Republicans Need to Be More Than the Party of Trump
(Bloomberg Opinion) -- Republicans are apparently too busy stoking cultural grievances and recounting votes from the 2020 presidential election to craft a policy agenda for the next election. Looking forward instead of backward would be a better way to build political support and to channel the populism of former President Donald Trump into programs to help working- and middle-class voters.
The alternative for the GOP is to contest the 2024 election as a referendum on Trump’s personality and his false claims of election fraud. Republican partisans are convinced; nearly six in 10 Republicans and GOP-leaning independents state that believing the 2020 election was stolen from Trump is an important part of what it means to be a Republican, according to a recent CNN poll. And Trump’s fantasy is already a big part of the 2022 midterm elections.
But do Republicans really want voters to focus exclusively on Trump?
A healthy political party can’t be stuck in the past and it can’t be a cult of personality. This should be obvious from Trump’s loss in the personality-driven 2020 contest. That year, the GOP couldn’t even write a policy platform for its nominating convention. Instead, it released a bizarre statement of fealty to Trump.
If the GOP wants to make inroads among the many voters who aren’t loyal to the former president, it needs a policy agenda. Such an agenda would communicate the values the party stands for, as well as offering solutions to the challenges citizens face.
In addition to relitigating 2020, much of the party is sounding the alarm about the excesses of progressive social activism derided as “wokeism.” I, too, am concerned about the issue and think liberal society is undermined by treating people as members of groups rather than as individuals, and by shutting down the marketplace of ideas rather than engaging in it.
Some Republicans have attempted to marry the cultural grievances invoked by the “woke” label with policy. Take a new bill proposed by Florida Senator Marco Rubio which, according to his press release, “would enable shareholders to hold woke corporations accountable.”
Cultural differences have a place in political debate, but they shouldn’t be allowed to push out other imperatives. They are not as urgent as improving the quality of education, figuring out how to retrain workers who have been displaced, or reversing the decades-long decline in workforce participation among men. And they are not the top challenges facing households that need better access to affordable child care or higher education.
The GOP is wedded to Trumpian populism, an outlook of grievance that pits “the people” against “the elites,” foreigners and immigrants. This analytically impoverished view of the world takes policy debates in unfortunate directions, as Rubio’s bill shows.
But there are manifestations of populism that point a constructive way forward. A focus on the working and middle classes could channel populist energy in a healthier direction. To keep its coalition together — to keep businesspeople and free-market enthusiasts on board — Republicans need to marry that focus with traditional commitments to the free-enterprise system, individual liberty, personal responsibility and advancing economic opportunity.
One opportunity is to shape policies that can highlight the shortcomings of President Joe Biden’s agenda. For example, if Biden is able to expand the size and scope of government involvement in health care, child care and higher education, as he has proposed, this gives the GOP the opportunity to offer alternative policies that are rooted in a commitment to free markets, but that still address the legitimate concerns that working- and middle-class households have.
A second major fault line exists over the value of workforce participation. The progressive left is quick to brand large swaths of the labor market as consisting of “dead-end jobs” and is eager to divorce safety-net programs from work requirements. A marriage of free markets and populism could push back against this, arguing for the value of employment and for the inherent dignity of work, even flipping burgers and unloading trucks.
An agenda around this wouldn’t just be laissez faire. Instead, it could consist of expanding earnings subsidies, redistributing income to encourage employment by subsidizing it. Or it could scratch the populist “anti-elite” itch by chipping away at employer power in the labor market, restricting noncompete clauses in employment contracts and loosening occupational licensing restrictions, all of which advance the interests of big firms and incumbents ahead of workers.
Defining itself against Biden’s agenda and rallying around a pro-work flag are just two of several ways that the GOP might create a coalition that includes stop-the-steal Republicans without alienating the party’s traditional interests, and that avoids the trap of betting the next election on anger and grievance.
But moving forward productively will require the right leadership. It’s harder to say where that will come from than where it won’t: the former president.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Michael R. Strain is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. He is director of economic policy studies and Arthur F. Burns Scholar in Political Economy at the American Enterprise Institute. He is the author of “The American Dream Is Not Dead: (But Populism Could Kill It).”
©2021 Bloomberg L.P.