By Darrell Dow
Now that it appears Donald Trump will not have a second term, many in the GOP ruling class yearn to return to the “socially-moderate fiscal conservatism” of yore, while others call on the party to embrace an ongoing realignment and build a coalition with the working class at its center.
The shift of working-class voters to the GOP has been decades long in the making. The deindustrialization of America, combined with the departure of voters with college degrees for the Democrats, accelerated that flight. The left can no longer caricature the Republican base as bankers, corporate tycoons, and Wall Street fat cats. The protests at the U.S. Capitol today should prove that.
Remember the pointless argument this realignment spurred in 2016? Did economic or cultural concerns propel Trump’s support with the working class? That debate continues, and for no good reason. It is a false dichotomy. Economics and culture are inextricably linked, a fact that must inform good political analysis.
One affects the other, as the evidence shows.
Dislocation and the Culture
Economic dislocation adversely affects social and community institutions. Watching the American Ruling Class open the doors to the American market in the post-WWII period, Herbert Hoover foresaw the effect of imports on smalltown America. “Thousands of villages and towns would be deprived of their employment,” he wrote. “Their schools, churches and skills would be greatly decimated.”
Imports, of course, can end in closed factories. When a factory leaves town, many things go with it, but the damage to people and community life does not. The fictional Economic Man who inhabits the world of bloodless econometricians and haunts the journalism of Kevin Williamson and David French would simply leave home and hearth behind. Many have. But what of those who remain?
Two years ago, Economist David Autor explained that the explosion in Chinese trade killed millions of manufacturing jobs, and the consequences were often localized. Shocks to labor markets reduced earnings among men, marriage rates and fertility, while increasing illegitimate births, childhood poverty, and the number of men in jail.
Marriage is a particular victim. “Manufacturing jobs are a fulcrum on which traditional work and family arrangements rest,” wrote Autor. The loss of work and decline of family also harms the mediating institutions of civil society that give meaning and structure to life, although the impact may also work in the other direction.
Consider Youngstown, Ohio. Traditionally a center of steel production, the city fell into decline in the 1970s. As steel production plummeted, Youngstown has experienced a 60 percent population decline since 1959. In 2019, General Motors also closed the nearby Lordstown plant that once employed 8,000 people.
Factory closures also wrecked family formation in Youngstown. Consider the news from the last couple years. Just 26 percent of households are married and 78 percent of births are to unwed mothers. Youngstown also has one of the highest crime rates in America. It’s 78 percent higher than the national average and 135 percent higher than the average in Ohio.
Other social and civic institutions suffered, too. Shortly after the Lordstown plant shutdown, the town newspaper stopped publishing after 150 years of operation. The Catholic Diocese of Youngstown closed five parishes.
The lesson of Youngstown: Economic destruction and deprivation caused social, familial and cultural turmoil.
The Middle American Radical
The insidious decay of Youngstown began in the 1950s, yet the terrible toll from economic dislocation continued into the second decade of the 21st century. In 1998, Samuel Francis described this coming upheaval, identifying the fundamental polarity in American politics as a brewing confrontation between “a deracinated and self-serving Ruling Class” and culturally, politically and economically dispossessed “Middle American groups.” Borrowing from the work of sociologist Donald Warren, Francis described “Middle American Radicals” (MARS) this way:
[E]ssentially middle-income, white, often ethnic voters who see themselves as an exploited and dispossessed group, excluded from meaningful political participation; threatened by the tax and trade policies of the government; victimized by its tolerance of crime, immigration, and social deviance; and ignored, ridiculed, or demonized by the major cultural institutions of the media and education. MARS possess objective statistical characteristics, but these are not their defining features. Warren identified as their defining feature an attitudinal characteristic: they view themselves as sandwiched between — and victimized by—an elite (in government and politics, the economy, and the dominant culture) that is either indifferent to them or hostile to them, and an underclass with which the elites are in alliance and whose interests and values the elites support at the expense of the interests and values of Middle Americans.
The divide Francis described in 1996 is still the pivot of American politics. Under the guise of neoliberalism, an overclass elite and their underclass foot soldiers have waged an ongoing war on Middle America. MARS have seen their communities depopulate and die as factories have fled to Asia and Mexico. They have watched elites mock their mores and transform their towns by immigration.
