As a citizen and as a political theorist, two things about American conservatism have always given me pause. The first is our relationship to race. The second is our relationship to the free market. The 2020 election has taught me that if we can change our historical approach on both of these issues, we may be able to reverse the decline of American politics.
I have written for Public Discourse and elsewhere about America and race, and will return to the subject in the second part of this essay. I have not publicly reflected much about conservative economic theories, but it is not for want of an opinion. My earliest impressions of market-oriented conservatism left me lukewarm. So much of the account relied on the belief that hard work and initiative were enough, but I knew they were not. There was a lot of talk about fortune, but very little of fortuna.
I had known too many people who had worked until their bodies were ruined—and yet never had the stability or quality of life that their labor would seem to merit—to find this talk convincing. My grandpa came from a family of migrant workers and picked in the fields, and was apprenticed to a butcher as a young teen. He worked for America since he was a child. My father also worked as a child, and later supported his mother and brothers with money he earned as a teenager working nights at a convenience store and going to school during the day. These stories, I imagine, are similar to the stories of working-class Americans of every race. Yet I often saw the culture of my family singled out and denigrated as lacking in ambition. We could only blame ourselves for comparative lack of social status and money—at least according to the conservative narrative.
When I entered higher education and my exposure to the world grew, I realized that there was often very little difference between clever (or even not so clever people) I knew from back home, and people from my new world who were getting the best internships and jobs in a prosperity pipeline that was supposed to be wholly meritocratic. It was not that many of these new people I met did not have merit. It was that I did not know how much more merit they had than people I knew who had been born to parents without the money, the connections, or the social knowledge of the professional classes that they had. These people could easily replicate the well-being and security that their families enjoyed by slipping easily into the world of their parents’ networks.
The right’s critique of affirmative action began to make less sense to me as I realized that they could not (or would not) engage the fact that on the ground the world did not work with the elegance of a meritocracy, but that a part of the recipe for merit required gifts that had very little to do with individuals themselves, and more to do with families, inherited wealth, and communities. As I became better acquainted with conservatism, conservatives were losing me on wealth and merit.
A Disappointing Realignment
Consequently, the 2016 realignment to economic populism should have appealed to me. Yet when Trump came on the scene and Hillbilly Elegy started (rightfully) breaking hearts, I felt immense frustration and betrayal. Why, I asked, are all of these conservatives suddenly open to governmental aid and critiques of employer exploitation now that the plight of the white working class has become apparent to them?
The compassion, the search to understand, and the desire for political change that emerged under a Trump banner for the forgotten man were what I had waited for since I can remember. Only now they were happening in a way that also sought to tie American national identity more closely to Anglo-Saxon and European-American identity. Over the next four years, my frustration and disbelief grew.
During the early years of the Trump administration, a Latino colleague from Arizona State University astutely observed that “The Republicans are making an unforced error.” Although we are diverse individually and in terms of our distinctive heritages, Latinos are, overall, highly religious and more socially conservative than other demographics. There is a natural fit between a certain kind of conservativism and Latino-American political concerns. Yet, growing up, I remember relatives telling me that the Democrats were for the poor, even though these relatives each abhorred abortion. Many of us bounced back and forth from Clinton to Bush and then to Obama in a way that tracked national trends, evading being “captured” as a reliable demographic. But could it be possible for one party to ultimately secure the “Latino” vote in America?
This is where I hope I can offer a useful set of proposals.
Learning from the 2020 Election
The Republicans were able to get more non-white votes in 2020 than at any time since the sixties despite Trump’s decision to use racist rhetoric, especially as a way of justifying or gaining support for his anti-immigration policies. This is due to the inherent attractiveness of the combination of social conservatism and economic populism to many American non-whites.
In the aftermath of the 2020 election, I urge American conservatives to take advantage of the opportunity the 2020 election’s demographic breakdown offers. Now is the time to reorient the conservative idea of who they are fighting for and trying to appeal to, and to return to the position of the GOP’s 2013 election postmortem, considering again what getting the Latino vote means for their future prospects, and understanding what it would take to achieve that.
During the 2018 election, when Democrats gained ground, the president promoted border separations that did, in fact, differ from Obama’s policy. By contrast, approaching 2020, the president cultivated Latinos with a good ground game in states like Florida and Texas and pulled back on talk that cast us as invaders or the equivalent of a national plague. It is important to note that Trump gained three percentage points with Latinos compared to 2016, and in 2016 and 2020 received more of the vote than Mitt Romney did. Still, he did not reach the level of 43% that George W. Bush reached, a president who, whatever his faults, made ending racial animosity towards Hispanics a central part of his “compassionate conservatism.”
