The national auto workers strike that has idled plants in 21 states and counting, including my home state of Missouri, is an opportunity for conservatives to do some soul-searching. Will they stand with American workers in their struggle to earn a decent wage? Or will they line up with the woke executives of the C-Suite?
The auto workers’ demands are hardly extreme. Not long ago, I stood with them on the picket line in Wentzville, Mo., and heard their asks firsthand. Better wages. Time off for family. And some assurance that what’s left of the manufacturing jobs in this country won’t be shipped to China tomorrow in the name of the liberals’ climate religion.
But thus far, the conservative response has been muted, perhaps because the establishment right has supported too many of the policies that have gutted blue-collar jobs for decades, including radically unbalanced trade deals and giveaways to global capital. Conservatives could clear their minds—and find their voice—by doing something conservatives are supposed to do: consult tradition, in this case, a Christian tradition on labor, capital, and self-government that was once called “Christian democracy.”
The phrase first appeared in a 1901 encyclical by Pope Leo XIII, in which he recommended Christian democracy—or “beneficent Christian action in behalf of the people.” He defined it as an alternative to socialism, which he and the Church firmly condemned. Other Christians agreed. From the beginning, the Christian-democratic movement was ecumenical, drawing inspiration from Catholic and Protestant leaders, including the evangelical prime minister of the Netherlands, Abraham Kuyper.
The movement’s cornerstone conviction was this: The fin-de-siecle industrial economy had become unsustainable, because it was unjust. It treated working people as utterly disposable, instruments to be plucked up and used by elites when they were productive and then casually tossed aside when they became too sick or too old or too wedded to jobs the ruling class decided were no longer needed.
Sound familiar? It should. Things aren’t so different today. Today’s ruling class, composed of a highly educated elite, has molded America’s economy to its maximal advantage. Neoliberal elites tore down the old production economy, with its well-paying blue-collar jobs, in favor of the free flow of global capital, as demanded by banks, hedge funds, and private equity. Studies estimate that the United States has lost nearly 4 million jobs since China was admitted into the World Trade Organization 20 years ago. Not, I hasten to add, the finance and information jobs preferred by the privileged class for their own children, but blue-collar jobs in manufacturing that once maintained working families and towns.
They have embraced cheap labor practices for decades, endorsing trade deals that force American workers to “compete,” if that is the right word, against slave labor in China and elsewhere. Compounding the ravages of free trade has been de-unionization: Union membership has dropped to 6 percent of the private-economy workforce today, down from a third in 1945, predictably resulting in a dramatic decline in workers’ bargaining power.
Along the way, elites transformed American culture, too. Today’s elites are post-Christian, post-nationalist, and post-family, and their market power allows them to impose these cultural preferences on the many. The mega-corporations are avowedly woke: They fund the radical trans agenda at every turn, celebrate DEI and critical race theory in the boardroom, and fly Pride flags outside their headquarters. They would never dream of calling themselves American companies—they employ entire h.r. departments to denigrate this nation as structurally racist—even as they eagerly gobble up tax breaks from Congress.
Meanwhile, the education hierarchy, controlled by the same elite, insists that children be taught that gender is a social construct and that women and girls welcome men in their locker rooms. Those who demur are branded “fascists” or “threats to democracy.” It’s an outright culture war waged by the economic overclass against the working and lower-middle classes.
Pope Leo chastised the elites of his day for manipulating “all the sources of supply,” “labor and trade,” and even “the administration of the commonwealth” for their personal benefit. That is exactly what today’s ruling class has done. There is no reason for conservatives to throw in their lot with the neoliberal order, or make apologies for its overclass in any way.
Conservatives should learn instead from the principles of Christian democracy. Men and women who work with their hands aren’t deplorables—or disposables. They don’t need to be “deprogrammed” (thank you, Hillary) or told, “Learn to code.” “Bodily labor,” Leo XIII wrote, is deeply honorable—Christ himself worked with his hands, after all—and absolutely essential to the nation. “It is only by the labor of working men that States grow rich,” Leo pointed out.
As a matter of basic justice, labor should be respected. And rewarded. The worker’s labor is his private property, and he has a right to a fair wage that reflects the value of his efforts, not merely the profit margins of Wall Street banks. The true measure of a good and just economy isn’t the number of cheap TVs we import from China, but the ability of wage-earners to sustain themselves by their labor.
And the true test of a republic is whether it can sustain the kind of men democracy depends on. Leo XIII insisted a man needs a wage sufficient to “support himself, his wife, and his children.” Work is about far more than consumption. Good work permits a working man to start a family and care for it, to “attend to his religious duties,” and to take an active part in the community. These are the activities the ancient Greeks defined as essential to freedom, and Christians as essential to godly character. Without men who can do these things, with character of this sort, society’s fabric frays, and self-government declines from rule by the people into an oligarchy of the elite.
We are trending that way now. We have too little industry in this country, too few good-paying, blue-collar jobs, too few fathers, too few families. Which brings us back to the auto workers. “Family is everything,” one young worker told me on the picket line. “I want to be able to have a little time to spend with my family.” If today’s conservatism is going to amount to anything, it must fight for men and women like this.
A good republic—a Christian democracy—is one that doesn’t favor the super-educated and culturally liberal, or put the rich above the rest. A good republic, in Pope Leo’s words, “respects in every man his dignity as a person ennobled by Christian character.” That is what conservatives should be fighting for.