The primary political question for the GOP is how to cement the loyalty of disaffected and unrepresented Middle Americans. Do conservatives have a clue how to mobilize a disorganized and demoralized constituency into action? Unfortunately, the GOP, rightly called the Stupid Party, is caught in the economics vs. culture dichotomy described above.
Leery of the “culture war” or considerations of identity, race, and nationhood, elected Republicans focus on economics. They would build a “multicultural” coalition centered around the mythology of Homo Economicus, operating under the illusion that man can live by bread alone.
Florida Sen. Maro Rubio urges Republicans to adopt populist stances on trade and industrial policy lest they lose Trump’s voters. Yet Rubio also recently attended a summit hosted by the pro-amnesty “American Business Immigration Coalition,” and bragged about shoveling $3 trillion to Israel. Rubio says the future is “a party built on a multi-ethnic multi-racial coalition of working AMERICANS.”
As well, a coterie of conservative eggheads labor to create an infrastructure to support an agenda focused on “populist” economics. Julius Krein founded the American Affairs, which has published illuminating articles on trade, industrial policy, and labor issues but ignored the culture war. Oren Cass, who worked for Rubio, started American Compass to challenge free market “fundamentalism.” Tucker Carlson, who ought to know better, also often endorses this thinly-masked economic determinism by saying that, “America’s core problems are in fact economic.”
On the other side of the debate, political scientists George Hawley and Richard Hanania argue powerfully that “Trumpism” is chiefly defined by culture and identity issues rather than populist economics.
“The data show that most voters who supported Trump were overwhelmingly driven by cultural rather than economic concerns,” they wrote. “This implies that the national populist vision [focusing on economics] is unlikely to provide major electoral gains for the Republican Party.”
Their research also finds that voters motivated by economics are concerned about growth, unemployment, and inflation. Thus the “technocratic, byzantine policies promoted by the smartest national populists” are “not likely to garner much interest from the electorate.”
If true, then racial, ethnic and religious cleavages in the electorate are likely to remain far more significant than economic divisions. Populists who ignore these issues in favor of tariffs or industrial policy are likely to fail.
Problem is, that view justifies fusing Paul Ryan’s economics with Tweeting about Colin Kaeprnick or shouting “LAW AND ORDER.” How’d that work out? It also overlooks that Trump moved the GOP considerably to the left culturally. Recall the $500 billion Platinum Plan for blacks, “Juneteenth” proposed a national holiday, and the pro-homosexual Rainbow Flag at American embassies.
Rather than parsing distinctions between “economic” and “cultural” issues, a better solution is reaching to the past to revise our definition of economics and reshape “economic nationalism” to incorporate cultural variables.
“Economics” is Greek for “household management.” For our ancestors, the purpose of economic life was not merely the production and consumption of material goods, but the support of families as the fundamental units of social life and human action, from which broader social institutions and identities evolve.
The Economy Is Not Sovereign
Economic nationalism is broader than questions about tariffs and trade protection. It is an economic approach that seeks to benefit the nation and sustain the culture and people that define it. It takes account of different regions and seeks to balance the needs of rural and urban, capital and labor, farmers, manufacturers, and small businesses. It is a facet of national identity and not a mere expression of material interests.
The economy is not sovereign. Nor is it superimposed onto social life independent from culture. It exists to protect and perpetuate the culture of a people. “Finally, a nation should not regard the progress of industries from a purely economic point of view,” wrote Friedrich List. “Manufactures become a very important part of the nation‘s political and cultural heritage.”
Economic nationalism must not be reduced to pragmatic and circumstantial definitions of “national interest” or “security” that lack a defining principle of American nationality. Economic life is an extension of national and religious identity.
“America First” immigration and economic policies should recognize that social life is arranged around our duties to family and fellow citizens. Our neighbors matter more than cheap jeans or new phones and electronics that belch filth into homes. Restrictions on immigration or curbs on trade and technology transfers must be framed in terms of national identity and interests rather than defended with abstract appeals to human or natural rights, “freedom” or the “global community.”
Economic nationalism must buttress social traditionalism and is as much about piety and identity as wealth creation.
Darrell Dow writes for American Remnant.