Technological Unemployment and the Rise of Conservative Populism
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A startling wave of conservative populism has been sweeping the Western hemisphere. Observers have attributed a number of surprising political events, most notably the election of Donald Trump and the success of Brexit, a United Kingdom referendum aimed at leaving the European union, to such a movement (McFarland). Both movements have gained momentum thanks to a perception among working class voters that their blue collar jobs of the 20 th century have been shipped out of the First World, and that their woes are being ignored amidst rising inequality (Stern). However, recent research suggests that 88% of the decline in manufacturing employment can be explained by technological advances rather than globalization or trade policy (Ball State 6). A 2017 paper found that 47% of current jobs across all U.S. employment sectors are at risk of being replaced by automated systems (Frey and Osborne 265). Such research indicates that automation-driven unemployment will only become a bigger factor as time goes on.
As technological unemployment, a term coined by John Meynard Keynes in a 1930 essay to refer to jobs lost due to productivity increases outstripping current demand for labor, claims more jobs, it seems clear that the underlying causes of our current populist moment will remain in place. However, it also seems inevitable that the movement will eventually realize the true cause of their woes lies not abroad, but in the former workplaces at home. I expect this will lead to a number of significant challenges for the political elite in industrialized countries, but being able to harness the populist movement could also allow for consolidation of support and reclaiming long-lost voter demographics. Although this is a trend that seems likely to occur internationally, I will focus largely on said political ramifications in the United States thanks to the political relevance provided by Trump's recent election. Despite aiming to take a large-scale, evidence-based view, I believe it is very important for my research to not lose sight of the hardships wide-scale technological unemployment could inflict on the American working and middle classes.
According to conservative historian George Nash, modern American conservativism is in fact a coalition of five main groups, and the populist moment is a result of one underrepresented group, the neoconservatives, growing in size and vocalness (Kimball 12). A Republican party that manages to harness the movement and keep it in the coalition could benefit greatly as it grows due to technological unemployment, but if they lose a movement that often seems incompatible with central tenets of the other coalition members, they risk being left with a base of support too small to win national elections. On the other hand, technological unemployment seems to provide an opportunity for Democrats to win back the working class votes they have lost since the Johnson administration (Kazin 288). Many of the proposed solutions to technological unemployment are of a large government, social safety net bent, and if Democrats can convince portions of the conservative base that these are the best way to solve their economic woes, it seems likely that there is a significant subset of voters that could potentially be swayed (da Costa). Either way, the continued rise of automation is likely to have a significant impact on the social, political, and economic fabric of our society.
Is Technological Unemployment Inevitable?
Before attempting to analyze potential responses to technological unemployment, it's important to take a step back and ask whether technological unemployment on a large scale is truly inevitable. According to Smithsonian Magazine, in the early 19th century, bands of English workers destroyed textile equipment that allowed unskilled laborers to produce more than them for less pay. Just two decades before, political economist Thomas Malthus claimed that technology had lead to a decoupling of population growth and food production that was likely to lead to catastrophic famines. Following World War II, Neo-Malthusians pushed a similar claim, alleging that many countries simply did not possess enough arable land to feed their population (Desrochers 40-41). However, none of these doomsday scenarios came to pass. Unemployed rural English laborers soon moved to the boom cities of the industrializing North. Thanks to increasing demand, technologies and economic systems revolving around food production have advanced greatly, to the point where population growth has been outstripped by the available food in many countries (Desrochers 40-41). Such historical examples are often used to assuage fears that modern advances could cause a catastrophic reorganization of our society.
However, similar fears may be more well founded in modern society. Unlike past technological doomsday scenarios, the prospect of technological unemployment doesn't just threaten a small number of employment sectors or one aspect of our economies. In 2017, political scientist Carl Frey and professor of engineering Michael Osborne published a paper in which they used machine learning to predict the susceptibility of various areas of US employment to computerization. They found that 47% of US jobs were highly susceptible to automation, meaning they could be automated within two decades. Virtually every employment sector is at risk (265). Due to this, there is no obvious boom industry for the newly unemployed to turn to, and the problem may not self-correct as it has in the past.
