George Hawley explores the economic impulses behind parts of the Republican Party’s populist turn and what this means for the GOP going forward.

This article is part of a series seeking to understand the issues of political economy driving populist movements around the world as we proceed through the “year of elections.” We will publish a new article every week, which you can find here.

After Donald Trump formally entered the political arena in 2015, and especially after his victories in the G.O.P. primaries and 2016 general election, many pundits and scholars, including me, began arguing that the Republican Party was moving in a more populist economic direction. Although Trump’s nativism made more headlines, his apparent deviation from Republican orthodoxy on economic issues seemed equally significant. Trump’s victory seemed to signify that the Republican Party’s commitment to free markets had become an anachronism. Reaganism was a thing of the past because voters, including committed Republicans, wanted something new. This view, though plausible, was probably wrong—or at least requires important caveats.

Have Republicans abandoned Neoliberalism?

President Trump did break with his Republican predecessors on several key issues. For example, Trump promised to revisit trade deals, rejecting the old argument that relatively free international trade is, in the aggregate, a benefit to all countries involved. In contrast to previous Republican presidents, who noted that entitlement spending was becoming unsustainable and in need of reform, Trump promised to protect Social Security as it is. He expressed concern about growing income inequality, which is not a traditional Republican issue.

We have since seen other prominent Republicans express misgivings with the more traditional conservative approach to economic issues. Senator Josh Hawley (R-MO) has become a rare Republican voice in favor of labor unions. He has, for example, stated that he no longer supports Right-to-Work laws, which have historically been one of the more effective tools to weaken organized labor. Last year, Hawley joined members of the United Auto Workers on the picket line. The notion that Republicans can successfully rebrand as the pro-labor party still seems remote, but it is less implausible now than it would have been a decade ago.

Senator J.D. Vance (R-OH) has also expressed interest in reorienting the party’s economic agenda in a more populist direction. He endorsed Trump’s total rejection of entitlement reform, for example. He has worked closely with Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) on legislation to further regulate large banks.

Survey data seems to indicate that Republican voters are not intransigent proponents of low taxes and limited government. They seem, for instance, to favor a more progressive tax system. In 2021, the General Social Survey (GSS)— a gold-standard survey conducted by the University of Chicago—asked respondents whether “people with high incomes should pay a larger share of their income in taxes than those with low incomes, the same share, or a smaller share.” In that survey, about 52% of Republican respondents thought the rich should pay a greater share of taxes, and only about 5% of Republicans believed the rich should pay a “smaller” or a “much smaller share.”

These data suggest that Republicans in the electorate are open to higher taxes on the wealthiest Americans, perhaps indicating a populist turn in the party. There is a major qualification we must add to this discussion, however. If we are going to say that Republican voters have turned away from the more traditional conservative approach to economics, we must first demonstrate that this approach was ever popular among the Republican rank and file.

Or were they ever Neoliberals?

Fortunately, the GSS has asked this question about tax rates many times over the years (in 1987, 2000, 2008, and 2021). Have Republicans recently moderated on this issue? Not really. Republicans in 2021 were slightly more likely to say that the rich should pay a higher share of taxes than what the GSS showed in 2008 (when about 49% held this position), which is about where they were in 2000 (53%), and considerably less likely than in 1987, when about 63% of Republicans thought the rich should have a higher tax burden. Today’s Republicans may be tired of the Reaganite approach to taxes, but they were apparently even less enamored with it when Reagan was actually in office.

Perhaps taxes are the wrong issue to look at. Feelings about government spending may be a better barometer for economic populist attitudes. On this we should again look at trends over time. Starting in 1985, and intermittently since then, the GSS has asked respondents whether they would support “cuts in government spending” as something “the government might do for the economy.” In 1985, about 84% of Republicans favored or strongly favored this policy. In 2016, the last time this question was asked, the share of Republicans holding this view had dropped only slightly—to about 82%. The intervening years were marked with equally little variation.

It is of course very easy to support spending cuts as an abstract idea, perhaps under the belief we can get our budget deficit under control by simply reining in waste, fraud, and abuse. But our real budget busters are entitlements such as Social Security (which comprises the largest share of government spending (22%), far outpacing even defense spending (13%)). How do Republicans feel about this kind of spending? With an aging population (and Republicans are older, on average, than the nation as a whole), we might plausibly suspect that G.O.P. voters are increasingly defensive of Social Security. Since 1984, the GSS has asked respondents whether we spend “too much, too little, or about the right amount on Social Security.”

Once again, we see movement over time, but the majority position has remained the same. In 1984, about 15% of Republicans thought we spent too much on Social Security—by far the least common response from the demographic. By 2016, this had dropped to about 5%. As of 2022, it was back up to about 8%. This will be a disheartening finding to those who wish to bring deficits under control without major tax increases. In the absence of a major crisis, Social Security is probably still a third rail in U.S. politics. We should nonetheless take note that this has been the case for decades. Republican voter support for Social Security is not new, and it does not represent a major populist turn in the electorate.

