It’s common to view their concerns through a purely economic lens and call them protectionist. That is largely true as far as it goes: These people have been buffeted by globalization more than most Americans and see restrictions on trade and immigration as ways to boost the number of good-paying jobs open to American workers. But that’s far from all that they want, nor does a purely economic lens capture the way they view their votes.
They are best viewed through the lens of active citizenship. They take national identity seriously and imbue Americanism with an implicit bargain that flies in the face of liberal or libertarian cosmopolitanism. They believe that being American means more than voting and paying taxes. To them it means that if you work hard and play by the rules, the people who run the country owe it to you that you will live with dignity and respect.
I’m sure many people reading this are thinking, “Adding these voters to the conservative coalition can’t be done.” But in fact it can be done, as Wisconsin governor Scott Walker showed. Walker cut taxes and reduced the rate of spending growth while taking on public-employee labor unions. He also expanded government-funded health-insurance coverage by taking advantage of his state’s very generous Medicaid program to cover more poor people publicly and push working-class people into Obamacare’s exchanges. All factions in his coalition got something they valued.
Walker rode this balanced approach to two important political victories, winning a recall battle and then reelection despite being targeted by national progressive groups. In his three elections, Walker won virtually all of the historically Democratic white counties that Trump won, often running only a couple of percentage points behind Walker. Trump Democrats could also be called Walker Democrats.
Walker’s subsequent political missteps also show how one can lose these voters’ support by becoming too conventional a Republican. Walker veered to the right as he prepared his presidential campaign, catering to tea-party and Christian-conservative groups in nationally covered speeches in Iowa. He also tried to reduce funding for the University of Wisconsin system. His approval ratings dropped sharply and remain mired around 42 percent.