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Is There a New Left Stirring Within The New Right?
How heterodox center-right thinkers could help plant the seeds for a new, better political and policy debate.
Since Donald Trump's election in 2016, there has been talk of a "new right" that breaks with Ronald Reagan's brand of conservatism. It has variously been identified with Trump's followers at American Greatness, the advocates of “breaking the administrative state” (i.e., the federal government) at the Claremont Institute, the Catholic “integralists” that advocate a culture counter-revolution, the Viktor Orban enthusiasts at the National Conservatism Conference, and the opponents of "woke communism" and self-proclaimed champions of masculinity.
But there is a segment of recent politics that is sometimes identified with the “new right” but in reality offers a much more heterodox—and interesting—approach to politics and policy, one that’s well worth considering by liberals and left-wingers alike. This new tendency can be found in the policy group, American Compass, the online magazine Compact, and the journal American Affairs. Its leading intellectuals are Oren Cass of American Compass, Julius Krein of American Affairs, Sohrab Ahmari of Compact, and author Michael Lind. What distinguishes these thinkers from others is their engagement with what used to be called “the labor question:” namely, how America can fulfill its original promise of political and economic equality in a society where the owners and managers of capital have inordinate power over labor and politics.
These thinkers consider questions that were once confined to the left: how to revive the American labor movement and now to tame the power of multinational corporations and global banks. They often cite left-wing and liberal writers like John Kenneth Galbraith and Karl Polanyi. The most recent and noteworthy examples are Lind's Hell to Pay, Ahmari's Tyranny, Inc., and Oren Cass and American Compass's Rebuilding American Capitalism.
Lind, a friend and one time colleague, has defied political categorization. A founder of the New America Foundation, he once promoted "radical centrism." He is now associated primarily with the new conservatives. In Hell to Pay, he attempts to explain why working-class Americans have suffered from stagnant or even falling wages, and how this has profoundly affected their lives and, more broadly, the American polity.
Lind contrasts a society that is based on a living wage and social insurance system with one that is based on low wages and welfare. In the former, he explains, workers are paid sufficiently to support a family—including a single-earner family. With exceptions for the disabled and others, programs like Social Security function as insurance: beneficiaries get back what they pay in through taxes. In the low wage-welfare society like the contemporary United States, social welfare programs are paid through taxes from business and the employed and then used to subsidize low wages and sustain the jobless poor. Programs like the Earned Income Tax Credit are a hidden subsidy to employers, allowing them to pay their workers less. Roosevelt's New Deal was designed to create a living wage-social insurance system. The neoliberal policies espoused by Ronald Reagan and his successors helped to create a low wage-welfare system, even as they sought to reduce and restrict welfare payments.
Neoliberal economists have blamed wage stagnation on the transition from an industrial to a high-tech and post-industrial economy that rewards highly educated labor but penalizes the less educated, many of whose jobs become subject to automation or to globalization. Globalization is conceived, in Bill Clinton's words, as a "force of nature." Lind rejects this view. Instead, he blames wage stagnation and job insecurity on workers' loss of bargaining power. They have increasingly found themselves entirely at the mercy of their employers who prefer a low wage, welfare-dependent society.
Lind cites four ways in which workers' bargaining power has been undermined over the last half century. The first is the decline of labor unions, and particularly of private sector unions, which now represent only six percent of private sector workers and are virtually absent in many areas of the country. The second is the rapid increase since 1965 of unskilled and semi-skilled legal and illegal immigrants, which has increased the supply of labor and thereby weakened the bargaining power of native laborers. That has allowed employers to pay lower wages and to block unionization.
The third is the flight of American factories overseas in search of lower wages and fewer regulations, the effect of which has been to eliminate millions of mid-wage blue-collar jobs. The threat of moving abroad has also undermined union organizing. The fourth is the incentive to maintain a full-time two-earner family, which has increased the labor supply and undermined the argument for a "family wage."
Lind unfairly gives short shrift to feminist arguments that work outside the home is essential to women's equality. But his overall argument about workers' power seems to me to be entirely correct. Some of the points about union decline or multinational corporate malfeasance can be found in the publications of the labor-backed Economic Policy Institute, but liberals and the left either won't touch the subject of immigration or espouse views similar to the those of the Wall Street Journal and the Cato Institute.
The decline in wages and secure jobs has contributed to the anomie and "deaths of despair" that have afflicted many parts of the country. The decline also accounts, Lind argues, for falling rates of fertility, as more couples find child-bearing too expensive. The decline in workers' power leaves politics entirely in the hands of what Lind calls the "overclass"—a group that spans managers and high-level professionals—who divvy up the spoils of the high-tech and hedge fund economy while fighting over cultural issues. Lind's book shows, in other words, how stagnant wages and insecure jobs undermine the promise of American democracy.
