The performance of populist parties in Europe should be a warning for American conservatives. Those European parties (while they often vary greatly from one country to another) are consistently winning the votes of working-class white voters who feel abandoned by the political class. Similar forces are at work in America. The right can’t win (or can only win the narrowest and most fragile of victories) without them, so it must speak to them.
One possible path for conservatives would be to try to become more welcoming and inclusive, in part by embracing comprehensive immigration reformthe Washington political class euphemism for upfront legalization of unauthorized immigrants, and increased future low-skill immigration. This strategy largely writes off the non-evangelical white working-class in the hopes of winning over nonwhite voters and it aligns Republican policy even more closely with the policy preferences of the Washington business lobbies.
Another path is to try to become an American version of the U.K. Independence Party and seek to combine those who oppose the current version of “comprehensive immigration reform” with white swing voters who are alienated from both parties. This strategy would seek to cement a coalition between orthodox conservatives and working-class white swing voters who have never been fully comfortable with conservative small government politics.
I don’t think we have to choose between those two paths. The right can reach out to nonwhites and non-evangelical working-class whites simultaneously.
Despite Mitt Romney’s inability to build economic consensus, non-evangelical working-class whites and some nonwhite voters share some common ground when it comes to economic policy. According to polling data, a significantly larger fraction of African-American and Hispanic voters have right-leaning policy preferences when it comes to size of government issues than voted for Romney. Conservatives can reasonably hope to win over some of these voters in the medium-term.
Now, as Artur Davis pointed out, many of these right-leaning nonwhites are moderate in their conservatism and leery of taking a hatchet to the welfare state. But non-evangelical working-class whites also have conflicted feelings about the size of government. Right-leaning non-whites and non-evangelical working class whites are closer to each other on economics than they are to either the business lobbies of the GOP establishment or to populist conservatives who think America has been morally lost ever since the FDR first became president.
Winning over both of these groups will not be easy. There are different historical memories at work, and building a language that is simultaneously intelligible and appealing to both constituencies is a challenge in itself. And there’s a danger that the right will try to appeal to working-class whites in ways that are unnecessarily alienating to other populations of potential swing voters. But there are some things that can be done fairly quickly.
Recognizing that wining over working-class swing voters (or non-working-class voters with many struggling people in their social networks) requires, at minimum, addressing the everyday concerns of those votersand recognizing that the fates of American working-class voters of all races and ethnicities are linked. That could mean tax reform that increases the take-home pay (and increases the returns to working) of families whose earnings place them at, or under the national median. It could include free market-oriented health insurance reform that makes catastrophic coverage both cheaper and more secure. It could mean focusing on how reductions to future low-skill immigration also benefits our current population of foreign-born workers by restraining labor market competition in a sector of the economy where unemployment is high and wages have been stagnant.
A moderate and reformist conservative politics can make gains among working-class voters of all races, but it needs to be more genuinely welcoming than anything being offered by the Republican establishment and more solution-focused than what has been offered by conservative populists (with some notable exceptions like Utah Senator Mike Lee). The right does not have to choose between the white working-class and nonwhites. A winning conservatism will be one that chooses to address the priorities of struggling and anxious Americans of all races and ethnicities.
Pete Spiliakos is a columnist for First Things. His previous articles can be found here.