Economic Nationalism + Cultural Moderation = Electoral Goldmine

Many voters reside outside of the ideological confines of the two parties and are looking for a different direction.

Contemporary American politics has a significant blind spot. The two major political parties are mostly failing to understand and court the new center in politics—a center composed of a lot of Democrats and Independents and some Republicans—by pressing American economic nationalism in conjunction with an open-minded and tolerant position on the cultural battles that drive everyone nuts.

The 2020 election, despite occurring in the middle of a pandemic and economic crisis, was essentially fought on character and cultural grounds, not economic ones: Joe Biden’s belief in the essential warm-heartedness and egalitarianism of Americans versus Donald Trump’s fire-and-brimstone tirades against various enemies and the “deep state”. 

Lost in the shuffle of these character standoffs and never-ending culture war battles are the main economic ideas that both President Biden and President Trump have sought to promote, albeit with different emphases and rigor. 

Biden’s signature American Rescue Plan—aimed at bolstering working-class families, dealing with the pandemic, and restarting the economy—remains popular despite partisan divisions. Many but not all of his additional ideas for job creation and domestic investment in research, technology, and manufacturing also enjoy broad support. But absent a few press conferences talking up these achievements, voters know little to nothing about the specifics of the ARP or Biden’s other plans for economic development. 

On the other side, when President Trump wasn’t fomenting general chaos, his tack of taking on China and talking up “America’s greatness” endeared him to a lot of white working-class voters—particularly in rural and former industrial areas—displaced by several decades of imbalanced trade and deindustrialization. But as with most things coming from the former president, Trump had little patience and not enough political talent to harness these sentiments to advance a fuller agenda for economic growth that could reach more people and help Republicans keep the presidency and Congress.

So, the political ground for representing and advancing American economic nationalism remains wide-open, with Biden having a slight advantage for now given his strong domestic focus—plus, being widely liked and not being Trump. But this good will may not last long. 

Too many voters remain convinced that politics is a broken game that rewards the well-to-do and well-connected without producing much for regular middle-class families. As cynicism grows on the economic front, symbolic cultural fights will further dominate national political discourse—a trend that turns off many Americans in the center who either couldn’t care less about these battles or who hold complicated and competing cultural values not easily captured by either party.

The ideological movement of Democrats in recent years towards a more leftist posture on issues involving race, immigration, gender, and religious expression primarily reflects the values of a small group of credentialed elites and some younger people. It does not reflect the views of the vast middle of working-class Democrats—white, black, or Hispanic. On the Republican side, the full-on embrace of Trumpism—with its general nastiness, corruption, and bogus “big lie” about the 2020 election—has equally alienated a huge swath of working-class voters outside of a rump base. 

Again, there’s now a huge market for a new approach on cultural issues, one that presents a mature, tolerant, and welcoming party face to these alienated or conflicted voters in the new middle. 

As TLP has previously written, that cultural approach would cleave to the sweet center of American public opinion which includes the following views and values:

* Equality of opportunity is a fundamental American principle; equality of outcome is not.

* America is not perfect but it is good to be patriotic and proud of the country.

* Discrimination and racism are bad but they are not the cause of all disparities in American society.

* No one is completely without bias but calling all white people racists who benefit from white privilege and American society a white supremacist society is not right or fair.

* America benefits from the presence of immigrants and no immigrant, even if illegal, should be mistreated. But border security is still important, as is an enforceable system that fairly decides who can enter the country.

* Police misconduct and brutality against people of any race is wrong and we need to reform police conduct and recruitment. More and better policing is needed for public safety and that cannot be provided by “defunding the police”.

* There are underlying differences between men and women but discrimination on the basis of gender is wrong.

* There are basically two genders but people who want to live as a gender different from their biological sex should have that right and not be discriminated against. However, there are issues around child consent to transitioning and participation in women’s sports that are complicated and not settled.

* Racial achievement gaps are bad and we should seek to close them. However, they are not due just to racism and standards of high achievement should be maintained for people of all races.

* Language policing has gone too far; by and large, people should be able to express their views without fear of sanction by employer, school, institution or government. Good faith should be assumed, not bad faith.

Looking ahead to 2022 and 2024, the mission for smart and strategic party leaders is clear: (1) ramp up the economic nationalism agenda and messaging; (2) turn down the culture wars and accept people’s moderate-to-conservative stands on many of these issues; and (3) appeal to more working-class voters across racial and geographic lines.

The party and leaders that do this successfully will oversee the near-term course of American politics, and potentially could chart a path towards a growing political majority.