The Narrowing Aisle in Blue-Collar Politics

The various populist movements that swept through the Western world in the past decade have conventionally been thought of as stemming from a “right-wing” political impulse.

Insofar as these movements are rooted in nationalistic sentiment and opposition to an increasingly insular ruling class of progressive cosmopolitans, there is some legitimate reason for this label: from Donald Trump to Brexit to the various comparable insurgencies throughout western Europe, the ascendant populists all seem to emphasize restricting unchecked immigration, protecting native culture, and restoring a sense of national pride rooted in the character and history of a particular place and people.

If these are traditionally issues of particular concern to right-wingers—and they are—then, at least in a sense, contemporary populism is undoubtedly a child of the political right.

The Vox Populi

At the same time, however, many of the aforementioned populist movements have a view of the role and size of government that begins to complicate their classification within the conventional left–right distinctions.

Many populist politicians are often remarkably friendly toward expanding state power on a variety of economic and social policies, despite the fact that the political right (particularly in the Anglo-American conservative tradition) tends to favor limited and small government more than does the progressive left.

Donald Trump, for example, bucked American conservative orthodoxy on the role of the state during his 2016 presidential campaign, voicing support for government-run healthcare, denouncing free trade, and promising not to cut bloated welfare entitlements. In an ironic twist of fate, this situates him solidly to the left of presumptive Democratic nominee Joe Biden in some of these areas, as Mr. Biden supported a host of free-trade deals and has often voiced support for cutting popular government welfare programs like Social Security.

This is not unique to American politics: many populist movements throughout the West seem even friendlier to big government than establishment center-left parties. Boris Johnson has deftly moved the UK’s Conservative Party away from the libertarian legacy of Margaret Thatcher, instead advocating for left-wing economic initiatives such as raising the minimum wage, abandoning a corporate tax cut, and passing historic increases in government infrastructure spending coupled with a culturally conservative, pro-Brexit message.

In the Netherlands, Germany, Italy, and other Western countries, many of the recently successful populist parties have favored economic protectionism and a robust welfare state alongside immigration restrictionism and other right-wing cultural policies.

Understanding this, it’s no wonder that many of these populist movements enjoy such ardent support from the working classes, even among groups of voters that tended to back more conventionally left-wing politicians for generations.

As the left-wing establishment becomes increasingly enamored of social justice theories espoused by academics in expensive universities, the gap between the progressive elite and the working-class constituencies that traditionally supported their political initiatives continues to widen. “Wokeness”—a totalizing worldview that sees society as the sum total of intersecting power structures and systems of oppression—has made our cultural tastemakers critically suspicious of their own history, traditions, and political system, thus alienating vast swathes of their relatively conservative blue-collar fellow citizens in the process.

Consequently, as culturally conservative populists eschew the libertarianism that made working-class voters leery of right-wing parties for generations, it’s hardly surprising that their message has become more attractive to these constituencies than that of an overeducated progressive elite who often seem ashamed of their own country.

The Populist Left Finds Its Voice

Particularly in countries like the United States, one’s fluency in social justice theory is often a function of economic privilege.

Despite exercising an enormous influence over the Democratic Party platform, the popularity of “woke” politics is almost entirely confined to America’s college-educated meritocratic upper classes, and many of the politically correct shibboleths and lingual particularities of the chattering classes are unintelligible to the “great American middle.” At the same time, however, the Republican coalition’s heavy emphasis on small-government fiscal libertarianism is similarly unrepresentative of the policy preferences of working Americans, who are often more friendly to large welfare states and government spending.

Consequently, as both major political parties emphasize policies that speak primarily to the interests of the wealthy—social liberalism on the left, fiscal libertarianism on the right—America’s de facto two-party system has increasingly become one wherein both partisan coalitions are out of sync with the general political profile of the blue-collar voter.

You would think that a culturally conservative, fiscally liberal populism has the potential for enormous political success, and that it need not necessarily be monopolized by the right.

In fact, despite the progressive media’s predictable treatment of populism as a uniformly “far-right” or ethno-nationalist political movement, the big-government pro-worker populist sensibility has traditionally been associated with left-wing politics. The left’s disastrous move toward a more cosmopolitan, elitist message is a relatively recent occurrence—and as a consequence, many of the elite leaders of progressive parties throughout the developed world have committed political self-immolation, ceding a winning message to their right-leaning opponents while they preoccupy themselves with catering to the identitarian interests of a small group of academics and media pundits.

But a group of outspoken left-wing writers, commentators, and intellectuals have become increasingly critical of their political coalition’s attraction to identity politics: the so-called “Dirtbag Left,” a small-but-vocal cadre of leftists that sees the replacement of class politics with identity politics as a betrayal of the traditional left-wing project, has found its voice within an assortment of blogs, podcasts, and authors who tend to be more friendly toward traditionally right-wing positions on many cultural issues while maintaining the characteristic left-wing line on class and economic issues. “Wokeness,” for many in this heterogeneous cohort, is detrimental to class solidarity, and, they argue, the wealthy liberal establishment’s overemphasis of race, gender, and sexuality is hopelessly out of touch with the realities of life for much of the working class.

