Opinion: This conservative wants to change the way Republicans think about economics

Americans are more pro-union than they’ve been in a long time. Jane Coaston interviews Oren Cass about his version of pro-worker conservatism.

Claire Merchlinsky for The New York Times

Nearly half a million U.S. workers have gone on strike in 2023, demanding better workplace conditions and higher pay in some of the country’s most critical industries. Those workers — and the unions many of them belong to — have not received a great deal of support from most elected Republicans. The former South Carolina governor and presidential candidate Nikki Haley has proudly described herself as a “union buster,” saying in 2012 that unions “are not needed, not wanted and not welcome in the state of South Carolina.” Senator Tim Scott said at a September campaign event that striking workers should be fired, following the model of Ronald Reagan.

But Oren Cass, the executive director of the conservative think tank American Compass, is trying to reposition conservatives toward a more populist vision of economic policy, one with sectoral bargaining and an emphasis on quality of life. “The fusionist coalition that has characterized the Republican Party is one that was built to beat the Soviet Union,” he told me. “It is not one that has anything useful and coherent to say about the rise of China, about deindustrialization, about big tech, about worker power generally.” But what does that actually mean in real life, especially given the negative view even these populists hold of big labor in America today? And how would he actually persuade other Republicans to take up his viewpoint?

This interview has been edited for length and clarity and is part of an Opinion Q. and A. series exploring modern conservatism today, its influence in society and politics and how and why it differs (and doesn’t) from the conservative movement that most Americans thought they knew.

Jane Coaston: You’ve made the conservative case for supporting labor unions. Do you think conservatives are listening?

Oren Cass: Some of them certainly are. It’s certainly become a live issue in a lot of debates in conservative magazines, and think tanks, and conferences, and so forth. We see it in at least our polling about a 20-point shift in favorability toward unions by Republican voters.

Gallup found that in 2011, 26 percent of Republican voters approved of unions. In 2023, 47 percent of Republican voters approved of unions.

Coaston: Last year, Sohrab Ahmari argued in The New York Times that, essentially, the people who are the face of unions are the wrong kind of workers to conservatives. They aren’t steel workers, they’re Starbucks baristas or Amazon employees. So first, who do you see as the median worker in America? And second, how do you get that viewpoint to change, given that the unionization is coming from this wrong kind of workers?

Cass: I think if you’re talking about an Amazon warehouse worker or a service sector worker, whether that’s at Starbucks, or in fast food, or in the health care industry, those are our quintessential median workers for whom power in the labor market and representation in the workplace are incredibly important, in ways that I think plenty of conservatives can readily recognize.

I might carve out an exception for grad students organizing or software programmers organizing. I think that that gets into maybe further from the median in various ways. But I think especially if we understand the working class, generally speaking, to mean those who don’t have four-year college degrees, and particularly to the extent that they’re in production or nonsupervisory jobs in which as individuals, they don’t have a lot of power in the workplace.

Coaston: What has been most persuasive for conservatives, in your view, when it comes to embracing populist economic issues? Was there a turning point — or a person, or a leader, or some other development — that made populist economics more appealing?

Cass: A real shift in the underlying understanding of America’s economic condition occurred between the Romney era of 2012 and the Trump era of 2016, with publication of both the “China Shock” and “Deaths of Despair” research. Prior to that, complaints that something had gone wrong in the working class, that communities hollowed out by trade were collapsing, that men without college degrees were leaving the work force in droves, that economic prospects were declining, all were met with a combination of denial (according to the economic data, things have never been better) and dogma (trade doesn’t cause those things, the problem must be our too-generous welfare state or something cultural, we just need to focus more on opportunity). But the accumulation of data finally established that, no, something really was wrong.

The political shift obviously came with Donald Trump. There were policy wonks on the right working on these issues pre-Trump. But his success both validated the substantive diagnosis and rejected many of the assumptions about who composed the conservative coalition and what they cared about.

The turning point on principles has come as changing conditions have produced new challenges that ossified 1980s market fundamentalism does not speak to. China is the most obvious one: The philosophy that free trade is always good and more free trade is always better obviously does not apply, but the old playbook has nothing to say about that. The emergence of the Big Tech monopolies makes a mockery of the Chicago School obsession with consumer welfare.

