Kitchen Table Populism is Up for Grabs
An economic populist center exists in the American electorate waiting to be mobilized by either party.
A white paper released by a conservative think tank last August barely registered on the liberal Richter scale. It ought to have sent shock waves, as it holds the key to Democrats’ prospects for winning crucial congressional races in 2024.
In “The New Conservative Voter,” American Compass describes an emergent subset of Republican voters who favor trade policies that they believe will bring home manufacturing jobs and give workers better pay. These voters see “Wall Street greed” as a drain on the economy and recognize that a tight labor market is a good thing because it pressures employers to pay higher wages. They’d like to see government take an active role in building the semiconductor industry (and, presumably, other major industries) rather than leaving it entirely to the free market. And they no longer believe in a free market that magically bestows middle-class security on hardworking Americans.
New right voters are still, by and large, wary of the perennially maligned “Big Government” trifecta: taxing, spending, and regulating. But there are noteworthy nuances to their aversion to government, namely, a receptivity to proactive, pro-worker industrial policies to which the Republican establishment remains allergic.
The departure from old school Republican dogma documented by American Compass complements recent polling done by several Democratic firms. These polls have documented again and again that a strong majority of working-class Democrats and persuadable swing voters—of all races—want the government to create jobs, bring down the cost of basic needs like housing and health care, and crack down on corporate greed and price-gouging.
Look, for example, at this recent survey by Data for Progress demonstrating strong cross-partisan support for pro-worker, pro-consumer governmental economic interventions: 80 percent of Democrats, 59 percent of independents, and nearly half of Republicans favor a populist argument for government action over a more traditional laissez-faire argument against it.
A Populist Approach to Government Works Across Party Lines
This and other research points to a big opening for economically populist candidates who put forward strong industrial policies aimed at creating living wage jobs that outpace inflation; candidates who honor the hard work of farmers, tradespeople, nurses, teachers, and service workers; candidates who have the backs of ordinary Americans anxious to achieve or maintain middle-class security; and candidates who challenge the corporate behemoths whose profit maximization has resulted in the sense of precariousness felt by many in the middle and working class.
Speaking to working-class needs and concerns is essential, both morally and strategically. Non-college voters are 62 percent of the electorate, with even bigger super-majorities in rural areas and in crucial Rust Belt states—four of which have contested Senate races next year. And these working Americans are increasingly voting Republican—and not just the white ones, as is widely but wrongly assumed.
In the wake of Hillary Clinton’s defeat in 2016, Democrats belatedly acknowledged the working-class dealignment that was, by then, decades underway. But if the panic-inducing November 2023 New York Times/Siena poll (and other polls) showing Trump beating Biden was any indication, working-class voters look like they’re continuing to defect.
By American Compass’s reckoning, “new right” Republicans comprise 42 percent of the GOP and skew female and working class. Persuading them is no simple task: on taxes and spending, they still lean conservative. And when it comes to immigration and culture war flashpoints like gender and “woke” institutions, they’re far to the right of many Democrats.
The needle may be small, but it can be threaded. For example, American Compass asked Republicans if they supported giving working families $800 a month to help offset the cost of raising children. Thumbs down on that. But a different survey by Democracy Corps asked what voters thought about President Biden’s child tax credit, describing it as “the biggest tax cut for working families ever.” It was the most popular Biden accomplishment in the eyes of independents, Trump loyalists, and moderate Republicans alike. Structuring and reframing government redistribution programs as “tax cuts” apparently makes such programs far more appealing.
In the same vein, when American Compass asked whether politicians should “focus on cutting taxes and never consider raising them,” an overwhelming 72 percent of Americans said yes. But when the Democracy Corps asked whether they favored or opposed “raising taxes on billionaires,” every single segment of the electorate—from Trump loyalists to the Democratic base—was ready to break out the pitchforks.
These discrepancies point to the importance not only of working-class economic policies but of populist rhetoric that resonates with ordinary folks. Fortunately for Democratic candidates, a roster of creative new messaging outfits have listened closely to working people and are echoing back their complaints, worries, and priorities in everyday language that makes them feel heard.
“Normies” who aren’t obsessed with politics said things like these swing voters in one recent focus group:
“Billionaires hoard wealth on the backs of hard-working Americans.”
“The middle class needs to get ahead in life, and not live paycheck-to-paycheck.”
“Corporate greed is strangling the middle class.”
“I do believe they [Republicans] are trying to help by cutting taxes for American families. I just don’t think it’s the middle class. It’s the higher class getting the tax cuts.”
They name the problem, but don’t couch it in the overheated, polarizing, jargon-laden outrage discourse of the political class. In other words, the problem isn’t “a fascist, white supremacist, patriarchy that oppresses marginalized communities” (a common rhetorical trope among the left) much less an “excessively woke deep state” that persecutes the former president and his acolytes (the favorite boogeyman of the right). The problem is out-of-touch politicians who let the rich get richer.
I’ve spent the past three years sitting in on messaging presentations by Winning Jobs Narrative, the Center for Working-Class Politics, Somos Votantes, American Family Voices, and others. The jury is in: a populist focus on pro-worker, kitchen table issues—many of which Biden, to his credit, has pursued in office—resonates with Democratic base and swing voters alike, and transcends the forever culture war.
As Mike Lux, President of American Family Voices, notes:
There is little doubt that the cultural differences between metro America and non-metro America play a role in the political divide between the two sectors, and that working-class folks find urban and intellectual “wokeism” annoying. But the evidence in our research (as well as other polling we have seen) is that, contrary to many pundits’ assumptions, economic issues are driving the problems of Democrats in non-metro working-class counties far more than the culture war… [T]hese voters wouldn’t care all that much about the cultural difference and the woke thing if they thought Democrats gave more of a damn about the economic challenges they face deeply and daily.
Among voters in “factory towns” in battleground states, American Family Voices’ non-partisan populist economic message handily beats a Republican culture war message among both Democrats and independents.
What much of the mainstream electorate today wants is some version of Donald Trump’s economic nationalism minus his bigotry and braggadocio. They want Bernie Sanders’ class-based approach, minus his less popular proposals which are viewed by many as “handouts” rather than “handups.” They want candidates who respect them, recognize their struggles, and side with ordinary Americans over the “rich men north of Richmond”—candidates who meet them on pocketbook issues without suggesting that they have only themselves and their “deplorable” opinions to blame for their financial worries and resentments.
American Compass lays out a suite of policy proposals that are attractive to these voters—including vocational education, domestic sourcing requirements, Wall Street transaction taxes, and public banking.
This is a winning platform, and it’s there for the taking. If Democrats don’t latch on to it, smart Republicans will.
Erica Etelson is communications director for the Rural Urban Bridge Initiative and author of Beyond Contempt: How Liberals Can Communicate Across the Great Divide.