A little-noted source of strength in Donald Trump’s presidential victory last month was Americans earning less than $30,000. Fully 41 percent of them voted Republican, the party’s largest share since 1988. Though they haven’t been a particular target group for the GOP, the working poor present serious growth potential for the party, since many of our issues – if presented properly – align with the interests and values of low-income Americans. With some visible outreach to less wealthy citizens, the party can not only win a majority of their votes, but also demolish the party’s reputation for elitism and heartlessness toward the poor.
Here are three Republican issues around which the party can rally lower-income Americans:
Soda taxes. The biggest under-reported story of November’s election is the passage of soda taxes in four cities. Not only are these “sin taxes” discriminatory against the poor (for whom sugary drinks are a much larger proportion of their budgets), their proponents openly advocate their passage in paternalistic terms. For example a liberal New York Times columnist actually wrote that “poor people” properly deserve this “regressive tax” (his words) because they’re the ones “who most suffer the health consequences of consuming them.” Others condescend by saying the poor will actually save money in lower health-care bills, and hey – water is cheaper than soda, right?
The claim that these taxes are aimed at promoting health is belied that many of them (such as those in Philadelphia and the Chicago area) also tax diet soda, which the American Diabetes Association actually recommends drinking. Worse, these aren’t all structured like typical “sin taxes,” whose revenue fights the harmful results of smoking or gambling. Philadelphia used the income to fund its pre-schools, and other municipalities (urban and rural) starved for income are sure to see soda taxes as an easy way to raise money – on the backs of the poor.
If Democrats passed a law to push Chinese-Americans to use healthier brown rice instead of white in preparing ethnic cuisine, there would be outrage. A city could never get away with a tax structure promoting light beer at gay bars. Poor people have just as much right to make their own dietary decisions about what to consume without state meddling.
Campaigns to raise soda taxes have suggested the only opponents are “Big Soda” – because poor people don’t have an organized lobby. But maybe they already have one: the Republican Party, which could seize this moment to spread its messages about the pernicious effects of taxes, and – perhaps – be rewarded at the ballot box.
School choice. Dominated by teachers’ unions, the Democratic Party is never going to budge on its opposition to school choice, despite the policy’s benefits for their natural constituencies among minority and lower-income Americans. That represents a real opportunity for the GOP to spread the virtues of competition and limited government in inner-city areas it usually cedes to Democrats.
“Rich people already have school choice,” the argument should go. Overwhelmingly, our nation’s worst schools are in the lowest-income areas, and charter schools and vouchers represent a chance not only for parents to remove their children from a failing system, but also to give government-run schools a strong incentive to improve.
Immigration. For too long, Republican opposition to Democrat immigration policies has relied on a dubious strategy: constantly repeating the otherwise obscure word “amnesty.” I believe that to expand the pool of voters hostile to President Obama’s illegal, unfair, and blatantly political moves on illegal immigration, we should look for language appealing to more Americans, including legal immigrant families striving for the American dream.
Let’s minimize talk of “illegal immigration” altogether. The term focuses on the victimization of long-standing citizens. Instead, let’s talk about “line-jumping immigrants,” to focus on legal and would-be immigrants as victims. It’s a Copernican Revolution which can amplify our arguments. Democrats have too easily portrayed line-jumping immigrants, and especially the so-called Dreamers, as victims of American heartlessness.
That sympathy is misplaced, given the cruel misdeeds of people who arrogantly decided the rules don’t apply to them, hampering the hopes of would-be Americans following the legal procedure. Worse, they heartlessly consigned their own children to a fate where America has every right to deport them to a land where they have no support system and may not even speak the language.
Republicans should recruit and promote party leaders who can speak openly about the struggles and priorities of being poor – and how Republican principles like freedom, competition, responsibility, low taxes, work, and small government can help people of all income levels thrive. Poor people should speak at the 2020 Republican National Convention, and GOP candidates should run populist campaigns against wealthy Congress members in poor districts, including the many Democrat multimillionaires representing districts with high poverty rates.
Sure, the Democrats can keep throwing money at Americans of modest means through federal spending, but much of that project is an attempt to keep them slavishly devoted to the government teat. By contrast, Republicans can continue expanding our appeal to the poor with a simple slogan:
“Democrats think they own you. We want to liberate you.”
David Benkof is a columnist for The Daily Caller. Follow him on Twitter (@DavidBenkof) or email him at DavidBenkof@gmail.com.