The Populist Right Will Fail to Help Workers or Outflank the Left

No horseshoe theory is going to form, even as the populist right attacks neoliberalism, because of these five assumptions and arguments they make.

I do not believe that the populist right will offer working-class people anything on the economy that will work, so I am not worried about whether they will outflank the left, or even moderate Democrats. Though the populist right attacks the neoliberal consensus of the past 40 years, they build this on a series of assumptions about what has gone wrong and how to go about fixing it that will ultimately fail to deliver the goods. It is also likely to not be politically effective, because these five assumptions will ultimately preclude doing the things necessary to build a more economically secure America.

This is a little esoteric, but it’ll be relevant to whatever happens on the right in the aftermath of President Trump. I bring this up now because it’s been bouncing around a corner of the internet lately. Populist right political philosopher Patrick Deneen argues that the “most vibrant and intellectually exciting critiques of capitalism, monopolies, globalism, cosmopolitanism, the financialization of the economy, and structural class inequality are” no longer on the left “but among a new generation of conservatives” on the populist right. Glenn Greenwald argues that the left “finds common ground with the populist faction of the right on some of its most important political positions” and should consider “issue-by-issue collaboration” on key issues. In a funny insular meltdown, The Bellows website imploded and wants to become “post-left.” This apparently means a “more approachable version of American Affairs,” the flagship populist right intellectual journal.

This piece is an expansion to Nathan Robinson’s point, contra Rising’s Krystal Ball and Saagar Enjeti, that there really “is no unified right-left populist politics” forming out there, and trying to explain why that is. There’s no doubt strains and varying factions on the populist right, but I believe my points are generalizable across the various people who would identify with the term. (I use the term left in the broadest sense.) I’ve personally been involved in various efforts, both organized and informal, usually off-record, to see if there’s an overlap between the left and the populist right. They fall apart pretty quickly, even if everyone can agree that “neoliberalism” is bad. Here are five reasons why. 

1. The populist right does not have a real agenda to raise wages outside curtailing immigration, which will fail, and they ignore the obvious tools to empower workers.

The populist right believes that globalization and immigration are the reasons that the working-class has suffered under neoliberalism. We’ll come back to globalization; let’s start with immigration first. it is difficult to convey how much immigration is one of the primary drivers of stagnating wages in their mind. Here’s Mickey Kaus arguing mass immigration means “we already have an economy in which workers at the bottom are unable to make enough to lead a respectable life without large subsidies, subsidies that are often themselves demeaning” and that “Social equality […] becomes difficult, maybe unattainable.” Saagar Enjeti argues that “tight labor markets” benefit workers and tight labor markets are determined by “the immigration system.”

If, like me, you’ve told people on the populist right ‘there’s no evidence in the debates that immigration is among the top five reasons of wage stagnation; to whatever extent it exists the declining minimum wage is far more important by itself’ and just watched the blinking eyes, you know there’s a gap here. I think the coverage of the “debate” over immigration and wages does a disservice here, because the range of the numbers in no way matches the scale of the fall in fortunes for American workers. The debate is between “increased wages” and “minimal decline, and just for the small group of non-native-born Americans without a high school diploma.” Even if you believe the high estimates, they pale in comparison to the things even moderate Democrats want to accomplish, and you should be skeptical of those estimates.

Contra Enjeti, full employment and a tight labor market aren’t determined by the number of people in the country - immigrants take jobs, but they also create jobs through spending - but instead by fiscal and monetary policy, demand and technology. There’s a pretty standard toolkit among the left  for compressing the income distribution and raising wages— unionization, higher minimum wages, public programs, overtime, wage boards, high progressive taxation on the rich, sectoral bargaining, high aggregate demand and full employment, etc. — to draw from. Historically and across nations, these are the things that work. It’s telling that members of the populist right do not endorse these and even actively fight them (populist right Senator Josh Hawley supported right-to-work laws in Missouri), and also do not provide serious alternatives to them.

