Can the Republican Party Become A Vehicle for Equality?

A Reply to Sohrab Ahmari.

Can the Republican Party Become A Vehicle for Equality?

Sohrab Ahmari’s challenge to the Left is simple. He contends that turning the GOP into a vehicle for working-class advancement is no less plausible, and more desirable, than trying to do the same to the Democratic Party. As evidenced by the paltry attempts to respond to Ahmari’s many essays, his challenge has proven more difficult to counter than many on the Left want to admit.

But we can give a confident reply to his most recent essay, “How the GOP Can Mend Fences With Unions,” by simply asking: Why should they?

Of course, Ahmari is correct that it would be good—for the unions, for equality, and for the country—if Republicans were less hostile to labor’s interests. He is also right to assume that big political shifts in American politics tend to happen beyond the narrow confines of existing partisan alignments (that’s why we call such moments “realignments”). No one would have guessed in 1920 that the Democratic Party would soon become the party of civil rights and the industrial working class. After all, the party of Lincoln had long harbored radicals in its ranks, many progressive era leaders like Wisconsin Governor Robert La Follette were proud Republicans, and it was GOP President Herbert Hoover who introduced some of the first and most significant early labor legislation.

Still, Ahmari’s analysis is at times a bit dishonest. More importantly, it is simply mistaken.

After skewering the “woke” wings of the Left (no argument from me on that front), he then pivots to praise how Richard Nixon “aggressively competed for the labor vote.” That is true enough, as far as it goes. In office, however, Nixon was no friend of labor. To his credit, Ahmari concedes that Republicans like Nixon are to blame for the sorry state of the labor movement today, yet he neglects an important part of the story. Nixon’s battle with the unions was not only waged through his economic plans, but it also involved an oft-forgotten element: he pitted the spirit of civil rights against that of union solidarity—and it worked. Under the guise of racial justice, he championed “The Philadelphia Plan,” an affirmative action program designed to forcibly integrate the building trades unions in Philadelphia and beyond. The plan, which was initially deemed illegal, was successfully modified and resurrected by Nixon, and seemingly designed to introduce maximum racial competition for scarce union jobs under the guise of progressive social policy.

Whether or not Nixon was truly committed to the philosophy behind affirmative action is beside the point. What is important here, for our purposes, is that all sorts of unlikely ideas bounce back and forth between the parties, adopted and adapted for this or that purpose. Indeed, Ahmari could even see this example as confirmation of his own ideas. He could say, “Look, Nixon was so flexible on the question of affirmative action that it proves the GOP of today can be equally flexible on the labor question.” 

The trouble is, Nixon was only able to pull that off because his commitment to affirmative action in the building trades did not conflict, in any meaningful way, with the major interest of the Republican Party and its sponsors. Instead, this commitment actually complemented the party’s aims. No matter how hostile the GOP has been to the politics of racial integration throughout its history, the primary interest of the party during Nixon’s reign was not in the maintenance of racial subordination but, instead, in reducing inflation on the backs of the so-called "affluent worker." Nixon’s flexibility on affirmative action was tolerable to his sponsors in the party and his supporters because it aided in the pursuit of this goal.

Similarly, it is not that Ahmari is necessarily disingenuous (which is the most common left-wing charge leveled against him). In fact, whether or not he is really committed to enhancing the well-being of the working class is, again, beside the point. What matters is whether his sentiments can be expressed in the institutional and programmatic actions of the Republican Party as it currently exists. In short, the question is whether the interests of the labor movement and those of the Republican Party are broadly complementary—or, at the very least, compatible. They are not. 

If Ahmari’s commitment to the cause of labor is genuine, then his proposed strategy for advancing that cause is misguided.

First, in the short term, what electoral interest does the GOP have in cozying up to the unions? Very little. The GOP is already doing quite well among the rural, non-college educated working class. And the party is winning these voters without having to sacrifice their ideology of market adoration or the programmatic protection of wealth. Of course it’s true that some Republicans, some of the time, will find common cause with unions on various issues. But ultimately, the party itself has no real reason to change course. The union movement, weak as it is, is no longer a mobilizing force that can easily swing an election. And wherever the Republicans have successfully won union workers, they have often done so as a result of the unions’ own disorganization and weakness. This is all to say that the Republican conquest of working-class votes has happened in spite of their resolute opposition to strengthening the union movement. The current state of working-class disorganization and economic weakness suits them just fine.

