensus on trade shift from reflexive support for lower trade barriers to an increased openness to protectionist measures, ranging from currency intervention to tariffs. When it comes to the welfare state, however, Republicans find themselves at a crossroads.

As my colleague Yoni Appelbaum has observed, there is considerable evidence that Donald Trump’s white working-class supporters maintain a distinction between universal social-insurance programs, such as Social Security and Medicare, and means-tested social-welfare programs, such as SNAP and TANF. Whereas the former are seen as benefiting deserving workers, who have paid into the system over the years, the latter are often resented as programs that chiefly benefit the idle poor. Republican policymakers can thus go in one of two directions: either make means-tested social-welfare programs more punitive, to make life more difficult for supposed shirkers, or transform them into more universal programs, so they are of greater benefit to the (putatively) more deserving majority. Thus far, Republicans have been emphasizing the former over the latter. But in a few years’ time, I suspect that will change.

Consider, for example, the new GOP farm bill. Michael Conaway, chairman of the House Agriculture Committee, has crafted legislation that would, among other things, impose stringent new work requirements on SNAP beneficiaries. Though these would only apply to able-bodied adults under the age of 59 who do not have children under the age of 6, there is no question that they are demanding. To meet the new requirements, applicants would have to spend at least 20 hours a week in work or in work-related activities, such as taking part in a supervised job search.  And if you fail to meet the requirement in a given month, you’d be barred from receiving benefits for an entire year for your first infraction and three years for your second. Robert Rector of the conservative Heritage Foundation, who for decades has championed more stringent SNAP work requirements, has criticized these sanctions as too harsh. The Center for Budget and Policy Priorities, a center-left think tank, was even more stinging in its indictment of the bill, warning that the new work requirements would compel state governments to “create a massive reporting and paperwork system that will be expensive and hard to navigate for participants, states, and possibly those who employ SNAP participants.”

On the other side of the ledger, the bill goes beyond imposing a work requirement. To help ensure that its work requirements are met, it greatly increases funds for employment and training programs, and it stipulates that access to these programs is guaranteed to all eligible applicants. If you show up to fulfill your work requirement, a state agency will either place you in a job or help you find one. When compared to Booker’s job-guarantee pilot program, which would guarantee all comers a $15-an-hour job with health insurance and a suite of other fringe benefits, the farm bill seems punitive and stingy. Yet it is in many respects more generous than previous Republican-only proposals to overhaul SNAP, and it will become more so if it is to have any hope of making it through the Senate. Robert VerBruggen, writing in National Review, argues that a softer version of the work requirements—e.g., expecting childless, able-bodied beneficiaries to devote six hours a week to community service—is the right way to go, and there is no question that it would be an improvement.

Regardless, softening SNAP reform won’t address the larger political challenge, which is the Trump coalition’s apparent appetite for programs that are more universal, not less. Even if SNAP is overhauled in such a way that it makes life a bit more difficult for those who can’t or won’t work, it still won’t do much for lower-middle-class families trying to keep their heads above water. This is where a more universal approach could come in.

In recent years, a number of conservative reformers have touted the benefits of a refundable child credit. During the debate over the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act, Marco Rubio and Mike Lee endeavored to make the child credit more refundable, with mixed success. Champions of the idea, such as the sociologist Josh McCabe, emphasize that a more generous child benefit would greatly improve family stability: Whereas families lose SNAP benefits and the earned-income tax credit as they climb out of poverty, a child credit could be designed so that families only lose it at very high levels of income. Michael Bennet and Sherrod Brown, Democratic senators from Colorado and Ohio, respectively, have proposed a child credit that fits the bill, yet which has been met with less enthusiasm on the left than single-payer and the jobs guarantee. Part of the reason could simply be that Democratic policymakers have an awful lot of competing priorities to spend money on. Younger liberals badly want their student-loan debt forgiven. Public-sector unions long for a dramatic expansion of the public-sector workforce. A growing majority of Democrats want the federal government to cover everyone’s medical bills. It is easy to see how a universal child benefit might get lost in the shuffle.

Whatever the reason, Republican reformers would be wise to embrace Bennet-Brown, or something very much like it. For one, it is a proposal that has the potential to benefit large numbers of working-class Republican voters. And unlike many existing means-tested programs, it is unambiguously pro-marriage, pro-family, and pro-work—a formula that could have great appeal for a more populist GOP.