I experienced a bit of shock recently while attending a conference hosted by the Napa Institute. I was listening to J. D. Vance, a U.S. Senate candidate from Ohio and the author of Hillbilly Elegy. In his interview on the conference’s final evening, Vance attacked Republican support for the trade deals that are shipping America’s manufacturing base to China. He advocated breaking up “Big Tech” and criticized tax cuts for big business. His “fundamental premise,” he explained, “is we should be doing what’s best, not for our GDP, not for some economic abstraction, but for the people who live in this country and the children who depend on it.”
His rhetoric sounded familiar. After the 2008 financial crisis, my colleague in the House of Representatives, former union leader and progressive Democrat Phil Hare (IL), often said, “J-O-Bs should come before the GDP.” What caught me off guard was the fact that J. D. Vance is running in a Republican primary. The Catholic audience, which likely leaned heavily Republican (with very few hillbillies in sight), cheered. What is going on?
Vance is not a Democratic agent trying to infiltrate the Republican party. He went after Big Tech for censoring the voices of “normal Americans,” and he condemned business tax cuts because big business funds “anti-American protest movements” and fights state abortion restrictions. His pro-life and pro-family positions place him outside of today’s Democratic party. Of that there is no doubt.
Some will argue that Vance is trying to mimic Donald Trump’s rhetoric on economics in order to get elected. But there is a deeper explanation: Catholic social teaching. Two years ago, right after he entered the Church, Vance told Rod Dreher: “My views on public policy and what the optimal state should look like are pretty aligned with Catholic social teaching.” If Vance and other Republicans now sounding similar messages change their party’s stance on economic issues, not just in rhetoric but in concrete policy, American politics will be transformed. And Catholics like me may find a home in the GOP, as they once did in the Democratic party.
Large numbers of Catholics immigrated to America in the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries, and many settled in cities such as Chicago, where they worked in steel mills and meatpacking operations and at other back-breaking hard-labor jobs. Democratic leaders organized Catholic immigrants and worked with unions to elect candidates who passed legislation that protected workers and helped them take care of their families. In 1928, Al Smith, the four-term Democratic governor of New York, was the first Catholic to be nominated by a major party for president, but he was soundly defeated amid much anti-Catholicism. Franklin Delano Roosevelt did a great deal to support workers during the Great Depression, and Catholics became a key part of the Democrats’ New Deal Coalition. The Catholic vote for Democrats hit a high point in 1960, when almost 80 percent supported John F. Kennedy, helping to make him the first Catholic president.
During this time, the compatibility of Catholic social teaching with Democratic policies was evident. In his 1891 encyclical Rerum Novarum, Pope Leo XIII had rejected both socialism and unfettered capitalism, and urged all individuals and institutions to serve the common good. Though some complained that its public welfare programs were moving the country toward socialism, the Democratic party was the best option from the point of view of many Catholics, since it was more clearly focused than the GOP on supporting the working class and their families.
The sexual revolution created tension for Catholics in the Democratic party, especially when the issue of abortion became salient. But even after Roe v. Wade in 1973, splits over abortion went through each party. It is easy to forget that Jimmy Carter, a Democratic president, opposed abortion and favored federal laws restricting it. In 1976, the Hyde Amendment, which prohibited the use of federal tax dollars to pay for abortion, was passed. Forty-five percent of House Democrats voted for it (including eight of the eleven Democrats from my home state of Illinois), with a quarter of Republicans opposed. The viability of a pro-life stance within the Democratic party, at least outside the South, was largely due to the continuing influence of the Catholic Church.
Over the last generation, the Democratic party elite has become more and more hostile to Catholic teaching on life and family. When I was elected in 2004 as a Democratic representative of Illinois’s Third District, a majority of Democratic state legislators from my district were pro-life. But in the past decade, the party has become openly aggressive against its pro-life members. All of those state legislators have been replaced by pro-choice Democrats. In 2009, when the Affordable Care Act first passed the House, sixty-four Democrats—25 percent of the caucus—voted for the Stupak-Pitts Amendment, which prohibited the use of federal funds to subsidize healthcare that paid for abortions. This year, every Democrat in the House voted for a spending bill that, for the first time in forty-five years, does not include this prohibition. (A direct vote on the Hyde Amendment was blocked by the Speaker.) And changes within the party have concerned more than abortion. In the past five years, progressive social issues have become more important among Democratic party activists and donors than support for working families.
