“Pro-Worker” Republicans Aren’t Serious

Ron DeSantis’s new economic plan promises to stand up to the ruling class and big corporations, echoing the “pro-worker” rhetoric bubbling up from some segments of the Right. But their mega-rich donors aren’t buying the act, and neither should you.

J. D. Vance and Ron DeSantis wave during a Turning Point USA rally in Girard, Ohio on August 19, 2022. (Dustin Franz / Bloomberg via Getty Images)

Ron DeSantis’s presidential campaign is tanking. It began with a bungled launch event and subsequently weak showing, and it’s never recovered. Despite Donald Trump’s recent indictments, or perhaps because of them, the former president is crushing all potential rivals in the GOP primary field. DeSantis, with a campaign that has been judged “too online” and overly focused on obscure culture war issues, is struggling to keep up. DeSantis is especially unpopular with working-class voters — a recent poll shows only 13 percent of Republican voters without a college degree supporting him.

Perhaps realizing the need to reorient focus toward bread-and-butter issues, DeSantis recently released his economic policy agenda titled “Declaration of Economic Independence.” The plan is a window into how the contemporary right is thinking about and framing economic issues in its attempt to win over more of the working class.

The platform’s long-winded introduction contains passages that seem to echo left-wing sentiments. “Our policies can no longer be driven by the ruling class,” it boldly proclaims. “We are no longer going to Kow-Tow to Wall Street and big corporations who don’t have your interests front and center.” The document paints a powerful picture of a nation in decline, where elites are trampling ordinary working-class people underfoot.

DeSantis decries corporate bailouts, describing this as “a form of venture socialism in which gains are privatized and losses are born [sic] by taxpayers.” This framing is ambiguous. On the one hand, DeSantis’s is a sworn opponent of socialism and is likely using the term as a pejorative. On the other hand, the Left, too, has used a version of this framing. Martin Luther King Jr said that the United States has “socialism for the rich and rugged free enterprise capitalism for the poor,” a quote Bernie Sanders is known to echo. In his speech announcing the plan, DeSantis directly referenced the left-wing version, saying, “No more socialism for the wealthy and rugged individualism for small businesses, workers, etcetera.”

But despite some radical-sounding rhetoric, as one reads deeper, his framing of economic issues departs from the Left’s in a number of significant ways. Instead of putting inflation in the context of corporate price gouging, DeSantis blames “COVID lockdowns, reckless borrowing, printing and spending.” Surely the “printing and spending” that draws his ire is the generous COVID relief packages passed by Congress in response to the pandemic. These programs, such as the Child Tax Credit, were a rare example of an expanded US welfare state and mostly benefited working-class families.

DeSantis’s plan also places blame for our economic troubles on foreign actors like “Communist China” and immigrants instead of the domestic corporate elite. When he does focus anger at the US ruling class, it’s not because of union busting, privatization, usury, wage theft, or any of the many practices that affect working peoples’ daily lives. Instead, once you get past the introduction’s rhetorical gloss and dive into the plan itself, it appears that DeSantis’s biggest problem with segments of the corporate class is where they fall on the culture war spectrum. Thus he declares economic independence from “a class of progressive corporations looking out for every interest except for that of the American people.” The fact that Amazon donated money to Black Lives Matter is apparently far worse than the company’s practice of overworking its employees and driving down their wages.

DeSantis’s ten-point economic agenda includes many things that are already well-established practices in Washington, DC. He calls for achieving 3 percent growth “Incentivizing Investment, Eliminating Bureaucracy and Red Tape, and Keeping Taxes Low,” and lists ending environmental standards as part of the program. In a country with already pitifully little regulation and low environmental standards, these ideas hardly seem new, nor are they anti-elite. They follow the well-worn neoliberal script of lifting restrictions on corporations to stimulate investments that are presumed to trickle down to the working class, a scenario that is ubiquitous in theory but elusive in practice.

A few of DeSantis’s platform points, such as “Lowering Barriers to Entry for Working Class Americans” and “Opposing Bailouts and Holding Bad Economic Actors Responsible,” are indeed consistent with a pro–working class agenda. However, it is impossible to see how a political party so fundamentally dominated by wealthy interests would actually deliver on any of these issues. Plugging demands like these in political messaging might win some Republicans elections — in fact, it’s a great strategy for either party — but the GOP’s track record has shown that there is little political will to fight the donor class in order to make them a reality.

DeSantis’s own practices as governor of Florida give little hope that he’d be a pro-worker president. He’s launched an attack on public sector unions under the sneaky heading of “paycheck protection.” Jobs like teaching, which are one of the few occupations left that offer a decent standard of living and secure retirement, are apparently not included in DeSantis’s vision of a pro-worker economy. As for his future plans, if elected DeSantis has sworn to begin public sector layoffs in the federal government — or, as he put it, “start slitting throats.”

The donors backing DeSantis also do not inspire confidence that he will be a working-class hero. Private equity executives have already given millions of dollars to his campaign. In return, he has given them Florida retirees’ pensions. DeSantis’s super PAC is chock full of donations from the superrich. These people are literally trying to wring profit from outer space. They don’t believe DeSantis’s anti-elite rhetoric, and we shouldn’t either.

A New Compass for the New Right

Though DeSantis’s economic program is not likely to change his presidential campaign’s fortunes, it is indicative of a broader shift taking place within the US right. Following Trump’s lead, Republicans have clearly seen an opportunity in cultivating a working-class base and peeling off workers, including union members, from the Democratic Party. This has led to a new direction in rhetoric and the emergence of different ideas about how conservatives relate, among other things, to labor unions.

