South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley has been both praised and criticized for her condemnation of the “angriest voices” in our politics. Most observers recognized that Haley was referring to Donald Trump, and it was noteworthy that the most notable section of her response to Obama's state of the union speech was actually a response to the campaign of her party's frontrunner. Haley's response, and the division it engendered within her party, demonstrates the difficulties Republican governors have faced in the 2016 election cycle, and the class divisions within the right.
New Jersey Governor Chris Christie often points out that governors are held accountable by the public in ways that senators (much less, reality show hosts) are not. Governors have to deliver public services at an acceptable price, while senators can point to their voting records in lieu of tangible results. It would stand to reason that governors would have a more realistic understanding of public opinion than senators.
It hasn't worked out that way. The 2016 cycle has seen governors from red states (Bobby Jindal of Louisiana, Rick Perry of Texas), swing states (Jeb Bush of Florida, Scott Walker of Wisconsin) and blue states (Christie) all fail to capture the imagination of the Republican nominating electorate. These governors have been able to reach a wide range of Republican voters at the state-level, so why have these politicians so completely failed to understand the priorities of Republican primary voters at the federal level?
One answer might be that the politics of economic class operates differently at the state and federal levels. For a moment, let us take it as a given that the political careers of Bush, Walker, Perry, and Christie were largely nurtured by the business communities of those states.
Let us also define what I mean by the “business community.” It doesn't mean the CEOs of billion dollar corporations, or slimy lobbyists in expensive suits. The business community that would have supported them in the early stages of their careers would have been more like the local chambers of commerce. The members of those chambers of commerce would have included realtors, building contractors, restaurant managers, hotel managers, and landscaping contractors. These people were not super wealthy. They worked extremely long hours, and quite a few of them worked with their hands.
Over time, these Republican politicians largely absorbed the worldviews of their best funded and (what is at least as important), best organized supporters. Some center-right politicians might have found their primary socialization in places like evangelical conservative political activism, but the demographic density of evangelical conservatism varies significantly by region. The local business interests are just about everywhere.
Perhaps most importantly, there are some voter populations that largely lack the capacity to socialize and sponsor up-and coming politicians. Charles Murray and Henry Olsen have both pointed out that today's secular, working-class whites are different from both their upper-middle-class and more religious counterparts. These working-class voters are less likely to be members of civic organizations. They are in no position to invite up-and-coming politicians to luncheons. These voters exist, but they lack the institutions that might amplify their voices.
This is less of a problem for center-right politicians at the state-level. Republican-leaning, working-class whites and the business right can agree on policies that keep spending in check, and keep property and sales taxes low. At the federal-level, these working-class voters often disagree with their more affluent counterparts on issues like trade, immigration, entitlement reform, and the top marginal tax rate.
This disjunction between the opinions of working-class and business Republicans leaves governors lost. Suddenly, the chamber of commerce rhetoric that had served them so well at the state-level produces disaster when applied to national issues.
The clearest example of this was Scott Walker. Walker became a hero to conservatives nationally because he took on public employee unions in the cause of keeping taxes low and services high. That was something that could unite the center-right across class lines. He also seemed to be in favor of increased immigration and contemptuous of immigration enforcement. No one seemed to notice that at the time, because he was a governor and immigration policy is a largely a federal issue.
This might not have been a fatal problem except that Walker utterly failed in his attempts to articulate a more restrictionist position on immigration. He didn't know why anyone might want to restrict future immigration at any level, and he seemed at a loss to explain why he wanted such restrictions. He had never much spoken to the people whose votes he needed about this particular issue. Where would he have found them?
Ronald Reagan was so good at making inroads with working-class voters because he had spent years talking to and listening to those voters about national issues while he toured the country working for General Electric. The post-2012 Republican Party has proven ever more interested in lecturing those voters than in listening to them.
But how would Republican politicians find those voters even if the GOP pols were inclined to listen? You can no longer find them at the lodge or in church. One obvious answer is that Republicans and conservatives should start investing in in-depth survey research regarding what these voters want. Or, if they want to save time, they could go to a Trump rally.
Pete Spiliakos is a columnist for First Things. His previous articles can be found here.