Do Republicans Finally Have a Populist Wing?

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 Democratic stance and being combined with immigration proposals that the opposing party hated. But its significance should not be lost on observers. Tom Cotton is not an apostate like Mitt Romney or Orin Cass. He is one of the most vehement Trump supporters in Congress and is seen by many as a likely successor to Trump’s political movement. Cotton’s act was joined two weeks later by Marco Rubio, who suggested in USA Today that Amazon should have a union. Rubio’s position was informed by his hatred of what he saw as a liberal company and his dedication to culture war issues. But it is still an attack on Republican orthodoxy that is much closer to liberal economic ideas than, for instance, the 2012 Republican party platform.

Both Cotton and Rubio have been eclipsed by Mitt Romney. While Romney has taken moderate positions in the past, he superseded all of those with his proposal in February to introduce a new child allowance for every American. Romney’s proposal is different than those from Rubio and Cotton in that it is more liberal than Democratic proposals. According to Matt Breunig, the policy is more generous than Joe Biden’s child allowance described in his campaign. Many liberals also pointed out that Romney’s most controversial source of funding in the program, the end to Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, would simply put an ineffective and poorly constructed program out of its misery.

Something is clearly different. These policies would have been anathema in 2019, let alone during the Tea Party movement or the George W. Bush administration. But the test for Republicans will be if they actually push to enact any of their bills into law. Every populist stand that Republicans have taken so far fits into a narrative of cultural posturing or an attack against Democrats. Republican leadership is still devoted to undermining government and regulation at every possible opportunity. If Republican rhetoric turns into laws, Republicans may start to usurp the basic Democratic argument of governance: elect us and we will pass programs that improve your lives. Such a shift could upturn all our demographic and ideological assumptions about Republicans and may, finally, show the party the way to a post-Trump future.

But such a shift would require rejecting the entirety of Republican leadership, the Donald Trump approach to politics, and a favorable 2020 election in which Republicans ran on almost nothing. It would also risk endangering the pipeline of corporate money that has supported the party since Citizens United and before. Democrats should not be too worried about having their control of economic issues challenged anytime soon.

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

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