I paid close attention to a failed 2014 campaign in California by the proto-populist right businessman Ron Unz to raise the minimum wage to $12, arguing that conservatives should get behind this as “it would impact immigration itself” by removing sweatshop conditions and incentivizing native-born workers to rejoin the labor force market. It failed to pass, but it also failed to receive any real conservative support. (Here’s Reihan Salam, future author of Melting Pot or Civil War? and president of the Manhattan Institute, failing to endorse it at the time.) The minimum wage still hasn’t moved among the populist right even as the country walks right by them on it. (Wage subsidies appear to be their floated alternative, a version of that neoliberal policy of transfers, the EITC, that somehow manages to be even easier for employers to capture.) What has pushed the minimum wage forward is the multiracial and union-backed working class coalition of service workers, under the banner that workers deserve a living wage. If I had to guess which coalition would actually bring about higher wages, I’d go with this group.

2. The populist right thinks the problem of globalization is that it has harmed U.S. businesses too much, ignoring how globalization has empowered U.S. corporations over developing countries.

An industrial policy based on reshoring is probably the area with the most overlap between the left and populist right. There’s a lot of variance, but in general the left is skeptical that, for all the issues related to strategy and innovation, there will be much in terms of jobs. There are many varieties of capitalism, but not much variety in the declining share of manufacturing and increasing share of services among employment. I’ll leave it to those closer to the debates to answer, but President Trump has acted aggressively here in terms of tariffs yet there’s little to show for it among workers. The politics are already scattered; as Greg Sargent has noted, it’s Vice-President Biden who has taken the lead on secured supply chains in the 2020 election.

But I think there’s a more fundamental issue here, and that is where globalization went wrong. Both left-leaning economist Joseph Stiglitz and right populist Senator Josh Hawley criticize the World Trade Organization (W.T.O.). Horseshoe, right? Funny enough, they say the exact opposite thing.

Here’s Stiglitz in Globalization and Its Discontents (2002): The W.T.O. is “the most obvious symbol of the global inequities and the hypocrisy of the advanced industrial countries. While these countries had preached-and-forced-the opening of the markets in the developing countries to their industrial products, they had continued to keep their markets closed to the products of the developing countries, such as textiles and agriculture. While they preached that developing countries should not subsidize their industries, they continued to provide billions in subsidies to their own farmers, making it impossible for the developing countries to compete. While they preached the virtues of competitive markets, the United States was quick to push for global cartels in steel and aluminum when its domestic industries seemed threatened by imports. [...] One of the areas that was of particular concern at Doha was intellectual property rights [...] worried that we had not got the balanced right-the agreement put producers interests over users [...] initially even the Democratic U.S. administration supported the pharmaceutical companies.”

Let’s go to Senator Josh Hawley, on the populist right, making the case recently in the New York Times: “Take the World Trade Organization. Its mandate was to promote free trade, but the organization instead allowed some nations to maintain trade barriers and protectionist workarounds, like China, while preventing others from defending themselves, like the United States. Foreign agriculture won concession after concession, while American farmers struggled to get fair access to markets. Meanwhile, the W.T.O. required American workers to compete against Chinese forced labor but did next to nothing to stop Chinese theft of American intellectual property and products. [...] Abandoning the W.T.O. is a start. The United States must seek new arrangements and new rules.”

No, you aren’t confused, these are exactly the opposite of each other. To the populist right, the problem of globalization is that cosmopolitans have punished U.S. corporations for the benefit of developing countries, especially when it comes to intellectual property and agriculture. The problem is one of global bureaucrats using trade as a mechanism to weaken the United States, forcing it to carry too much of a burden to enrich the global poor. Meanwhile, for the left, globalization is a problem as it allows for U.S. and Western corporations to carry out a form of imperialism against developing countries, forcing their markets to open on the terms of capital, overruling their democracy, abusing their citizens, while funneling the profits out and hiding them from taxation and democratic accountability across the globe.

