Many traditional conservatives are dumbstruck when they see Republicans like Missouri Sen. Josh Hawley or venture capitalist/potential candidate J.D. Vance espousing what they regard as liberal economics. To these conservatives, it is a betrayal of principle. To which Vance might respond, “I just don’t care.” The fact is the nature of what it means to be conservative is changing rapidly, and it is leaving economic conservatives without a political home.
A political realignment is taking place. This doesn’t just mean a shift in which political party holds the center ground. It means that the fundamental questions around which people align themselves politically are changing. What used to define right, left, and center will cease to have as much political meaning.
For most of the past century, American politics—indeed, much of global politics—was aligned around a central economic question: Which economic system provides the most benefit, free markets or central planning? People on the right believed in free markets, people on the left believed in government planning. This helped to dictate a class component to the politics; working people, for instance, who believed they were at the mercy of capitalists and profit tended to side with the left, while highly educated people who controlled their own careers tended to side with the right.
There was a secondary question that was not economic, however—the question of social attitudes, which pitted those who believed in a traditional way of life against those who felt that way of life was harmful or restrictive. These two attitudes mapped reasonably well on to the economic split, although there were some working-class people who had leftist economic beliefs but right-wing social attitudes, and there were some on the economic right who had more liberal social attitudes. Think Reagan Democrats and libertarians.
The realignment, however, makes those questions obsolete. The central question in American politics is now one of identity. If you consider yourself American first and foremost, with a strong regional or state component to your identity as well, you are now likely to identify as conservative. There has been a similar change on the left. Its attitude to the question of identity is perhaps best described as minoritarian. The minoritarian sees the American identity as opposed to the demands and rights of minority groups—racial minorities, unionized workers, minorities in sexual identification, religious minorities (including the non-religious), refugees, environmental activists, and pro-trans feminists.
The end result is that many on both sides have rejected globalism. And this realignment means that large swaths of formerly left-leaning voters, mostly in the white middle class, now identify as conservative, while there has been a similar shift to the left among the highly educated professional classes.
This shift has implications that shatter received political wisdom. Perhaps most important of these is that economic arguments will barely matter anymore. What were previously thought of as fundamental questions like the rights of private property owners only matter insofar as they address the question of identity. Thus, a conservative will now see no contradiction between upholding the right of a Christian baker not to bake a cake for a gay wedding while demanding that a social media firm provide a conduit for speech its leaders find objectionable. Meanwhile, liberals celebrate big corporations getting on board with their egalitarian agenda yet see no issue with Bernie Sanders being a literal millionaire owning three expensive properties.
A second implication is that conservatives can no longer count on people becoming more conservative as they get older. Once upon a time, as people’s economic situations improved with age, their attitudes were likely to change. But now, our primary political leanings are not necessarily tied to economics. So the millennial generation is not trending in that direction, likely because their attitudes to identity are more fixed.
A third implication concerns immigrants. Many immigrants come to America to be American but still align around the economic question. Many see vestiges of the socialism they fled in the American left’s minoritarian identity and want to establish a new identity for themselves. This makes immigrants friendly to the new conservatism. Conservatives, however, regard them with suspicion because of their foreign birth. How conservatives and immigrants resolve this dilemma might decide future elections.
The final implication is for economic conservatives. Free traders, for instance, are now without a political home. Their globalism is rejected by populists on both the right and left. President Trump’s tariffs—against foes like China and allies like Canada—were popular with his base. And even though regulation is the prime vehicle the new left uses to impose its agenda, the new right seems eager to adopt regulatory control against “woke corporations,” which causes deregulators to increasingly deem new conservatives fair-weather friends. And all the while free trade is roundly blamed by both sides for whatever ill concerns them that day, even though globalism has resulted in an age of abundance and the greatest reduction in global poverty ever seen.
The new alignment’s indifference to economic principle will be its undoing. Inflation, unemployment, and deprivation are economic consequences that care nothing for questions of identity. It may take an economic crisis to reinstate economics to a central position in political alignment. God is not mocked, nor are the laws of economics.
Iain Murray is vice president for strategy at the Competitive Enterprise Institute, a free market public policy organization based in Washington, D.C.