Unsurprisingly, technological unemployment has already started. According to a Ball State report, technologically driven productivity increases have led to the loss of 8.8 million manufacturing jobs since 2000 (4). The number of people employed in these middle-skill, middle-earning, middle class jobs has shrunk by over 50% in many sectors (6). These jobs have been replaced by low-skill, poorly paid service jobs that require interacting with other humans rather than repetitive tasks—between 1985 and 2005 the service sector expanded by 30% (4). So, while technological advances aren't currently the cause of massive ranks of unemployed, they have already caused a drop in income for many that were formerly part of the middle class (Autor and Dorn 1556). However, these low-skill service jobs may be next on the chopping block. Currently, jobs involving varying routines and reactive decision making are considered difficult to automate. Computers are acquiring such skills surprisingly quickly, though. In 2004, academic authors discussed how it would be prohibitively difficult to replace a human with a machine when one needs to make a left turn ahead of oncoming traffic. In 2010, the first self- driving cars began to be tested on public streets (Frey and Osborne 255). As computers become more adept at the sort of cognitive tasks that have proven difficult to automate since the very beginning of industrialization, and as service workers begin to be replaced with automated systems, we may see a situation unlike those following previous waves of automation, where there simply aren't enough jobs to sustain the newly unemployed.
So it seems at least plausible, and perhaps likely, that in the medium to long-term future, technological advances could cause societal restructuring with greater impacts than those caused by any past changes. If such changes occur, governments will very likely be forced to move to mitigate their negative effects. Many of the solutions currently being discussed in academic spheres are of the big-government, European welfare style popular among modern liberals. Successfully enacting such solutions could prove to be an effective response to a technological unemployment-driven conservative populist movement of a type that will be discussed later in this paper.
Some proposed big-government solutions are universal basic income (UBI) and jobs guarantees reminiscent of New Deal politics (da Costa). Small-scale UBI trials have been gaining popularity throughout the Western world. The Alaska Permanent Fund annually pays every resident of the state a lump sum proportional to the oil and investment earning of the fund in that year. Dividends are typically between $1000 and $3000. The fund is (unsurprisingly) highly popular among the Alaskan constituency and is generally considered to have a stimulating effect on the economy. However, the richness of Alaska's natural resources and the small size of the dividend (compared to the poverty level) raise questions of whether such a system would be sufficient to support a national population during a time of significantly diminished employment (Goldsmith 7-9). Some European countries have also considered UBI programs. In 2016, a Swiss referendum proposing a basic income for all citizens received 23.1% of the national vote—well short of the 75% threshold, but a significant proportion of the population nevertheless. In exit polls, 69% of voters stated that they expected the subject would be broached on the national level, indicating that they expected support would continue to grow (Wagner). Outside of unusually wealthy, small economies such as Switzerland or Alaska, however, providing a universal income is viewed as prohibitively, even impossibly expensive. One American UBI proposal was estimated to cost three trillion dollars annually—nearly as much as the current total national budget, and 1/6 of the country's GDP (Kingma). Despite the obvious difficulties, UBI seems likely to remain in the public consciousness in the near term, and could potentially become a more popular and feasible solution as automation progresses.
Another proposed idea of this sort is an adaptation of Hyman Minsky's employer of last resort (ELR) paradigm. A liberal critic of the Johnson-era War on Poverty, Minsky believed that economic inequality could never be greatly ameliorated by stimulation of investment and growth. Rather, he espoused the benefits of "tight full employment," where an abundance of open jobs would lead to a massive cut in the involuntary unemployment rate and increases labor demand. In his opinion, "only the federal government can offer an infinitely elastic demand for labor" (Wray 2, 10, 13). In other words, by the government creating enough jobs to employ anybody who wants one, wages would go up across the economy, especially in low-skill jobs typically paying the minimum legal wage. This idea could be adapted for an increasingly automated economy, with the government subsidizing jobs that would be eliminated in a genuinely capitalist economy. Unsurprisingly, even the staunchest proponents of such ideas admit that they "have little political traction and are championed primarily by leftist academic economists" (da Costa). Nevertheless, such ideas may enter the political vogue as technological unemployment increases, and, even now, can theoretically be seen as having draws for moderates and conservatives. The fact that such a system would couple a federal safety net solely to being employed is consistent with the Reagan and Clinton administrations' goal of "ending welfare as we know it," which has been resoundingly popular with establishment conservatives (Wray 11). Use of such rhetoric may someday allow currently radical ideas to appeal to portions of the American body politic that may be expected to oppose them out of principle.
