A group of conservative intellectuals and a few sympathetic Republicans in Congress are pushing the GOP to abandon “Reaganomics,” the New York Times reported last week. This cohort, which includes senators Marco Rubio, Mitt Romney, Josh Hawley, and J. D. Vance, wants to expand welfare payments to families as “a pragmatic way to prop up conservative values alongside new restrictions on abortion.”
In other words, these conservatives — who have made a habit the past couple years of posturing as “pro-worker” — want to marry cruel attacks on reproductive rights with modest expansions of the welfare state.
There are serious moral objections to this political tack, of course, that anyone even vaguely on the Left should share. As I wrote last July when Rubio first announced his new package of “pro-family” policies:
The rationale behind Rubio’s proposal — that we should seek to provide financial support to families while denying women the right to choose whether and when they start families — is a morally horrific and completely unnecessary trade-off. Depriving women of their bodily autonomy doesn’t become acceptable in exchange for expanding a tax credit.
Leaving that aside, though, the project of “Little Marco” and his fellow Potemkin populists seems doomed to fail on its own terms. The main reason? The GOP shows no real signs of abandoning the extreme version of neoliberalism it has championed for over four decades. (The Times acknowledges this, with an almost comic understatement: “Some Republicans and Democrats say that a bipartisan deal on family policy would likely require Republicans to rally around proposals like Senator Romney’s — a difficult goal.”)
We’ve seen this movie before. Because of his willingness to rhetorically break with right-wing economic shibboleths on the campaign trail, Donald Trump was supposed to represent the rise of a genuinely populist, post-Reagan strain in the GOP. But in office, Trump’s economic policy looked more or less like that of any other Republican president, doling out obscene tax cuts for the very wealthy while doing almost nothing to help poor and working-class Americans, until the COVID pandemic forced the government to take extraordinary measures to stave off economic catastrophe. Steve Bannon, the Trump consigliere most associated with criticism of free-market orthodoxy, was pushed out of the White House almost immediately, and Trump stacked his National Labor Relations Board with a menagerie of management lawyers eager to kneecap workers.
The reasons for Trump’s about-face are not hard to surmise: though opportunistic criticisms of NAFTA and deindustrialization helped him prevail in elections against Republican stuffed suits and Hillary Clinton — herself a wildly unpopular avatar of neoliberalism — Trump had no incentive to challenge corporate power or the GOP’s wealthy donor base once in office. And what was true of Trump is all the more true of the vast majority of Republican lawmakers, who don’t even have pretensions of wanting to reject Reaganism.
Nor are the welfare proposals on offer from Romney, Rubio, and co. particularly generous to workers. Romney’s 2022 proposal to provide cash to parents, for instance, requires families to have a minimum income of $10,000, a mandate that would likely exclude many poor and working-class mothers. Hawley has proposed a cash benefit that would apply only to parents of children under thirteen and includes a work requirement. Policies from the likes of Rubio and think tanker Oren Cass to “revive the labor movement” are really attempts to revive management-controlled “yellow” unions.
Most egregious is a proposal from Rubio and Romney mentioned in passing in the Times article that “would allow workers to draw from future Social Security payments to fund parental leave.” This is not an extension of the welfare state but a cleverly packaged attempt to defund Social Security. And it is precisely this sort of neoliberal policy — along with abortion and contraception restrictions and Ron DeSantis–style attacks on trans rights and freedom of expression — that is most likely to gain traction in today’s Republican Party.
None of this means that liberals or leftists should ignore the cartoonish attempt to fashion a working-class conservatism. It may be a farce and an illusion, but illusions can be dangerous too. If voters’ only political alternative is a weak-tea Democratic Party offering scant material benefits to workers, they might opt for right-wingers masquerading as pro-labor. Rubio et al. may not give a damn about workers — but all they need to help the Right build its power is to be good at pretending.