In the early days of the ongoing United Auto Workers strike, the Republican frontrunner, Donald Trump, made a surprise announcement that he would pay a visit to auto workers in Michigan—a move that prompted President Biden, the incumbent, to do the same. In the end, the optics were ambiguous: While Biden visited the UAW picket line, Trump showed up at a nonunion shop and emphasized the threat posed by electric-vehicle subsidies to jobs in traditional auto factories, rather than the strikers’ contract demands. Despite that, for a reformist faction of the right, the former president’s attempt to appeal to the labor vote—echoed by senators like Josh Hawley and J.D. Vance—was another sign that the GOP is becoming a populist, working-class party.
In a polarized political environment characterized by razor-thin electoral margins, union voters can indeed alter the outcomes of elections and tilt the balance of power to the right. Yet even as Republicans have improved their odds of winning the votes of these workers, the dominance of old-line Reaganites in the party makes it unlikely that a pro-labor Trump campaign in 2024 will produce an administration substantially different from the anti-labor track record of his first term. Recently, Michael Lind explained how Trump could again seize a decisive chunk of the union vote from Democrats—as he did in 2016—but also acknowledged that “there is no pool of pro-labor in-and-outer appointees and judges in the mostly anti-union GOP as it now exists.” The GOP isn’t about to become a pro-labor party. So conservatives determined to challenge the stranglehold of Reaganite policy dogmas will need to look for some political and financial base other than labor.
Indeed, there is a large constituency, already well-represented in the Republican base, that has a crucial role to play in the realignment: the so-called American gentry or small-business class, particularly those on the higher income and net-worth end of the economic ladder, who mostly vote for and donate to the GOP. This class could become a proactive constituency on behalf of national development.
At first glance, this claim may seem implausible. After all, these are business owners, and business loves nothing if not low taxes and small government, whereas economic nationalists countenance a more active role for the state. Furthermore, the members of the small-business class often preside over economic sectors that entail little to no innovation, such as automotive sales, services, construction, and agriculture—hardly the places to look for the cutting-edge technical breakthroughs needed to jumpstart reindustrialization.
Nonetheless, just such middling business elites have championed American industrialization through an active state that facilitated investment in economic and technological development at various points in history. Furthermore, it mustn’t be forgotten that it was this same class of local elites who, by coming out heavily for Donald Trump in the 2016 presidential primaries, jumpstarted the realignment away from free-trade orthodoxy, at a time when the conservative movement was trying to sideline Trump for his economic heresies. (However, Paul Ryan acolytes were permitted to seize control of the administration’s policy agenda.) Nonetheless, the fact that the gentry had the right instinct to begin with suggests they aren’t as wedded to low-tax, small-government dogmas as one might expect.
But if reform-minded conservatives wish to reclaim this class for the cause of the realignment, they must develop an understanding of the gentry’s place in America’s political economy, before envisioning a path for this class to navigate the transition—already underway—toward economic nationalism. This will require recognizing the gentry for what they are: local elites.
John Adams once wrote that an aristocrat is someone “who can command or influence [at least] two votes, one besides his own.” Local elites possess the concentrations of economic, social, and institutional capital necessary to influence the direction of state and local politics, and to determine the priorities of the representatives sent to Congress. For this reason alone, any attempt to accelerate realignment policies and demands within the Republican coalition must seek to mobilize the American gentry.
The worldview that animates realignment thinking may be distilled as follows: As the globalized era gives way to a new phase of geopolitical conflict, America’s future security and prosperity will depend in large part on the reconsolidation of its national sovereignty, the restoration of its domestic industrial capacities, and the establishment of a new economic settlement for the enrichment of its citizens. This philosophy isn’t grounded in the worship of either the market or the state, but in the search for a pragmatic and sustainable synthesis between the two, one that balances the dynamism of market forces in a capitalist economy with the necessary promotion of vital strategic sectors, like manufacturing, in line with the national interest. (This view isn’t necessarily opposed to tax cuts; it is opposed to tax cuts as dogma and its reductive invocation by GOP lawmakers.)
