While reasonable people can and do disagree about immigration, the stance of the congressional GOP on guest workers indicates that many Republican leaders have chosen to learn the wrong lessons from the most recent election.
Let’s start with some facts about the contemporary United States. As detailed in a report by the Third Way, wages for males with less than a four-year college education have declined by between 5 and 25 percent over the last thirty years. The statistics might be even worse if you removed non-college graduates who went into better-paying trades like electrical contracting.
One way to look at this decline is that men who did not make intensive investments in their human capital in their teens and early twenties have found the economy much less friendly. Declining wages among less educated males have coincided with declining labor force participation and disrupted family formation among this group.
Lower-earning men are not less likely than higher-earning men to father children, but they are far less likely to marry and live with the mother. The boys raised in these disrupted homes are much more likely to get in trouble in school, and they do worse than other populations in school. The current unemployment rate is 7.7 percent nationwide but it is 11.2 percent for those with less than a high school diploma.
So what did the Republican Washington establishment do in the recent immigration negotiations? They pushed for the largest possible guest worker program with the lowest possible wages. The impact of such a guest worker program on the wages of Americans without college degrees would likely be small, but as an indication of GOP priorities it is a much larger problem. Faced with a slow-motion economic and social disaster afflicting the least educated and lowest-earning American citizens and residents, the Republicans are focusing on driving the wages for the lowest-paying jobs even lower.
That’s the Republican establishment’s agenda. In the months since the election, the most visible alternative to the Republican establishment has been Sen. Rand Paul. Where is Sen. Paul in all this? He has been reported as favoring what amounts to an unlimited guest worker program. He is against internal enforcement mechanisms like E-Verify that would force businesses to check on the legal status of potential employees. This would make internal enforcement of immigration laws against “guest workers” who overstayed their visas largely futile. Oh, and Sen. Paul is for raising the tax liability of many middle-class families.
The GOP’s woes don’t end there. The Republican National Committee’s “autopsy” document correctly noted that the party needs to do better among nonwhites in order to remain competitive, given the country’s changing demographics. The RNC wrote that they were not in the business of giving policy advice to the party, but they broke their own rule in order to counsel Republicans to support comprehensive immigration reform in order to close the demographic gap.
Supporting immigration reform will not be nearly enough to win Latino votes. Obamacare is much more popular among Latinos than among the population as a whole. Coming out for even the largest amnesty can’t change that. Only offering an affirmative health care policy that can offer better living conditions for a larger share of the Latino population can do that (it would also probably help with working-class whites, too). But the Republican National Committee wasn’t willing to see that because the Republican establishment was focused on immigration reform.
Over the years, Reihan Salam has written about two brands of Republican reformism. The first kind was upper-middle-reformism. This reformism was about winning over secular, college-educated, relatively affluent voters who had drifted away from the Republican party in recent years. This kind of reformism seeks to keep the Republican establishment’s approach to economic issues while seeking to move left on social issues and the environment. In today’s context you could also add amnesty and guest worker programs.
Salam called the second kind lower-middle-class reformism. This reformism prioritized “issues like wage stagnation, the cost-of-living, and the barriers to upward mobility.” This approach would have the benefit of not alienating social conservatives while strengthening the Republican party’s appeal to working-class and middle-class voters regardless of race and ethnicity. There is even a lower-middle-class reformist agenda being developed at National Affairs.
The post-election intra-Republican debate has not broken down along the lines of upper-middle-class and lower-middle-class reformism. Instead, both sides of the debate have adopted the former agenda. The Republican establishment has taken some steps toward upper-middle-class reformism. The RNC report chose to avoid talking about public attitudes toward the party’s economic agenda while emphasizing immigration reform as the policy key to winning nonwhite votes. If you read between the lines, the report is strongly hinting that Republicans should support gay marriage (but they don’t do policy).
The problem is that the most visible alternative to the Republican establishment is the Rand Paul libertarianism that, in crucial respects, exaggerates what is wrong with the Republican establishment.
Did Mitt Romney support an across-the-board income tax cut that would have benefited high earners and done little for people at or near the median? Well, Rand Paul is for a flat tax that would be an even bigger tax cut for the highest of the high earners while raising the tax liability of middle-class families. Are the Washington Republicans in favor of a larger guest worker program? Well, Rand Paul is in favor of an even bigger guest worker program. The Rand Paul alternative to the Republican establishment is to make the party more Mr. Burns than Mr. Burns.
What is most frustrating is how disconnected this intra-Republican debate is from the everyday concerns of the vast majority of Americans. What fraction of middle- and working-class Americans would even consider a flat tax proposal that increased taxes on their families while cutting taxes on high earners? What fraction of Americans considers maximizing the number of the lowest-wage guest workers a higher priority than improving the returns to work and family formation among the lower middle class?
We need (and can have) a populist Republican reformism that is an ally (but not a lackey) of the Chamber of Commerce, and that avoids the ideological fantasies of Rand Paul. It starts with addressing the concerns of the working and middle classes.