A rising generation of Republican politicians is more skeptical of the free market and more comfortable using government power to regulate the economy than the party has traditionally been. Consider:
Senator J.D. Vance, the Ohio Republican, and Senator Elizabeth Warren, the Massachusetts progressive, have collaborated on a bill to claw back executive pay at failed banks. The two worked through the details through in-person conversations, weekend phone calls and late-night texts.
Senator Marco Rubio of Florida has signed a public letter calling for the reinvigoration of collective bargaining and praising the German approach, in which labor unions play a larger role in the economy. Rubio this month published a book, “Decades of Decadence,” that criticizes the past 30 years of globalization.
Senator Todd Young of Indiana has helped write a bipartisan bill to restrict noncompete agreements, which companies use to prevent their employees from leaving for jobs at a competitor.
Senator Tom Cotton of Arkansas was among a bipartisan group of lawmakers who began pushing a few years ago for federal subsidies to expand domestic semiconductor manufacturing. President Biden signed a version of the policy last year.
Tomorrow afternoon, these four Republican senators — Cotton, Rubio, Vance and Young — will speak at an event on Capitol Hill that’s meant to highlight the emergence of a populist conservative movement in economics. The event is organized around a policy manifesto, called “Rebuilding American Capitalism: A Handbook for Conservative Policymakers.”
“We really like capitalism, but we recognize it’s not working right now,” said Oren Cass, a former aide to Mitt Romney and the executive director of American Compass, a think tank that published the manifesto.
Cass is right about that: Income growth for most families has been sluggish for decades, trailing well behind economic growth. Life expectancy stagnated even before Covid. And polls show that Americans of all ideological stripes are frustrated with the country’s direction.
“Capitalism is a complex system dependent on rules and institutions,” Cass told me. “And conservatism calls for building and maintaining institutions that work well.”
A new capitalism
I recognize that many liberals will be skeptical of the new breed of Republicans. For one thing, they really are conservative; they’re not disaffected right-wingers who have become moderates without admitting it. They support abortion restrictions and oppose gun laws. They make excuses for Donald Trump’s anti-democratic behavior or even spread his falsehoods.
But the preference for a different kind of economic policy than one Republicans have long supported is nonetheless significant. It is a sign that the consensus in Washington is moving away from the neoliberal, laissez-faire approach that has dominated since the 1980s. These new conservatives are trying to separate themselves from anti-government Republicans like Paul Ryan — and, although they won’t say so, Ronald Reagan.
One major reason is the class inversion of American politics. Most professionals now vote for Democrats, which is a stark change from past decades. Most working-class voters vote Republican, partly because they see Democrats as an elite party dominated by socially liberal and secular college graduates.
Yet the Republican Party still has a major vulnerability with working-class voters. The party has long pushed the laissez-faire agenda that has hurt those voters, and polls show the country to be left of center on economic policy. Most Americans favor a higher minimum wage, higher taxes on the rich, expanded government health insurance and subsidies for well-paying jobs.
When Democrats can flip the script on elitism and paint a Republican candidate as an out-of-touch protector of the rich, the Democratic candidate can often draw enough blue-collar support to win. John Fetterman used this approach to beat Mehmet Oz last year in Pennsylvania, the only state where a Senate seat switched parties.
Politically, the new conservative populism is an effort to show that Republicans understand Americans’ struggles and want to help. Economically, the new approach offers a glimpse of a Republican Party that’s starting to grapple with the economy’s true challenges.
The manifesto rejects the idea that free trade is inherently good and argues for policies to ensure the U.S. has a thriving, well-paying manufacturing sector that makes strategically important goods like semiconductors. “The idea that trade would lead to liberalization and a happy world was wildly wrong,” Cass said.
The document also calls for:
a guaranteed right for workers to organize and industrywide bargaining, which could increase the number of union contracts — and raise wages.
a financial transaction tax, meant to reduce Wall Street trading that makes people rich without making the economy more productive.
a monthly child benefit of around $300, as well as changes to Medicare and Social Security to recognize the work done by stay-at-home parents.
an easing of government regulations, to encourage new construction.
Progressives will raise principled objections to some ideas — such as a ban on unions’ campaign donations. And that’s how a democracy should function. The country’s two political parties are not on the verge of agreeing about most economic issues.
But something is changing. More politicians are recognizing that the policies of the past several decades have failed to create a broadly prosperous economy. From that emerging consensus may eventually come a longer list of bipartisan legislation designed to lift living standards.
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