Of course, this issue can be approached in ways other than those consistent with large- government, modern liberalism. Many Western economies have successfully adapted to an array of technological changes in the last two centuries without abandoning their (largely) laissez-faire economic systems, and there's no guarantee that they can't manage it again. Neoclassical economists call the idea that productivity growth and unemployment may be related the Luddite Fallacy, arguing instead that technological unemployment always has been and always will be accompanied by job growth in other fields, or even that new fields of labor will be invented to harness the energies of the newly unemployed. Just as we don't have switchboard operators today, tomorrow we may lose cashiers without any significant societal effects (Tabarrok).
The idea of existing and new industries being stimulated by technological advances as proposed by neoclassical economists isn't just based on the idea of falling labor prices reinvigorating demand. Automation will also decrease the prices of existing goods, thereby leaving consumers with deeper pocketbooks to support new and growing sectors, creating new jobs without a requisite drop in labor value. Furthermore, capitalists will be incentivized to manufacture demand for new innovations as current profit margins are withered away by the enhanced production levels of automated systems (Davis et al. 18). If this is indeed the case, our current economic system could clearly coexist even with very high levels of automation, although neoconservative economists do concede that total automation of the workforce would be incompatible (Davis et al. 16). If such trends sustain our current system to the point where automation is so nearly complete as to make full-time employment for the entirety of our population impossible, productivity may be high enough to allow survival while working significantly fewer hours, as was predicted by French philosopher André Gorz (Gorz 77).
However, such a scenario would indicate that automation was so nearly complete that such a system would be unlikely to be sustainable long-term without some sort of check on further automation (Davis et al. 25). Thus, it may not be as desirable a state as Gorz makes it out to be. While the novel trends addressed at the beginning of this paper may mean the neoconservative view is a fantasy, it's plausible that both neoconservatives and modern liberals could construct economically competitive states. Such a future schism may reflect the current political atmosphere in the West, where many European states are much more eager than the American body politic to move towards socialist welfare policies.
The Conservative Populist Movement
Although the idea of sweeping societal changes in response to technological unemployment is both arguable and futuristic, my thesis holds that it may be greatly impacted by a current, highly relevant Western political trend. As referenced in the introduction, a number of significant recent political events have been driven by a wave of neoconservative populism. The movement has been driven by the significant decline that has been seen in American manufacturing. In an article for The Atlantic, writer Derek Thompson found that the single best predictor of whether a person supported Donald Trump's populist movement during the 2016 presidential primaries whether they did not have a college degree. This is also the sector of the population that has been hit hardest up to this point by automation: men without a college diploma have seen roughly a 15% decrease in wages and an 8% decrease in net employment since 1990 (Thompson). The fact that this is the base of support for a conservative populist movement is unsurprising, as a 1996 paper found that people in a poor economic situation that has worsened in the last five years are 27% more likely to hold such views (Kehrberg 271).
Currently, much of the movement's economic rhetoric has focused on manufacturing job losses due to globalization. However, as mentioned earlier, 88% of such job losses are actually attributable to automation. Assuming such a conclusion is correct, current federal efforts to reduce the trade deficit and combat globalization won't address the underlying problems its core of support is facing. As people begin to realize this, attention may be turned towards technological unemployment in its stead. However, such a change may be slow in coming— research shows that members of the core of conservative populist movements are 20% more likely to hold the xenophobic sentiments that lead to support for anti-globalization movements, and therefore may be expected to support such policies past the point that it becomes clear they're unlikely to bear fruit (Kehrberg 273). Such trends may hinder the pivot from a globalization focus to a technological unemployment focus that I expect to eventually see.