So what, why not just leave the W.T.O. and call it a day? In both instances U.S. workers are still getting screwed. But it remains a problem because Hawley argues that the “United States must seek new arrangements and new rules, in concert with other free nations, to restore America’s economic sovereignty.” If the call is for a set of rules, like ISDS and TPP, that are even more favorable to U.S. corporations, count the left out. Indeed, one reason the politics are moving is that China is acting as aggressive in bullying and controlling trading partners (e.g. Australia) in the way the left has criticized globalization run by the United States and the West. We see this in the call for an industrial policy to fight covid. President Trump doesn’t want to interfere with the ability of U.S. corporations to ultimately determine, on the basis of profit, the production of pandemic equipment; where the broader left wants to deploy government, for instance through the Defense Production Act, to supersede the profit motive. A general aversion to the rhetoric of “free trade” won’t be sufficient to paper over these differences.

3. Their desire for a family wage, as opposed to higher wages, ignores ways to structure work and social insurance in favor of families.

In the big January, 2019 Tucker Carlson monologue that arguably launched the current wave of populist right debates, he describes “the pathologies of modern rural America” and how they “are familiar to anyone who visited downtown Baltimore in the 1980s.” What caused it? “Here’s a big part of the answer: male wages declined. Manufacturing, a male-dominated industry, all but disappeared over the course of a generation.” When “men make less than women, women generally don’t want to marry them.” Over time this “causes a drop in marriage, a spike in out-of-wedlock births, and all the familiar disasters that inevitably follow -- more drug and alcohol abuse, higher incarceration rates, fewer families formed in the next generation. [...] increasingly, marriage is a luxury only the affluent in America can afford.”

As Melinda Cooper describes in her book Family Values, the concept of the “family wage” - a wage set such that a male breadwinner can maintain a family on one-income - sometimes trips up the left, as we can often romanticize any alternative to neoliberalism, including ones based around patriarchy. But the question can generally be subsumed under higher wages in general and worker power and public programs more broadly. The important thing to emphasize is the question of what institutions are necessary to support work and families and how law, social insurance, and public programs provide support for the family, no matter what form that family takes.

But there’s a version of the populist right that feels a family wage should be sufficient, both to secure a household as well as provide security against the kinds of capitalist insecurities that the left believes no individual family can reasonably self-insure against. As The American Conservative editor Helen Andrews argues, the “mass entry of women into the work force is one reason for this financial insecurity” of recent decades and populist right needs to stop the “double down on shoveling women into the work force” in order to boost wages. More generally, I believe the argument animating the populist right is that once the factories are back, and the immigrants gone, male breadwinner wages will be sufficient for economic security.

One tell that something is off is that the rate of adult women working hasn’t increased over the past 20 years, there’s been no double down, and is lower than peer countries precisely because we lack the infrastructure of programs and income support to build successful families where either or both parents can choose to work. Another is the observation economist Suresh Naidu made while reviewing Oren Cass’s book: “Before NLRA unions, manufacturing jobs were in fact terrible, high-turnover, low-wage enterprises, hardly living up to Cass’s fantasies about independent and self-sufficient workers steadfast in their communities: whole towns would completely change population over short windows of time.” Simply bringing back manufacturing jobs, even if that could be done, tells us nothing about the security, wages, and dignity that would come with said jobs.

As I argue in Freedom From the Market (January 2021), this was always the case; the family, like the also nominally private sphere of the workplace, has always been structured and boosted by public policy, be it the 1860s Homestead Act or the 1950s tax credits that framed the nuclear family. The system we have now has failed, and needs to be boosted through public programs. If one wage is too little to provide health care, higher education for the kids, and a secure retirement, that’s a call for public social insurance, not a hope that it can simply be done on one’s own. Poverty among children and in old-age, for instance, is entirely a function of public spending through social insurance, both in our own history and across peer countries. It is telling that efforts to collapse childhood poverty are coming from Senator Mitt Romney here, not the populist right.

The populist right discovering “predistribution” (directly increasing wages instead of boosting them through transfers, coined by political scientist Jacob Hacker, popular on the left) without already having a deep theory of public programs will lead them to think of the two as substitutes, rather than complements. This will limit their ability to actually help real people.

4. They are relitigating stale 1970s culture war questions about managers, oblivious to how owners have taken over the economy.