How does the American gentry fit into this worldview?
Historically, the coalitions most enthusiastic about economic development and industrialization from the early republic onward were represented by a series of political parties that were at once pro-business, pro-market, pro-state, and pro-national consolidation. These were attributes of the Federalist, Whig, and early Republican parties, the first two of which, especially, were known unambiguously as America’s conservative parties in their heydays of the late 18th and mid-19th centuries, respectively. Furthermore, the business elites that comprised these coalitions weren’t great industrialists—the vast conglomerates of the steel and railroad era didn’t exist yet—but rather the proprietors of locally based enterprises, roughly equivalent in scale to the enterprises owned and operated by today’s gentry.
The more instructive comparisons for conceptualizing the gentry’s position vis-à-vis economic modernization are with the Southern and Western business classes prior to the New Deal. They, too, were local elites who presided over backwater regions far removed from the vanguard of economic production, then centered in the industrialized Northeast. In the South, in particular, there was an ingrained opposition to industrialization: Elites there were largely content to retain an outmoded, semi-feudal agrarian economy well into the 20th century (a conservative attitude roughly analogous to that often ascribed to the gentry). But contrary to what might have been expected, the regional gentry seized the opportunity for regional modernization provided by the New Deal, leading to feats like the mechanization of agriculture, the growth of manufacturing, infrastructural development, and rural electrification, and the Tennessee Valley Authority.
During both the pre-Civil War and post-New Deal eras, local business elites sought ways to progressively pool and grow their capital resources as a means of fostering the formation of new economies of scale based on innovation and industrial development. They enlisted the state to attract, coordinate, or underwrite the many large investments (from internal and external sources) needed for modernization. They achieved this through such mechanisms as national and state banks to help fund internal improvements and other development ventures throughout the early 19th century; and the use of government contracts, public finance corporations, or other supports (subsidies, tariffs, and the like) in various combinations from the Civil War to the New Deal eras.
Contingent pressures and opportunities, usually arising in times of crises and often motivated by a sense of ambition and status anxiety, allowed these elites to join their material interests to broader coalitions of economic reform, securing lucrative benefits for themselves in the process. With the end of globalization, the members of today’s gentry arguably stand at a similar juncture and have the chance to harness this transitional moment as a means of bringing wealth and investment back into the regions they preside over as local elites, securing greater shares of national wealth and power as well as the prestige that comes with it.
There is another precedent, this time from outside of the United States, that captures the historic potential of the gentry: the Junkers of Prussia. Like the American gentry today, the Junkers were dismissed as reactionary holdouts who stood in the way of progress (“a caste imprisoned in its own archaic economy and social system,” as one observer put it). The consolidation of a sovereign German nation-state was the project of bourgeois liberals, who tried and failed to achieve this goal in the revolutions of 1848; they had been opposed by Junkers like Otto von Bismarck, who advocated for the forceful suppression of the uprising. The fact that it was later Bismarck himself and the Junker class who took on this task and established a unified Germany in 1871 shows that an ultra-conservative class may take on a revolutionary project and shape the eventual settlement in terms favorable to itself.
The American gentry could play the same role in lending their political weight and leadership to the reconsolidation of American economic sovereignty and industrial strength. Provincial elites can either resist this development or, like Bismarck and his class, lead and profit from it. If the gentry are to take this path, their relationship with their erstwhile rivals and enemies, the professional-managerial class or “clerisy,” will have to undergo a shift from the current state of culture-war confrontation to one grounded in simultaneous material competition and cooperation. This will increasingly be the case as professionals with technical and managerial expertise migrate to the nascent “battery belt” in red regions of the country.
Here, too, the Junker analogy is instructive. After German unification, a modus vivendi was reached between the economically progressive, urban, mercantile segment of German society and the conservative, rural, semi-feudal segment led by the Junkers. The result was a protectionist economic alliance, known as the “Marriage of Iron and Rye,” that reconciled these former rivals—in part by enriching them both—while contributing to the growth and industrialization of Germany. Such a non-zero-sum mode of competition would be a fruitful alternative to today’s sterile culture-war conflict between the gentry and clerisy.