(The Chicago School refers to a line of economic thinking embodied by figures like Milton Friedman.)

Coaston: Can you break down for me how you get more conservatives to embrace labor-backed populist economic policies when they don’t like the “labor” piece of it?

Cass: When we talk about a conservative embrace of labor, what we mean is an embrace of workers’ interests and an emphasis on enhancing worker power. The “labor” piece that conservatives don’t like is, generally speaking, the dysfunctional labor unions that characterize the American system of organized labor today and have become appendages of the Democratic Party rather than genuine representatives of workers’ economic interests. An obvious and concrete example of the distinction here is on the question of immigration policy. Strong immigration enforcement, reduction of immigration into low-wage segments of the labor market and the elimination of guest worker programs are “pro-labor” policies by any useful definition of the term, and ones that conservatives should endorse and increasingly are endorsing. They are also policies that “labor” as defined by progressive labor unions tend to oppose.

(The economic impact of low-wage immigrants on low-skill wages is debated; some economists argue there is an effect, while others contend there is close to zero effect in part because, as The Times wrote, the immigrants in question “often work in jobs that exist only because of the availability of cheap labor.”)

Coaston: There were major strikes or near strikes in the last year. In a lot of your writing, you suggest that you want to avoid politics and adversarial negotiations between unions and management. How?

Cass: Well, I think that goes to a fundamental problem with the way that we do labor in America. We take for granted how unions work. It is focused on what’s called enterprise-level bargaining, meaning that organizing is something that happens within a single business, often within a single facility within the business.

That setup is very unhealthy in a few ways. Employers quite rationally are resistant to unionizing in that context, because they worry that if they have a union and their competitors don’t have a union, then they will be at a disadvantage. You end up with an upfront conflict that’s an all-or-nothing fight to the death over whether there will be a union in the first place. And then if a union does come into being, you have set the system up to be an extraordinarily adversarial one. Whereas what you see in a lot of places is two things.

One, you see a lot of the organizing and negotiating at the sectoral level. Basically, the union isn’t company specific. The union represents workers in an industry, and all the employers in the industry have to negotiate with the union.

And then in parallel with that, organizing within the workplace tends to actually be led jointly. And so you get what’s called in a lot of cases, something like a works council, which is an organization set up jointly by employers and workers to address issues within the workplace in a collaborative way.

(A works council, which is a common feature in the German economy, typically involves employees alone, rather than including employers or their representatives, though the employees are then empowered to work with employers’ representatives; in Germany, co-determination, which includes workers more directly in corporate governance, is much more common. Senator Elizabeth Warren has argued for bringing something similar to the United States.)

Coaston: Marco Rubio, Josh Hawley, Tom Cotton — those are some of the people who have talked about a more common-good capitalism. Senator Hawley even wrote a piece for Compact on this very issue. But when for instance, the CHIPS and Science Act came up for a vote, they all voted no. Was that disappointing to you?

Cass: I was definitely disappointed that there weren’t more of those folks in support of the CHIPS Act. What was really encouraging was that their rationale for opposition wasn’t that we shouldn’t do industrial policy, it was that this actually is not tough enough on China. And I think we’re now seeing a lot of those debates happening on export controls, and outbound investment, and the House’s China Select Committee is starting to bring some more focus to it.

So as a prudential matter, I think the CHIPS Act was a very important and positive step. As an ideological question of where conservatives are headed on some of these questions, I at least don’t see, and I think if one asked them, they would say the same thing, don’t see a no vote there as any concern about moving in that direction. It was about how best to address the issue of China in particular.

(The broad goal of the CHIPS and Science Act was to bring more chip manufacturing to the domestic United States, a stated long-term goal of economic populists. Mr. Rubio’s opposition in particular concerned China, though other Republicans included other, varying reasons.)

Coaston: It seems like one of the big issues for your agenda is that Republicans really don’t want to be out here agreeing or striking a compromise with Elizabeth Warren, who’s supported, for instance, more European approaches to labor and corporations. You were just saying that politics is often about these competing factions. How do you get people to come together for, for lack of a better term, the common good with Democrats?

Cass: Well, I think you see it starting to happen. I mean, Senator Vance is a good example of someone who has worked with Senator Warren on various things. Senator Hawley just joined Senator Sanders’s resolution on the U.A.W. strike.