Lind's answer to the reigning neoliberal order is a "development state” that would serve "the interests of national workers and national manufacturers, to the detriment of multinational corporations and global investors." It would encourage, or mandate, the production in the United States of goods essential to national security and prosperity. With exceptions for national security, it would limit trade to countries with similar wage levels.
To restore worker power, the government would champion sectoral bargaining along the lines created by the Railway Act of 1926. Under the government's eye, union and business representatives would meet to set wage levels and working conditions for entire industries rather than for separate corporations. As in France, workers would not necessarily be members of unions to be represented by them. Minimum wages and working conditions in small businesses and service industries would be set by state and local commissions.
In Tyranny Inc., Sohrab Ahmari, founder and editor of Compact, takes what amounts to a classic Marxist position on the labor question. He argues that America's workplaces are governed by a tyranny of “asset owners and the top managers who service their assets” (a.k.a. the capitalist class). Their subjects are the "asset-less," a.k.a. the working class, who do not own the means of production.
The workplace and labor market are not realms of freedom, as Reagan conservatives and libertarians maintain, but of coercion exercised by the asset-owners and managers through their control of wages and working conditions. They pay "poverty wages," exercise control over scheduling "with zero regard for workers’ well-being," and they "make decisions that can dramatically alter and sometimes upend workers’ lives, without even a semblance of due process or right to appeal." Their power over labor extends into the larger economy, where financiers "siphon away productive capital from the real economy into the financial economy." Instead of providing a counterweight to the asset-owners' domination of the economy, neoliberal politicians of both parties have reinforced it.
While Ahmari's account of contemporary capitalism is consistent with Marxism—and he quotes Marxist theoreticians like Vivek Chibber and David Harvey—his solution is not. Ahmari rejects both neoliberal "market utopianism" and the "classless society envisioned by orthodox Marxism." Instead, like Lind, he looks to the example of the New Deal and also of post-World War II European social democracy. His real inspirations are Galbraith and Polanyi.
During the New Deal and in post-World War II Western Europe, the government ensured that workers would have what Galbraith called a "countervailing power" to capital through regulations and, most important, through the government's encouragement of labor unions. Writes Ahmari, "We must restore a political give-and-take in relations between the asset rich and the asset-less. Whether we call this arrangement by its twentieth-century names—social democracy or socially managed capitalism or political-exchange capitalism, or something else—what matters are the underlying principles: the recognition that a decent society should strive to ameliorate the effects of coercion, not least by empowering the coerced to mount countervailing power in response."
Ahmari also distances himself from his own past as a culture warrior. In response to 2019 reports about drag queen story hours at elementary schools, for instance, Ahmari had advocated fighting "the culture war with the aim of defeating the enemy." He was associated with Patrick Deneen and the Catholic integralists. But in Tyranny, Inc. Ahmari rejects the “culturalism” of both the left and the right. He criticizes conservatives who, he says, “ardently refuse to link these cultural developments to the shape of our political-economic order. Instead, they pretend that cultural and material conditions have little to do with each other—as if cultural norms, practices, and beliefs don’t rest on a material substrate that includes law, politics, and economics.”
Ahmari also rejects Trump's right-wing populism. "The working-class, populist conservatism heralded by Trump’s election in 2016 has so far proved illusory. It is largely a cultural phenomenon, with Republican lawmakers, for example, loudly griping about businesses that discriminate against conservative employees and customers—without lifting a finger to alter the fundamental balance of power between corporations and the rest of us." How, then, do Lind and Ahmari hope to move from today's political economy to a contemporary version of New Deal liberalism or European social democracy?
Lind's scenario, spelled out in a column in Tablet, is "cross-party collaboration" between Bernie Sanders and Sherrod Brown Democrats and post-Trump Republicans, such as J.D. Vance and Marco Rubio, aimed at dismantling "piecemeal over time...neoliberal globalist policies." It could appeal to "people who tend to be moderately conservative in their social views and social democratic in economics." Lind concludes:
Transforming the right wing of the Republican Party and the left wing of the Democratic Party may be the first step in the process of building a new bipartisan consensus. But success will come only when a former horseshoe alliance of 'extremes' becomes the new center, while 'centrist neoliberalism' is recognized as what has been all along—destructive extremism.
There are precedents for what Lind describes. During the first thirty years of the twentieth century, liberal Democrats like Robert F. Wagner and Louis Brandeis and progressive Republicans like Robert M. LaFollette and Henry Wallace had much in common and opposed conservatives in their own parties. During the New Deal, many of the progressive Republicans like Wallace became Democrats. There is a hint of similar collaboration today in joint legislation sponsored by Ohio Senators Vance and Brown and by Rubio and Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren.