At this point, thanks to the work of realignment thinkers, substantive policy blueprints, covering everything from manufacturing and infrastructure banks to innovation financing and diffusion mechanisms to regional capital mobilization schemes, are on offer to realize this vision. The contemporary equivalents of the Federalist-Whig and New Deal programs can lower the individual costs and risks taken on by businesses in making fixed investments. All that remains is that these policies be sold to constituencies, like the gentry, who stand to gain from it.
The fact that they are at the technological rearguard of the economy doesn’t mean they have to be consigned to that position forever. Indeed, in numerous cases in the past, this very condition of national or regional backwardness provided the political impetus for a course of catch-up industrialization. At present, there is little or no active political interest for embarking on a path of state-guided economic modernization among the gentry, but that can change.
Drawing on the history of grassroots activism and institution-building within the conservative movement, I have outlined elsewhere the methods of political education and persuasion that could be used to turn the gentry into a countervailing developmental constituency. To this end, a compelling narrative will have to be presented to them. It would have to invoke the urgency of meeting China’s challenge, the need to rebuild the defense industrial base and restore the material strength of the American heartland, and the partisan imperative to steal the lead on industrial policy from the Democrats by ensuring conservative economic nationalists do the job.
Already, industrial policies designed by Democrats, such as the Inflation Reduction Act and the CHIPS Act, are having their most pronounced beneficial impact in red states and districts. A low-regulation environment is helping to attract significantly more manufacturing and clean-energy investment to these areas than blue regions, showing that there is no contradiction between a national industrial policy and traditional pro-business policies at the state and local levels. And all this is happening over and against the objections of congressional Republicans, who voted against these bills out of reflexive ideological opposition to “Big Government” (and who constantly threaten to repeal them).
A post-realignment GOP that divested itself of its unthinking anti-statist impulse would be able to design industrial policies that are more naturally aligned with the priorities of red states and their local elites, instead of relying on whatever progressive legislators and the renewables lobby happen to come up with. To be fair, sometimes, the leadership does stumble on potential alternatives, like the Lower Energy Costs Act, which would make it easier to develop energy projects on federal lands. This isn’t enough, however, and Republicans must become as comfortable with employing positive state guidance for developmental purposes as in rolling back regulations for the same.
It will be one thing to convince the gentry to back reindustrialization, and another matter to expect it to get along with labor. Indeed, cheap-labor conditions in red states are an advantage in attracting investment, one that the gentry will want to retain. However, this doesn’t mean that Republicans should give up on workers altogether. They might turn their efforts to playing the role of honest broker between capital and labor, instead of picking one side in their perennial conflicts. As Lind noted, the Republican Party of President William McKinley encompassed both the financial elite and many factory workers, owing to their common interest in maintaining a well-protected industrial economy. Furthermore, the New Deal Democrats were the political home of both labor unions and the deeply conservative Southern and Western business classes; often difficult but necessary compromises were struck between them in the name of advancing economic reform.
More generally, the midcentury settlement between capital and labor across the Western world is a model Republicans can emulate; and realignment institutions have offered proposals for setting up systems of worker-business conciliation that approximate that ideal. There are also schemes that would share the burden of worker training between business and government, something that would help in the development of the high-skill workforces needed for reindustrialization.
This could all be part of a process of self-modernization, in which members of the gentry adopt technical innovations at their own pace, much as agricultural modernization and industrialization took place in the New Deal South. What this will look like in the long term one can’t know. But it is a much better way to get them to accept modernization than by simply breaking up their existing businesses and imposing it from above. Should the small-business classes go on this course, they would gain a constructive outlet for realizing their ambitions as well as redressing the discontent stemming from their positions as local elites in the “left-behind” parts of the country; like the German Junkers and the business elites of the New Deal-era South and West, they could be given a direct stake in the process of national rebuilding, one that would marry their self-interest as a class with the strategic interest of the nation as a whole.