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Pro-union conservatives are trying to take over the Republican Party. Oren Cass is leading the way.

Oren Cass is a pro-union conservative. If such a thing sounds strange to you, you’re not alone. We’re used to thinking about the Democratic Party as representing the working class, while Republicans are better known for tax cuts for the wealthy and free-market economic policies that hurt laborers.

But the data suggest a more complicated picture. The 2020 election provided the most recent evidence of an educational partisan divide: 63% of white voters without a college degree cast a ballot for President Trump, according to exit polls, while Vice President Joe Biden made headway with college-educated whites in crucial battleground states like Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, and even Georgia, where affluent and highly educated suburban voters flipped the state blue for the first time in three decades.

Oren Cass

Oren Cass

For a while now, Republicans have been increasing their share of the working-class vote — more through default than anything else. But Cass is part of a small yet growing cohort of conservatives seeking to give that default intellectual and moral heft.

A former adviser to Sen. Mitt Romney of Utah, Cass, 37, was a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, before founding his own organization, American Compass, earlier this year. Cass’s 2018 book, “The Once and Future Worker,” argued that a strong labor market was crucial to supporting strong families and communities. He followed it up with a recent OpEd in the Wall Street Journal headlined “America Needs a Conservative Labor Movement.” He lives in the Berkshire Hills of western Massachusetts with his wife and three young children.

We spoke on the phone last week. This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

A lot of people don’t identify labor unions as a value for an American conservative. Do you see yourself as embodying a tradition of conservatism, or inventing a new one?

It’s a great question. To the man on the street in America, if you ask, “Tell me what’s conservative,” it would be tax cuts, small government, spending cuts, deregulation, free trade. But there’s nothing necessarily conservative about any of that.

Conservatism gives more weight to tradition, to institutions, to recognizing that what we have achieved as a civilization, as a nation, is incredibly fragile, and we should be grateful for what we have and be wary about thinking we can just break it up and build something better.

During the period from the 1960s to the 1980s, American conservatives were in a very strong alliance with libertarians and Cold War hawks. It was extremely successful and led to victory in the Cold War. But that political coalition we came to take for granted as what conservative should mean in all times and all places, and people continue going back to that playbook, even if those are not the right plays for the challenges that we now face.

An especially obvious example of this is with the Covid-19 pandemic. Looking at how Republicans responded, what you saw from the White House economic advisers, what you saw from a lot of folks in the Senate, was basically just trying to figure out which tax cut is the one you’re supposed to call for in a pandemic.

Then you saw a smaller but very energetic, influential group — Marco Rubio, Josh Hawley, Tom Cotton, and Mitt Romney — all of whom are very conservative, who said, “Let’s think about how we as conservatives should address this problem,” and came up with a lot of really good ideas and were instrumental in the CARES Act and in developing a response.

When you ask, “What do conservatives think about organized labor?” the way we tend to understand that question is, “What did the Ronald Reagan coalition want to do about labor? And how does the Republican Political Party feel about labor?” The answer to that is, they’re very anti-union!

But if you start out asking, “How should conservatives actually feel about the idea of organized labor, the idea of workers coming together, forming organizations, having collective representation and power in the labor market and the workplace?” — conservatives should be very, very interested in that.

If we are to have markets generating good outcomes and generating prosperity widely, you should want workers to have power and representation in the labor market. You should want workers and employers meeting on a level playing field and workers to have a way to make sure that they receive as large a share as they can of the fruits of their labor, just as employers have many mechanisms at their disposal to ensure that they capture as much of the fruits of their investment as they can.

So on one side you have the lefty point of view, which has very little belief in individual agency or power, so it wants the government to protect workers. And on the other side you have the Republican view that doesn’t recognize any power disparities and says everything should be about personal responsibility and bootstrapping. But you’re coming in and saying: I share the belief in individual agency and empowerment, but there’s a flaw there that needs rectifying – not by government but at some intermediary institutional level that would build society up from the bottom.

