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How inequality is changing the Republican Party — and breaking American politics

A new book tries to untangle the relationship between white identity politics and skyrocketing inequality.

President Donald Trump shakes hands in 2017 with then-House Speaker Paul Ryan, as Vice President Mike Pence beams.
Bill Clark-Pool/Getty Images

Historically, conservative political parties face the problem Harvard political scientist Daniel Ziblatt calls “the conservative dilemma.” How does a party that represents the interests of moneyed elites win elections in a democracy? The dilemma sharpens as inequality widens: The more the haves have, the more have-nots there are who will vote to tax them.

This is not mere ivory-tower theorizing. Conservative politicians know the bind they’re in. When Mitt Romney told a room of donors during the 2012 election that there were “47 percent of the people who will vote for the president no matter what” because they “believe that they are entitled to health care, to food, to housing, to you name it,” even though they “pay no income tax,” he was describing the conservative dilemma. “Our message of low taxes doesn’t connect,” he said, a bit sadly.

If anything, Romney understated the case. Sure, 47 percent of Americans, in 2011, didn’t pay federal income taxes — though they paid a variety of other taxes, ranging from federal payroll taxes to state sales taxes. But slicing the electorate by income tax burden only makes sense if you’re wealthy enough for income taxes to be your primary economic irritant. That’s not true for most people. Romney’s 53 percent versus 47 percent split was a gentle rendering of an economy where the rich were siphoning off startling quantities of wealth.

Occupy Wall Street’s rallying cry — “We are the 99%!” — framed the math behind the conservative dilemma more directly: How do you keep winning elections and cutting taxes for the rich in a (putative) democracy where the top 1 percent went from 11 percent of national income in 1980 to 20 percent in 2016, and the bottom 50 percent fell from 21 percent of national income in 1980 to 13 percent in 2016? How do you keep your party from being buried by the 99 percent banding together to vote that income share back into their own pockets?

A chart showing falling share of income over several decades for bottom 50 percent of population (to 12 percent share in 2014) and rising share for the top 1 percent (20 percent in 2014). Nishant Yonzan

In their new book, Let Them Eat Tweets: How the Right Rules in an Age of Extreme Inequality, political scientists Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson offer three possible answers. You can cease being a party built around tax cuts for the rich and try to develop an economic agenda that will appeal to the middle class. You can try to change the political topic, centering politics on racial, religious, and nationalist grievance. Or you can try to undermine democracy itself.

Despite endless calls for the GOP to choose door No. 1 — and poll after poll showing their voting base desperate for leaders who would represent their economic interests while reflecting their cultural grievances — Republican elites have refused. Take the 2017 tax cuts. Donald Trump might have run as a populist prepared to raise taxes on plutocrats like, well, him, but according to an analysis by the nonpartisan Tax Policy Center, the bill he signed gave more than 20 percent of its benefits over the first 10 years, and more than 80 percent of the benefits that last beyond the first 10 years, to the top 1 percent. For that reason, it’s one of the most unpopular bills ever to be signed into law. It’s not the kind of accomplishment you can run for reelection on.

From Let Them Eat Tweets, by Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson

That’s left Republicans reliant on the second and third strategies. Hacker and Pierson call the resulting ideology “plutocratic populism,” and their book is sharp and thoughtful on how the GOP got here and the dangers of the path they’ve chosen. Where it’s less convincing is in its description of where “here” is: Does Trump represent the culmination of the Republican coalition or the contradictions that will ultimately tear it apart?

The logic, and illogic, of plutocratic populism

Plutocratic populism presents as a contradiction — like shouted silence or carnivorous vegan. The key to Hacker and Pierson’s formulation is that, in the GOP, plutocracy and populism operate on different axes. The plutocrats control economic policy, and the populists win elections by deepening racial, religious, and nationalist grievances.

“To advance an unpopular plutocratic agenda, Republicans have escalated white backlash — and, increasingly, undermined democracy,” Hacker and Pierson write. “In the United States, then, plutocracy and right-wing populism have not been opposing forces. Instead, they have been locked in a doom loop of escalating extremism that must be disrupted.”

This is their synthesis of the great economic anxiety versus racial resentment debate. Republican elites weaponize racial resentment to win voters who would otherwise vote their economic self-interest. Hacker and Pierson are careful to sidestep the crude version that holds that ethnic and religious division are mere distractions. Voters see racial and religious dominance as political interests as compelling and legitimate as tax benefits, and the demand for politicians to reflect those underlying resentments and fears is real.

A protester in 2009 carries a sign that reads, “Barack Hussein Obama where were you really born? Your Grandma said Africa.”
A demonstrator questions the citizenship of President Obama at an American Family Association (AFA)-sponsored TEA (Taxed Enough Already) Party in 2009. Weirdly, their sign says nothing about taxes.
David McNew/Getty Images

This is a key point in Hacker and Pierson’s analysis: They focus on the decisions made by GOP elites, not the desires of conservative voters. Their fundamental claim is that if Republican elites had chosen a more politically sellable economic agenda, they would have — or at least could have — resisted the lure of white resentment and still won elections. But once they made tax cuts for the rich and opposition to universal health care the immovable lodestones of their governance, they had little political choice save to power their movement with the dirty, but abundant, energy offered by ethnonationalism.