The second largest factor driving the current conservative populist movement, closely related to the decline of American manufacturing, is a perception of increasing social and economic inequality. Core supporters of President Trump, namely those that voted for him in the presidential primaries, were 86% more likely to agree with the statement that "people like me don't have any say." This stands in stark contrast to respondents who voted for other Republican candidates, who were 20-30% less likely than average to agree with the statement, as well as to respondents who voted Democrat, who were less than 10% more likely than average to agree (Thompson). Agreement with such sentiments is driven by a feeling that neither of the major political movements in the United States are focusing on them. Establishment conservatives are reviled for their long-standing support of "corporations, wealthy families, and well-positioned rent-seekers" (Pierson 107). Hillary Clinton's comment referring to Donald Trump's base of support as a "basket of deplorables" both illustrates the efficacy of having a feeling of being ignored by the establishment in driving support for conservative populism, and explains why members of the movement are entirely unwilling to side with the Democrats as a protest of establishment conservatives. According to Diane Hessan, a member of the Clinton campaign who focused on swaying undecided voters, this comment was the single biggest event that drove people to identify with the conservative populist movement: it was the "one moment when [she] saw more undecided voters shift to Trump than any other; when it all changed" (Hessan). Hessan goes on to state that she believes undecided voters began to identify with the conservative populist movement because they felt Donald Trump "got them," which stands in stark contrast to their feelings of being ignored by the rest of the establishment.
This feeling of being ignored is reflected in the lack of hope implied by the voting trends of the population. The percentage of eligible voters without a high school diploma or with a high school diploma but who had not attended college (the portions of the population most likely to identify with conservative populism) has dropped from a high of 60% and 44% in 1992 to the historically low levels of 51% and 33% in 2016. These respective drops of 15% and 25% stand in stark contrast to the change in voting rate among the college-educated population, which has dropped by just 9.2% over the same timeframe (Eiermann). As populists, these people want to tear down a system they feel is no longer helping them and replace it with one that revolves around them. Labor historian Michael Kazin asserted in 1998 that future populist movements were likely to come from the political right. He states that "The domestic body politic is shot through with gendered, multiethnic identities that do not translate into old categories of producer and plutocrat, the authentic community and the artificial powers-that-be," with the implication being that a liberal movement that embraces such a societal change is unlikely to return to the rhetoric of traditional populism (Kazin 287). His words have turned out to be prescient; a major focus of the current conservative populist movement is an attempt to systematically marginalize and categorize as "other" (a necessary component of any populist movement) the "gendered, multiethnic" portion of modern society that supporters view as having taken an outsized role (Eiermann). The movement instead aspires to change the political system into one revolving around the "producer," or the working class man who feels he's being ignored by the current system and is likely to participate in conservative populism, and to pit him against the "plutocrat," or, more specifically, the modern political and financial elite, and the citizens outside the white working class seen as being catered to by the elites.
Another driving feature of the current conservative populist movement is that it's a reaction to a perceived domination of the political system by an insular elite. According to sociologist Martin Eiermann, this has been a feature of populist movements since the 1950s, when New Left writer C. Wright Mills "rose to public and intellectual prominence by deriding the presence of a 'power elite' in American politics". Per political scientist Paul Pierson, Donald Trump harnessed such feelings by campaigning on a platform which "diverges from Republican orthodoxy" and contained "stark messages of ethno-nationalism and visceral contempt for political and cultural elites." Trump further this anti-elitist sentiment by campaigning against Jeb Bush and Hillary Clinton based on the actions of their dynastic forebears; for example, during the first presidential debate, Trump attacked Clinton by saying "He [Bill Clinton] approved NAFTA, which is the single worst trade deal ever approved in this country."
In fact, such populist rhetoric and expressions of desire to return politics to the middle class aren't exclusive to Trump, or even the political Right. On May 3, 2015, Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders appeared on ABC and called for "political revolution … against the billionaire class," additionally comparing his rival candidate, Clinton, to popular liberal scapegoats the Koch brothers and Sheldon Adelson. He further placed the middle class in contrast to American political and economic elites by saying "in those [Scandinavian] countries government works for ordinary people and the middle class rather than, as is the case right now in our country, for the billionaires." In light of such rhetoric emanating from all sides of the American populist sphere, it's reasonable to wonder how billionaire Donald Trump, or even Sanders, a member of the 1% himself, can gain support from members of the working class by adopting it. According to Eiermann, it's because the person delivering populist rhetoric is typically more important to voters than the rhetoric itself. He claims that populism requires a leader to "reveal individual grievances as shared frustration," and thus "why populist movements, despite their anti-elitist tones, sometimes cohere behind [socioeconomically] strong and charismatic leaders."
