National Review Online’s esteemed editor, Philip Klein, asked an important question last week. Referring to the lack of opposition to the president’s big-spending agenda, he wondered:
Biden, on the other hand, came into office with narrow majorities and Republicans are rolling over for him. So why are Republicans acquiescing? And why aren’t they facing much outside pressure for their feebleness?
He called for a reborn Tea Party to answer this challenge. I fear that ship has sailed for now, but there is some hope of its returning if the GOP continues to acquiesce.
The reason, I contend, is that politics across what we used to call the free world has gone through a realignment. Ever since the Second World War, the primary issue around which politics aligned in the West was economic. You were for big government or limited government. You were for a welfare state or low taxes. You were for nationalization or privatization. And so on. Social issues were a secondary aligning issue, leading to the famous “four quadrants” of the Nolan chart, but there was no doubt that economics was the central issue.
That has now changed, and we can’t say President Trump was the cause of it. In fact, if the thesis is correct, he was a symptom of the change. Economics was supplanted by identity. Identifying yourself as a “true” or “real” citizen of your country became one pole of the new politics — indeed, one of the first signs of the realignment was the sudden rise of the True Finns party in Finland’s 2011 election. The rise of such identity groups helped move Brexit from saloon discussion among a few Whiggish types to reality (and contributed to Boris Johnson’s thumping electoral win in 2019). Stateside, its most obvious manifestation was in Trump’s new coalition of voters, which broke down the “Blue Wall” as working-class whites deserted the Democrats.
There has been a similar realignment on the left. Old-fashioned socialist parties have been battered all over Europe, generally replaced by a coalition of various identity groups organized around race, religion, sexual characteristics, and other minoritarian concerns. “White woke” is definitely one of these identities. In Europe, they have tended to coalesce around the banner of Green Parties — “environmentalist” is an identity in most places. In America, with its two-party system, the realignment has happened within the parties, with the minoritarians suddenly roaring to prominence in the Democrats.
This much is becoming received wisdom. Atlantic writer George Packer’s new book, Last Best Hope: America in Crisis and Renewal, identifies “four Americas,” which neatly map on a graph with identity and economics as the primary and secondary axes, for instance. His “Real America” and “Just America,” the two identities just described, have a fondness for government. “Free America” represents Reagan conservatives — patriotic but free-market — and “Smart America” represents those who have grown rich off the free market but share the concerns of the identity activists — “woke capitalists.”
Yet, there is another dimension to the realignment. If identity issues are now paramount, then economic issues will be far less important going forward, and economic arguments will become less salient. When economics is important, you care about your pocketbook. When identity is important, you care about your voice. This helps to explain the concern over Big Tech, and how many fair-weather defenders of free markets and property rights have turned against them.
Its effect on the left is also important. “White woke” is just as much an identity as race, sexuality, or class. If you’re woke, you feel guilty about white privilege and want your wealth redistributed, which dovetails with socialism. That might explain why young whites are more likely to be socialists than African Americans or Hispanics. LGBT activists want big government, not to give them money but to force compliance with their demands. Environmentalists want the entire economic system rebuilt regardless of cost or impact.
This means that economic conservatives will need to find other ways to make their arguments. “Real Americans,” to use Packer’s terminology, are happy to reject free trade and embrace antitrust on the grounds that Alexander Hamilton and Theodore Roosevelt, respectively, did so, despite decades of subsequent conservative scholarship that showed that their policies were economically harmful as a whole.
And that’s why a reborn Tea Party won’t work. It can’t focus on the debt or spending because those don’t really cause Real Americans’ pulses to rise. They want more infrastructure. They don’t want the Democrats’ reconciliation package, but that’s because it’s about turning America into a European-style social democracy. Socialism, thankfully, in whatever form, is anathema to Real American identity. A Tea Party II opposed to socialism would have much more appeal than a Tea Party opposed to big spending. There is also a continuing distaste for pettifogging regulation, as long as it isn’t directed at the woke capitalists.
The existence of the “Smart American” group also helps explain why we are in a different position than the last time America faced a challenge like Philip describes at the end of the 1960s. Then Big Business was resolutely on the side of the free market. Today, with CEOs, managers, employees, customers, and even investors all demanding a degree of identity politics from corporations, woke capital is lining up with the socialists. As Wall Street Journal editor Gerard Baker put it, that “leaves us with one of the strangest alliances in history: a dominant political class that argues America is a fundamentally flawed society in need of complete transformation, in coalition with a dominant capitalist class that reaps unprecedented riches from investors’ convictions that things have never been better.”
That coalition, however, surely has a breaking point. At some point the demands of the socialist identitarians will start to cause sustained and painful economic harm to the “smart Americans.” It will be a measure of how smart they really are as to how long they put up with this before breaking off or finding common cause with economic conservatives.
What this all means is that America’s political realignment is not over. That gives some hope that economic issues might become salient once again. In the meantime, economic conservatives have to find some way of demonstrating that big-spending big government hurts Real America. If their theory is correct, that shouldn’t be too long in coming if President Biden’s agenda continues to pass through Congress.