Photo: Fox News
Tucker Carlson wants you know that Elizabeth Warren is a “race hustling, gun-grabbing, abortion extremist” — and, also, a better friend to the American worker than anyone in the Republican Party.
Carlson has been positioning himself as the (oddly red) face of intellectually coherent Trumpism for a while now. Like other Fox hosts, Carlson rails against the traditional adversaries of “Real America,” from “dirty” immigrants to Islam to gypsies to the government of Mexico. But like Trump in the early days of his primary campaign, Carlson also warns his audience of an enemy within: Baby-killing feminists may be undermining the nuclear family, but so too are the GOP’s own worshippers of Mammon, who sacrificed the working-class male breadwinner on the altar of globalization. Carlson’s avowed antipathy for “free market” economics recently led him to express grudging respect for Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s proposed crackdown on usurious payday lenders. And after Elizabeth Warren released a downright Trumpish proposal for a new “economic patriotism” Tuesday, Tucker couldn’t help but give that race-baiting feminazi her due:
On Tuesday, Warren released what she calls her plan for “economic patriotism.” Amazingly, that’s pretty much what it is — economic patriotism … She says the U.S. government should buy American products when it can, and of course it should. She says we need more workplace apprenticeship programs because four-year college degrees aren’t right for everyone. Well, that’s true.
She says that taxpayers ought to benefit from the research and development that they pay for. And yet she writes, “We often see American companies take that research and use it to manufacture products overseas, like Apple did with the iPhone. The companies get rich, and American taxpayers have subsidized the creation of low wage, foreign jobs.” And so on. She sounds like Donald Trump at his best.
Carlson then noted what a crying shame it was that Warren believes in climate change and loves “transgender illegal immigrants,” while Republicans with sensible positions on those matters are wedded to an inhuman economic orthodoxy.
In Washington, almost nobody speaks for the majority of voters. You’re either a libertarian zealot controlled by the banks, yammering on about entrepreneurship and how we need to cut entitlements. That’s one side of the aisle. Or worse, you’re some decadent trust fund socialist who wants to ban passenger cars and give Medicaid to illegal aliens. That’s the other side.
What there isn’t is a caucus that represents where most Americans actually are — nationalist on economics, fairly traditional on the social issues … Imagine someone who genuinely respected the nuclear family and sympathized with the culture of rural America, but at the same time, was willing to take your side against rapacious credit card companies bleeding you dry at 35 percent interest. Would you vote for someone like that? My gosh, of course you would. Who wouldn’t? That candidate would be elected in a landslide every single time.
The notion that “most Americans” are as reactionary as Tucker on “the social issues” is dubious. And his characterization of the Democratic platform is wildly dishonest. But his basic point — that economically left-leaning, culturally conservatives voters are underrepresented in the halls of power — is indisputably true. And he’s almost certainly right that Republicans would win more elections if they catered to this constituency.
There are a lot of votes in that upper left corner.
Trump’s first two years in office made this look like a moot point. The GOP donor class may have been unable to execute its will in the 2016 primary. But by all appearances, it still had a hammerlock on their party’s governing agenda. Once in office, the “populist” president danced to Paul Ryan’s tune. Plans for an infrastructure stimulus crumbled. Trump spent his honeymoon trying to euthanize Obamacare and increase post-tax inequality. All was right in the party of Koch.
But in recent months, a growing number of Republican officeholders and intellectuals have begun preaching Tucker’s gospel. Democrats should pray that they remain a minority sect, because if the GOP becomes more economically liberal before it grows less socially revanchist and contemptuous of democracy, the next populist Republican president could prove far more dangerous than our current one.
The GOP is America’s most powerful political party. But it could be even more dominant if it put a higher priority on winning elections.
As U.S. politics has grown more polarized around an urban-rural divide, the GOP’s structural advantage in partisan competition has swelled. The average U.S. state is now roughly 6 percentage points more Republican than the nation as a whole. As of 2017, the same was true of the average House district. If the GOP’s top priority were maximizing its vote share (rather than maximizing Charles Koch’s after-tax income), this tilted playing field would enable the party to utterly dominate the U.S. political system. Instead, Republicans’ structural advantage has enabled them to pursue a heinously unpopular economic agenda, while remaining a more than competitive major party.
Which is to say: From a certain angle, the Koch network’s donations to Republicans have been a gift to Democrats. Absent the GOP’s fanatical commitment to upward redistribution, there (almost certainly) wouldn’t be a Democrat in Kansas’s governors’ mansion. And without Paul Ryan’s crusade to turn chemotherapy into a luxury good, Nancy Pelosi’s caucus would almost certainly be smaller than it is.
Critically, there’s little reason to believe that Republicans would lose many of their current voters by heeding Tucker Carlson’s advice. In opinion polls, majorities of GOP voters already evince support for universal health care, a higher federal minimum wage, and a wealth tax on the superrich. Meanwhile, Trump has proven that Republican elites have a good deal of freedom to dictate economic orthodoxy to the rank and file. When Mitt Romney equated conservatism with support for free trade, a majority of GOP voters were card-carrying neoliberals; when Trump equated NAFTA with godless globalism, the conservative base cried out for autarky.
What’s more, there’s actually some evidence that the GOP electorate may be predisposed to embrace a more left-wing economic message. Research on political psychology has long suggested that, in the aggregate, people who demonstrate a greater sensitivity to risk and aversion to change in their personal lives tend to be more conservative in the political realm, while those who are more open to novel experiences tend to gravitate toward political liberalism. Some studies suggest these disparate “personality” types may even have neurological roots.