Second, again in the short term, what interest does labor have in cozying up with the GOP? As Ahmari himself admits, very little. It is true that the modal non-college educated union worker is likely much closer to the GOP than to the liberals on a slew of important moral and cultural questions (like abortion, immigration, the liberalization of sexual and gender norms, etc.), and these questions should not be discounted. But the unions’ primary political interest, as George Meany once aptly summarized, is “to advance the well-being of the worker and his family.” It is for this reason that the movement has sought political action, primarily through the Democratic Party. It is plainly true that for union workers, the Republican Party has been more opposed to this interest than have the Democrats since at least World War II—and especially since Nixon. Even where the Democrats have failed the unions (and the instances are innumerable), they have largely done so by borrowing ideas from the Republican Party. It’s entirely rational for the unions to withhold support for a party that routinely proposes union-killing policies like “right-to-work,” and which has outsourced its entire policy-making apparatus to employers’ organizations like the Chamber of Commerce, and the American Legislative Exchange Council. While Ahmari wishes for a labor movement “that stands apart from both parties,” the truth is the union movement cannot afford to remain aloof to party politics, lest the Republican Party kills them off for good.

Beyond this basic survival instinct, the union movement also has a vital interest in summarily reducing the influence of big business in politics, mitigating the effects of the market in society, and, therefore, in increasing the government’s role in the economy. This is not only true for public sector workers, who aim (rightly) to expand public works and services, but it is also true for private sector union workers who aim to expand federal industrial investments, win greater protections to preserve the character and standards of their work, and lessen the damage wrought by automation. Further, this is true not only for politically progressive unions, staffed with young activists, but also for those unions full of Trump-voting members. Simply put, no matter their members’ political inclinations, labor movement leaders find, again and again, that they must rely on the power of the federal government to curb the power of big business.

This gets to the heart of the conflict: the labor movement has an existential interest in defending itself against Republican majorities and attacking a sacred plank of modern conservative ideology in the public sphere. Ahmari could argue that the anti-union, free-market attitude within the party is on the wane, and that the influx of working-class voters in the GOP means the party will eventually reflect a more egalitarian mood, though there is no evidence that this is happening. Even as working-class voters have moved into the Republican Party, they have not brought an egalitarian ideology with them. Instead, conservative voters remain committed to small government, skeptical of unions in general (and unions in politics especially), and extremely hostile to raising taxes tout court. It appears that as the GOP has captured more working-class voters, they have also succeeded in eroding the solidaristic ideology that once characterized working-class politics. This is a triumph for the Right: they get to have their working-class voters, and eat them too. Why, if the party is able to win working-class support without sacrificing their economic program, would they change course?

Democratic voters, on the other hand, have proven more receptive to labor’s cause. Ample polling evidence suggests that Democratic voters support labor dramatically more than their conservative counterparts, with 65% of Democrats expressing support for unions as opposed to only 28% of Republicans. Democratic voters are also more supportive of policies aligned with labor’s economic interest—from making it easier to organize unions, to greater investments in industrial projects; from expansions in health insurance coverage (the single largest cause of strikes and lockouts) to combatting the power of big business in society and reducing economic inequality. And Democratic voters are much more likely to support doing what is necessary to make all this happen; that is, these voters are much warmer to increasing taxes. While Ahmari is right to lament the fact that labor has become a weak “client” of the Democratic Party, he should see that this is the result of shared political interests today, and not merely a historical hangover from the New Deal.

None of this is meant to exonerate the Democratic Party or those within it who represent a genuine threat to labor’s interests. Nor does it discount the chasm that has opened up between the Left and the working class. The shift to the Right among workers—global in scope and harrowing in depth—is not something for us to shrug about simply because we know that the Right will not express working-class economic interests in government. Indeed, that fact should make us that much more worried. Right-wing governments continue to win the support of a disorganized and frustrated working class, as was the case most recently in Argentina where Javier Milei cruised to victory to the cheers of young voters and workers. Milei will do less than nothing to improve the welfare of the masses, as I’m sure Ahmari agrees. But he will succeed in deepening their demoralization and their lack of faith in democratic politics.

I suspect Ahmari might agree and still insist that the Democratic Party, beholden as it is to the wills and whims of the professional class, is fundamentally incapable of winning back the great majority of working-class voters. And he may be right. But that does not imply that reforming the Republican Party is any more reasonable or realizable. The fact is that despite the many ways that our moment seems akin to the early 1900s—with extreme Gilded Age-levels inequality, wild moral crusades, global instability, and shocking levels of ordinary violence—there is one crucial way in which the times are quite different. Today’s Republican Party is not the Party of Lincoln, of Teddy Roosevelt, or even of Warren G. Harding (who, incidentally, pardoned Eugene Debs when Democrat Woodrow Wilson would not).

It remains the Party of Business, first and foremost. And there are a lot of people who will pay a lot of money to ensure that it stays that way. 

Dustin “Dino” Guastella is a research associate at the Center for Working Class Politics and the Director of Operations for Teamsters Local 623 in Philadelphia.