Yes, that’s very well put. There’s a very long, strong tradition of recognizing the importance of something like organized labor to a healthy market economy among conservatives. It’s just something that’s been completely lost in the market fundamentalism that characterizes the right of center in America today.

You mentioned four people — Josh Hawley, Tom Cotton, Marco Rubio and Mitt Romney. And you. But you guys are a small cohort in a pretty big, well-established free-market party. I think readers will be wondering to what extent you represent the future of the Republican Party, or to what extent you’re in a really small minority.

You’re certainly right that in terms of numbers, the majority of folks working in public policy are in the more conventional market-fundamentalist camp. But there actually is an awful lot of people who recognize that the old orthodoxy has reached its expiration date and are very excited to work on figuring out where we go from here.

President Trump is really interesting in this context, too. A lot of his economic policies seemed to dismay Republicans, because they were oriented towards the working class. You saw this with the renegotiated NAFTA and the trade war with China, and even his policy on immigration.

Many working-class people perceive ideas like open borders as an economic threat, and Trump was very much speaking to them. At the same time, he couched these policies in very ugly rhetoric. To me, a big question is, could Trump have gotten further on this protectionist, worker-oriented economic front without the ugly rhetoric, or was that the only way to push these sorts of policies into the public consciousness?

It’s unknowable, of course. But in a sense, it’s a Shakespearean question more than a political one.

At the end of the day, the parts of Trump that were damaging and inflammatory interfered with what could have been promising directions on policy. There is a lot of good he did in terms of showing things that everybody assumed were true that just are not, both politically and economically.

I liken him to an earthquake: An earthquake levels a lot of unsound structures, but it really doesn’t build anything. And after an earthquake, you have a lot of people rushing back in who just want to fix everything and put it back the way it was, and you only make progress if you have people who are willing to come in and say, “No actually, there’s a lot to learn from everything that fell down here. How do we develop plans and execute a process of building something that’s going to be sturdier for the future?” That’s what I see our project as.

What do you see as the biggest challenge to a more just and equitable society, and how do we fix it?

I think we have defined prosperity incorrectly. We have focused on the idea that we just need to generate enough aggregate economic growth so that we have enough stuff, and then we’ll just figure out how to redistribute it to anybody who’s been left behind. And I think that’s a real problem.

How much stuff you have isn’t necessarily a good measure of prosperity, and a lot of ways that markets push towards greater efficiency for the production of more stuff are also ways that they undermine the strength and health of our families and communities, our resilience in the face of crisis and so forth. So even as GDP is getting higher, we’re not necessarily actually getting better off.

What is important to people is not only the amount of stuff that ends up getting to them, but whether they themselves have a productive role to play and an ability to provide for themselves and their family and actually feel that they have earned the things that they have.

That’s something that really draws me to your work. A job is really not just a paycheck. It’s about dignity. It’s about belonging and self-esteem and family. But how do we put the horse back in the barn? We’ve outsourced all this manufacturing; those jobs are gone. How do we get back that thing that we sold for our cheap iPhones?

I’m not sure if it’s as much a question of getting back to as moving forward in the right direction. It can sound like people are just holding out this ideal where history ended in 1957 and I don’t think that’s right at all. For one thing, there was an awful lot wrong in 1957. For another, we have made progress, and the goal should be to do even better over time.

To be optimistic for a moment, the nice thing about all of this economic growth is that we do in fact have all of those things. It came at a great cost, but we built an enormous amount of wealth. If we were to have different priorities and work toward them, we could hopefully reach a point where we are giving greater weight and emphasis to these non-market things that really matter.

What role does the government play in that?

What it comes down to is the question of how we want our market to operate. Markets are wonderful mechanisms. I love markets. But nowhere is it shown in the principles of economics that markets left to their own devices are going to generate the best outcomes for a society. It may generate the most efficient outcomes, but again, who said that’s the goal?

We need to get back to the actual work of politics, of defining what it is we want and what our goals are and what we are defining as the prosperity we want to achieve. And then we have to ask to what extent do markets facilitate that and to what extent do markets interfere with or even corrode that, and where it’s the latter, then the markets should have different rules on them.