The recently formed conservative think tank American Compass is attempting to chart this new course, claiming that it seeks to develop “the conservative economic agenda to supplant blind faith in free markets with a focus on workers, their families and communities, and the national interest.” Since American Compass’s materials lay out a far more comprehensive rationale than the DeSantis campaign’s economic plan, it makes sense to look there to understand the new, dubiously “pro-worker” politics animating some segments of the Right.

While the policy papers put out by American Compass certainly do indicate a willingness to question long-held conservative assumptions and think more seriously about the question of labor, ultimately they display many of the same structural and ideological limits that are evident in DeSantis’s “Declaration of Economic Independence.”

A conversation between American Compass executive director Oren Cass and Ohio Senator J. D. Vance, held during the Rebuilding American Capitalism forum, reveals many of these contradictions. In the recording, Cass and Vance discuss the problem of redirecting the country’s productive priorities through market incentives.

The most substantive policy proposal coming from Vance involves taxing corporations that ship jobs overseas, something he immediately acknowledges is unpopular with other Republican politicians. Vance laces even this fairly straightforward policy with an inconsistent set of ideas. He explains the government should “tax what we want to see less of and subsidize what we want to see more of,” but then goes on to assure listeners, “I don’t want to see a bigger federal government.”

Vance, like DeSantis and other conservative politicians, doesn’t deal with the dilemma of how to advance the kind of massive government intervention required to reorient the economy toward the benefit of US workers without antagonizing the Republican Party’s fundamental pillars of support.

In other parts of the conversation, Vance expresses appreciation for unions, but only on the narrowest grounds. He claims that members of the building trades “hate the woke stuff” and praised the Air Line Pilots Association for allegedly pushing back against affirmative action in the hiring of pilots. By emphasizing support for a narrow band of unions on cultural grounds alone, he and other Republicans are able feign union support while evading the fundamental economic issues that place unions and the party on an inevitable collision course.

The policy positions of American Compass always manage to avoid a full-throated defense of trade unionism and instead focus on auxiliary issues. In Cass’s article for the think tank “Jobs Americans Would Do,” he calls for a “skills-based immigration system” that encourages immigration from higher-skilled workers concentrated in high-wage sectors. His hope is that this would put pressure on employers to raise wages on the lower end of the economy. This perspective ignores the fact that there are large swaths of the economy that remain low wage even without a significant immigrant workforce. Without a union, there is nothing that guarantees that an employer will raise wages to a significant degree.

There’s also no mention of “low-skill” sectors that have a large amount of immigrant workers but also have high wages due to strong unions. Perhaps one of the best examples of this is the hotel industry. Through the efforts of unions like UNITE HERE, an industry with a high density of immigrant workers has achieved significantly higher standards in wages and working conditions. Tinkering with immigration policy cannot deliver the same results.

The obsession with China is another way to evade more straightforward support of pro-worker policies. But again, the agenda laid out by American Compass is riddled with contradictions.

Cass and American Compass policy adviser Gabriela Rodriguez lay out their case in a Foreign Affairs piece titled “The Case for a Hard Break With China.” To deal with the China threat, they claim,

Washington will need new institutions, including a cabinet-level National Development Council and a development bank that can cooperate to reshore manufacturing and strengthen the defense industrial base with financial and technical assistance. U.S. law should then stimulate demand for domestic production by requiring goods sold in the United States to contain a certain proportion of U.S.-produced components manufactured by U.S. workers.

This would be government intervention on a scale not seen since the New Deal. There is no indication that the appetite for this exists among Republican politicians. The fact of the matter is that the present arrangement works quite well for the multinational capitalist interests that dominate the US political system, especially within the Republican Party.

Proof in the Pudding

Fortunately, we don’t have to look too far back to see how this new brand of right-wing populists will actually govern. No Republican has been better at peppering his speech with insincere pro-worker rhetoric than Donald Trump. Despite pledging to steer policy in favor of “forgotten” Americans, Trump’s presidency was full of vicious attacks on labor, including one of the worst National Labor Relations Boards the country has ever seen.

Trump’s signature policy initiative was a tax cut for the rich that actually gave corporations more incentives to ship jobs overseas. For all the big talk on China, his policy amounted to lashing out with ineffective tariffs every so often.

The current wave of industrial labor fights has also put purportedly pro-worker Republicans to the test. As the International Brotherhood of Teamsters battled UPS during the biggest private union contract fight in the nation, Bernie Sanders released a letter of support for the workers stating that the federal government would not intervene. Not a single Republican senator signed.

In mid-September the contract between the United Auto Workers (UAW) and “Big Three” auto manufacturers — Ford, General Motors, and Stellantis — will expire. The new leadership of the UAW is going on the offensive, and has made ambitious demands that would again raise the standards for US manufacturing workers. Supporting these industrial unions in their contract fights with corporate giants is the best thing we can do right now to make the economy better for workers. Some pro-union Democrats like Sherrod Brown are already standing firmly behind them, while from Republicans there has been an eerie silence.

DeSantis’s economic plan is a phony last-ditch attempt to revive a dying campaign. It won’t work, but it also be the last time that we see these ideas from Republican candidates. As the new Right becomes more serious in its attempt to court workers, the Left cannot afford to stand on the sidelines.