The populist right is obsessed about the professional managerial class. A funny thing is that they’ve kept the same terminology as decades past, but simply reversed the analysis when it became useful. In 1972, Trot-turned-neoconservative Irving Kristol wrote that the professional class was a “New Class” who maintained an “animus toward the business class” that was fed by “an intelligentsia which so despises the ethos of bourgeois society, and which is so guilt-ridden at being implicated in the life of this society that it is inclined to find even collective suicide preferable to the status quo.” It’s a good debate (USIH took a stab) of whether this was new or just an updated version of generic conservative anti-intellectualism, but it was the tone going forward for the conservative movement.

The populist right uses this framework to make two moves. The first is that the New Class no longer hates the business class and free enterprise but is the business class and propels free enterprise forward. In 2019, Senator Josh Hawley argues at the National Greatness conference “The cosmopolitan elite [offer] social liberation in tune with the priorities of their wealthy and well-educated counterparts around the world” pushing an agenda of “economic globalizing” and “social liberationism.” It’s a pretty big analytical turnaround. The second is the economic component: these managers dominate the execution of economic life in their own personal interest, as shown by a revival of interest in James Burham’s “Managerial Class” (e.g. Julius Krein, American Affairs).

Contrary to what you may have heard, those in the professional class, which let’s define as those between the top 20 percent and the top 5 percent, didn’t see their share of incomes go up in the past 40 years. All the gains from increased inequality went to the owners and executives at the very top. But the big glaring issue is that Burham’s managerialism is completely gone. Take it from two elite law professors, who argued in 1999 that it is The End of History for Corporate Law where there’s a “widespread normative consensus that corporate managers should act exclusively in the economic interests of shareholders.” Shareholder primacy won. The idea that the economy is dominated by the professional manager, acting to balance multiple interests as they see fit, as opposed to shareholders and other owners, is simply a false one, and will point away from any constructive agenda on how to reform the nature of the firm towards positive ends. There’s no way to tackle financialization if you think the managerialism of the 1950s still dominates the boardroom. Why private equity is broken won’t make sense unless we understand how “disgorging the cash” has become the primary form of corporate governance. The problem isn’t a group of socially liberal managers; it’s owners who suppress investment and innovation in favor of their own immediate profits.

5. Their attack on monopoly mostly updates classic conservative concerns about the media, ignoring the broader issues of public utility and investment.

I keep hearing that the populist right is going to take on Big Tech though. Senator Josh Hawley went to USA Today to argue “Maybe social media is best understood as a parasite on productive investment, on meaningful relationships, on a healthy society. Maybe we’d be better off if Facebook disappeared.” He has proposed legislation which “removes the immunity big tech companies receive under Section 230 unless they submit to an external audit that proves by clear and convincing evidence that their algorithms and content-removal practices are politically neutral.”

Why should we do that? As Jon Schweppe writes at First Things, “many of these ‘open platforms’ enjoying Section 230 immunity have begun to act as content curators, deplatforming conservatives and censoring content that flies in the face of Silicon Valley political orthodoxy.” I keep waiting for this to become a broader critique of antitrust and corporate power, but that rarely seems to come through. This is, in my read, conservatives updating their attacks on Hollywood, the news, and the academy to include Facebook. And this is nothing new; the conservative movement has been obsessed with creating counter-institutions to the ones they believe liberals dominate, with the press being a central one. Conservatives believe that they can’t win this war given the way tech operates, so they want to move for a government solution.

I’ll leave it to others to determine the best way to make Big Tech a public utility, but these are not the Granger Laws we are talking about here. The actions by the populist right to dominate the execution of media infrastructure here are divorced from the idea that corporations are too big, powerful, profitable, no longer productive, and centered around funneling the rewards upward towards owners and bosses rather than more equitably throughout the economy. Maybe they win (Vice-President Joe Biden also doesn’t like Section 230) but it is in no way the attack on corporate power that we need right now.

With these five blinders in place, it is unlikely that the populist right will converge on actual, practical policy goals that bolster the fortunes of working-class people. It is funny though. The populist right is very critical of corporations that launder the same old corporate exploitation through deploying academic terms like “intersectionality” deprived of any actual analysis. Yet working people should be no less suspicious of efforts to launder the same old conservative package through the term “neoliberalism.” The results will be more of the same.