President Trump’s election season shift in rhetoric offered us an improvement, but it’s not enough. The lesson of 2020 is that we need to work with the nation we presently have, accepting that the new American middle class will not have its old complexion. These are my concrete suggestions for what it will take to find success in a diverse America going forward.
How to Build a Diverse, Working Class Coalition
Policymakers, public figures, and conservative intellectuals should, in every capacity available to them:
- Speak about nationalism in ways that reflect the truth about who we are as a nation. Non-whites are not additions to this country but fellow nation-builders from its inception and co-creators of the culture. The election results show us that non-whites want something different from the 1619 Project’s skepticism of the nation as the fruit of a poisonous tree, but they also do not want a mythology of the American founding that makes the building of the nation seem like it is not what Albert Murray so astutely calls “mulatto” in the Omni-Americans. Between the historical facts of American slavery, the tribes and federations that existed in the US before the founding, and the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo’s acquisition of both Mexican lands and more importantly, persons, it is too simple to depict the nation’s history as simply a narrative of the great white West.
- Mobilize a diverse working class. Don’t only imagine the forgotten man as the white factory worker in Ohio, but as the Latina retail worker in the Texas border town or the black mechanic who wants to send his kids to a Christian school but cannot afford it. Transforming our idea of who we are fighting for will transform the aims of our policy and rhetoric, and it will give us the ability to better craft prudential legislation and policy. Stop worrying about the demographic decline of white Americans and using language that denigrates other racial groups who are already here and are ready to be a part of a socially conservative coalition. Adjust your rhetoric and internal attitudes so that you can reach out to non-white Americans and to encourage your base to do the same.
- Call out economic injustice when you see it. Don’t just criticize companies for being “woke.” Criticize them for their unjust wage structures too, or your words will sound hollow and unpersuasive. Populist economics must not simply use the socially conservative opinions of the “simple person” as a tool to reinvent the national moral order without improving the material circumstances of those they ostensibly speak for. Who wants to be a source of support for conservative social policy when the average CEO compensation has risen 940 percent since 1978 but the average worker’s compensation has only risen 12 percent?
- Rethink your approach to markets. Understand that the conservative concept of subsidiarity may require something different in late modernity than the simple free market economics that conservatives have championed in the past. Markets can certainly do a lot of work to alleviate inequality, but they can’t do this on their own. While subsidiarity acknowledges that we should try to keep the functions of government at the most local level possible, deferring where we can to what the individual and small community can accomplish, we should ask if it is impossible for our current economic structures to adequately meet our economic needs without elevating oversight in areas such as trade, financial incentives for family life, and monopoly-busting to the federal level. In a globalized economy, perhaps subsidiarity requires regulation at a higher level than in earlier times.
- Extend the structural critique that has arisen in sympathy to the white working man to other structural issues, such as police brutality, criminal law reform, and racial differences in health care access and outcomes. Do it in a way that your current base can understand and sympathize with, and get rid of the spokespeople who can’t make this leap. This is one thing that President Trump did well with the First Step Act, which balanced a recognition of systemic inequalities with policy changes with concrete and widely desired objectives.
For example, consider turning to affirmative action proposals based on socioeconomic status instead of race. Offer paths to citizenship for people who have contributed to the American labor force for decades, while securing the border against illegal entry and honoring the laws of nature and convention regarding refugees. Consider penalizing companies that exploit undocumented labor, destabilizing the wages of American workers. Much of America’s racially charged immigration debate emerges from our unfair reliance on immigrants with few tangible rights for our labor, hurting them and other competing wage workers but benefitting corporations.”
These proposals are only a start. Still, they would represent significant progress in understanding and responding to the needs of an America that is changing in both its demographics and its shared political yearnings.
The conservative response to demographic change has thus far been primarily defensive, one more aspect of the sense in which the American right feels “under siege.” Conservatives need to come to terms with the opportunity that 2020 offers: Americans of different racial and ethnic compositions are potential allies in the search for accountable government oriented toward a common good as equals. If conservatives don’t, astute political observers from another party in a time of realignment might seize the moment instead.