Republicans as Working Class Party?

By Mike Koetting October 11, 2022

I generally consider what David Brooks has to say interesting. We share enough basic values that I can imagine a discussion with him, but we disagree enough around the edges that I frequently find his perspective usefully different. But one of the dangers of being interesting is that you occasionally uncork something that is completely off base, even if it has a good size grain of truth to it.

Such was the case when, on the PBS Newshour a couple weeks ago, he started talking about the Republican Party being in transition to a working class party. Seriously?

Where Could He Be Coming From

As it happens, he’s not alone in saying this or something like it.

Marco Rubio and Josh Hawley have both made similar noises and Rep. Jim Banks (R-Ind.) recently wrote a six-page memo to Minority Leader McCarthy suggesting Republicans recast themselves as the party of the working class.

Banks’ argument is based on the fact that Republicans are already a solid majority of the White working class vote and that its share of the both the Latino and Black working class is growing. He also notes that Democrats have moved to overwhelmingly solidify their hold on people with greater education and among some sectors of people with higher incomes, although Trump did still win a majority of the people earning more than $100,000. Banks argues the most plausible route to continued Republican power is to expand its share of the working class vote, specifically people without college degrees who have jobs.

People with jobs is a critical distinction. Lisa Pruitt, in a terrifically useful Politico article,  points out that since much analysis has lumped together people without college education or with incomes under $100,000, it misses the distinction between those who have regular jobs and those who don’t. For those who have regular jobs, their jobs are of necessity a major part of their life. Many of the jobs are particularly hard. But they still feel economically constrained. Not surprisingly, then, they resent the rich, who seem to be working less hard. They even more resent those they see around them who don’t work and still get by. They feel their hard work isn’t being counted for much and that they are being taken advantage of, both personally and economically. Pruitt says this judgement is more about working than about race, per se, and cites both journalistic and academic supports for this position.

New York Times/Edison Research     

While I am not willing to overlook the role of race, I do find this perspective helpful in understanding why people vote against what would seem to be their interests. I strongly recommend the Pruitt article. She thoughtfully describes, based in part on her personal experience, how these folks’ sense of self-worth is bound up in the idea that they are pulling their own weight—in contrast to those they see as sponging off society. They might not be fancy city-folks, but they are absolutely not “trailer-trash”. They see themselves as the real backbone of America and their work essential to the country, appreciated or not. This attitude is at the heart of Senator Manchin’s skepticism of widespread child supports: he worries too many parents would use it on drugs. The people who vote for him actually worry about that.

The way the Democratic Party has evolved feeds into that scenario. Its emphasis on strengthening the safety net, its dominance in cities, and its emphasis on cultural issues that are far removed—or hostile—to the rural, White working class. Even the long Democratic affiliation with unions provides little protection as unions have dwindled, have been historically missing in the South and rural areas, and more than half of all union members actually work for the government. Many non-unionized workers see unions as a license for feather-bedding. Unfortunate comments like Obama’s “clinging to their guns or religion” cement the notion that the Democrats don’t really care about them or in fact look down on them.

So the Democrats have lost (at least for now) the White working class, especially in rural areas. That, however, is a far cry from thinking of the Republicans as a working class party.

A More Realistic Reading

The conservative American Enterprise Institute dismisses the idea of the Republicans as transitioning to a working class party as a “muddled concept”. As they point out, in an acerbic understatement, the notion suggests “flirting with an economic program actual Republicans don’t seem to want.   They continue their analysis, pointing out there is no interest in the “real” Republican party for high taxes on anyone, breaking up big corporations, adopting a serious industrial policy or significant trade barriers—let alone worrying about the serious inequities in income. In short, it has no interest in the issues that a real working class would advocate. Indeed, Rep. Banks program proposals are not in any historic sense “working class”. They don’t even mention labor or actual workers but rather focus on attacking immigration, attacking China, attacking big tech and attacking “wokeness”.

It is indisputable that the Republican party is becoming something different than it has been for my life. If it is not transitioning to a working class party, what is it becoming? It is a vehicle for stoking up resentment among White working class voters grafted on to the Republicans’ traditional economic largess toward the rich, supplemented by a large dose of nostalgia for the cultural consensus of the Fifties. Republicans are transitioning into—actually, seem to have made the transition–a soft hard-right party.

The term “soft hard right” sounds oxymoronic but I think it is the best way to categorize what is being offered. Fascist may in some sense be fair, but it is not useful. This notion may fire up the people who are already Democrats, but it makes it too easy for the rest of the population to dismiss. The differences between the Nazis and what is happening in the U.S. are too obvious. However much I dislike the current Republicans, I readily admit they are not building concentration camps—nor are they likely to. (The situation with racist is similar. No reasonable person can ignore the differences in racial attitudes and behavior between now and, say, 1950. No matter how many similarities remain, using the term racist will be unproductive because the behavior in question is so different from the benchmark defined by history.)

Nevertheless, we should not soft-pedal what’s going on. The current Republican party is carving out a different space. Many of the strains from which they are drawing are deeply embedded in American history. A profound distrust of intellectuals, a knee-jerk puritanism, and a deep-seated xenophobia, which actually extended to anyone who was different from community norms, have always been features of the American landscape. And even beyond the explicit exclusion of classes of voters, historically both political parties have always been able to fool around with voting systems to make them considerably less than democratic.

So exactly how different the emerging Republican party is from various historic analogues is debatable. But what is not debatable is the current Republican party is anti-democratic and has distinctly authoritarian trends. It is impossible to overstate the magnitude of change implied by the fact that virtually the entire the party is unwilling to concede that Donald Trump actually lost the last election. Or that the party has embarked on a set of voter suppression laws that, while not as categorical as the old Jim Crow laws, are clearly in that spirit. Soft hard right.

Moreover, imagine if Donald Trump were to be re-elected. Or even a Ron DeSantis or Greg Abbot presidency with the current Supreme Court and Republican majorities in Congress. I don’t know what exactly would happen. It would not be Nazi Germany or 1935 Mississippi but neither would it be the America of the last 75 years. It would be a country with a drastically constrained allowance for diversity, with strong Christian Nationalist overtones, and with a clear willingness to exercise power as a minority.

And it sure as hell wouldn’t be anything like a working class party, however many of the working class might be voting for it. David Brooks is right that the Republican Party is transitioning. Unfortunately, he is much too generous in his imagination of what it is transitioning to.

Author: mkbhhw

Mike Koetting’s career has been in health care policy and administration. But it has always been on the fringes of politics. His first job out of graduate school was conducting an evaluation of the Illinois Medicaid program for the Illinois Legislative Budget Office. In the following 40 years, he has been a health care provider, a researcher, a teacher, a regulator, a consultant and a payor. The biggest part of his career was 24 years as Vice President of Planning for the University of Chicago Medical Center. He retired from there in 2008, but in 2010 was asked to implement the ACA Medicaid expansion in Illinois, which kept him busy for another 5 years.

One thought on “Republicans as Working Class Party?

  1. I really worry about where this country – the one I was born in and grew up in! – is headed. It just doesn’t seem to be adhering to the same principles I thought were at rock bottom whilst I was being educated in the 50’s and 60’s. (And 70’s & 80’s, I should add.). I have no idea what we’re really leaving for the following generations.


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