In his book The Idea of Decline in Western History, historian Arthur Herman writes, “Perhaps the most salient feature of the twentieth century has been the tremendous upsurge of … cultural pessimism, not just in the realm of ideas, but directly into the arena of politics and culture.” This sense of decline, which Herman chronicles as a recurrent feature of modern society, has long animated a loud minority of the political left, and has now become a feature of an increasingly large share of the political right. It is worth pausing to consider what is happening, and what it means for policymaking.
Until Donald Trump’s electoral defeat in November 2020, Trumpism was largely understood by the political class and media as a collection of anti-elite sentiments and policy notions aimed at the working class. Since then, a number of commentators have noted that Trumpism—if that is even the right name for it—is a type of cultural alarmism most ardently embraced not by the working class but a more affluent set of voters. Sure, many of the bozos who stormed the Capitol on January 6 personified the media’s idea of the conventional working-class Trump voter, but the anxious, anti-leftist rhetoric conservative political leaders deploy today is aimed at a more affluent, professional-class (and thereby statistically more active) voter.
Shortly after the 2016 election, Cato pollster Emily Ekins identified among Trump voters a more educated, professional “free marketeer” voter who was Trump-skeptical but voted for him to avoid the alternative. This group has now largely gone all-in on alarmism about the left’s cultural agenda, which is one of the most unexpected political phenomena of the past four years and probably why it was mostly overlooked until recently. They are members of what David Brooks has recently called the “GOP gentry” and the “proletarian aristocracy”—a mix of family and small business owners, middle managers, ranch and franchise owners, and so on. They gravitate toward the “plutocratic populism” that political scientists Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson have identified (and that Price St. Clair has covered for The Dispatch), which appeals on cultural rather than economic grounds. While such voters still care about policies that create economic opportunity, they are more emotionally invested in the fight against censorship, speech codes, and the left’s general assault on traditional values.
Even though some members of Congress continue to push economic policy along the lines of working-class concerns, the incentives all point in the direction of cultural conflict as a larger share of active, more influential voters in the base ascribe to alarmism. When Republican Study Committee Chairman Jim Banks of Indiana urged his committee members to “lean into the culture war,” he was channeling the heart of the right’s current anti-elitism, which is angst over cultural demise more than a concern for everyday Joes working hourly wage jobs.