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“New Right” Leaders Are Co-opting Progressive Language to Mislead Voters

The leaders of the “new populist right” are refurbishing the very conservative and elite order they claim to oppose.

Tucker Carlson speaks at the 2018 Student Action Summit hosted by Turning Point USA at the Palm Beach County Convention Center in West Palm Beach, Florida, in December 2018.

Over the past two years, a growing and somewhat unconventional faction of leaders on the American right have caught the attention of the press. This faction — who often refer to themselves as either the “new populist right” or “national conservatives” — includes, most notably, Tucker Carlson at Fox News and Senators Josh Hawley, Marco Rubio and Tom Cotton. It also features several lower-profile but increasingly prominent journalists and authors, such as Julius Krein (founder and editor of American Affairs), Oren Cass (founder and executive director of American Compass) and Saagar Enjeti (host of “Rising” at The Hill).

In general, this faction holds true to the extreme cultural stances that have long united most American conservatives. But they distinguish themselves by rebuking the mainstream right’s cozy relationship with financial elites, a relationship they (correctly) see as both politically unwise — because it alienates working- and middle-class voters — and societally disastrous — because it promotes and reproduces extreme inequality. They oppose asset stripping, stock buybacks, and other economic practices that further empower and enrich financial elites; and they support redirecting wealth toward the growth of American industry.

Add it all up, this faction argues, and you have the ideological blueprint for a new and more democratic political order. This new order, they tell us, would abolish the elitism of contemporary U.S. politics, replacing it with a populism that respects the values of the “great American middle” and provides “dignified work” to the majority. In recent months, they have also framed their worldview as the basis for developing a more democratic and pro-worker response to the coronavirus pandemic.

At least a handful of journalists and progressive commentators have taken this anti-elitist posturing quite seriously. However, in reality, it is grossly misleading. Far from pioneering a democratic political transformation — or, really, any political transformation — the leaders of the “new populist right” are refurbishing the very conservative and elite order they claim to oppose.

The elitism of this group — who I will, for brevity’s sake, simply call the new right — can be easy to miss. In addition to opposing the empowerment of financiers, they frequently imitate the rhetoric of well-known progressive leaders, including Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. Media figures like Tucker Carlson and Saagar Enjeti speak in sweeping and often vitriolic terms about “the exploitation of Americans” and “neoliberals in Washington.” Even the faction’s most mainstream members engage in this imitation. For example, in a speech touted by new right intellectuals, Sen. Marco Rubio spoke eloquently about American capitalism’s betrayal of the “common good” and business’s “obligations” toward workers.

Yet, if you push beyond the rhetoric and focus on what the new right actually proposes, the truth becomes clear: their agenda is, at its core, mostly a revamped version of the one that has dominated conservative politics for the last 40 years. The cultural or social side of this agenda is, of course, by their own admission, similar to what the mainstream right has long embraced. If anything, it is perhaps more extreme. Many of them, for instance, support further tightening already conservative and draconian immigration controls and eliminating almost all abortion rights.

More to the point, even the new right’s apparently unorthodox and progressive-leaning economic agenda is broadly similar to that of mainstream conservatives. For example, they typically oppose universal entitlements like Medicare for All and favor creating a welfare state centered on tax credits and work promotion — a standard conservative position. In addition, their support for the labor movement is tepid at best; and, in many cases, they have opposed it, campaigning for right-to-work legislation and contesting increases to the minimum wage. Their one major difference with mainstream conservatives is, of course, that they advocate redistributing wealth away from affluent financiers and toward domestic industrial expansion. They go to significant lengths to construe this stance as proof of their greater allegiance to workers. Yet, in the absence of support for universal entitlements and a strong labor movement, all it really indicates is their greater allegiance to American industrial, rather than financial, economic elites.

Lacking any truly groundbreaking positions, the new right’s revamped conservatism has no more capacity to transform and democratize U.S. politics than the “free market” conservatism they criticize. For starters, as others have already pointed out, their claim to respect the values of the “American middle” is laughable. By any reasonable measure, their cultural stances disregard most Americans’ core beliefs in favor of propping up a fringe minority. Record-high majorities support many of the ideals and policies they oppose, including abortion rights, the legalization of marijuana, legal immigration and affirmative action. In contrast, only a radical few back the positions advocated by leaders on the new right, such as banning abortion or reducing legal immigration.

Furthermore, contrary to their proclamations, the new right has no plan for expanding what most Americans would call “dignified work.” They hide this fact by equating “dignified work” with industrial employment. But while most Americans agree that growing domestic industry is an important goal, they do not associate industrial employment per se with feelings of dignity. What they do consider dignified is employment that comes with generous compensation and power in the workplace. Unfortunately, most industrial work in the United States currently lacks these traits; and, as I already stated, the new right opposes the expansive welfare state and powerful labor movement that experts say are needed to improve the situation.

At the end of the day, the new right’s conservatism would push ordinary Americans into unsatisfactory jobs while forcing them to adhere to the cultural beliefs of a radical minority. Sound familiar? It should, because it is the same outcome that mainstream conservatism has already helped to produce, the reality most Americans already experience. The true function of the new right is not to transform this reality, but rather to make a revised version of it seem more palatable than it is.

For progressives, the emergence of the new right can seem like a promising development. The rhetorical attacks that people like Josh Hawley and Tucker Carlson level on big finance make them sound like kindred spirits in the struggle to build what Bernie Sanders calls “an economy that works for all of us.” Moreover, as progressive author Matt Stoller points out, to the extent that these new right leaders are willing to legislate against asset stripping, stock buybacks and the like, there is indeed some room to work with them.

Ultimately, however, in the fight for equality and democracy, the new right is at most a group of unwitting accomplices. They are stoking popular, bipartisan opposition to the U.S.’s corrupt and neoliberal political economy, but failing to offer a coherent and convincing plan for how to achieve a better future. The contradiction between their populist rhetoric and elitist, minoritarian worldview leaves a huge gap between themselves and the disaffected working- and middle-class voters they claim to represent. This gap begs to be filled by a more legitimately majoritarian movement against concentrated power. Progressives should stay focused on building that movement and avoid wasting too much time trying to figure out the “new populist right.” They’re just conservatives.

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