Those of us who identify as traditional conservatives — skeptical of government power, leery of regulation, believing in economic efficiency and trusting markets to deliver value to consumers — have been warning about the current populist streak that has captured a portion of the Republican Party.
The problem is that Republican populism often looks a lot like Democratic progressivism. It’s the horseshoe theory of politics, the idea that the extremes at either end of the political spectrum actually end up meeting. And right now in Congress, we have a perfect example in the Railway Safety Act. If it passes, it will harm the nation’s economy and our efforts to strengthen our infrastructure. It could have particularly negative consequences for the Dallas-Fort Worth area. And a Republican populist is driving it.
Just after the train derailment in February dumped hazardous chemicals in East Palestine, Ohio, freshman Republican Sen. J.D. Vance sensed an opportunity to demonstrate his “New Right” populist bona fides. Vance demagogued against the railroads for being lax about safety, cozied up to labor unions and teamed up with fellow Ohio Sen. Sherrod Brown, a Democrat, to draft the Railway Safety Act.
You would think that the bill would be written to target specific items that would make such accidents less likely, but you would be wrong. It’s just a grab bag of provisions the 12 rail labor unions have been demanding for years. Either Vance got rolled by his Ohio colleague or there is little difference between Vance’s economic world view and the world view of progressive Democrats.
The main provisions of the bill have nothing to do with anything that would have prevented the February derailment. Mostly, the bill bars railroads from implementing technology that would make rail freight trains safer but that would require fewer union jobs. Yet again, labor unions are fighting to protect the old way of doing things and opposing innovations and new technologies that would actually be more accurate and safer than error-prone humans.
These include provisions such as minimum crew sizes, requiring that rail cars be inspected by union-certified personnel, and opposing automation that would require fewer human interventions. Ironically, had Norfolk Southern railroad implemented more of this technology, it could very well have prevented the East Palestine derailment.
Thankfully, so far most Republicans have seen these problems and have refused to support Vance’s problematic bill, including Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, the ranking member on the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation. But Vance says he “privately” has enough Republican votes to join Senate Democrats to pass the legislation.
It makes sense that Senate Democrats would support a pro-union railroad bill. It doesn’t make sense that traditional Republicans would support it, but populist Republicans like Vance score points by bashing corporations, implying conspiracies, bucking party leadership and identifying with the least-informed folks back home. So, it works for him.
But it won’t work for the country. We emerged from the COVID-19 pandemic keenly aware of the fragility of our infrastructure, and particularly of the infrastructure that facilitates the movement of goods. The importance of modernizing our infrastructure was the driving force behind the $1.2 trillion Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, for which all American households are currently paying a premium through increased inflation. How much sense would it make to hobble the modernization of our freight rail system by caving to union demands to remain mired in 20th-century technology?
There is a political lesson here. New Right populism isn’t very different from leftist progressivism, and it will be as harmful for the country as leftist progressivism. The Railway Safety Act demonstrates the difference between truly conservative Republicans such as Cruz and big-government, pro-union populists such as Vance.
Tom Giovanetti is president of the Institute for Policy Innovation, a free-market think tank in Dallas.