In a stunning piece in the Atlantic, Florida Senator Marco Rubio released his inner blue-collar Trump and talked about the dignity of work. What is shocking is not only is this a repudiation of the anti-government ideology that got him elected in 2010 but it marks an about face from his campaign for President in 2016 where he promised to slash spending and spend like a drunken sailor on defense.
In a way, Rubio’s article is a wake-up call for a divided Republican Party. With its base increasingly blue-collar and the suburbs solidifying against the party for cultural reasons it makes sense an articulate Republican would attempt to bridge the chasm with class appeals.
Historically, this is how Democrats united a conservative, white base, with progressives and minorities. The appeal to voters on class and using government to foster a more equal society was one that had universal appeal among workers. In its own way, this former party message is what Rubio is talking about.
Of course, Rubio does largely give the default message on government programs and spending. To do any less would alienate himself from the party’s largely libertarian, anti-government donor class. But, Rubio, a well-known name in Republican circles has taken the GOP a step forward in the age of Trump and positioned it to move beyond the President for the future.
The Dignity of Work
In a culture where the dollar is valued above all else and globalization seems to have ripped many Americans sense of location away, the idea all work has value has increased merit. Even if it is not a new idea.
Republicans predominately hail from industry good producing states such as the Rustbelt, the South and the Sunbelt. These states are heavily dependent on industry (car manufacturing) and agriculture. In essence, they produce something physical. Hence, the GOP has partly taken in more and more blue-collar workers because of this dynamic.
What separates this idea from standard GOP orthodoxy though is it requires challenging the basic conservative tenant business knows best. Indeed, while Rubio praises the GOP tax cuts of 2017, he sees the law as only half the solution. The other half is incentivizing (you could also call it forcing) businesses to invest in their workforce.
Rubio’s best line is, “We shouldn’t be surprised that an economy that encourages indefinite financialization over confidently making big bets on building the future has yielded a work life that is fractured, unstable, and low paying. To reassert the dignity of work, we need to start building an economy that invests in its workers and the things they make. Making American corporations act like the drivers of investment they once were would be a start.”
This merges the idea of social conservatism valuing policies promoting family over the economy and class politics. The fracturing of families, the loss of place and increase in out of wedlock births can arguably be placed on a government where policies supporting the building of stable families are secondary to other economic concerns.
In an increasingly globalized era the value of place (ie. job and skills) is more important than ever. But certain aspects of the modern day economy, and what fuels it, can undercut this value.
Nowhere is this more apparent than in higher education where an emphasis is placed on soft, not hard, skills. Many liberals arts classes are globally focused, as opposed to locally focused.
Additionally, the rules for who can get into higher education institutions is increasingly becoming an upstairs, downstairs affair, whereby many middle class Americans are squeezed out of higher education. Revamping the Financial Aid system will help but it cannot fix curriculums geared towards making global citizens, not American citizens.
Rubio pats himself on the back for sponsoring a bill which would increase support and funding for high-skilled, industrial job training. It’s a start. But it does not address the systemic issues in higher education of devaluing such types of professions.
This is perhaps the most surprising aspect of Rubio’s narrative. Rubio speaks glowingly of what unions have done but not what they have become. He notes how their membership has fallen since the 1980’s and how membership’s political leanings are increasingly at odd with their bosses.
What Rubio proposes to fix this is actually something done in Europe where union “co-ops” are created. This fosters an increased sense of unity between the union and workers due to the union negotiating on behalf of the client while also offering job training, paid apprenticeships and more.
The American Dream
What is unique about Rubio is his ability to synthesize his story as an immigrant with that of many Trump supporters. Trump’s strongman tactics and rhetoric on immigration have turned many immigrants away from the party due to this reason.
But, to say Trump is as skilled as Rubio in oratory is an understatement. In 2016, Rubio had the background and even experience to run for President. But, his campaign and ideas were mired in the Bush era which was exploited by Trump.
Rubio has now begun to effectively pivot to being a new kind of Republican in the Trump era. One which might be able to grow the party, stop its slide in the suburbs and prepare the GOP for a post-majority white America. It is something the GOP desperately needs.