No, Democratic Populism Won’t Force GOP to Accept Big Government

Conservatives may have to give up their dream of going after Social Security and Medicare. But it’s not clear they’ll ever embrace a positive agenda for big government.

For a relative whippersnapper (he’s 38), Reihan Salam has been writing about the relationship between the Republican Party’s policy agenda and its electoral coalition for a long time. Back in 2005, he and (now–New York Times columnist) Ross Douthat penned an influential essay entitled “The Party of Sam’s Club,” which argued that the GOP’s pro-corporate, libertarian domestic policies were poorly aligned with the party’s actual white working-class base. Later expanded into a book (entitled Grand New Party), their hypothesis became one of the foundational works of the so-called Reformicon movement, which typically called for more middle class– (and family-) oriented economic policies and a pullback on corporate support for liberalized immigration.

As I noted when Donald Trump first emerged as a serious threat to win the GOP presidential nomination, Trumpism was like a cruel parody of what Salam and Douthat were talking about:

[L]ike a very bad joke (You call that Sam’s Club Republicanism? Here’s Sam’s Club Republicanism!), along came a presidential candidate who represented what many in the white working class really wanted: not just a GOP Establishment figure who paid their economic interests lip service, but someone who violently opposed liberalized immigration policies along with the pro-trade, “entitlement reform” orthodoxy of wealthy GOP elites, and articulated a fear of cultural change and national decline that most well-off Republicans, continuing to prosper during the current economic “recovery,” could not begin to fathom.

This development clearly horrified Salam, who promptly said he “hated” Trump and would not vote for the nominee of his party (while pledging to stay and fight for its redemption). But even as the orthodox conservatives he once criticized for disrespecting the white working class quickly accommodated themselves to Trumpism in most of its particulars, Salam is still looking for a “populist” path that isn’t just Trump’s racially soaked demagoguery. And now he thinks he may have found it in a future Republican adjustment to Democratic “populism.”

Democrats are finally, Salam believes, beginning to compete for the white working-class vote they have lost in recent decades:

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.  

One of those adjustments, Salam hopes, is to begin to think more positively about the kind of universal benefit programs white working-class voters strongly support, instead of simply counting on building resentment towards nonuniversal “welfare.”

[T]here 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.

That will happen, Salam thinks, because old-school right-wing welfare-bashing won’t successfully compete with a Democratic Party willing not only to defend but to expand Social Security and Medicare.

While Salam briefly discusses a less-means-tested SNAP program and that hardy Reformicon staple of a greatly expanded child tax credit as possible avenues for positive appeals to the white working class, it’s not at all clear that either Republican voters or elites are going to be very receptive. As Salam himself notes, conservative “populists” tend to think of retirement programs like Social Security and Medicare not as offering benefits conferred by government, but as acknowledging benefits earned by a lifetime of contributions and work. In other words, it’s not the absence of means-testing that makes them “universal” or popular. To the extent that white working-class voters think of minorities and/or the very poor as shiftless, tossing them into the same boat as everyone else won’t necessarily help, and for that matter, work requirements that don’t exclude people from benefits may not be that popular, either.

And it’s hard to discern any likely trend in Salam’s direction among Republican pols and ideologues, either. Right now orthodox conservatives have made their peace with Trump — and given up considerable ground on trade and immigration — via a deal that gives them tax cuts, deregulation and periodic efforts to pare back “welfare” in one form or another. Part of the deal is that conservatives won’t make suicidal attacks on Social Security and Medicare. But that’s not the same as being interested in some positive agenda of new or expanded entitlements that somehow benefit the needy without alienating the white working class.

Unless a lot of things change at both the elite and rank-and-file levels, Republicans are probably stuck with a domestic-policy strategy of resisting big government when it benefits Democratic constituencies, accepting it when it benefits Republican constituencies, and hewing to the traditional side of culture-war topics. As Reihan Salam has explained very well, healthy political parties dance with the ones that brung ‘em to the ball. Wall Street has probably done about all the accommodating of the white working class that it’s going to do. So those still unhappy with the mix should probably take a longer look at the options the other party offers.

Populism Won’t Force GOP to Accept Big Government