The recent national-level strike launched by the United Auto Workers (UAW) union at several major auto manufacturers in the United States against General Motors (GM), Ford Motor, and Stellantis (Chrysler owner) stands as a pivotal event in American labor history. At its heart, the UAW strike is centered around the advancement of labor rights and justice through wage increases, social protection restructuring, and job security amidst the transition to electric vehicles (Isidore, 2023). However, the UAW strike has also shed light on a broader discourse on the role of American workers in the economy and politics, revealing a tension between the core ideals of the Republican Party and Trump’s populism. Emblematic of this tension is the misalignment of rhetoric and policy stances of the current candidates of the Republican Party primary for the upcoming 2024 US Presidential Elections in relation to the UAW Strike.
Despite adopting “pro-common people” populist rhetoric, the policy stances of Republican Party primary candidates do not align with this pro-worker rhetoric. This blog will explore this disconnect, arguing that it can be explained by viewing populism as a “thin ideology” (Stanley, 2008), a perspective that underscores the value of the ideational approach to populism (Mudde & Rovira Kaltwasser, 2017).
I will begin with a discussion of populist-rhetoric tension among the Republican primary candidates regarding their stance on the UAW strike and the broader issue of labor rights. By highlighting the contrast between rhetoric and the party’s long-standing political and economic dogmas, such as Neoliberalism and Reaganomics, we reveal a complex dynamic within the Republican Party’s approach to labor issues. It will be followed by a brief discussion on the Republican Party’s broader policy impact on workers under President Reagan. My objective is to link this discussion to how a strong white-working backlash against neoliberalism and, by association, Democrats, assisted Trump in winning the 2016 elections. Lastly, I will conclude with a broader normative discussion of democratic erosion and the role of populism in creating a path for disingenuous rhetoric through capitalizing on legitimate fears and economic insecurity and sowing a globalization backlash.
UAW Strike Discourse: Republican Party Rhetoric and Policy Tension
Trump’s 2016 campaign ran on an “America First” narrative, and a key rhetoric of this is his criticism of Washington-led policies that have allegedly weakened American standing in the global economy through “unfair” trade agreements and the trend of companies shifting their manufacturing overseas (Blake, 2021). This winning populist rhetoric has had a lasting impact, as it is now being repeated by Trump and is being adopted by his political adversaries in their own campaigns for the Republican Party’s 2023 primaries. Yet, when pushed to further articulate their rhetoric, Republican party candidates backpedal their rhetoric and instead align with policy positions that are conservative-leaning, echoing the neoliberal agenda under Reaganomics (Komlos, 2019).
For instance, Donald Trump was seen addressing auto workers in a non-union plant in Michigan, a move that echoes his 2016 campaign strategy of appealing to the working class (Perkins, 2023). However, in the same address, he criticized union leaders and Biden for promoting electric vehicles. Vivek Ramaswamy claimed that he sympathized with the hardships faced by union workers but expressed that he had no patience for union leaders and that he acknowledged the workers’ situation, but equated union strikes as a form of choice of victimhood (Fox News, 2023). In an interview with CNBC, Pence argued that the Biden administration’s push towards electric vehicles was to blame for the UAW strikes, stating that this drive was “good for Beijing and bad for Detroit” (Breuninger, 2023). In the same interview, he suggested that the strikes were a “reflection of the failed economic policies of the Biden administration.” However, despite this pro-worker rhetoric, Pence is also known for his anti-union stances. Pence has proposed doing away with the Federal Reserve’s employment mandate, arguing that Congress and the President should handle job creation and the central bank should only concentrate on combating inflation (Niquette, 2023).
Reaganomics, Populism, and Polarisation
This disconnect between rhetoric and policy is indicative of how Trump and the Republican brand of populism will be limited to rhetoric only when it is at odds with the ideals of Reaganomics coupled with neoliberalism that, to this day, continues to shape Republican politics. Reaganomics is a term that refers to the economic doctrine that shaped Ronald Reagan’s economic policy during his presidency (1981–1989). These were based on supply-side economics and the trickle-down theory that promoted the downsizing of government and reduction of taxes and was distinctly anti-organized labor (Komlos, 2019). Reaganomics has its historical roots in a worker’s strike, where then-governor Reagan chose to align corporate conservatives and committed to a political economy that prioritized business interests over labor rights (Holmes, 2010). This neoliberal ideology, as demonstrated in the previous section, is resilient because, so far, candidates still refer to Reagan’s economic policies as the foundation of their economic platform.
On the other hand, unlike the rigidity and resilience of Reaganomics, the Republicans’ populist rhetoric of representing the working class seems to fall short when pressed for their real stance and issues. This is likely because populism is a “thin ideology” (Stanley, 2008), where unlike traditional “thick” ideologies, the theoretical worldview and normative stance of populism are fluid and context-dependent. This means that populism is best understood from an ideational approach that is shaped by how leaders construct themselves as for and from the people going against elites with the objective of representing the general will (Mudde & Rovira Kaltwasser, 2017). In this case, the Republican’s pro-worker rhetoric is only meant to parrot Trump’s 2016 presidential run.
The persistence of this rhetoric is because it was a winning strategy. A key part of Trump’s “America First” campaign is appealing to the white working class by (1) stoking their economic insecurity, (2) capitalizing on their distrust of globalization, and (3) moralizing job loss in relation to the country’s immigration policy (Lamont et al., 2017). This allowed Trump to appeal to and attract white working-class swing voters who felt economically insecure and left behind (Rodrik, 2021). These existing social cleavages are now the epicenters of polarization in American society.
Democratic Erosion: Rinse, Repeat, Recycle
As discussed in the previous section, the ability of Trump to appeal to the working class emanates from already existing social cleavages where globalization was a key ingredient in shaping them (Rodrik, 2021). They were able to construct a worldview that catered to this dissatisfaction. However, what is unfortunate about this is that despite the claim of representing the “people,” right-wing populism in the US treats the working class as a “means”—a battle axe to grind against Democrats. It instrumentalizes the legitimate concerns of the working class. Instead of promoting meaningful policies that will enfranchise the American working class, the Republican primary candidates will always go back to their party doctrine. This is one of the pernicious implications of populism and democratic erosion; it leads to a rhetoric-reality divide where rhetoric is used haphazardly to obtain political support. However, in practice, the policies they want to implement will recreate similar conditions of economic insecurity, anti-immigrant sentiment, and distrust in public institutions and other nation-states.
Blake, A. (2021, November 25). Donald Trump’s strategy in three words: ‘Americanism, not globalism.’ Washington Post. https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/the-fix/wp/2016/07/22/donald-trump-just-put-his-border-wall-around-the-entire-united-states/
Breuninger, K. (2023, September 19). Pence echoes Trump, links UAW strikes to Biden EV push: “Good for Beijing, bad for Detroit.” CNBC. https://www.cnbc.com/2023/09/19/pence-echoes-trump-on-uaw-strikes-to-biden-ev-push-china.html
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Isidore, C. (2023, September 11). The 4 key reasons why the UAW could strike GM, Ford and Stellantis this week | CNN Business. CNN. https://edition.cnn.com/2023/09/11/business/automakers-strike-negotiations-uaw/index.html
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Niquette, M. (2023, May 17). Pence Calls for End to Fed’s Jobs Role as He Weighs 2024 Bid. Yahoo News. https://news.yahoo.com/pence-calls-end-fed-jobs-223018162.html
Perkins, T. (2023, September 28). Trump urges UAW to endorse him in speech at non-union car parts maker. The Guardian. https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2023/sep/27/donald-trump-michigan-uaw-autoworkers
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