The Future is Populist: What the 2020 Presidential Election Says About the Future of Populist and Establishment Conservatism

By Christopher Schorr, PhD.

December 8, 2020.

Readers will recall that, in 2016 – a lifetime ago in American politics – much attention was paid to Trump support among non-college educated or “working-class” white voters. Today, in the wake of the 2020 Presidential Election, there is good reason to believe these voters will continue to define Republican politics.

To recap, in 2016’s primary and general elections, Trump outperformed his rivals in “distressed communities,” places that lagged the nation in terms of high school completion, labor force participation, and wage and job growth.

Trump’s message was clearly a factor. Whereas the party’s previous nominee courted the votes of entrepreneurs and business owners, Trump targeted workers. Specifically, he attacked the sources of working-class insecurity – mass low-wage immigration, offshoring, and trade agreements – along with elites of every variety.

Trump’s populist conservatism engaged little with the GOP’s standard fare – free markets, limited government, and fiscal restraintand Trump opposed reforming Social Security.

Trump even waved the flag differently. In calling to “Make America Great Again,” he evoked a quantifiable vision of national greatness – i.e., how do we compare to other countries on X and Y dimensions? – rather than an intrinsic one rooted in American Exceptionalism. Consistent with this vision, Trump spoke less about founding principles and more about winning.

DISTRESSED COMMUNITIES AND TRUMP SUPPORT

In 2016, working-class America needed a win. By most measures of social-institutional health – e.g., marriage and out-of-wedlock childbearing, religious attendance, work, drug and alcohol abuse, suicide and indeed, in terms of health itself – working-class and specifically, white working-class communities were in crisis.  

The negative relationship between social-institutional quality or “intactness” and Trump support is depicted in Figure 1. Each data point (hollow circle) represents a 2016 GOP primary or caucus contest. Solid lines are fitted to trends among all such counties. Dashed lines are fitted to trends in majority white working-class counties.

To measure social-institutional quality, I use a new index of social capital developed by the Senate Joint Economic Committee. This index incorporates the traditional aspects of social capital known to correlate with community-level wellbeing – e.g., associational and religious life – along with marriage, out-of-wedlock births, and violent crime rates.

President Trump’s County Share of the 2016 GOP Primary Vote

This phenomenon is most prominently examined in Alienated America where Timothy Carney connects the resonance of President Trump’s message to an epidemic of social isolation brought on by the demise of social institutions,

My own take (chapter 3, here) differs somewhat in that I emphasize the role of social-institutional decline in causing conventional or “establishment” conservative messages to fail to resonate. I argue that:

  1. The path to the middle class runs through mutually-reinforcing social institutions including, stable families, supportive communities, safe streets, education, hard work, and personal (e.g., sexual and substance use) moderation.
  2. In defending faith, family, individual initiative, traditional morality, and market freedom, conservative politics upholds the status quo while offering working-class Americans an earned path to upward mobility; however,
  3. The demise of working-class social institutions narrows this path, causing establishment conservative appeals to ring hollow in these communities.
  4. At the same time, working-class whites remain wedded to the GOP by demographic changeand by an intersectional, “coalition of the ascendant”-championing Left that has no use for them.

As a result, working-class white (and increasingly non-white) voters are well-positioned to vote Republican, but these aren’t your parents’ Republicans. Populist conservatism aims to revise the status quo rather than to defend it.

A CLARIFYING ELECTION

Notwithstanding conflicts over trade, immigration, and foreign policy, the GOP’s establishment and populist camps are united on most of the core issues: life, liberty, the rule of law, originalism, and defending the nation’s history and traditions. If the Right has fragmented in recent years, the Left’s decent into Jacobinism and eagerness to upend constitutional norms highlights the importance of maintaining a coalition that can win.

In this regard, the 2020 election was a vindication of populist-conservatism. Even assuming that Biden’s victory was legitimately won – i.e., ignoring contrary evidence – President Trump received more votes than any Republican candidate in history and more votes than any candidate of either party prior to 2020.

County GOP Share of Two Party Presidential Vote: 2008-2020

Trump’s remarkable performance included record support from racial minorities. This point bears emphasis: a populist candidate routinely accused of racism by mainstream press outlets attracted more people of color to the Republican Party.

Looking at county-level returns from the past four presidential cycles and again, taking 2020 data at face value, majority white working-class counties surged towards the GOP in 2016 (75%), as did majority working-class counties (all racial groups: 71%), and counties with the lowest social capital scores (43%). Trump managed to either hold or, in the case of low social capital counties, expand slightly on his 2016 numbers. In counties that were both majority white working-class and low in social capital, Trump voting in both years was nearly monolithic (83%).

Trump held working-class voters despite the pandemic and the economic collapse because he fought for them and delivered. It is difficult to imagine how the Republican Party could match, much less exceed, Trump’s 2020 turnout without these voters.

HOPE FOR THE ESTABLISHMENT

Voting preferences often change in response to major changes in life circumstances; for example, marriage increases Republican voting, especially among women; Democrats benefit when workers join unions or become unemployed; and Republicans historically benefitted from the Post-War migration to the suburbs.

A more populist Republican Party would expand working-class Americans’ opportunities for upward mobility by tackling the problems of cheap labor at home (unskilled immigration) and abroad (trade policy). This approach has already proven successful: recall that working-class Americans were the chief beneficiaries of Trump’s remarkable wage and employment gains. Tax cuts, deregulation, and tight labor markets are a powerful combination.

In doing so, the GOP could also help to revive working-class America’s decaying social institutions. Higher wages improve marriage prospects for men and thus the proportion of children raised in two-parent homes. Children raised in in-tact homes have many advantages, including a greater likelihood of attending college.

The downside of victory – or upside, for the establishment – is that the appeal of populist-conservatism would diminish over time. Movement up the economic ladder reduces the costs of cheap labor to wages and increases its benefits (cheap nannies and gardeners!). The revival of social institutions would help to reconnect working-class Americans to the social order and thereby help traditional (“establishment”) conservative appeals to resonate. Finally, barring some unforeseen transformation of higher education, a college education increases exposure to woke ideology and social pressure to conform. Presumably, this is bad for any conservative politics, but especially for populist-conservatism.

Conservatism is most fundamentally concerned with preservation. The tension between this instinct and populism’s mass uprising against elites is obvious, even if most Republican voters don’t care. Those bothered by this tension and those seeking a return to Republican normalcy can rest assured populist-conservatism’s contradiction will be resolved in the establishment’s favor when working-class Americans again believe that the status quo is worth conserving.