Lind's path to political transformation appears to be top-down, reminiscent of James Burnham, one of Lind's favorite thinkers, in The Machiavellians. He wants unions to stay out of politics, and claims American Federation of Labor founder Samuel Gompers as a model. But while the actual Gompers refused to subsume the AFL to a particular party, and in particular the Socialist Party, he and the AFL endorsed candidates (including William Jennings Bryan for president in 1908) and lobbied strenuously for legislation, including immigration reform. By removing labor unions from politics, Lind would deprive the public, and the working class, of a major source of organized power, and cede the initiative for change to enlightened elites.
Julius Krein, founder and editor of American Affairs, also heavily influenced by Burnham, took a similar view in a 2019 essay in his journal:
While a restive working class might provide fertile ground for political upheavals, any fundamental transformation of Western politics will necessarily be led by increasing numbers of the “elite” who defect from the dominant policy consensus and rethink their allegiance to establishment paradigms.
Prior to writing Tyranny, Inc., Ahmari, like other members of today's "new right," looked to a realignment of the Republican Party. But in a Newsweek column this year, he declared that "the Republican Party remains, incorrigibly, a vehicle of the wealthy." Ahmari is skeptical of Republican attacks against "woke capitalism." “I increasingly despair," he wrote, "of the whole Right, now almost completely lost to a mindless politics that reduces every problem to 'wokeness'—including the collapse of a bank whose board was dominated by white men."
In Tyranny, Inc., Ahmari places his hopes "in ordinary workers, citizen-activists, and the labor organizers and lawyers who rally to their cause." But if pressures from below are not reinforced by dramatic changes above, they are likely to falter. To date, that has been the fate of the attempt to organize Amazon warehouse workers, whose example Ahmari cites to show the power of ordinary workers.
The current strike wave has been inspired by unions who want to stem a decline in their membership. But the labor movement won't really revive without major changes in federal labor law to foster rather than frustrate unionization, and these will not come until a party that is committed to them wins a cloture-proof majority. If the Republicans are hopeless, that leaves, in our two-party system, the Democrats. But recommending the Democrats as the party of his new conservatism appears to be a step too far for Ahmari.
American Compass's recent report Rebuilding American Capitalism is subtitled "A Handbook for Conservative Policymakers." In his foreword, Cass describes his own approach as "quintessentially conservative," but he also distinguishes it sharply from the "market fundamentalism" that has widely characterized "conservative" economic policy over the last fifty years. Cass charges that this "agenda of tax cuts, deregulation, and free trade" was "a disaster for the nation."
Globalization crushed domestic industry and employment, leaving collapsed communities in its wake. Financialization shifted the economy’s center of gravity from Main Street to Wall Street, fueling an explosion in corporate profits alongside stagnating wages and declining investment. The decline of unions cost workers power in the market, voice in the workplace, and access to a vital source of communal support. These trends, actively cheered on the Right, contributed to rising inequality, slowing innovation, narrowing of opportunity, and loss of middle-class security.
American Compass's handbook lays out a series of programs, with accompanying memos, to combat globalization, financialization, and the decline of unions as well as strengthening the traditional nuclear family—a concern of both Lind and Cass. Some of these measures have been embraced by Sanders, Warren, and other left-wing Democrats. They include banning stock buybacks, discouraging through a transactions tax purely speculative investment, a 50 percent local content requirement on the production of goods "critical to national defense of the industrial base," defending workers in corporate bankruptcy by making a payout to them a priority, and strengthening labor law to discourage companies from firing labor organizers. The handbook also proposes using E-Verify as part of a measure to discourage employers from hiring illegal immigrants—a measure that was once strongly backed by the AFL-CIO but that it has since abandoned.
Other proposals are more squarely attuned to the political right. The handbook wants to amend the National Labor Relations Act to permit "non-union worker-management committees." In Europe, these committees supplement the power of unions; in America, they were used in the 1920s to discourage and pre-empt unions, which is why they were banned in the NLRA. It may be that in the present context, these committees could spur worker organization—but they could also subvert it. (American Compass's Handbook ignores the prevalence of right-to-work laws that were permitted under the anti-labor Taft-Hartley Law of 1947 and that forbade union contracts from requiring employees to join the union. The labor movement has long called for repeal of this provision.)
The handbook also proposes to ban unions from "spending funds on partisan political activities," which would deprive workers of a source of political power. It is telling that handbook does not ban corporations from partisan activity or from lobbying. The handbook's labor proposals are accompanied by a memo from Jonathan Berry, a corporate lawyer and former Trump administration Labor Department official, who asserts, "Conservatives rightly have long rejected the union as a constructive institution for labor policy."
The handbook also calls for the repeal—and not merely the amendment the reform—of the National Environmental Policy Act of 1970, which requires government to assess the environmental impact of government actions. There is a good case for the kind of permitting reform that Senator Joe Manchin (D-WV) proposed, but repealing the 1970 act altogether would cripple the Environmental Protection Agency and leave the public open to measures that would threaten the country's lands, air, and water.
