The results of the New York Republican primary should be the final proof that conservatives should move beyond the Jack Kemp model of politics. But you shouldn't listen to me. You should listen to Jack Kemp's former constituents.
Jack Kemp brought a great deal of optimism to the often dreary and defeatist world of conservative politics. He believed that conservatives could win over ancestral working-class white Democrats and nonwhites to free market politics. Kemp’s own career in upstate New York indicated that this was possible (at least among working-class whites.)
But Kemp wasn't just about an attitude. Kemp was about a policy agenda where lower taxes could spur greater economic growth and even larger government tax revenues. Kemp believed in a version of immigration reform that combined upfront amnesty with expanded low-skill immigration.
Kemp was also a great believer in the benefits of free trade. Al Gore is famous for defeating Ross Perot in a 1993 debate about the North American Free Trade Agreement, but Jack Kemp also defeated Pat Buchanan in a debate on the same subject.
And while he was a tax cutter, an immigration expander, and a free trader, Kemp sold himself as a pro-labor union, pro-worker, conservative. Kemp believed that his policies were the way for conservatives to get over the idea that they were the dour bagmen for the monied interests. Lower taxes would lead to higher wages for everyone. Expanded immigration would mean that more work would be done and everybody would be better off. Americans would win from free trade (as would everyone else.) To believe anything else was to be a pessimistic Herbert Hoover Republican.
Trump has promised larger tax cuts than any Republican candidate, but nobody voted for Trump because of his promised tax cuts. Earlier in the campaign, Trump had suggested raising taxes on the rich and it did not seem to hurt him among Republican poll respondents. On immigration, one could hardly imagine anything farther removed from Kempism than Trump's promises to build a wall and mass deport our current population of unauthorized immigrants. On international trade, Trump argues that Mexico is “destroying us in terms of economic development” and has promised to punish companies that shift production out of the United States.
Well, Herbert Hoover looks to be having a bit of a comeback. In 1980, the year when Ronald Reagan was elected president—and the year when Reagan embraced Kemp's across-the-board tax cuts—Kemp represented the 38th New York congressional district. This district contained parts of Erie County. Trump won over sixty-five percent of the Republican vote in Erie County.
What happened? For one thing, a great deal has changed since 1980. Back in 1980, Kemp's across-the-board tax cuts offered relief to many wage-earners. Today, such tax cuts would primarily go to high-earners. Recent evidence indicates that free trade has done lasting harm to some regions of the US. The relatively high unemployment rate and low labor force participation rate among the lowest-skilled fraction of America's labor force would seem to put the lie to the idea that we need more low-skill workers from abroad.
And yet, we still find people clamoring for a 2016 reenactment of this earlier Kempism. You will find people arguing that we need “pro-growth” tax cuts on the wealthy to spur the economy. You will find politicians inserting expansions of low-skill guest worker programs into end-of-the-year legislation in the hopes that the public will not notice.
What has changed is the social basis for these policies. Kempism started as an opening to the working-class. Kempism argued—somewhat persuasively under the circumstances of the late-1970s—that the needs of entrepreneurs and wage-earners overlapped. Today, Kempism has degenerated into a rationalization for the interests and priorities of the affluent.
Kempism speaks for a Wall Street Journal editorial page that prioritizes tax cuts for businesses and high-earners above everything else. Kempsim speaks for the employers who want to make it easier to find workers (and to pay those workers less) as the labor market finally heats up after the Great Recession. The social basis of Kempism is now the business lobbies, and politicians like Paul Ryan whose experiences with the world of conservative think tanks are utterly alien to those of most American wage-earners.
That doesn't mean that we should abandon international trade and close our borders. It does mean, though, that we should start a serious conversation about what a pro-worker conservatism looks like under our current conditions. It means that we should start with the problems of our current population of low-skill workers (both the native-born and the foreign-born.) The Kempism of 1980 does not speak to the concerns of America's workers. America's workers have already turned their backs on the degenerate Kempsim of 2016—and they were right to do so.
Pete Spiliakos is a columnist for First Things. His previous articles can be found here.
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