To this point, none of the factors described as—and often cited in public discourse as-- driving the current conservative populist movement have much to do with technological unemployment. However, I argue that technological unemployment is a major factor— potentially the biggest—behind current conservative populism, and that its importance will only grow as time goes on. First, as has already been mentioned, the loss of manufacturing jobs currently blamed on globalization is actually almost entirely due to automation. In all likelihood, conservative populists will eventually realize this and technological unemployment will take a place in their rhetoric. As argued earlier, the severity of technological unemployment will also almost certainly increase in the future. As this happens, the economic malaise driving conservative populism, currently blamed on globalization, will almost certainly intensify, especially among the current Midwestern, working class core of the movement, who, according to Frey and Osborne, will also be some of the first portions of the currently employed population to lose their jobs due to automation.
Another factor currently driving conservative populism, the power vested in a political and economic elite, will also be intensified as further automation leads to increased wealth inequality. It's already known that computerization has magnified the production of skilled workers (particularly college graduates) and increased their wages relative to unskilled workers (Bresnahan 339). Throughout history, technological advances have also lead to increasing overheads and the consolidation of industry, leading to a smaller group of people reaping the surplus of increased productive capacity, and thereby increasing their wealth relative to the workers manning the machines (Frey and Osborne 257). Barring an increase some sort of unforeseen economic shock, consensus holds that this trend is very likely to continue (Piketty 49).
Such consolidation of industry would inevitably lead to a concentration of political and economic power in the hands of the companies and owners benefiting from the trend. This would only serve to enhance the effectiveness of the anti-corporate rhetoric that is already a mainstay of the conservative (and liberal) populist movement. Trump has successfully harnessed this with his tirades r.egarding outsourcing, saying on December 1, 2016, for example "Companies are not going to leave the United States anymore without consequences. Not going to happen." Senator Bernie Sanders, the face of the opposing populist movement, expressed similar sentiments on March 9, 2017, but instead referring to the relationship between corporations and the federal government rather than the working class: "The truth is that we have a rigged tax code that has essentially legalized tax-dodging for large corporations." It's clear that technological advances increasing the power of corporations can only serve to further cloud populist sentiment towards them.
American Political Reaction to Conservative Populism
Now that the likelihood of technological unemployment and its effects on the American political landscape have been discussed, it's worth considering the potential future reactions our political system may have towards the conservative populist movement. The conservative populist movement has had a political impact throughout the Western world, as seen in, for example, the UKIP party's successful Brexit campaign and the success of Marine Le Pen in recent French elections. However, as mentioned earlier, I am focusing largely on America due to its cultural familiarity, high level of industrialization, and, especially, the unique dynamic of its (largely) two-party political system. Additionally, the election of Donald Trump, likely the individual most emblematic of modern conservative populism, as American president, makes conservative populism in our country a politically valent topic. One quirk the reality of our political system leads to in regard to populism is that a significantly large populist movement in America simply cannot be ignored, as it will by definition draw support from some portion of the coalitions necessary for the survival of the parties currently in power. This stands in contrast to parliamentary systems, where populist movements (usually fringe in themselves) often lead to loss of support in less significant minority coalitions rather than those holding considerable amounts of political power (Bershidsky). In the case of American conservative populism, support is being drawn from the neoconservative portion of the Republican coalition, and thus the Republican party must cater to the movement to at least some extent in order to remain politically feasible (Kimball 12). Failure to do this may lead to the realization of the greatest existential fear of political elites on both sides of the aisle, namely that their party becomes unable to compete on a national scale.
As mentioned earlier, the neoconservatives have long been part of the conservative coalition, but have typically taken a backseat in the Republican party. However, according to George Nash, the party would likely struggle to win votes on the national level without this portion of its coalition (Kimball 17). With the rise of conservative populism in the last decade, neoconservatives have become much more outspoken and aggressive. During the 2016 presidential primaries, they indicated that they were no longer willing to follow Republican orthodoxy by eschewing the dynastic Jeb Bush and the religious Ted Cruz for Trump, an outsider to the Republican party. Despite this, the mainstream leaders of the Republican party can't afford to ignore them—the populists must be convinced to remain in the traditional coalition in order for the right to remain competitive in elections.