One of the most outspoken—and subsequently controversial—members of this group is Angela Nagle, an Irish leftist writer who has been one of the “anti-woke” left’s most prominently outspoken members.

“I’m really advocating for pro-social laborism as the only way to fight the ruling order of the progressive elites,” she says. “I don’t judge things anymore on whether they are deemed culturally progressive or reactionary—I’m only interested to know if they are good for society.”

Despite Nagle’s hard-left positions on economics and welfare (she describes herself as a socialist, and favors “public ownership of natural resources, major industries and all vital public services”), she strikes a tone that no doubt sounds familiar to traditionalist conservatives on many cultural issues.

“The destruction of the family, for example, has been a terrible mistake on a vast scale which has hit the poor hardest and contributed to the inequality and general social breakdown we see everywhere today,” she tells me.

On immigration issues, she doesn’t “think that metropolitan elites importing a servant class is something to be particularly proud of, nor is it making us more equal.” And the rise of politically correct woke pieties, in her estimation, is little more than the result of “hyper conformity to the ruling ideology” by “highly educated white millennials who had no identity chips to cash in.”

This political apostasy has not been without its consequences. Nagle’s controversial 2018 essay The Left Case Against Open Borders, which argued that permissive immigration policy “ultimately benefits the elites within the most powerful countries in the world, further disempowers organized labor, robs the developing world of desperately needed professionals, and turns workers against workers,” was met with shock and outrage from all the predictable left-wing outlets. The Nation called it “dangerous” and accused Nagle of “legitimizing the idea that someone arbitrarily born on the wrong side of a line is less deserving of a good life.” Current Affairs suggested that Nagle’s motivations “might be that she genuinely does not give a s**t about the suffering of immigrants and is perfectly happy to sacrifice them to political expediency.” And, of course, a host of left-wing blogs called for Nagle to be canceled and excised from the left for her heresies.

And she’s not alone: many members of the Dirtbag Left have encountered similar opposition for their deviation from the woke ideological line.

Dasha Nekrasova and Anna Khachiyan, the two hosts of the gleefully anti-woke socialist podcast Red Scare, have been accused of being “bigoted,” “demeaning and harmful,” and “full of breathtaking cruelty” by their relatively woke political fellow travelers, while Chapo Trap House—a similarly politically incorrect leftist podcast—has become persona non grata with the respectable progressive establishment. Other prominent leftist critics of identity politics such as Slavoj Žižek, Mark Fisher, and even Bernie Sanders have all been taken to task at some point for questioning some aspect of social justice orthodoxy. And activists like Paul Embery, an outspoken supporter of the socially conservative socialist advocacy group Blue Labor in the United Kingdom and a dyed-in-the-wool Brexiteer, have experienced serious consequences to their careers for similar offenses.

Strange Bedfellows

At the same time, however, an odd alliance has been emerging between the “populist right” and the “populist left,” who in many ways share more in common with one another than they do with their establishment counterparts. As right-populists become increasingly critical of free market economics and left-populists become increasingly critical of identity politics, this bipartisan populist intersection has already created unexpected political alliances. Tucker Carlson, for example, whose populist turn on economics has been the subject of much debate within the conservative movement, has hosted Nagle on his show multiple times, remarking at one point: “I can’t believe I’m agreeing with you—but I am.”

A truly nonpartisan populism may remain elusive, but surprising partnerships like that of Tucker Carlson and Angela Nagle are evidence for the electoral potential of a fiscally liberal, culturally conservative politics.

What that looks like is still unclear, but the contemporary West is rife with examples of culturally conservative populists appealing to left-wing voters as a result of their leftward movement on economic issues. “If their economic policies were pro-worker,” Nagle says, “I’d absolutely vote for a nominally conservative party. No question.”

She’s not alone: Boris Johnson’s historic electoral victory in the United Kingdom was borne from his ability to flip working-class Labor Party strongholds in the middle of the country, while Trump’s 2016 upset victory was in no small part due to his inroads in the “blue wall,” a similar constituency of blue-collar workers in Rust Belt states who had long been considered reliable Democratic voters.

Regardless of one’s opinion of this ascendant strain of populism, its potency with voters clearly requires that it be taken seriously. Only time will tell whether the left will be able to recover their working-class bona fides in the constituencies that they have alienated—and simultaneously, the right must reconcile its long, honorable tradition of advocating for economic liberty with the necessity of remaining politically relevant and adopting a winning electoral message.

“If the conservative parties are able to really deliver on this, they’ll bury the left,” says Nagle. But: “If they don’t, they’ll have missed a huge historic opportunity.”


About the Author

Nate Hochman is an undergraduate at Colorado College and a Young Voices contributor. You can follow him on Twitter @njhochman.

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