There is, of course, no simple definition of what is left, center, or right; the terms themselves change with each political era, particularly when it comes to social issues such as gay marriage. But on economics and class, there is a discernible difference that separates left and right going back to the nineteenth century. On these issues, Ahmari's Tyranny, Inc. belongs to the left and Lind stands more on the center-left, while Cass and American Compass are more center-right, akin to Germany's Christian Democrats and their social market philosophy.
By squarely addressing rather than downplaying the "labor question," these heterodox conservatives have done American politics a great favor by moving it toward old-fashioned concerns that are vital to American equality, democracy, and prosperity. The emergence of these thinkers on the right could foreshadow a significant shift in American politics—but there are many miles to go before American politics reaches a destination comparable to Roosevelt’s New Deal.
There have been at least four preconditions for a significant political change, whether on left or right. First, there needs to be a group of like-minded intellectuals developing an alternative vision of politics and political economy. Think of Rexford Tugwell, Adolf Berle, Wallace, Brandeis, and the Twentieth Century Fund for the New Deal; in the case of Reagan, think of William F. Buckley, Jr. and National Review, Irving Kristol of The National Interest, and the Heritage Foundation. You have the rudiments of these forces among American Compass Republicans and labor Democrats, but they are often overshadowed on the right by illiberal fans of Hungary's Viktor Orban, right-wing evangelicals, and business-backed groups like the American Enterprise Institute and on the left by philanthropies like the Ford Foundation and activist organizations like the American Civil Liberties Union that have taken divisive stands on race, gender, or immigration.
The second precondition is popular pressure on the major officeholders and institutions. During the New Deal, there existed a reviving labor movement and Huey Long's Share the Wealth campaign, among others. With Reagan, you had a myriad of right-wing groups as well as sympathetic business groups. Today, the situation is much more mixed. On the right, there is a mix of MAGA groups and grouplets like Turning Point U.S.A. (many of which are heirs to the Tea Party), the Koch network of market fundamentalists, local and national business groups, and major media led by Fox that are indifferent or hostile to labor. The labor movement, the main popular movement among Democrats, remains divided and on the defensive. In our new book, Where Have All the Democrats Gone?, Ruy Teixeira and I cite polling that shows a large group of voters that are left-leaning on economics and moderate or conservative on social issues, but they have yet to become an organized force in American politics.
The third precondition is popular leaders in Congress and national politics and at the head of influential organizations who are sympathetic to the new politics. To date, these too are scattered. In Congress, Republican Senators like Vance, Rubio, Josh Hawley, and Tom Cotton—those most likely to contribute to American Compass's symposia—have themselves hedged their bets. Vance, for instance, remains a Trump camp follower, while Rubio's recent Labor Day message lamented "the decline and fall of men's work." More to the point, they remain outnumbered among Republicans by the standard issue business Republicans and MAGA zealots in the Freedom Caucus. The new Republican House's first order of business in 2023 was to repeal tax reform provisions that threatened wealthy tax evaders. There is no "pro-worker" Republican caucus in either house comparable to the Democrats' Progressive Caucus.
As a group, Democrats remain much more amenable to addressing the labor question. But they remain tied to large donors on Silicon Valley and Wall Street and are often sidetracked by cultural warfare. Witness California Governor Gavin Newsom's appointment of Laphonza Butler to the Senate seat left vacant by Dianne Feinstein's death. A former union leader, Butler turned political operative and helped the ride-share company Uber block a California referendum that would have provided labor protection for gig workers. That may have been the single greatest defeat this century suffered by American workers.
The fourth precondition has been an actual realignment of the parties, as occurred in 1828, 1860, 1896, 1932, and 1980. These realignments broke deadlocks between the parties and allowed significant changes to take the place in the country's political economy and balance of social forces. They were usually precipitated by or coincident with a national or global crisis. The Great Recession helped spark the very first steps in what eventually might be a realignment—the reevaluation among the country's intellectuals and top leaders of the benefits of neoliberal economics. It also contributed to the surprise victory of Donald Trump in 2016. But the country's politics remains stalemated and polarized by untenable extremes.
The founders of American Compass, American Affairs, and Compact show that there is a basis for agreement among thinkers on the left and right. All three have welcomed authors from the left into their pages. Liberal publications and institutions have not been as forthcoming, although the reception of Ahmari's book by New York Times columnist Michelle Goldberg and other prominent liberals may signal a thaw.
What liberals and the left need to recognize is that amidst the blather of the new right, Lind, Ahmari, and Cass's work and the institutions they direct could represent the first stage of an eventual realignment—one that could benefit American workers and citizens the way that Roosevelt's New Deal did.
John B. Judis is author of The Politics of Our Time: Populism, Nationalism, Socialism and, with Ruy Teixeira, the forthcoming Where Have All the Democrats Gone?