So what can the Republican orthodoxy do to keep the neoconservatives solidly in their coalition? Their first option is to preempt or acquiesce to some of the populist demands. History has shown that moderate parties can decrease the effectiveness of extremist rhetoric by implementing, at least to an extent, some of the major talking points. For example, the Red Scare populist movement in the end met its demise because moderate anticommunists successfully opposed the USSR and oversaw "the death of Stalin, the end of the Korean War, the obvious impotence of the Communist Party, and the re-election of a Republican president" (Kazin 190). This meant that Joseph McCarthy's brand of anticommunism began to be seen as "shrill" and "unreasonable," and lead to "The responsible anticommunism of men like [Edward] Murrow, [Joseph] Welch, and [Dwight] Eisenhower [triumphing] over the irresponsible brand that McCarthy had come to symbolize" (Kazin 190). Such strategies have also been effective at reining in liberal populism; in the late 19 th century, German chancellor Otto von Bismarck, famous progenitor of realpolitik, turned Germany into the first national welfare state by implementing Krankenversicherungsgesetz, a system of nationally supported health insurance.
Bismarck, a staunch conservative, didn't care about social welfare. His aim was to undermine the popularity of the German socialist party by assenting to one of their most popular claims and thereby drawing their support to himself: "That was a calculation … He just wanted some kind of bribery to get social democratic voters to abandon their party" (Boissoneault). Ultimately, this strategy is popularly perceived as having failed—by 1912 the Social Democratic Party was part of the controlling coalition in the Reichstag—but this has more to do with the death of the venerated Kaiser Wilhelm I and Bismarck's removal from power by his successor than it does with a failure of the political strategy. In reality, the Social Democratic Party's rise was successfully checked by the legislation and saw a very slow rise in popularity while Bismarck was still in power (Boissoneault). The relative success of Bismarck's strategy indicates that the Republican party may be able to employ a similar tactic in order to return conservative populists to the fold of the establishment.
There are a number of areas in which the Republican party could potentially employ this stratagem. They could undermine populist anti-globalization rhetoric by supporting the renegotiation of trade deals (assuming current NAFTA renegotiations remain stagnant), although this would go against the pro-business tendencies of modern Republican orthodoxy. Another option would be to attempt to temporarily check the vocalness of the religious portions of their coalition. Of all portions of the Republican coalition, conservative populists identify least strongly with the Religious Right. By deemphasizing the religious conservatism embodied by recent presidential candidates such as Rick Santorum and Mike Huckabee, and which has proved unable to carry modern national elections, orthodox Republicans may be able to reclaim portions of the conservative populist movement. In fact, such a pivot would likely not even alienate the evangelical vote—Trump and his populist conservativism carried a larger portion of evangelicals than any presidential candidate since the turn of the millennium, indicating a high level of support for the movement among religious conservatives (Renaud). Critics of the efficacy of such strategies would point out that mainstream Republican leaders had already been taking a relatively strong anti-immigration position prior to the rise of a conservative populist movement trumpeting such policies, and therefore that attempting to preempt neoconservative policies is likely fruitless. However, I would argue that immigration has little to do with the root economic causes—driven by automation—behind the rise of conservative populism and therefore is a peripheral issue stemming from opposition to globalization (which hadn't been opposed by mainstream Republicans) rather than an ideological predisposition against open border policy.
The Republican party currently appears to be trying a different tactic aimed towards maintaining their coalition. To this point during Donald Trump's presidency, while he continues to dispense the populist rhetoric that propelled him into the position, almost all policy decisions have followed Republican orthodoxy. It's difficult to tell if this is due to a freely made decision by Trump aimed at maintaining the coalition or if he's been forced into it by the power and level of entrenchment of the conservative core—perhaps both—but it's been a definite feature of his presidency. In the words of political scientist Paul Pierson, "while Trump's pugilistic style lends the administration a populist air, he has not backed that up with many serious policy initiatives. This broad picture of inactivity is, of course, inconsistent with Trump's promises to his base. It is, however, fully consistent with the well-‐developed views of Republican Party elites." What this trend has resulted in, though, is Trump's rhetoric maintaining high levels of support in his core, while his policies have softened much of the opposition from the conservative elites, allowing him to maintain support from both sides.
