In his response to the Bostock decision, in which the Supreme Court read anti-discrimination protections for gay and transgender people into the Civil Rights Act of 1964, Josh Hawley (R., Mo.) argued that social conservatives had gotten a bad deal from the current Republican Party. He might be right, but it won’t be easy for social conservatives to get a better deal from anyone else.
In a floor speech, Hawley gave a searing (and not inaccurate) summary of the current GOP’s priorities:
And we [social conservatives] were told that we’re supposed to shut up while the party establishment focuses more on cutting taxes and handing out favors for corporations — multinational corporations who don’t share our values, who will not stand up for American principles, who are only too happy to ship American jobs overseas. But we’re supposed to say nothing about that. We’re supposed to keep our mouths shut because maybe we’ll get a judge out of the deal. That was the implicit bargain.
We’re supposed to keep our mouths shut while the party establishment opens borders, while the party establishment pursues ruinous trade policies.
We’re supposed to keep our mouths shut while those at the upper end of the income bracket get all of the attention; while working families and college students and those who don’t want to go to college but can’t get a good job . . . they get what? What attention? Workers[?] Children[?]
What about parents looking for help with the cost of raising children? Looking for help with the culture in which they have to raise children? Looking for help with the communities, rebuilding the communities in which they must carry out their family life[?]
What about college students trying to find an education that isn’t ruinously expensive and then figure out some way to pay back that ruinous debt? What about those who don’t have a college degree and don’t want one, but [would] like to get a good job? What about them?
No, we’re supposed to stay quiet about all of that, and more, because there [might] be pro-Constitution, religious-liberty judges. Except for that there aren’t. Except for that these judges don’t follow the Constitution. Except for these judges invoke “textualism” and “originalism” in order to reach their preferred outcome.
Like the “Against the Dead Consensus” declaration in First Things, Hawley’s speech points to social conservatives prioritizing alliances with culturally moderate, economic populists over their current alliance with small-government, business-lobby–oriented economic conservatives. The problem with Hawley’s vision is that these culturally moderate, economically populist voters are . . . culturally moderate. As Henry Olsen pointed out, aside from white Evangelicals, working-class white voters tend to be secular and tend not to prioritize social issues in their voting.
These voters might not want government-funded late-term abortions, defunded police departments, or decriminalized border crossing, but they also don’t want to ban first-trimester abortions, and they don’t want their bosses to be able to fire their coworkers for being gay. So several of the effective constraints on the options of social conservatives are what social conservatives offer these new partners and what social conservatives ask for in return.
Past Is Prologue
In the 2016 election cycle, Senator Marco Rubio (R., Fla.), along with proposing vast new tax cuts for investors, also proposed a child tax credit for parents and a wage subsidy for low-earning workers. It wasn’t enough to stir much interest among the intended working-class beneficiaries, and it drew criticism from the Wall Street Journal for being insufficiently pro-rich. It was the worst of both worlds.
In the 2008 and 2012 election cycles, both Mike Huckabee and Rick Santorum ran as social conservatives who criticized the Republican establishment for overemphasis on the rich and on business owners. Huckabee and Santorum won some votes and some primaries (and especially some caucuses in places where religious conservatives are overrepresented), but they were not able to expand their appeal beyond their social-conservative base, and they failed to get the nomination.
One can find excuses for all three failures. Rubio’s economic plan could be described as a feast for the rich and the business lobbies with the inclusion of a few appetizers for the poorest wage-earners. Huckabee’s appeal to the working-class was simply hot air. Santorum seemed to be dreaming of the working class of the 1970s instead of the one that existed in contemporary America. But when all those excuses are taken into account, it still remains true that it will not be easy for social conservatives to win the support of economic populists.
Give and Take
Social conservatives are correct that their votes have been used to prop up unpopular Republican positions on spending and high-earner tax cuts. Indeed, Donald Trump got there first, which is why, with all his manifest vices, he was able to win Rust Belt states that had eluded Republican presidential candidates since the 1980s. There is even a reasonable argument that a more populist Republican agenda combined with a less toxic personality might be the best way to expand the conservative coalition to include both more working-class whites and moderate nonwhite voters.
But executing this strategy will not be easy for social conservatives. First, Trump’s obvious secularism might be a better match for culturally moderate, economically populist voters. These voters don’t want to vote for the John Lithgow character from Footloose, and they don’t want speeches with a lot of biblical allusions that they don’t understand and that make them feel bad about not attending church. Trump knew his audience. It isn’t clear that social conservatives do.
Second, Trump, because of his lack of principle, integrity, or shame, was able to overpromise. He was able to promise that he would bring back the old industrial blue-collar economy through trade deals, cutting taxes, increasing defense spending, huge new infrastructure programs, not cutting entitlements, better and wider health-care coverage than Obamacare, and even eliminating the national debt.
It’s not clear that any conventional Republican politician can get away with such an impossible and surreal combination of promises. A more populist Republican agenda could include not just child tax credits and wage subsidies but also limited repatriation of industrial production, making tertiary education cheaper and faster, pro-marriage and pro-parent policies, making health care more affordable by including pre-filled health savings accounts with high-deductible plans for lower-income families, and making the unemployment system more worker-friendly. That doesn’t have to be all of it, but even at its most expansive, this agenda would lack the oomph of Trump’s fantasy overpromising.
And even if it worked in winning over economic populists, there still would be the question of what social conservatives could expect from their new allies. The answer is that they would be more likely to get pro-family economic policy than socially conservative policy as commonly understood in terms of abortion or gay rights. If this social conservative–populist alliance wins more elections, nuns and bakers will be hunted less often by public bureaucracies that seek to enforce social liberalism on dissenters. They might get courts that allow social conservatives to implement policies won through the ballot box.
To the extent that Hawley and social conservatives are serious about crafting a policy agenda that makes it easier for Americans to get educated, form families, and raise children, they might get that. To the extent that means reversing the political victories of social liberals, it seems less likely — not least because the voters Hawley wants to ally with support many of those social-liberal victories.