Culture-War Red Meat Is All the GOP Serves the Working Class

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Photo Illustration by Luis G. Rendon/The Daily Beast/Getty
Photo Illustration by Luis G. Rendon/The Daily Beast/Getty

In 2012, Mitt Romney ran for president as an unabashed representative of the billionaire class. He said things like “corporations are people, my friends” with a smile that suggested that he was faintly amused that anyone disagreed with that statement.

In more recent years, the GOP has been trying to shed that image. Donald Trump got the ball rolling with his first run in 2016—when he constantly talked about bad trade deals and “draining the swamp” of D.C. corruption, and how he would bring the coal mines back to Appalachia and the factories back to Youngstown.

He was, of course, lying about most of this, but all of that rhetoric almost certainly played a role in pushing him over the finish line in Rust Belt swing states in 2016. Trump was defeated in 2020, but many other Republicans have caught onto the idea that rebranding themselves as “the party of the working class” is a winning strategy—even as they continue to support union-busting and deregulation.

Neither Party Cares About the Working Class

Take Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, who gave a fiery speech at last year’s Conservative Political Action Committee (CPAC). “The Republican Party is not the party of the country clubs,” Cruz said in a summation of that speech, “it is the party of hard-working, blue-collar men and women.”

If anyone is tempted to take that self-description seriously, they should take a look at the freshly adopted 2022 platform of the Texas GOP. The part that got the most attention was their official adoption of the right-wing conspiracy theory which holds that Trump actually won the 2020 election. Others have noted the blood-curdling extremism of the platform on social policy. For example, Current Affairs editor Nathan J. Robinson noted to me that the platform “cracks down on gambling, ganja, and gay marriage,” concluding, “so much for freedom.”

What most struck me, though, was the dramatic contrast between the “party of the working class” rhetoric and the policy substance of the platform. In Cruz’s speech at CPAC, he listed off some of the groups he insisted were being represented by the GOP. “[T]he Republican Party is the party of steel workers and construction workers and pipeline workers and taxicab drivers and cops and firefighters and waiters and waitresses.”

I’ll give him “cops.” And presumably “pipeline workers” are going to be given jobs through the approval of pipeline projects against any environmental objections—though I certainly wouldn’t expect the Texas GOP to side with any pipeline workers who go on strike over wages and working conditions.

But what does Cruz’s state party want to do for the rest of those groups?

The platform explicitly calls for the repeal of both local and federal minimum wage laws. It calls for the repeal of municipal ordinances mandating “sick/family leave” for employers with city contracts. It opposes “card check,” a process which would make it easier for all those construction workers, waitresses, cab drivers and so on to form labor unions by letting the decision of a majority of employees in some workplaces to sign union cards suffice—without the need for a drawn-out unionization process. Oh, and it includes this crisp unambiguous statement: “We support privatization of the Social Security system.”

So if you’re a construction worker whose employer has a contract with the Austin city government, the Texas GOP doesn’t want you to have paid sick or family leave. If you’re a “taxi cab driver” (these days probably an Uber driver) trying to form a union so you and your fellow drivers can negotiate for better wages and benefits, the party wants to make it harder for you to do that. If you belong to any of these categories and don’t have a nice generous union pension and you’re planning to rely on Social Security in your old age….well, I’ll let the late George Carlin explain this one.

“Now,” Carlin explained in a prescient moment of his 2005 standup special Life Is Worth Losing, “they’re coming for your Social Security money. They want your fucking retirement money. They want it back so they can give it to their criminal friends on Wall Street.”

Don’t get me wrong. As I’ve argued on many other occasions, the establishment-friendly centrists who run the Democratic Party are nothing to write home about, either. They certainly aren’t about to do anything crazy like support Medicare for All (or even lift a finger to make card check a reality).

Bernie Sanders’ Democratic Socialist Successors Are More Woke Than Progressive

But the idea that the Republicans are a “party of the working class” is a bad joke. The state GOP of the largest red state in the union is calling for every possible pro-corporate and anti-worker measure short of reinstituting child labor in coal mines or giving bosses the right of prima nocta.

Some conservatives have argued that “cultural populism” can be a way of elevating the “concerns of those cut off from elite power structures and institutions.” But the nature of the culture war is to polarize, rather than unite, the working class. Every position in the economic ladder is occupied by people with both liberal and conservative cultural sensibilities.

The Texas GOP is willing to inflict a lot of very real suffering on gay and trans people, pregnant women, and other vulnerable groups for the sake of signaling that they share their voters’ cultural sensibilities.

If you’re a very conservative working-class Texan, the spectacle of conservative cultural values being imposed on all those groups might make you want to stand up and cheer. But you’d be wise to watch your wallet, because Republicans aim to make it lighter.

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