Concrete examples of this strategy include the Trump administration's record on taxation and the federal budget. The administration's sweeping tax act is estimated to increase after tax income by 1.7% for those in the 20-80% range (the range in which most of Trump's underemployed, working-class core resides), compared to 2.2% for those in the top quintile. Additionally, it cut the corporate tax rate from 35% to 21%—the emphasis on tax cuts for wealthy individuals and corporations is much more in line with modern Republican orthodoxy than with Trump's populist rhetoric (Kasperowicz). On May 21, 2015, Trump told The Daily Signal "I'm not going to cut Social Security like every other Republican and I'm not going to cut Medicare or Medicaid." However, the Trump administration's 2019 budget proposal followed Republican orthodoxy by including a $72 billion cut to social security disability programs, a service understandably popular among much of his core of support, many of whom are aging and formerly employed in manufacturing (Jacobson). By employing populist rhetoric, Trump manages to retain his base of support, but his actual policy decisions ensure that Republican elites don't decide to make his administration untenable by refusing to work with it, despite his nominal party affiliation.
It's difficult to tell whether this dual-pronged strategy of Trump's is going to continue to appease both the Republican orthodox and his populist core. Currently, approval ratings amidst his core of support remain high, indicating that the plan is unlikely to fall apart any time soon (Walsh). However, there is evidence that a perception of being overly bombastic and untrustworthy is damaging support among his core, even if his political moves are not (Levy). It's certainly one that has been enacted before, over the course of hundreds of years. An older, conservative example is that of French Emperor Napoleon III (nephew of Napoleon I). After seizing power in a coup d'état, it maintained a "democratic-populist façade," primarily by enacting and supporting universal (male) suffrage beginning in 1852. This act "worried" many in the conservative and bureaucratic elite. However, Napoleon III left much of the real governing to the "'disinterested' bureaucrats of the Conseil d'Etat and prefectorial corps who had helped stage the coup d'état," which allowed him to maintain his populist rhetoric while heading an elitist government (Magraw 164-5). More recent examples of this strategy being employed to check liberal populism can be found throughout Latin America. Case in point is former Peruvian president Alberto Fujimori, who campaigned against the status quo of Peruvian politics and opposed neoliberal reforms. However, shortly after his election, Fujimori visited Washington, returned to Peru, and quickly enacted a host of American-suggested neoliberal reforms. By maintaining his populist rhetoric, however, he was able to keep high levels of public support. Part of the reason for his approval ratings and regular reelections were strongman tactics and an economic boom, but it's almost certain that his rhetoric propped up his presidency (Associated Press).
One of the most popularly recognized presidential quotes is attributed to Lyndon Johnson following the signing of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. According to Democratic Party lore, Johnson stated "we have lost the south for a generation." As any politically conscious citizen could tell you, few statements could have been more prescient. A look at a map of general election results shows that only once since 1964 has a democratic candidate taken the south. This occurred in 1976, when Jimmy Carter (not irrelevantly a Georgia born farmer) carried the South against Gerald Ford ("Historical Presidential Elections"). Prior to the Civil Rights Act, a Republican hadn't carried the South since Rutherford Hayes in 1876, who famously cut a deal to end Reconstruction ("Historical Presidential Elections"). According to political scientists Ilyana Kuziemko and Ebonya Washington, this trend, combined with historical polling data, shows that three fourths of the 20 th century decline of Southern Democrats can be explained by defection due to racially conservative attitudes (3).
The Democratic loss of the South over racial politics has lead the party to shift focus away from efforts to appeal to working class white voters and, especially in recent elections, work to assemble a diverse coalition consisting of those with less traditional sway. Strategically, there's nothing wrong with this move, but it allowed Trump to establish a monolithic, nationalistic core eager to place itself in opposition. In contrast, Clinton's core failed to deliver compared to past elections, which established her campaign's expectations for it. According to political observer Thomas B. Edsall, Clinton's support, compared to the support Barack Obama received, dropped 7% among black voters, 6% among Latinos, and 6% among the youngest demographic, not to mention a never-before-seen loss among non-college-educated voters.
