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Populists: America's Forgotten Center

“These unhappy times call for the building of plans that rest upon the forgotten...that build from the bottom up and not from the top down, that put their faith once more in the forgotten man at the bottom of the economic pyramid.” This quote by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, the icon of New Deal liberalism, accurately embodies a lion’s share of the modern-day Republican Party base. The millions of working-class Americans who fear for job security and the increasing cultural radicalism of the country’s elite class may in fact pinpoint the future of the conservative movement.

President Donald Trump is gone from office, and many of his controversies throughout his days in office, most notably his unproven allegations of election fraud, have generated intense intra-party debates over his legacy. Nonetheless, regardless of how you feel about Trump’s personal impact on the GOP, there is no doubt the GOP is desperately in need of a new policy direction. And that direction is the opposite of what it’s stood for for generations.

Broadly speaking, politics can be divided into two categories: a fiscal axis embodying ideals about taxation, regulation, and welfare, and a social axis discussing abortion, gun rights, family, and a host of cultural issues. Movement conservatism has traditionally been conservative on both axes, and some libertarians or self-described “centrists” like to adopt the label “socially liberal, fiscally conservative” to describe their stances. But the truth is this group of voters holds considerably little sway; the true “center” of politics is just the opposite: socially conservative and fiscally liberal, or populist.

Republicans must build in this direction if they hope to build their base. Many working-class and minority voters hold just this stance in politics, and their voting share will remain considerable for years to come. Trump, despite his controversies, won in 2016 and came closer to winning in 2020 compared to McCain or Romney by adopting just this stance. In 2020, Trump ran considerably ahead of both candidates among minority voters, many of whom are fiscally liberal but culturally conservative and anti-socialist. Instead of talking about cutting entitlements and reducing taxes on the wealthy, he promised to protect social security and introduce protectionism to protect American jobs while discussing nationalism and opposing the liberal shift on cultural issues. As such, he was able to capture a significantly greater portion of the populist voting block than previous Republicans, swinging multiple states in his favor for both 2016 and 2020. Despite going against traditional economic orthodoxy, the Republican Party needs to adopt more liberal stances on fiscal issues to expand its base, while emphasizing its socially conservative policies.

The demographic makeup of the Republican base reflects this need for change as well. The Republican Party is more blue-collar than at any time in recent history, while managerial voters have steadily drifted towards the Democrats. Political coalitions have been scrambled such that the Republicans have little to lose by liberalizing economically; upper-income zip codes and the “liberal elite” makeup of Hollywood, tech, academia, and the media already anchor the Democratic coalition. Recent surveys have shown that while a supermajority of Republicans agree on issues ranging from nationalism to pro-life values, the coalition is about evenly divided on issues such as taxes and trade. Notably, some 63% of Republicans supported raising taxes if necessary to maintain current social security benefits. Thus, an emphasis on fiscal conservatism or market fundamentalism would tear the GOP coalition apart. Social issues are what hold the coalition together.

It’s no coincidence that while Trump won Florida, voters approved a $15 minimum wage by an astounding 60%. Even 73% of Republicans approved of $2,000 stimulus check payments, which due to the Senate GOP leadership’s unwillingness to approve just days before the crucial Georgia runoffs (and despite the insistence of President Trump) likely played a role in costing Republicans the Senate in 2021. Polling on government-sponsored healthcare varies, but voter support generally ranges from the high 50s to nearly 70%. At the same time, America is split evenly over the abortion debate and a supermajority staunchly back our law enforcement. In deep-blue California, voters opposed affirmative action by a whopping 57% to 43%. Clearly, Republicans need to be emphasizing the latter set of issues rather than the former.

In the words of Senator Rubio, the GOP needs to rebrand as a “multiethnic, multiracial working class coalition.” It needs to prioritize outreach to minorities, national defense, and cultural conservatism while shifting left on economics. While some believe it needs to move on from Trump personally, it nonetheless needs to be the party of reshoring American jobs, rebuilding America’s manufacturing, and ensuring quality healthcare and education, even if it means raising taxes. The Republican base is already supported by large numbers of populists, but conservative politicians and institutions like think tanks have been slow to change thus far. It’s time for the Republican Party to truly shift in that direction and represent the changing conservative movement.

Author: Alvin Zhang

The views expressed are the author's alone and are not an official statement of GWCRs


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