Record-high inflation and soaring gas prices are boons for the Republican Party. Nothing sours the electorate on the party in power faster than pain at the pump.
“People are becoming poorer,” Tucker Carlson said during a recent segment. “The standard of living of Americans, who for almost 100 years have enjoyed the world’s highest standard of living in any big country, is plummeting. So, what’s the administration doing to fix this? What are they doing to help? Well, of course, that depends upon whether or not you’re Ukrainian.”
It’s a note Tucker has struck before. The Democrats in power only care about virtue signaling. It’s Ukrainian flag pins and transgender admirals all the way down. You can go broke for all they care. Just make sure you go woke first.
This schtick will hand the GOP a solid victory in 2022 and maybe another in 2024. And it might keep working if we didn’t have a culture war to fight. But much to the chagrin of the “fiscally conservative, socially liberal” crowd, we do. And when we fight it, Tucker’s talking points will be turned against us.
We’re seeing it already. During a recent appearance on The View, Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg insinuated that Republicans are supporting Florida’s parental rights in education law because “they don’t have a plan on anything else.”
“They don’t have a plan on dealing with inflation or dealing with gas prices,” Buttigieg said. This is, of course, preposterous coming from the man who told rural, working-class people to take the bus or buy a Tesla. But the claim that Republicans are reactionary culture warriors who don’t care about kitchen table issues might not always fall quite so flat.
After Disney came out against the so-called “Don’t Say Gay” bill, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis threatened to repeal the legislation that allows Disney to function as its own government in Walt Disney World. He might be bluffing, but what if he isn’t? When Mitt Romney suggested cutting off Big Bird’s gravy train back in 2012, he had to wear that comment like an albatross for the rest of the election. What do you think will happen to the man who goes to war with Mickey Mouse? The attack ads write themselves.
Woke capital has the power to inflict real economic harm on states and cities that defy its agenda. You might not want your kids learning about CRT and pansexuality in second grade, but if the options are embracing woke pedagogy or losing your job because the town’s biggest employer doesn’t like the governor (boo-hoo-hoo!), the choice isn’t so clear. There’s a price to be paid.
That price might be temporary. Corporations are in business to make money. If we win the culture war (or at least make it clear that we won’t give up), they might come around eventually. But even if that happens (and that’s a big “if”), social conservatism will still make us poorer in absolute terms. Destroying the family and suppressing fertility is good for business. There’s a reason China has the majority of the world’s self-made female billionaires and a smaller gender wage gap than the United States.
Banning abortion will mean fewer women in the workforce, which will make us poorer. Re-shoring defense industries to create blue-collar jobs that can support a family on one income will make us poorer. Blue laws that close stores on Sundays will make us poorer. Reining in Big Tech will make us poorer.
To an extent, I’m okay with that. Economist Alexander Salter wrote for National Review in December that the debate over whether free markets or planned economies allocate resources and produce wealth more efficiently is settled. It’s free markets. Not even close.
If space aliens had shown up and threatened to incinerate Earth unless we raised the global GDP to $X within Y years, this fact would be a good argument for unalloyed capitalism. Fortunately, they didn’t. So it’s not. The ideal amount of economic inefficiency is not zero. The market was made for man, not man for the market. We have wants and needs that boundless economic growth does not fulfill and sometimes actively inhibits.
Division of labor maximizes efficiency. Ideally, each worker should only do the thing he or she is best at, and do it at the greatest scale possible. And yet we don’t. We stubbornly continue to cook or build furniture or care for children. It would be more efficient if all cooking was done in restaurants, all furniture built in factories, and all children reared in daycares. That doesn’t matter to us.
Ask a guy who makes spreadsheets for eight hours a day and hates every second of it whether he’d take a 5 percent pay cut to do work he found fulfilling and meaningful. Of course he would. This is obvious to anyone but the most deracinated neoliberal (like Matt Yglesias, who was aghast that American conservatives might admire Hungary, a country where people live in smaller houses and own fewer washing machines per capita).
Our disgruntled office worker would take a pay cut of 5 percent. Probably not 25 percent. A couple might be willing to accept a slightly lower standard of living if it means the wife gets to stay with the kids and work part time from home. They won’t be willing to drop below the poverty line. If we’re going to get the voters on board with this agenda, we need to find ways to soften the blow as much as possible. For that, the national conservative movement needs more wonks. We have enough big picture guys (and I say this as a big picture guy).
But even if we can minimize the economic cost of a move toward authentic human flourishing, we can’t eliminate it. Fine. That can work to our advantage. When McCain and Romney ran on tax cuts and whatever progressives believed 20 years ago, conservatives yawned. When Trump promised to fight cultural decay with every breath in his body, they roared. People need meaning more than they need GDP growth. Show them a clearer vision of the good society than Trump was able to articulate, and they’ll sacrifice for it. And soon they’ll see that what they’ve sacrificed is nothing compared to what they stand to gain.