Such losses have begun to convince some portion of the progressive intelligentsia that winning back the white working class is necessary in order to establish consistent Democratic success, especially on the state and local level. Progressive activist Ruy Teixeira writes that political participation among this demographic is chronically underreported and that their importance in recent Democratic campaign successes is underestimated. The issue is a controversial one among the Democratic establishment—Teixeira provides a quote from fellow activist Steve Phillips deriding the idea: "The country is under conservative assault because Democrats mistakenly sought support from conservative white working-class voters susceptible to racially charged appeals. Replicating that strategy would be another catastrophic blunder. The ceiling with the white working class is what it is."
Whatever the necessity of winning back the white working class vote may be, I believe that it is essentially by definition would help the Democrat party to make an attempt to do so. There's little risk in doing so, and the potential benefits are massive. Unlike the Democratic party, the Republican coalition almost certainly would be unable to survive an eroding of support among this group without a significant ideological about-face, and therefore a Democratic effort to win them away would carry little risk and the potential for a massive political reward (Kimball 12, House Majority PAC 2).
Having established that it's at least reasonable for Democrats to want to win back the working-class vote, it's important to examine whether such a goal is feasible. There's at least one factor that may mean it's possible to regain some of that population in a way that wasn't possible when it was originally lost. Democratic strategist Stanley Greenberg argues that his party no longer has a white working-class problem, but a working-class problem in general. On one hand, this is an issue, since it includes those in the "Rising American Electorate of minorities, unmarried women, and millennials," a coalition often thought to be solidly Democratic. However, a working class that has abandoned racial views as its biggest priority and replaced them with economic ones provides an opportunity for Democrats to reclaim it without violating core social justice principles of the party and alienating those already in their coalition.
A recent report by the Democrat-funded House Majority PAC indicated that a significant part of this working class group is open to changing affiliations, despite widely reported trends of political polarization in America (Kuziemko & Washington 1, House Majority PAC 3). The PAC report found that 15% of white, non-college educated voters were willing to switch from a Republican to a Democratic candidate following the proper messaging. Further, it was found that the strongest narratives in order to convey this message were those promising to create middle- class jobs rather than those attacking Republicans—this portion of the electorate prefers solutions to villains. All of the most effective solutions were those focusing on the economy and worker-employer relationships rather than those focusing on nationalism or race. The report also found that successfully swaying this portion of the electorate flips the tables in many places dominated by Republicans in recent elections (House Majority PAC 2). Such a possible reward provides a significant impetus for Democratic politicians to attempt to enact the paper's findings.
The findings imply that an economically focused message addressing technological unemployment could provide a massive advantage to Democrats. Many working class voters open to being swayed may respond positively to the big government economic solutions to problems raised by automation addressed earlier. For example, a government jobs guarantee could conceivably be couched in language that resonated with those holding both the traditional conservative aversion to welfare and the more modern opinion that we need job-focused economic change. Obviously, such a proposal is currently radical to the point of unfeasibility, but if technological unemployment begins causing more severe problems, political opinion may quickly reach the point where such a message is not out of the question. One potential way to hasten such a day may be to criticize the idea that our current society will be able to respond to technological advances as it has in the past. Convince this uncertain section of the electorate that conservative policies will lead to job loss—the area in which conservatives are often rated most strongly—directly contradicting their primary priority, and they may quickly come around to the idea of an economic change ( House Majority PAC 6). Of course, the success of such a narrative depends on the entire elite core of the party buying in—villainizing of Republicans and alienation of the working class have been common during Democratic campaigns (as embodied in the Hillary Clinton and Steve Phillips anecdotes), and the PAC survey showed that such tactics are the worst way to win uncertain voters. However, if Democratic leaders can agree on a solution-oriented strategy, the rise of technological unemployment may provide a golden opportunity for them to shore up a party that has appeared decidedly shaky in the face of rising conservative populism.
Of course, it's reasonable to question whether conservative populism will even be a relevant issue by the time technological unemployment has enough public focus to become a talking point for the major American political parties. However, given that it has been at least an undercurrent in American politics since the 1960s, it seems to have sticking power that will only be enhanced as the underlying factors driving it become more pronounced (Kimball 12). As has been seen, the political establishment has difficulty dealing with the movement, and the proper stance on technological unemployment may be what they need to gain its support or dilute its power. At its heart, though, conservative populism is driven by the economic pain of previously comfortable voters, and it's in everyone's best interest to support policies they see as likely to diminish the harms technological unemployment has caused and seems likely to continue to cause in the near future.