There’s widespread agreement among Republican politicians and operatives that the GOP needs to broaden its appeal to the working class. But what’s that look like in practice?
It starts with simply recognizing the challenges that ordinary Americans face. Between 1965 and 2015, the fraction of working-age men without a job more than doubled, and millions more were underemployed. Only the wealthiest fifth of Americans saw positive income growth during the Obama presidency, while the bottom four-fifths saw no growth at all. Health care spending grabbed an ever-growing share of household budgets. Deaths of despair — from overdoses and suicide — have increased for decades.
Too often in the past, Republican politicians have ignored this rising inequality — and advocated tax cuts and deregulation as a cure-all for virtually every economic and social problem. Donald Trump’s denunciation of that stale orthodoxy enabled him to defeat 16 other Republicans in the 2016 primary.
Of course, simply acknowledging the struggles of working-class Americans isn’t enough. Republicans also need to put forth policies that tangibly help these folks — even when it conflicts with corporate donor interests. That’s especially true when it comes to contentious issues like immigration.
President Biden and his fellow Democrats are salivating over an amnesty bill that would grant legal status to over 11 million illegal aliens and is already enticing a flood of migrants to cross the southern border. It aims to double today’s legal immigration numbers to 2.4 million annually and would drastically increase the number of family-sponsored visas.
Democrats are moving quickly to ram through this voter drive posing as an agenda. Through a series of executive orders, Biden gutted immigration enforcement on his first day in office. House Democrats introduced a version of Biden’s immigration agenda as soon as February and recently voted to pass two bills as a piecemeal approach to amnesty.
Their expedited pace is not surprising. Both the Chamber of Commerce and wealthy corporations like Facebook, Marriott and Uber are urging Congress to pass Biden’s agenda.
Given this corporate backing, some Republicans might be tempted to support these measures. It’d certainly please the GOP donor class, which has tirelessly advocated for more immigration — and thus for wage suppression — for years.
But it would devastate the job prospects of ordinary workers and voters — and particularly of recent legal immigrants. More foreign workers means more competition for jobs. Before the pandemic hit, 5.7 million Americans were unemployed; now that number has nearly doubled, with 10.1 million Americans unemployed and looking ardently for work.
As Harvard economist and immigrant expert George Borjas explains, an influx of immigrants makes it harder for working-class Americans to find work or get a decent paycheck. In fact, his research has shown that 500,000 immigrants/year strike a sustainable economic balance, with higher immigration causing wage depression among those who work with their hands. Lacking even high school diplomas, a disproportionate share of immigrants directly competes with working class Americans.
Despite his often-boorish personal behavior, Trump resonated with the working class in ways most Republican politicians only dream of. To millions of voters of all races, someone in politics finally cared about their interests — about their jobs and well-being. Someone in Washington finally took their needs seriously.
Republican politicians don’t need to share the former president’s demeanor — or even his ideology — to appeal to those voters and tangibly improve their lives. In fact, two of the least-Trumpish senators, Lisa Murkowski of Alaska and Susan Collins of Maine, have been willing to buck the GOP when they felt it conflicted with workers’ interests. They famously voted against the Obamacare repeal in 2017, recognizing that even much of the Republican base didn’t share Paul Ryan’s libertarian-tinged vision for healthcare reform.
So it’s time again for moderate Republicans like Senators Murkowski and Collins to once again buck the demands of GOP donors — and to vote against a massive expansion of immigration that would undermine the economic security of working-class Americans.
Unfortunately, when it comes to the immigration issue, for the Democrats it’s not about caring. It’s about power.
Mark Thies is an Engineering Professor at Clemson University whose research is focused on energy and sustainability.