And yet, in the context of the U.S., it’s always been hard to square this framework with the partisan debate over economics. Sure, voters who place a premium on security and stability may value counterterrorism over civil liberties, traditional morality over sexual freedom, and restrictionism over expansionary immigration. But why on earth would they value creative destruction over the welfare state?
In their 2017 book, Open Versus Closed: Personality, Identity, and the Politics of Redistribution, the political scientists Christopher Johnston, Howard Lavine, and Christopher Federico offer a simple answer: They don’t.
Specifically, Johnston & Co. show that those with “closed” personalities actually favor economic liberalism — if they do not follow politics closely. Conversely, low-information, “high openness” voters actually tend toward economic conservatism. But these tendencies are obscured in polling that does not separate highly engaged voters from less politically attentive ones, because the correlation between “openness” and economic views reverses for strong partisans: Among people who read blogs like this one, openness strongly correlates with economic liberalism. This is ostensibly because, for most political enthusiasts in the modern era, cultural issues are more visceral and salient than economic ones. Thus, most highly engaged voters gravitate toward whichever party aligns with their values on social and cultural controversies, and then adopt their team’s economic orthodoxy. (To posit that neurology and personality exert influence on political behavior is not to say that human beings are automatons or that rhetoric and historical context do not shape political identity; personal disposition is simply one of many variables influencing political decision-making).
This has two major implications for the prospect of a Republican realignment on economic policy. One is that the current, disproportionately high levels of fiscal conservatism among Republican voters are largely the product of elite signaling; for a substantial portion of the GOP base, fiscal conservatism has always been an acquired taste. Republicans who challenge their party’s economic orthodoxy may therefore be pushing on an open door — especially if trusted conservative commentators like Tucker Carlson continue signaling that one can favor “nationalist” economic policy and still be a conservative.
The second implication is that an economically liberal Republican Party could eat substantially into the Democrats’ vote share. Opinion polling suggests that about 25 percent of Hillary Clinton voters actually lean right on cultural issues. There’s reason to suspect that a significant portion of this contingent consists of politically disengaged voters with relatively closed “personalities,” who prioritize their intuitions on economics at the ballot box. It may take time for the GOP to gain credibility on economic policy with such Americans. But if it does, Democrats could find themselves in a great deal of trouble.
In recent weeks, some GOP lawmakers have begun to take up the mantle of Tucker Carlson-ism — or at least, something adjacent to it. In a frighteningly theocratic commencement address last month, Missouri’s junior senator Josh Hawley decried the false God of “free choice,” imploring Americans to subordinate hedonistic individualism to familial obligation, communitarian sacrifice, and class solidarity:
[W]hen industry ships jobs overseas, [elites] say, workers should find another trade. Capital must be allocated to its most efficient use. When workers without college degrees can’t get a good job, they say that’s their fault. They should have gone to college.
Now, I rather suspect that if globalization threatened America’s tech industry or banking sector, our elites would sing a very different tune. We would hear how these industries are the lifeblood of the American economy and must be protected at all cost … We must rebuild an economy that will offer opportunity for every American worker, whatever degree she may have, wherever he may live — an economy that rewards hard, productive work. For that, after all, is the work that built this country.
Meanwhile, Florida senator Marco Rubio, once the avatar of the Republican Establishment, recently released a 40-page critique of neoliberal financialization, which cited a wide array of leading left-wing “post-Keynesian” economists, and called for the government to take a more active role in shaping industrial development. Should any other Republican politician lose her taste for trickle-down economics, the “liberaltarian” Niskanen Center is ready and waiting to supply her with a heterodox agenda of welfare-state expansion, industrial policy, and proposals for combating rentiers.
As of a year ago, it looked like liberals could safely dismiss these populist gestures as disingenuous posturing. Perhaps Republicans aimed to emulate Trump’s heretical populism on the campaign trail. But if the president had demonstrated the political virtues of making populist promises, he’d also ostensibly shown that there was little penalty for failing to deliver on such pledges. Trump outsourced his agenda to Paul Ryan and suffered no durable decline in his approval rating.
But it now seems possible that last year’s midterms changed this calculus — both because the GOP’s attempt to repeal Obamacare appeared to impose such a steep electoral price, and because the party’s heavy losses in the suburbs have left it with a coalition more heavily weighted toward working-class white voters in economically stagnant regions. Further, recent polling of Rust Belt swing states suggests that Trump has, in fact, taken a hit for governing as a conventional Republican.
All of this said, it is much easier to change a movement’s messaging than its governing agenda. The Koch network still holds the GOP’s purse strings. Corporations and libertarian billionaires aren’t just the biggest shareholders in Republican campaigns, but also in virtually all of American conservatism’s major institutions. Supply-siders remain the principal investors in GOP-aligned think tanks, legal societies, and advocacy groups.
The moneylenders are well-entrenched in the Evangelical temples. There’s a reason Donald Trump ended up filling his White House with Ayn Rand acolytes — the infrastructure of American conservatism is designed to funnel Fountainhead superfans into the halls of power.
Still, that infrastructure is starting to show its age. And the Reaganite dogma is looking more intellectually bankrupt by the day. The plutocracy’s grip on the GOP might be loosening. That could allow Republicans to appeal to voters on bread-and-butter concerns, ease up on culture-war hysterics, and become a normal center-right party; or it could help them accrue just enough popular support to entrench xenophobic theocracy before the boomer generation shuffles off this mortal coil.
Listening to Josh Hawley speak, it’s hard not to suspect that the only thing worse than a Republican Party that’s bought and paid for by reactionary oligarchs is one that is not.