The period from 2009–2012 saw a bizarre change within the culture of the Republican party. Party elites found it a good idea to express resentment and contempt for workers who were just on the other side of the earnings median. Republicans paid the price of this contempt in 2012, and recent signs indicate that Republican politicians have learned their lesson and are working toward a limited government politics that is more inclusive of the concerns of working families.

This resentment of lower-earning workers seems to have started as a response to left-wing attacks on high-earners. This Republican response crossed the party’s usual factional divisions. From the Republican establishment, former George W. Bush Press Secretary Ari Fleischer responded to President Obama’s proposal to raise taxes on high-earners by writing a Wall Street Journal column complaining that the bottom forty-percent of workers paid too little in income taxes and were imposing too heavy a burden on high-earners.

From the party’s Tea Party populist wing, Erick Erickson created the “We Are The 53%” tumblr. This was obviously in response to the Occupy movement’s attacks on the wealthiest 1% of the population. Individuals would hold up pieces of paper explaining why they were in the 53% that had a net income tax liability. They were in the 53% because they worked hard and were responsible. It was not much of a mystery what we were supposed to think of those who were in the 47%. Of course, the idea was not to personally insult every last American who worked a low-wage job. The real targets of the “We Are The 53%” tumblr were probably Occupy activists, but Erickson (like Fleischer) chose a frame that made just about everyone under the earnings median seem like a social parasite. It also made conservatives (at least implicitly) the party of the tax increase—as long as the taxes weren’t being raised on the rich.

Republican politicians picked up on and amplified this resentment of lower-wage workers. Michele Bachmann said that, under her tax plan, everyone would have a net income tax liability even if it was only “the price of two Happy Meals.” In announcing his presidential campaign, Texas Governor Rick Perry simultaneously came out for lower taxes and railed against “the injustice that nearly half of all Americans don’t even pay any income tax.

Mitt Romney’s infamous 47 percent comments make a lot more sense when they are placed in this context. The 47 percent gaffe wasn’t a result of some personal foible. Romney was a product of a political culture that had adopted a resentment-based hostility to those just under the earnings median. That many of those workers had a net payroll tax liability and were struggling to support their families on meager wages seemed irrelevant. Republican politicians had become used to talking of these workers as burdens on society who needed their taxes increased so they would know that (in the words of Michele Bachmann) “freedom isn’t free.”

This goes beyond individual statements. Most Americans never heard a full Bachmann speech and were not listening to Rick Perry’s campaign announcement. Even Mitt Romney’s poll ratings only fell slightly in the days after his 47 percent comments were revealed.

That might be because the public had already gotten the message in other ways. The 2012 Republican National Convention was a constant defense and valorization of the high-earners who “built that.” Romney’s across-the-board tax cut offered little to people around the earnings median while sharply cutting tax rates on high-earners.

The one great exception to all this was Rick Santorum. Santorum was the Republican presidential candidate who could point out that many American working families had problems that could not be ameliorated simply by cutting marginal tax rates on high-earners. Santorum focused on the struggles and the earned dignity of people who might not make much above the earnings median.

Santorum’s ability to carry this message was limited. His campaign had modest organizational capacity. Santorum himself was rhetorically undisciplined and would let himself get suckered into self-defeating culture war battles. Santorum’s conception of the American working-class was also badly outdated. But to his credit, Santorum insisted that people around the earnings median were valuable contributors to society and that those people had interests that were not merely derivative of the interests of high-earners.

Santorum is still at it. Santorum is still arguing that Republicans need to find an economic language that appeals to people who are not entrepreneurs or high-earners. Santorum is still arguing that a limited government politics has to recognize the contributions and concerns of people who want to go to work, come home, and raise their children. These people might not own a business, but they contribute to building our society.

The good news is that Santorum is being joined by other Republicans. Utah Senator Mike Lee proposed a tax plan that would cut the tax burden on many working parents below the earnings median. Not only would these workers continue to have zero net income tax liability, they would also pay less in payroll taxes. Lee explicitly took on his party’s 2009–2012 thinking:

And, finally, some might worry that increasing the child credit would take more people off the income tax rolls altogether.

And it would.

But then again, people who pay no income tax do pay federal taxes—payroll taxes, gas taxes, and various others.

Working families are not free riders.

Others have joined Lee. Florida Senator Marco Rubio has come out for converting the earned income tax credit into a wage subsidy for low-income workers. Perhaps the most interesting artifact was a letter sent to President Obama by a group of House Republicans.

The letter was organized by Mo Brooks and one of its signatories was Arkansas Senate candidate and party rising star Tom Cotton. The House Republicans complained that the Senate’s immigration bill that President Obama supported would sharply increase low-skill immigrations even as current low-skill residents struggle with high unemployment and stagnant wages. The letter also describes the Senate bill’s expanded low-skill immigration as a giveaway to connected businesses in order to reduce the bargaining power of low-skill workers. The letter asks, “Is it the position of the White House that the hotel industry cannot be asked to find employees from among the legions of unemployed residing here today?” Another of the signatories was Michele Bachmann.

One can see the outlines of a conservative populist agenda on taxes, wage subsidies, and immigration. Santorum, Lee, Rubio, Cotton, and others have a chance to change the Republican party’s political culture. They have a chance to produce a Republican agenda that combines limited government and solidarity with working families who earn under the median. Will they take it?

Pete Spiliakos writes for First Thoughts. His previous columns can be found here.

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