The most compelling evidence Hacker and Pierson cite for this argument comes from a study conducted by political scientists Margit Tavits and Joshua Potter, which looked at party platforms from 450 parties in 41 countries between 1945 and 2010. Tavits and Potter find that as inequality rises, conservative parties ratchet up their emphasis on religious and racial grievances — particularly in countries with deep racial and religious fractures. The pivot only works, Tavits and Potter say, when there is high “social demand” for ethnonationalist conflict.

The question this raises, and which Hacker and Pierson don’t really answer, is what would happen to this demand in the absence of conservative politicians willing to meet it — particularly in an age of weakened political parties, demographic change, and identitarian social media? Trump’s rise, which Hacker and Pierson present as the culmination of plutocratic populism, can also be read as a symptom of its mounting internal contradictions, and of the way Republicans voters are increasingly capable of demanding the representation they want.

It may be that the uneasy coalition that married white identitarians to Davos Man is breaking apart. Indeed, reading Hacker and Pierson’s book, I found myself wondering whether inequality was, itself, the cause of the coalition’s collapse: Perhaps the plutocratic agenda is becoming too unpopular to even survive Republican presidential primaries. And if that’s so, is the future of the Republican Party more moderate on all fronts, or more purely ethnonationalist?

The Donald Trump question

If you survey the modern Republican Party, the figures most intent on turning it into a vehicle for ethnonationalist resentment are the least committed to the plutocratic agenda. Steve Bannon, Tucker Carlson, Sen. Josh Hawley, and 2016 candidate Donald Trump are all examples of the trend: They are, or were, explicit in their desire to sever the ties that yoke angry nationalism and a desire for a whiter America to Paul Ryan’s budget.

Conversely, the Republican figures most committed to plutocracy — like Ryan or the Koch brothers or the Chamber of Commerce — tend to back immigration reform and recoil from ethnonationalist rhetoric, and in 2016, they opposed Trump in favor of Jeb Bush and Chris Christie and Marco Rubio. They just lost on all those fronts.

Hacker and Pierson emphasize the fact that once in office, Trump abandoned populist pretense and gave the Chamber of Commerce everything it had ever wanted and more. But, as with so much else with Trump, it can be hard to distinguish decision-making from disinterest. Trump outsourced the staffing of his White House to the Koch-soaked Mike Pence and his agenda to congressional Republicans. The question, then, is whether the dissonance of his administration represents an inevitability of Republican Party politics or simply a lag between Trump demonstrating the base’s prioritization of ethnonationalist resentment and a politician who will both win and govern on those terms.

This is the central unanswered question of Hacker and Pierson’s book: If you cut the plutocrats out of the party, either because bigotry drove them out or campaign finance reform neutered them or the Ayn Rand rapture ascended them, would their absence lead to a Republican Party that moderates on economics and eases off the ethnonationalism, or would it lead to a Republican Party that moderates on economics so it can more effectively pursue social division? Put differently, do you get 2000-era John McCain or 2020-era Tucker Carlson? I suspect the latter.

Tucker Carlson abandoned conservative economics in favor of a purer, more confrontational ethnonationalism, and it’s made him Fox News’s highest-rated host and spurred talk of a 2024 presidential run.
Phillip Faraone/Getty Images for Politicon

Hacker and Pierson admit they are assessing the GOP as an elite-led institution, and quite often, that’s probably the right way to look at it. But they end up virtually ignoring the power that Republican voters actually hold and, when they are sufficiently offended, wield.

Bush and Rubio and Christie were humiliated in 2016. GOP-led efforts at immigration reform failed in 2007 and 2013. Majority Leader Eric Cantor was deposed by Rep. Dave Brat. The Republican autopsy, which recommended that the GOP become more racially and generationally inclusive, was ignored. At key moments, Fox News tried to support immigration reform and deflate Trump, and it lost those fights and remade itself in Trump’s image. There are lines even conservative media can’t cross.

Hacker and Pierson marshal data showing the very rich are more economically conservative than the median voter, but also more socially liberal. As the GOP becomes more crudely identitarian, there’s some evidence that it’s losing the economic elites who George W. Bush once called “my base”: Contributions from the Forbes 400 have been tipping toward the Democratic Party in recent decades, and there’s reason to believe that’s accelerated under Trump. Hillary Clinton won the country’s richest zip codes in 2016 — a change from past Democratic performance — while Trump’s Electoral College win relied on gains among lower-income whites.

