CPAC Exposed the GOP's Fight for the Working Class as Just Another Culture War | Opinion

The GOP's attempt to rebrand as a working-class party was on full display at CPAC, the annual conservative conference that is something like Bonnaroo except instead of Azaelia Banks you get Jim Banks, a Republican Congressman from Indiana who claimed that Donald Trump "taught us to be the party of the working class," while blasting Democrats as "the party of multinational corporations, big business, Wall Street, [and] Silicon Valley." "It's the greatest blue-collar movement in America," Senator Bill Haggerty, a Republican from my state of Tennessee, said of Trumpism in his CPAC address. "We can have a republic where the people rule, or we can have an oligarchy where big tech and the liberals rule," admonished Missouri Senator Josh Hawley.

As a socialist, I shook my head at the farce of it all. None of these people care about the working-class. No Republican does. If they did, they would not have passed a tax cut that enabled billionaires to pay a lower tax rate than the working-class, a tax cut Hawley supported and Banks voted for. They wouldn't stymie attempts to raise the minimum wage, something Hawley only supports in convoluted half-measures.

On Friday, he announced he would introduce a bill which would require companies with revenues of $1 billion or more to pay workers $15 an hour and would supply a tax credit to Americans making $16.50 or less. These plans might sound progressive compared to most of the GOP, which is only one powdered wig away from "let them eat cake," but they would still leave millions of the poorest Americans in the lurch while shifting the onus away from capital and onto the workers who would have to navigate a complicated tax credit scheme.

The very notion that Josh Hawley, the privately-educated son of a wealthy banker, would rail against oligarchs is laughable. Viewed through any perspective to the left of Ayn Rand, the senator from Missouri is as much an oligarch as anyone working in Silicon Valley. So it's no coincidence that the bulk of Hawley's CPAC speech was spent complaining about "cancel culture," with only a brief mention of the "poverty wages" American workers are paid. Hawley's brand of populism, itself a subset of the Trumpist ideology, is not about economic empowerment of the working-class but about stoking the very real cultural divisions that exist within our country.

America likes to view itself as a classless society, even though we have the largest wealth gap in the world. It's why so many Americans identify as "middle-class," regardless of whether they make $30,000 a year or $230,000 a year. We kid ourselves into thinking the class structures inherent in European societies of old do not exist, have never existed, on these shores.

Because of this, our identities cut not across socioeconomic lines but racial, religious, and regional lines. There is little class consciousness and virtually no class unity. This enables Trumpists like Hawley to position themselves as champions of the working-class because "working-class" here is a stand-in for largely (though not exclusively) rural/suburban/exurban people who distrust government handouts unless that handout is going to them.

It is the responsibility of the left to build that class consciousness. And we do that through materially improving the lives of the working-class.

So far, we are failing abysmally. Just last week the Senate parliamentarian issued an advisory ruling that a minimum wage increase could not be added to the COVID relief bill through a process called "budget reconciliation." Democrats do not have to abide by this ruling, but Joe Biden and Senate leadership have indicated they would out of a respect for "procedure."

Meanwhile, most people don't give a fig about the Senate rules. What they care about is feeding their families and feeling like someone is helping to make their difficult lives just a little bit easier. But when all they hear is how Democrats won't raise the minimum wage but will pass the Equality Act—a law I support and that is needed—it makes it seem like the left only cares about people if they fill some sort of quota. It's a ludicrous thought, but you can't help but to forgive people for thinking it when Democrats do nothing to persuade them otherwise.

These folks aren't the enemies of equality. But they see the cultural elements of progressivism as the enemy for how it replaces the very real material, class-based policies that the Democrats fail at. And this is exactly what Republicans like Hawley want. It helps them convince their voters that culture matters more than class. "Part of standing up to the oligarchs in tech and in the media and the liberals is reclaiming our history and saying, 'It is good, and we are proud to be Americans,'" Hawley told the crowd on Saturday.

That line resonates with people in the heartland who were raised to love God, family, and country in that order. They look at the left and see a bunch of out-of-touch Champagne socialists trying to cancel Abraham Lincoln rather than doing anything to actually improve their lives. Even liberal Bill Maher ranted about this on his show last week. "Cancel culture is real, it is insane, and it is coming to a neighborhood near you," said Maher, though it could just as easily have been a line from Hawley's speech.

 Sen. Josh Hawley (R-MO) addresses the Conservative
Sen. Josh Hawley (R-MO) addresses the Conservative Political Action Conference being held in the Hyatt Regency on February 26, 2021 in Orlando, Florida. Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images

Maher cited the very real case of Emmanuel Cafferty, a Latino utility worker who was sacked after allegedly making a white supremacist signal while driving—a charge he denies.

Getting the working class fired from their jobs is not the way to build class consciousness. It does, however, fit into the fear-mongering narrative Hawley constructed on Saturday: "Don't vote for the Democrats, they'll get you fired for a gesture."

That someone born with a silver spoon in his mouth like Josh Hawley can position himself as a champion of the working class shows just how much work we have ahead of us. We can start by reframing this conversation. We start to do that by passing legislation which will help struggling Americans in a tangible way. It means raising the minimum wage regardless of what some unelected bureaucrat says, getting relief checks out to people as quickly as possible, investing in infrastructure and providing healthcare to an ailing nation. If Republicans won't support us, we make sure people know it.

Josh Hawley wants to fight a culture war because it benefits him electorally. We should not engage, because we will never win. Cultural conservatives are not going to get on board with LGBT rights or critical race theory. That doesn't mean we abandon the pursuit of social justice, but it does mean we start taking economic justice just as seriously. The only way to defeat the Republican culture war is by fighting a class war of our own.

Skylar Baker-Jordan writes about the intersection of identity, politics, and public policy based in Tennessee.

The views in this article are the writer's own.