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Cashed Out

Why Republicans Abandoned Their Economic Message

The GOP used to do its wonky best to make the case that it was the party of the pocketbook. But it’s all wokeness, all the time now.

Giorgio Viera/Getty Images
Florida Governor Ron DeSantis with his wife, Casey

When Silicon Valley Bank went bust earlier this month, Republicans pounced. The bank, which quickly received assistance from the federal government, was “too woke to fail,” according to Missouri Senator Josh Hawley. The brahmins at The Wall Street Journal editorial board also suspected that wokeness was what led the bank to fail: They fretted that the bank may “have been distracted by diversity demands”—that is to say, that there were too many women, minorities, and … for some reason, veterans on the board to adequately measure financial risk. Florida governor and pudding enthusiast Ron DeSantis concurred, telling Fox News that the bank was too “concerned with [diversity, equity, and inclusion measures] and politics and all kinds of stuff” that distracted from its “core mission.”

Naturally, none of that was true: SVB’s failure was the result of high interest rates, depositor growth, and an old-fashioned bank run, not diversity measures. The GOP’s response was nevertheless revealing. Despite the fact that the markets were shaken by SVB’s failures, leading to concerns about a wave of regional bank closings that could touch off a recession, Republicans shied away from talking about the economy in any material way. Instead, they stuck to their weird culture-war scripts.

This should not be particularly surprising if you’ve paid even an iota of attention to GOP politics over the past few years. The “woke agenda” now dominates cable news—anything will do, whether it’s uproars about children reading books about gay penguins or gas stoves or conversations about whether spokescandies should be hot or not (the right-wing position, to be clear, is that spokescandies should be very sexually arousing). These oddball obsessions, which shrink to fit any or all news cycles, have quickly swallowed nearly every other area of the Republican policy apparatus. OK, a bank failed—but was it woke? This is their response to everything now. No matter what story is leading the coverage, conservatives will fit the news peg into the woke-hole.

As Democrats head into what will be a difficult election year—they will be defending several vulnerable Senate seats and almost certainly running the oldest presidential candidate in American political history—this tendency among conservatives is essentially an in-kind donation. Republicans simply don’t have an economic message anymore. They’ve given up on the hard stuff. It’s Mr. Potato Head, diversity fearmongering, and the relative fuckability of M&M’s all the way down.

What is especially odd about this is that Republican voters care about the economy—very much so. A March CNN poll found that a third of GOP voters rated the economy as their number one policy issue when it came to selecting a presidential candidate. Only 7 percent chose issues relating to “values, morals, and rights”—with only 1 percent picking “anti-woke” as a matter of concern. This trend is broadly true of the entire electorate: Last month, Pew found that “strengthening the economy” was far and away the most important issue to voters, with three-quarters of respondents saying it should be a top priority.

The economy, moreover, is a ripe political issue. Yes, unemployment remains astonishingly low, but inflation is still rampant and hopes of a “soft landing” are beginning to diminish. Wages have grown but haven’t kept pace with rising prices. The economy remains phenomenally unequal. And Republicans have a very recent example of exploiting a weird, mixed economy for electoral gain: Back in 2016, Donald Trump won the election in part by hammering the fact that millions had been left behind by economic changes wrought by globalization, promising to bring back millions of jobs and grow the economy by 4 percent. That message resonated, particularly with voters who lived in areas where the economy was struggling and in the industrial Midwest.

None of that happened, of course—in office, Trump’s economic agenda was mostly bog-standard GOP policy (tax cuts for corporations and the rich) with a tariff or two thrown in. Nevertheless, his platform in 2016—tariffs, rolling back globalization, bringing back manufacturing jobs—worked as catnip for the GOP base. Republicans have since abandoned it.

A big reason why is that Donald Trump managed to turn Republican voters away from the old GOP economic agenda of lowering taxes on the rich and gutting everyone else’s earned benefit programs without ever fully replacing it with anything that resembled the populist vision he briefly touted on the hustings. Trump made it clear that rolling back Social Security and Medicare was not a winning electoral argument. Republicans have listened and have made half-hearted, dishonest pledges to protect those arguments. But this promise has merely slid next to a contradictory one—that the party will reduce the deficit and balance the budget.

Trump’s protectionist economic policies have gained little traction within the party but they too point to a larger incoherence. The Republican Party once fully embraced free trade. Now it doesn’t. But where its actual preferences lie—beyond advancing policies that benefit large-scale corporations and the wealthy—is still unclear. Railing against wokeness has become the last resort of a party that’s forgotten how to engage with the economy in any material way. The media environment also plays a role. Anti-wokeness agitprop is what sells on Fox, so the network devotes hours of programming a day to whatever convoluted culture-war story it can concoct that day. Republicans have realized that stoking a panic over culture will get them plenty of screen time.

The result has been the creation of a closed loop in which issues that don’t matter to most people—what bathroom people use, for instance—are leading the country’s most important right-wing news network and, as a result, seeding the discussions that the Republican Party has with itself and its base. It’s possible that this will change as the primary heats up and candidates are dragged into more substantive debates, but it seems unlikely that Republicans will return to policy wonkery or make the kinds of economic arguments that they were making as recently as 2012. Republicans don’t really want to talk about the economy anymore because, to the extent that they ever had anything to say about money matters, they’ve gotten too woke-drunk to remember any of it.