Hacker and Pierson don’t assess the Democratic Party much in their book, but the future of plutocratic populism likely depends on the direction that coalition takes. Joe Biden’s Democratic Party is a tent restive billionaires might feel comfortable in. Yes, they’ll pay higher taxes, but they’ll also receive competent protection from pandemics and won’t have to explain away the white nationalists in their ranks. If Bernie Sanders’s vision is the future of the Democratic Party, billionaires will remain in the Republican Party, where they are at least seen as allies.

Minoritarian authoritarians

The most chilling argument in Hacker and Pierson’s book is that Trump’s rhetoric has focused us on the wrong authoritarian threat. The fear that he would entrench himself as an individual strongman has distracted from the reality that his party is insulating itself from democracy:

As their goals have become more extreme, Republicans and their organized allies have increasingly exploited long-standing but worsening vulnerabilities in our political system to lock in narrow priorities, even in the face of majority opposition. The specter we face is not just a strongman bending a party and our political institutions to his will; it is also a minority faction entrenching itself in power, beyond the ambitions and careers of any individual leader. Whether Trump can break through the barriers against autocracy, he and his party—with plutocratic and right-wing backing—are breaking majoritarian democracy.

A useful thought experiment in American politics is simply to imagine what would happen if the system worked the way we tend to tell our children it works: Whoever wins the most votes wins the election. In that case, George W. Bush would never have passed his tax cuts nor made his Supreme Court nominations, and neither would Donald Trump. The Republican Party would likely have had to moderate its approach on both economics and social and racial issues, as there’d be no viable path forward that combines an economic agenda that repels most voters and a social agenda that offends the rising demographic majority. As Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) said in 2012, before becoming first Trump’s most slashing critic and then one of his most sycophantic defenders, “We’re not generating enough angry white guys to stay in business for the long term.”

As I argue in my book on polarization, which similarly ends with a call for democratization, if Trump had won exactly as many votes in 2016 but lost the election because of it, he and his followers would be blamed for blowing a clearly winnable contest and handing the Supreme Court to the Democrats for a generation. In that world, the toxic tendencies he represents would be weakened, and the Republican Party, having lost three presidential elections in a row, would have been far likelier to reform itself. Its ability to keep traveling the path of plutocratic populism stems entirely from the minoritarian possibilities embedded in America’s political institutions.

Hundreds of activists, mostly women, gathered in front of Trump International in Columbus Circle for a “Not My President!” rally in December 2016.
Andy Katz/Pacific Press/LightRocket via Getty Images

As Hacker and Pierson show, this is a point of true convergence between the identitarians and the plutocrats: Both have lost confidence that they can win elections democratically, so they have sought to rewrite the rules in their favor. What hold on power they retain comes from the way American politics amplifies the power of whiter, more rural, more conservative areas — and that’s given the conservative coalition a closing window in which to rig the system such that they can retain control.

America does not exist in a steady state of tension between majoritarian and minoritarian institutions. Those institutions can be changed, and they are being changed. A party in power can rewrite the rules in its own favor, and the Republican Party, at every level, is trying to do just that — using power won through white identity politics and geographic advantage, but deploying strategies patiently funded by plutocrats. As Hacker and Pierson write:

Recent GOP moves in North Carolina show what’s possible in a closely balanced state. Republicans first took the statehouse in 2010. They quickly enlisted the leading Republican architect of extreme partisan gerrymanders, Thomas Hofeller. A mostly anonymous figure until his death in 2018, Hofeller liked to describe gerrymandering as “the only legalized form of vote-stealing left in the United States.” He once told an audience of state legislators, “Redistricting is like an election in reverse. It’s a great event. Usually the voters get to pick the politicians. In redistricting, the politicians get to pick the voters.” In 2018, North Carolina Republicans won their “election in reverse,” keeping hold of the statehouse even while losing the statewide popular vote. In North Carolina’s races for the US House, Republicans won half the statewide votes and 77 percent of the seats. A global elections watchdog ranked North Carolina’s “electoral integrity” alongside that of Cuba, Indonesia, and Sierra Leone.

Meanwhile, the Trump administration has sought to reword the census so Hispanics fear filling it out, in the hope that the political representation they’d normally receive flows to white, Republican voters instead. So far, the White House has been too clumsily explicit about the aims of this strategy for courts to clear it, but that’s a mistake that can easily be remedied by savvier successors.

Hacker and Pierson argue that the conservative dilemma matters because conservative parties matter. History shows that democratic systems thrive amid responsible conservative parties — parties that make their peace with democracy and build agendas that can successfully compete for votes — and they collapse when conservative parties back themselves into defending constituencies and agendas so narrow that their only path to victory is to rig the system in their favor.

This is the cliff on which American democracy now teeters. The threat isn’t that Donald Trump will carve his face onto Mount Rushmore and engrave his name across the White House. It’s that the awkward coalition that nominated and sustains him will entrench itself, not their bumbling standard-bearer, by turning America into a government by the ethnonationalist minority, for the plutocratic minority.

Further listening

I spoke with Hacker and Pierson about their book, and the questions it raised for me, on my podcast, The Ezra Klein Show. Listen here, or subscribe on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you get your pods.