These shifts have contributed to significant changes in party identification among Catholics. In 2008, Democrats held a seventeen-point lead over Republicans among Catholics, according to the Pew Research Center. Today, the parties are even. The trend among white, non-Hispanic Catholics is even more dramatic. The Democratic party’s eight-point partisan advantage in 2008 has turned into a nineteen-point lead for Republicans.
During my sixteen years in Congress, I was told many times that I should switch parties. I remained a Democrat, hoping to return the party to the fullness of Catholic social teaching. After all, between one-quarter and one-third of Democratic voters still call themselves pro-life. And in any event, the Republican party did not present an encouraging prospect. For most of my time in Congress, it embraced an unfettered free-market and free-trade agenda, and promised unconvincingly that the benefits of laissez-faire economics would trickle down to working people. The GOP was openly hostile to unions and called for wholesale cutting of business regulations. In 2012, presidential candidate Mitt Romney’s focus on helping “job creators” ignored the much larger portion of Americans, namely the workers who made the entrepreneurs successful.
In 2016, Donald Trump, a former Democrat, trashed the conventional GOP agenda. Some of Trump’s rhetoric was certainly inimical not only to Catholic teaching but to basic decency. But he won the Republican nomination by speaking to the concerns of workers and those who felt betrayed by elites, including elites in their own party. The same theme helped carry him to victory in the general election. As a member of Congress, I was disappointed that President Trump did little for the working-class voters who had put him in office. The biggest legislative accomplishment of his presidency, the 2017 tax bill, was mostly a continuation of trickle-down economics.
Nonetheless, Trump’s ability to attract support among voters seems to have opened the eyes of many Republicans. Some are now suggesting a new economic agenda for the party, one that involves a more active role for the government in supporting workers and families. During his Napa Institute interview, J. D. Vance spoke of “common good conservatism.” Another contender for a Republican Senate nomination, Blake Masters of Arizona, has urged government support for workers and families. In recent years, Marco Rubio has placed increasing emphasis on Catholic social teaching. In a speech at the Catholic University of America in 2019, Rubio championed “common good capitalism.” He quoted Rerum Novarum:
Justice demands that the interests of the working classes be carefully watched over by the administration, so that they who contribute so largely to the community may themselves share in the benefits which they create.
As a life-long Democrat, I can report that it is heart-warming to hear a prominent Republican senator echoing the Leonine call for the government to “watch over” the “interests of the working classes.”
Does this mean that the Republican party is on its way to becoming a “Catholic party” or a European-style Christian democratic party? A few voices do not guarantee a change. Just as President Trump governed without offering a positive vision and solutions, we will not know for at least a few years whether a political vision that is both pro-life and pro-worker will be accepted in the Republican party. It’s possible that this new vision will fall by the wayside, and the Republican party will continue as the pro-life and pro-tax-cut party. That may be enough to keep it competitive as the Democratic party moves further to the woke left. But it won’t help our country.
For a long time, and especially since 2016, I have been warning my Democratic colleagues: They should be very concerned about a Republican party that loses the baggage of Donald Trump while becoming serious about supporting working-class Americans and their families, not just in rhetoric, but in policy. Gains made by Republicans among Hispanic and black voters in the 2020 election could be a harbinger of things to come. Hispanic Catholics continue to favor the Democratic party heavily, even as non-Hispanic white Catholics have shifted. But as working-class, family-oriented Catholics, they are a ready audience for a reformed Republican party attuned to their hopes and dreams. Non-Catholic Americans, especially working-class voters and those who feel left behind in today’s America, can also be won over.
Perhaps the Democratic party will recognize that a pro-life and pro-worker Republican party poses a dire electoral threat. Perhaps this will motivate its leaders to welcome back traditional Democrats who never left those commitments behind. I hope so. One way or another, a shake-up of American politics is coming. Our country needs it.
Daniel Lipinski served eight terms as the U.S. Representative for Illinois’s Third Congressional District.