How Republicans can fight for their growing blue-collar base

Construction is a rare intersection of libertarian thought and blue-collar jobs policy.
How Republicans can fight for their growing blue-collar base
(Photo by bridgesward)

When Ted Cruz (R-TX) addressed the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) earlier this year, he made a fiery statement about party identity: “The Republican Party is not just the party of country clubs, the Republican Party is the party of steel workers, construction workers, pipeline workers, police officers, firefighters, waiters and waitresses, and the men and women with calluses on their hands who are working for this country.”

Cruz’s rhetoric is consistent with the political realignment I discussed earlier this week, where low-education voters (and, probably, low-income voters) are shifting Republican. Most of the jobs Cruz mentioned require little formal education, and they have varying levels of income. While Republicans have long done well with the owners of blue-collar firms, Cruz focuses on their workers more than a Republican politician might have in, say, 2012.

Building things means jobs for Republicans

“Construction workers,” in particular, caught my eye; the final paper I wrote for the U.S. Congress Joint Economic Committee was titled “A Time to Build,” and it was released last week. The paper argues that the construction industry is an unusually good deal for both builders and consumers; it offers good wages to individuals with low levels of education. At the same time, consumers clearly value the industry’s products⁠, like houses or infrastructure, a great deal. Unfortunately, policy mistakes at several levels of government curb construction.

Some of the biggest mistakes I focus on are overly restrictive zoning laws, capricious and excruciating discretionary review processes, and ostensible environmental laws that largely preserve the status quo.

Republicans are well positioned to go after some of these problems. The kinds of firms that build housing or infrastructure tend to have plenty of high-income Republicans in management, and they heavily employ a demographic—low-education, low-income men—that is trending Republican.

Trump certainly oversold his⁠—and the Republican party’s⁠—commitment to blue collar workers in 2016, and passed a “country club” tax cut in 2017. But over the coming years, the forces of political realignment will incentivize a more genuine commitment. Already, institutions more aligned with blue-collar work, like American Compass, are beginning to form on the right. If another Republican president comes into office on the strength of newfound blue-collar votes, he will have access to a conservative policy apparatus more attuned to the interests of these voters.

American Compass, founded in 2020, has focused on manufacturing and construction. I would argue that the latter is a more promising source of good high-paying jobs because international competition has relentlessly driven down wages in the manufacturing sector.

Republicans are invulnerable to “greenwashing”

American Compass's Oren Cass (Photo by Stephen McCarthy)

There’s another reason that pro-construction ideas might find a political base on the right: Republicans aren’t vulnerable to the pseudo-environmental arguments that are all too frequently used to block development.

In 2017, for example, the Sierra Club of California opposed a bill that would allow denser construction near transit—even though dense, transit-oriented development is one of the most effective ways to fight climate change. Local environmentalists also tend to fight the construction of new power plants, even environmentally friendly ones. Even clear-headed liberals can struggle with this tactic, a “greenwashing” of NIMBYism, because they feel pressure to treat the environmental movement with respect even as they reject arguments couched in its language.

This becomes even more difficult with laws like the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). NEPA requires onerous paperwork examining the environmental impacts of federal actions as well as private projects that need federal permitting—even projects that are environmentally friendly. While individual homes would not fall into this category, many larger projects do.

This requirement—and state-level equivalents like the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA)—are abused by opponents of development, who repeatedly sue the government on the grounds that the paperwork wasn’t sufficient, delaying projects. As a result, statements are written defensively in an attempt to avoid lawsuits. They have grown longer and longer⁠—out to hundreds of pages, taking years to complete.

As Eli Dourado of the Utah State Center for Growth and Opportunity explains, nothing about NEPA necessarily improves the environment; it creates no binding rules that require, for example, a builder to use more environmentally friendly methods. It only creates an abusable paperwork process, and it has grown to increasingly favor the status quo over building anything new.

This creates a challenge for advocates of cleaner infrastructure and cheaper housing like Vox’s Jerusalem Demsas, whose ideas depend on building new things. The biggest problem for people like Demsas might well be the name. “That’s one of the reasons why it’s so hard to reform NEPA,” she said in a recent interview with Ezra Klein, “because it just makes you sound like you’re anti the environment.”