If the G.O.P. is really turning into the “working class” party, perhaps Republican voters are rethinking the party’s traditional antipathy to organized labor. Once again, we can look to the GSS for insights. Since 2002, the GSS has asked respondents whether they agree with the statement, “Workers need strong trade unions to protect their interests.” On this measure, we do see some substantive movement. In 2002, about 36% of Republicans either agreed or strongly agreed with that statement. Twenty years later, this reached 42%. This indicates that Republicans have become more favorable toward unions, but we must also note that a sizable majority of them continue to reject the notion that unions are indispensable organizations for workers.

Is there a political economy of right-wing American populism?

Where does this leave us? There is a strong case to be made that, in terms of policy preferences, the Republican Party in the electorate is not committed to a low-tax, free-market agenda. The important thing to note, however, is that this has always been the case, and it has not thus far caused Republicans to rethink their partisan commitments. As evidence for this, we can point to Trump’s strong support from Republicans in his 2020 re-election campaign, and his easy victories in the more recent 2024 Republican primaries.

During his presidency, Trump’s policy agenda was less transformative than we might have reasonably expected. A major tax cut was his most significant policy achievement—and this was a policy all the 2016 Republican presidential contenders would have likely pursued if elected. Changes to trade policies occurred mostly at the margins. We did not witness a major overhaul of global trade dynamics. Union membership has continued to decline. Yet, Trump’s voters, for the most part, stuck with him. Economic populism, it turns out, was not necessary to keep the MAGA movement voting Republican.

The reality is that, when it comes to economics, there is less ideological distance between voters across the partisan divide than pundits typically acknowledge. The notion that Republican voters have ever been doctrinaire economic libertarians, squaring off against socialist Democrats eager to nationalize the means of production, is simply mistaken. In the U.S., there is a general liberal consensus in favor of a system we can describe as “welfare capitalism.” This has been true for decades.

Polling about economic policy preferences should perhaps be viewed with skepticism. The average person, on either side of the political aisle, is mostly ignorant of the specifics of economic policy and how those policies impact the nation’s economy. The G.O.P. has not historically built its economic policy agenda based on what polls said. If it did, its platform would be considerably more left-wing. The fact that the party remains competitive means that a critical mass of voters is happy with the results of Republican economic stewardship, even if most voters disagree with their specific policy platform.

What this means for the Republican party going into 2024 and beyond

Recent history and public opinion data do not provide an obvious economic policy roadmap for the G.O.P. as it pursues political victory. It is true that the party’s base is slowly changing. Although it has been losing support from college educated voters, it has been running up huge margins among non-Hispanic whites without a college degree. As pollster Patrick Ruffini has persuasively demonstrated, it is also making impressive inroads among Hispanics and has shown some improvement among African Americans. This realignment seems to indicate that the party must shift toward a more populist economic agenda if it wishes to consolidate and grow its new base. That may not be correct.

It is true that college educated voters are increasingly breaking away from the Republican Party, and education can be one useful measure of class, but it is not accurate to say that the G.O.P. is now the “working class” party. According to 2020 exit polls, Biden easily defeated Trump among voters making less than $50,000 a year, whereas Trump won a significant majority of voters earning more than $100,000 a year. Democrats remain the preferred choice for the least affluent voters.

Perhaps Republicans will make incremental improvements among less wealthy Americans in future election cycles. However, the notion that Republicans will soon encourage labor unions to rethink their partisan commitments seems like wishful thinking—Josh Hawley, the most pro-union Republican in the U.S. Senate, only has an 11% lifetime score from the AFL-CIO.

The G.O.P.’s declining support among highly educated voters is a real problem for the party, but economics plays little role in this development. As political scientists Brian F. Schaffner and Kaitlyn Gaus persuasively argued, the marked shift among college educated suburbanites toward the Democrats is largely a reaction to “Donald Trump’s influence on the Republican Party’s brand.”

As noted, President Trump largely followed the traditional Republican playbook on economics when he was president. His failure to change the party’s direction does not seem to have hindered his prospects. According to the 2020 American National Election Survey, voters continued to trust Republican economic policies. That survey showed that 34% of subjects believed Democrats would do a “somewhat better” or “much better” job handling the economy. In contrast, 43% continued to place greater trust in Republicans (the rest said there was “not much difference between them”). This was the case despite the severe economic contraction that was ongoing at the time of the survey.

When they are polled on specific issues, voters seem to reject many elements of the Republican Party’s neoliberal economic agenda. Yet, they simultaneously seem to trust the G.O.P. more than the Democrats to manage the economy. The latter finding is more important. A comprehensive agenda that successfully reduces inflation, keeps unemployment low, and boosts the stock market will likely provide more electoral benefits than a platform built from polling individual policy issues—even if the latter might be more substantively populist and seemingly popular.  

Articles represent the opinions of their writers, not necessarily those of the University of Chicago, the Booth School of Business, or its faculty.