So what would distinguish you from someone like Sen. Bernie Sanders, for example?

There are ways in which I agree with Bernie Sanders about problems that we have in this country. I wouldn’t agree with him to the extent that he attributes those problems to nefarious forces. I don’t think that’s the right way to understand what’s going on. And I wouldn’t agree with him at all about his approach to solutions, which as far as I can tell is extremely high tax rates paired with lots of free stuff.

The policies I’m interested in are not ones that look at what the market is generating and then just move all the resources around with redistribution. It’s actually thinking about the conditions that the market operates within. We’ve talked about unions as an example: How do we make sure that workers actually have power in the labor market to defend their interests? That’s a way to need less redistribution, not more.

Another good example is education. Bernie Sanders has suggested free college. I think we need to do exactly the opposite, to recognize that most Americans don’t earn college degrees — and that’s not for financial reasons. It’s a combination of academic aptitude and interest and passion. A huge share, even a majority of Americans, would be much better served if there were other pathways that connected them to work, helped with on-the-job experience, helped cover the costs of their training.

So in a sense, the ideal partner isn’t college; it’s an employer, and everyone should be helping employers instead of just shoveling more money into a university system that’s not working well.

I’m glad you brought up Bernie’s free-college proposal. I never understood that. It’s not a pro-worker proposal. Why aren’t we looking to make the lives of the working class better, as opposed to trying to make fewer of them by sending more people to college?

I think the way you put it — that free college doesn’t help the working class, it just tries to get people out of the working class — is a crucially important point. Certainly, you want a society with high levels of mobility. You want somebody who wants to get a college education and go work at a think tank to have that pathway open to them. But it’s equally important to recognize that most people don’t want to do that!

In my more cynical moments, I wonder if it’s because the Democrats have correctly identified their future as the party of college-educated people, because working-class people are more conservative. The left has always been let down by the conservatism of the working classes! So I sometimes wonder if the “socialist” left is just like, well, let’s just get them out of the working class, send them to college so they come out good liberals.

Liberals like to see themselves as very compassionate; they’re going to make everybody pay their fair share and so forth. But asking people to write a bigger check is the easiest thing for them to sacrifice. The model that says, “We’re going to have the winners in this economy just continue to be ever more successful, but they’re going to have to pay higher taxes so we can redistribute it to everybody that’s left behind” — it’s not the people left behind who are voting for that!

But if you started thinking, well, gosh, maybe workers should have power and managers in the workplace should have to consider their concerns, or maybe we could run our education system prioritizing the needs of the median student, somebody who’s not going to earn a college degree, and instead of sending people who need vocational education three towns over, maybe anybody who wants college prep should have to go three towns over. Well, wait a minute, now all of a sudden, they’re not feeling so compassionate.

There are some places where I think that has the potential to find bipartisan agreement, mostly just because it raises issues we haven’t been fighting about. The bad news is, the political realignment you see underway with higher income, former Republican voters moving into the Democratic Party and working-class Democratic voters moving to the Republican Party is starting to look like a future where we are politically very divided by economic class, into the college-educated party in the non-college educated party, which would be a horrible way to run any politics.

How does Covid fit into this?

What I think will be learned from the pandemic are lessons about running trends in our society that were not well understood. For instance, on the supply-chain front, realizing that it’s not just efficiency but resilience that matter. And there are real costs for not being able to make things anymore, not even knowing how anymore. I think the pandemic has helpfully focused people’s attention on that.

And I think it has become incredibly clear that how we think about essential workers, how we think about meaningful work, how we think about the role people play in their communities – and how the economy rewards those things — are painfully disconnected.

We should not be taking for granted that whatever happens in the market is a sensible outcome or one that we should be proud of. We do have real problems in how the market has been behaving. We need to do better.

Batya Ungar-Sargon is the opinion editor of the Forward. You can reach her at [email protected]. Follow her on Twitter @bungarsargon.

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