We’ve sort of had this trench warfare ongoing for maybe 30-plus years at this point, where each side was exactly dug in on a specific set of issues that everybody was fighting on. When you shift the axis of debate, that all gets scrambled. I think you’re seeing that certainly on an issue like industrial policy, where all of a sudden, you have people in both parties who are really interested and enthusiastic about it. And conversely, you see people in both parties who are less enthusiastic about it.

Coaston: You mentioned a little bit in your writing and in our conversation about wanting less adversarial relationships between management and labor. But hypothetically, let’s say a hospital only offers its nurses two weeks of paid parental leave and the nurses want more, isn’t that just going to be adversarial? I say black, and you say white. That seems to me to inherently be adversarial.

Cass: Well, negotiations always have an adversarial element insofar as to your point, the two sides want different things. But negotiations can also be incredibly collaborative and productive when the two sides are communicating openly about their priorities and the reason for them, and when the two sides also both have room to maneuver and things that they’re able to offer each other.

I think a lot of the kind of union negotiating, certainly the picture that people have in their heads, and that does go on sometimes is, “OK, we each pass our set of demands across the table, and then we each come toward each other a little bit, and then we stare at each other and shout.” That’s not effective negotiation.

In the example you just gave, what you want to have happen is the nurses to explain, “Well, here’s why two weeks of paid leave isn’t enough and we’re looking for more, and what the underlying problems are that we hope that would solve.” And you want the hospital to say, “Well, here’s why that’s not really something we can concede on.” Or conversely, “Well, here’s why that’s especially expensive for us. And so if we were to concede on it, we would need to find a way to make that up somewhere else.” And through that sort of process, you can actually make an awful lot of progress.

Coaston: We’ve seen the Tea Party era, and now we’ve seen the rise of a new right of sorts. How do we know if the interest among conservatives in a conservatism for the common good or a conservatism that would be supportive of labor is an actual phenomenon and not a political trend like the Tea Party? Or as we even see in the last couple of weeks, a switch from isolationism to the very opposite of isolationism. Can we know?

Cass: Well, I don’t think you can know for sure. There are obviously plenty of efforts at reform in a political movement or a party that go nowhere, or look promising and then fail. But I think what’s different about what you see going on with these economic issues is two things.

One is that it represents an actual meaningful shift in how to think about the broad set of problems facing the nation, in a way that the Tea Party, or pick your example on either side, that’s just sort of more a feature of political activism, does not. And it comes at a time where that actually makes sense.

I mean, a reigning economic orthodoxy can only survive so long because the world changes. An agenda, a coalition, and a way of thinking that was constructed going on 45 years ago is simply way past its expiration date. So you can tell me that what I’m working on isn’t the right thing to replace it, but there is a process of change that is almost inevitable.

The second factor is a generational one. You have an entire generation of people working on these kinds of issues, up and to and including elected leaders for whom defeating Soviet communism is no longer the frame through which they look at the world, or the set of the debates they’re accustomed to participating in, or the set of problems that they see as needing to be addressed.

And the fusionist coalition that has characterized the Republican Party is one that was built to beat the Soviet Union. It is not one that has anything useful and coherent to say about the rise of China, about deindustrialization, about big tech, about worker power generally.

Coaston: Is this a young versus old issue on the right? Are young conservatives embracing your ideas — will these ideas be dominant in say, 25 years?

Cass: There’s absolutely a generational divide. Partly this is a function of inertia — senior political leaders and established economists and policy analysts who have built their careers on market fundamentalism are unlikely to announce suddenly that they were wrong, so it falls to a new generation to formulate new ideas. It’s also the case that the new generation of conservatives has a different set of reference points and experiences. Roughly speaking, if you’re 40 or younger you have no recollection of Ronald Reagan or the Cold War. Your idea of a Democrat is a neoliberal like Bill Clinton or Barack Obama. The major policy crises of your life have been the foreign policy blunders after 9/11, the financial crisis and Great Recession, China’s entry to the W.T.O., the rise of Big Tech, the failure of college-for-all, etc. Economic growth has slowed, about which repeated tax cuts have done nothing. Of course, and rightly so, conservatives developing their economic thinking in this context will reach different conclusions.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.