This is one problem the right⁠—which, for better or for worse, is more skeptical of the “environmental” label⁠—is advantaged in solving. American Compass’s Oren Cass, being located on the right, is comfortable firing direct broadsides against NEPA. Senator Mike Lee (R-UT), the Ranking Member of the Joint Economic Committee, is able to introduce bills reining it in.

Republicans like clear property rights

Many pro-construction policy ideas fit well with Republican ideas of property rights and free markets. One idea, called as-of-right development, is that each plot belongs to its owner, and they can build whatever they want within the confines of the law.

By contrast, if it is not clear who is allowed to do what, as is often the case in San Francisco, the outcome has to be litigated expensively through endless meetings with community activist groups that don’t own your land but nonetheless want to tell you what to do with it. This outcome should be⁠—and is⁠—repulsive to the right-of-center mind.

While as-of-right is not a panacea⁠—such laws can still be highly restrictive⁠—it is much harder to argue for restrictive laws citywide or statewide than to defeat an individual project at the neighborhood level. As-of-right policies have worked, even in the unfavorable environment of San Francisco.

Pro-construction policy also fits naturally with a long-standing Republican view about interstate competition⁠; the large red states of Texas and Florida are far more developer-friendly than California is, and have grown much faster. This is somewhat of a point of pride for them; mayors like Miami’s Francis Suarez like to gloat when they attract businesses from California.

The suburbs will be fine

Tucker Carlson (Photo by Gage Skidmore)

While there are plenty of reasons Republicans should favor construction, it is difficult to implement pro-development policy in practice. And plenty of figures on the right are unhelpful to the cause of construction. Fox News’ Tucker Carlson and even Donald Trump himself have scrambled the narrative I’ve laid out, by arguing that Democrats are attacking suburban voters as racists. If this seems a little bit odd, it’s about an Obama-era rule called Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing (AFFH). In theory this rule is supposed to ask places to work to reduce housing segregation. However, in practice it has little policy impact because of the limited federal role in housing policy and limited enforcement tools.

I wouldn’t take either Trump or Carlson completely literally on policy. They are both entertainers and provocateurs first, policy minds second⁠—if that. Furthermore, it is the social messaging of AFFH that set them off⁠, not the literal act of building structures. Donald Trump has financed plenty of high-density buildings in his life. “Save the suburbs” messages notwithstanding, Republicans are not particularly hostile to larger buildings in cities.

Furthermore, Republican suburbs are not a high-value target for greater density. You might find pockets of Trump voters in the far fringes of the Bay Area east of Fremont. But that’s not the part of the Bay Area that people want to upzone. Perhaps some redder large cities like Phoenix have more right-leaning suburbs, but those cities are historically more builder-friendly and don’t have the same intense affordability crisis that the coastal metropolises do.

Upzone to own the libs

Instead, the NIMBY villain is almost always a homeowner in a heavily-Democratic urban area like northwest Washington DC, or the San Francisco Bay Area, or Cambridge, Massachusetts. It would take mental gymnastics to describe the opponents of development in these places as members of the U.S. political right.

While the political right is largely an outsider in the day-to-day squabbles over housing in liberal cities, it is a force at the state level, especially in states like Texas. At Slow Boring, Matt Yglesias argues that Texas should pre-empt restrictive zoning laws in liberal cities like Austin. “Texas is a great candidate to implement a policy that sometimes codes in the discourse as left-wing but could also be seen as free-market lib-owning at its finest,” he writes. It would also be a good jobs program for right-leaning Texas workers and a boon to right-leaning Texas business owners.

There is near-universal agreement among policy writers that we need to build more. Housing affordability advocates almost always want more housing of some kind. Climate change activists want to rebuild our living spaces and our infrastructure in more energy-efficient ways, and they want a new power grid with renewable sources. Conservatives want life to be affordable for larger families.

Many political coalitions include “strange bedfellows”⁠—unusual groupings of people working together. The political movement for construction in the 21st century will be no exception. Republican skeptics of environmental law and advocates for blue-collar jobs may find it helpful to work together with housing affordability advocates and the more intellectually serious members of the climate left. They would all potentially have something to gain.

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