Published November 21, 2016
The victory of Donald Trump surprised virtually all political observers. Many since have focused on Trump’s record-high 39 percent margin among whites without a college degree. Few have focused on what this means: Trump — and the Republican party — owe the presidency to millions of whites who have largely voted Democratic for years. The implications of that for the future of the Republican party are immense.
Trump’s appeal to white non-college-educated Democrats and independents is clear with even a cursory glance at the election map. Take closely balanced Michigan, which Trump leads as of this writing by 12,000 votes. He carried the state by winning all but eight counties, including historically Democratic places such as Saginaw, Bay, and Gogebic counties. A Republican has not carried the first two since Ronald Reagan in 1984. Gogebic, a 92 percent white county on Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, hasn’t voted for the GOP since 1972.
The pattern is identical in other midwestern states that Trump won narrowly. He carried Wisconsin largely because he won ten white, historically Democratic counties in the southwestern part of the state that even Gore and Kerry won in their races against George W. Bush. Most of these counties had not been carried by the GOP nominee since George H. W. Bush in 1988 or Reagan in 1984; Republicans had not won Pepin and Kenosha since 1972. Trump swept Iowa by winning virtually every eastern county, places that had voted Democratic in every election since 1988. Pennsylvania’s Luzerne County last went Republican in 1988, while Ohio’s Trumbull County had been Democratic since 1972.
These voters do not fit neatly into any of the GOP’s pre-Trump factions. If they were motivated by social conservatism, they would have backed George W. Bush. If tax cuts were important to them, they could have backed any of the GOP’s last four nominees. But Chamber of Commerce Republicans can’t count on their support either. These voters are workers, not bosses, and they view corporate-centric policies with a very jaundiced eye.
It’s common to view their concerns through a purely economic lens and call them protectionist. That is largely true as far as it goes: These people have been buffeted by globalization more than most Americans and see restrictions on trade and immigration as ways to boost the number of good-paying jobs open to American workers. But that’s far from all that they want, nor does a purely economic lens capture the way they view their votes.
They are best viewed through the lens of active citizenship. They take national identity seriously and imbue Americanism with an implicit bargain that flies in the face of liberal or libertarian cosmopolitanism. They believe that being American means more than voting and paying taxes. To them it means that if you work hard and play by the rules, the people who run the country owe it to you that you will live with dignity and respect.
It became painfully obvious to these voters over the last eight years that national Democrats no longer treat them with respect or believe they are capable of living dignified lives. They have seen their way of life under assault, whether in the form of attacks on gun ownership, the focus on climate change over growth, or implicit claims that they are bigots. For people who voted twice for President Obama, these last insinuations might have been the most offensive and damaging of all.
Just because progressive Democrats seemed determined to drive these voters away did not mean, however, that they found conventional Republicans any better. These voters have shunned Republicans because they disagree with the party’s focus on low taxes, small government, and pro-business policies. They benefit enormously from middle-class entitlement programs; their children get what they consider to be good educations from public schools and state universities. They have no problem with redistribution so long as it is focused on either people who can’t work or people who do.
This attitude comes out clearly when we look at entitlement reform. Polls show that these voters do not want to cut Social Security or Medicare at all. Pew Research surveys also show that voters like these believe the government should spend more to help the poor even if it adds to the debt. These are not mainstream views among most Republicans, to say the least.
It will be easy for Republicans to treat these voters with respect in non-economic policies. Most Republicans share these voters’ reverence for traditional American values and reject the extreme coastal cosmopolitanism that increasingly defines the national Democratic party. It will be challenging, however, to extend that treatment to economic policies.
These voters view questions of public taxation and spending differently than do other factions in the party. Where movement conservatives see many social programs and the high taxes that fund them as threats to liberty, these voters see them as giving decent, hard-working people a hand up to live decent, dignified lives. Where business conservatives see free trade or immigration as helping people and increasing growth, these voters see those policies as favoring foreigners over themselves and as just another way that their bosses try to pay them less without justification.
Social conservatives often think that their policies are the way to reach out to these voters and bring them into the GOP coalition, but that’s a mistake. These voters are not motivated by social issues; they are, as the conservative Canadian political analyst Patrick Muttart says, “morally moderate.” They will go along with candidates of the Left or the Right who hold their party’s consensus views on abortion, gender identity, or marriage so long as they do not make those views their priority. Donald Trump’s lack of a firm grounding in traditional Republican social policy was, for these voters, a plus, as it signaled to them that advancing the Evangelical Christian social agenda would not be high on his agenda.
I’m sure many people reading this are thinking, “Adding these voters to the conservative coalition can’t be done.” But in fact it can be done, as Wisconsin governor Scott Walker showed. Walker cut taxes and reduced the rate of spending growth while taking on public-employee labor unions. He also expanded government-funded health-insurance coverage by taking advantage of his state’s very generous Medicaid program to cover more poor people publicly and push working-class people into Obamacare’s exchanges. All factions in his coalition got something they valued.
Walker rode this balanced approach to two important political victories, winning a recall battle and then reelection despite being targeted by national progressive groups. He won virtually all of the historically Democratic white counties that Trump won in his three elections, often running only a couple of percentage points behind Walker. Trump Democrats could also be called Walker Democrats.
Walker’s subsequent political missteps also show how one can lose these voters’ support by becoming too conventional a Republican. Walker veered to the right as he prepared his presidential campaign, catering to tea-party and Christian-conservative groups in nationally covered speeches in Iowa. He also tried to reduce funding for the University of Wisconsin system. His approval ratings dropped sharply and remain mired around 42 percent.
Accommodating these new voters’ concerns will be an ongoing challenge, but the political payoffs are immense. Bringing them into the Republican fold while veering like Walker toward more traditional GOP priorities will make the Midwest a new red firewall. Moreover, showing Americans more broadly that Republicans are willing to use government on occasion to break down barriers to people’s advancement will send a broader message to other voters, especially Latinos. Latinos have historically liked strong government that rewards work and provides opportunity as they move up the economic ladder. Seeing that the GOP shares these values will inevitably broaden the Republican coalition into something that more closely resembles the demography of the new America. And that will allow conservatives to finally redeem the legacy Ronald Reagan bequeathed to us, to make conservatism once more America’s true political religion.
– Henry Olsen is a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center and a visiting fellow at the Matthew Ryan Center at Villanova University. He is the author of the forthcoming book Ronald Reagan: New Deal Republican. This article appeared in the December 5, 2016, issue of National Review.