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Outflanked: The Fake Working Class Outflankeing


Levitz is, of course, correct: David Brooks is an idiot.

Brooks names Marco Rubio, Josh Hawley, Tom Cotton, and Ben Sasse as the four horsemen of Reaganism’s apocalypse. He argues that these young, “populist” senators have distinct visions for what a post-Trump conservatism should look like but that all proceed from five fundamental premises: “Everything is not okay,” “Economic libertarianism is not the answer,” “The working class is the heart of the Republican Party,” “China changes everything,” and “The managerial class betrays America.”

Brooks’s summary of what that last bit means is worth quoting in full:

Many of the post-Reagan positions seem like steps to the left. But these Republicans combine a greater willingness to use government with a greater hostility to the managerial class. The solution to too much corporate power is not handing power to Elizabeth Warren and a cloud of federal regulators. There’s a difference between empowering workers and empowering the Washington elite.

I think this is an apt description of a major tenet of contemporary Republican “populism.” Not coincidentally, it embodies a fundamental contradiction. Josh Hawley & Co. evince interest in curbing the power of multinational corporations that display more reverence for “woke” values than American workers. But they are also committed to opposing the only institutions that could conceivably curb such power — the administrative state and labor unions.

Hawley’s contempt for both corporate and regulatory power is consistent with a genuine — and genuinely broad-based — ideological tradition in the United States. One could trace its roots to the Jacksonian era, if not earlier. The (white, male) small farmers of the early republic had a deep antagonism for the banks that demanded an outsize share of their work product in exchange for credit. But many also found themselves at cross-purposes with a federal government that (occasionally) tried to honor treaty commitments that constrained the freedom of white settlers to expropriate land from native populations. In the context of an agricultural economy — on a vast, unsettled continent with a heavily outgunned indigenous population and in which only white men qualified as democratic agents — an economic populism rooted in constraining both corporate and federal power had some coherence.

But in the 21st century, it has none.


Some of “working class” conservatism’s leading intellectuals actually acknowledge this. Oren Cass, founder of the new populist conservative think tank American Compass, has endorsed sectoral bargaining — which is to say, empowering all of the workers in the same region and industry to collectively bargain with all of their employers, with the state acting as a mediator. Such an arrangement would help to set a floor beneath working standards without rendering unionized firms less competitive than union-busting ones. This arrangement would also force companies to compete on a dimension besides labor-cost minimization, thereby, in theory, spurring innovation.

Such tripartite wage-setting is a core part of corporatist, Catholic, center-right politics in Europe (a tradition that embodies much of what the populist Republicans claim to revere). But it was also a core part of the first New Deal, which the American conservative movement was founded to oppose.

To embrace sectoral bargaining would be to embrace transferring power away from owners of businesses (large and small) and toward both workers and government administrators. It would also involve slashing the Republican donor class’s share of economic growth by transferring income gains from corporate shareholders to ordinary workers. This is what populist Republicans claim to want — but it is also what the contemporary GOP exists to thwart.

Thus, none of the Republican populists have endorsed sectoral bargaining. In fact, Josh Hawley opposed recent efforts to raise Missouri’s minimum wage and roll back its anti-union “right to work” law. Rubio, to his credit, has actually acknowledged the centrality of trade unions to an economic vision informed by “Catholic social teachings,” writing for First Things:

The Church’s tradition cuts across identitarian labels, insisting upon the inviolable right to private property and the dangers of Marxism, but also the essential role of labor unions. The Church emphasizes the moral duty of employers to respect workers not just as means to profit, but as human persons and productive members of their community and nation. 

But as Trump has so well demonstrated, past rhetoric is no indication of future policy. And, church guidance notwithstanding, Marco Rubio boasts an 8 percent lifetime score from the AFL-CIO.

You can’t spell working class hero without Little Marco!

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