Do Republicans Finally Have a Populist Wing?

Eric Medlin
4 min readApr 7, 2021

Parts of the party have changed. But will those changes matter?

Mitt Romney and Tom Cotton announcing their minimum wage increase. Source: Business Insider

Has the Republican Party actually changed?

The modern iteration of this idea has been floated since at least the late 1990s. The theory behind it was that the pro-corporate, low-tax, laissez-faire mindset that captured the party in the 1980s needed to be updated for the 21st century. George W. Bush called his approach “compassionate conservatism,” a movement that lasted until September 11, 2001. The famed 2012 Republican “autopsy” urged a more inclusive approach to immigration and other issues the party believed they needed to moderate on.

The most recent version of this process, the idea of populist conservatism, has been rumbling for several years. Several of Donald Trump’s best known proposals, from his stated desire to increase entitlement spending to his constant chant of “drain the swamp,” had a populist ring to them. In a more academic vein, Orin Cass, a former political advisor to Mitt Romney and the director of American Compass, has issued a number of policies he views as both conservative and anathema to free market economics. One of his most famous ideas, which gained media attention in the fall of 2020, is that of sectoral bargaining, where workers come together and form unions that bargain in sectors instead of at the company level.

But Cass’s ideas and other suggestions for populist reform were subsumed by the constant drive for tax cuts and deregulation that has characterized the Republican Party for decades. The Republicans of 2017 were the same party that, in 2011, refused to budge an inch on tax increases during the debt ceiling standoff. They successfully prevented Trump from enacting any of his populist ideas. Trump did nothing to drain the swamp and ignored various ethics rules designed to separate political leaders from business. The concept of sectoral bargaining does not fit in a Republican Party orthodoxy that leaves no room for unions of any sort.

The impenetrable nature of this orthodoxy, weakened by the emergency pandemic relief bills, was finally broken earlier this year. In February, Republican Senator Tom Cotton introduced a proposal to increase the minimum wage to $10 an hour. His proposal was derided at the time for being significantly smaller than the…

Eric Medlin

I’m a writer interested in the intersections of history, ideas, and politics. I publish every week.