If there is one lesson conservatives claim to have learned from the last few election cycles, it is that the Democrats are the party of elites. In both 2016 and 2020, President Trump performed well among voters, especially non-Hispanic white voters, without a college degree. This has led to some speculation that a class-based realignment is underway. As Senator Marco Rubio (R., Fla.) recently put it, “The future of the [Republican] party is based on a multiethnic, multiracial, working-class coalition.” Senator Ted Cruz (R., Texas) went further, suggesting that a working-class realignment wasn’t just a goal but had already occurred, claiming that the Democrats had become “the party of the rich.”
If such a realignment occurs, it will vindicate the work of national populist thinkers who have spent the last four years arguing that the American center–right needs to reconsider its priorities, replacing traditional economic conservatism with Trumpian populism. This perspective contends that Trump won in 2016 precisely because he broke with traditional Republican talking points on the economy, promoting protectionism and infrastructure investments rather than tax cuts and deregulation.
Intellectuals such as Oren Cass of American Compass and Julius Krein of American Affairs have done admirable work building a policy agenda out of Trump’s 2016 campaign promises, with a particular emphasis on economics. Despite their problems with Trump as a candidate and as a president — Krein eventually regretted even voting for Trump — these thinkers and others have argued that Trump’s rise demonstrated important blind spots in conservative thinking. The doctrinaire laissez-faire approach to economics was insufficient to improve economic conditions for many Americans who suffer from outsourced jobs and stagnating wages.
These intellectuals and journalists argue that 21st-century challenges cannot be resolved without coherent state intervention. America needs an industrial policy that will revive American manufacturing and strengthen supply chains.
Promoters of national populism tend to downplay the “culture war” aspects of Trumpism, and for good reason: These aspects of Trump’s campaign and presidency have little impact on the tangible material lives of ordinary Americans. We wish them well in their efforts to develop and promote economic policies that will boost the well-being of the working class. We similarly share their distaste for culture-war politics. As a political strategy, however, national populism divorced from the cultural aspects of Trumpism is unlikely to succeed.
In our recent report for the Center for the Study of Partisanship and Ideology, we considered the explanations for President Trump’s success in 2016. We found the claim that economic populism explains that election to be implausible. Cultural concerns, not economic interests or policy preferences, were the real dividing line in 2016, and remain so today.
At the time of that election, the narrative that Trump’s victory was driven by economic anxieties seemed plausible. Trump performed exceptionally well in the Rust Belt and Appalachia, regions of the country suffering economic stagnation. J. D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy put this suffering in relatable terms. Pundits across the political spectrum began wondering if Trump had won because traditional partisan politics had failed a large swath of the country.
The problem with this narrative is that subsequent research has demonstrated that the “economic anxiety” explanation for Trump does not survive empirical scrutiny. Since 2016, political scientists have sought to explain Trump’s rise. Again and again, they have concluded that economic hardship was not strongly associated with support for Trump. Attitudes toward issues such as immigration, differences between religious identities, differences between men and women, the “marriage gap,” and support for or opposition to so-called political correctness were much stronger predictors of support for Trump than objective economic standing. The fact that some of Trump’s support came from former Obama voters has been treated as evidence that race could not have been a motivating factor. Yet recent research has shown this to be false.
None of these findings are surprising to political scientists. For decades, researchers have shown that you can predict very little about how any particular individual votes from knowing his or her objective economic conditions. Cultural attitudes and demographic variables swamp material circumstances. Marxists, who say class interests drive political views, and the populists who believe the same thing from a different perspective, are both wrong.
There are other problems with the claim that economic populism explains Trump’s victory and represents the most viable path to future Republican victories: Trump did not govern like a populist, yet Americans mostly approved of his handling of the economy. A major tax cut primarily benefiting wealthier Americans was his signature domestic-policy achievement when the Republican Party controlled both chambers of Congress. Furthermore, the claim that the Republicans are now the party of the working class is undercut by actual voting patterns; Joe Biden won among voters earning less than $50,000 a year by a wide margin. Trump won by a similar margin among those earning more than $100,000 a year.
Proponents of economic populism can reasonably point out that Trump failed to follow through on his 2016 promises, and he lost his reelection bid. While true, this ignores that President-elect Biden’s margin of victory in many key states was surprisingly narrow. In the absence of the COVID-19 pandemic and related economic contraction, the election might have had a different outcome. Furthermore, although President Trump lost his reelection bid, the Republican Party overall performed quite well, gaining seats in the House of Representatives and maintaining its advantage in state legislatures.
Most of these victorious Republican candidates did not even pretend to support economic populism. Furthermore, our analysis of Republican incumbents in Congress running for reelection in 2016 and 2018 shows that those who broke with their party on economic issues did not perform any better at the polls.
None of this is surprising. Although voters can be influenced by economic outcomes, they are generally not interested in the specifics of economic policy. Trade policy, one of the national populists’ key issues, is especially unlikely to motivate voters in one direction or another. It does not really matter whether an economic policy can be described as conservative, progressive, or populist. Results for society as a whole, not for any particular class interest, are what matters.
As Alexander William Slater has recently pointed out, Trump pursued “Zombie Reagan” policies that stuck close to free-market orthodoxy and actually achieved success, whether measured by economic data or by polls on his handling of the economy.
An overwhelming amount of evidence tells a similar story. The parties are fundamentally divided by cultural issues. The small remaining percentage of “swing voters” vote on the overall state of the economy and factors such as the personalities of the candidates. Under these circumstances, there is little hope of a party creating an electoral realignment through innovative economic policies.
What does this mean for Republicans going forward? First, since economic specifics do not matter except to the extent that they affect macroeconomic trends such as growth, interparty debates should center around what works, rather than what is popular. Polls commonly show that people prefer higher levels of government spending on various things and more intervention in the free market, and this finding is often used by populists and socialists alike to argue that their respective parties should move toward the popular positions. Maybe they should, but only if such policies successfully grow the economy and keep unemployment low.
Second, there will be no abandonment of the social issues around which Trump and other Republicans have rallied their base for decades. For better or worse, these are the issues that motivate Republican voters. To some extent, the GOP benefits simply by not being the Democrats, who have moved the left of the median voter on many identity issues. There are indications that Republicans could benefit from pushing back even harder on these issues. For example, over the last decade or so Republicans have mostly stopped talking about affirmative action. Yet California, a state as solidly blue and diverse as they come, has just overwhelmingly voted against affirmative action, even though those favoring race blindness were outspent by a wide margin. In Sacramento, Asian representatives have been strongest in pushing back against diversity initiatives that they say harm their constituents. Majorities of every major racial group oppose defunding the police, and some Democratic members of Congress acknowledge that this slogan and the movement behind it hurt their party at the polls.
If Republicans are to make gains, those gains will be incremental and will require focusing on intelligent messaging and an agenda that understands the cultural nature of political differences. In theory, there is nothing preventing Republicans from making gains among working-class Hispanics and African Americans in the same way they have consolidated a large percentage of working-class whites, but doing so will depend on appeals to identity and cultural attitudes and pushing back against the Left’s overreach, not adopting economic policies narrowly tailored for that purpose.
Advocates of national populism may or may not be correct regarding the economic benefits of its recommendations, but they are wrong as a matter of electoral politics. There is no shortcut to a new Republican majority in a highly polarized country such as our own; there is only a continuation of the same trends that have divided this nation for the last three decades, along with hopes for marginal gains that depend on having a realistic understanding of the nature of American politics.
— George Hawley is a board member and research fellow at the Center for the Study of Partisanship and Ideology, where Richard Hanania is the president.