In a strikingly original blog post, Tanner Greer wrote that communitarian conservatives (of various stripes) are counting on what he calls the “literal descendants of the ‘butternut’ settlers who delivered Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Indiana to Trump”, to transform Republican politics in a direction more oriented to the common good than libertarianism. But, Greer warns, “they [communitarian conservatives] hope to build a post-libertarian national order on the backs of the most naturally libertarian demographic in the country!” This is wrong. Communitarian conservatives might fail for any number of reasons, but the rural, non-southern, working-class whites that Greer describes are not libertarian.
First, let’s look at who these voters are. As Henry Olsen pointed out, it is important to distinguish between southern, white evangelical working-class white voters, and non-southern working-class white voters. Southern, evangelical, working-class whites are more socially conservative, more religious, and more reliably Republican voters. Non-southern white, working-class voters tend to be less socially conservative, less religious, and less reliably Republican. The former is a Republican-leaning group, and the latter is a swing constituency.
And boy, does it swing. When looking at the rural, working-class whites who swung Pennsylvania in 2016, and almost won it for Trump again in 2020, it might help to look at a couple of rural counties.
In Fayette County, George W. Bush got 20,013 in 2000 and 40.40 percent of the vote. Bush did better in 2004 with 25,045 and 45.78 percent of the vote. The incremental Republican improvement continued with McCain narrowly winning the county with 26,081 and 49.62 percent of the vote. Then something odd happened. In 2012 Romney won 53.64 percent, with only 26,018 votes. Despite more favorable circumstances than 2008, Romney didn’t get any more votes. A bunch of Obama voters just stated home.
A similar pattern emerged in Mercer County. In 2000, George W. Bush got 23,132 and 47.47 percent of the vote. In 2004 he got 26,311 and 51.03 percent. In 2008, McCain got 26,565 and 49.36. In 2012, Romney got 25,925 and 50.97 percent. Just as in Fayette, Romney got a higher percentage of the vote, but only because Obama voters stayed home.
The picture in both Fayette and Mercer was of incremental Republican improvements from 2000 that had stalled out. The Republican vote was stuck at around 26,000 in both counties with many low-propensity voters who were willing to support the Democrats.
Now, if Greer was right, and these voters are “the most naturally libertarian demographic in the country,” the Republican establishment had just the thing for them. The Republican National Committee’s autopsy argued that the party’s economic agenda of entitlement cuts and tax cuts for high-earners was basically healthy, and suggested that the party expand its appeal by adopting “comprehensive immigration reform” (a lobbyist euphemism for upfront amnesty for the existing population of unauthorized immigrants, combined with large expansions in future immigration) combined with being “inclusive and welcoming” on social issues (a passive-aggressive way of telling social conservatives to quiet down and expect less.) The autopsy would have moved the already (relatively) small government Republican agenda of 2012 in a more libertarian direction. It was just what these voters wanted, right?
Wrong. In 2016, Trump ran on immigration enforcement to the point of mass deportations. He promised trade deals that would revive an idealized version of the mid-1900s industrial economy. He abandoned the entitlement cut promises of the 2012 Romney campaign. He promised a health-care program that was both more universal (covered more people) and more comprehensive than Obamacare. He promised vast new infrastructure spending to rebuild America.
How did these libertarian butternuts respond to this very nonlibertarian agenda? Trump broke through the 26,000 barriers in both counties. In Fayette, Trump won 34,590 and 64.33 percent in 2016. In 2020, he won 41,227 and 66.3 percent. In Mercer, Trump won 31,554 and 60.30 in 2016. He got 36,143 and 62.4 percent in 2020. Whatever is going on here, it isn’t libertarianism.
Republican politicians love to talk about upward mobility but, as Olsen pointed out, for these voters, “family and stability are more important than career and upward mobility.” They don’t want to start their own businesses, and they aren’t in awe of their bosses. They want good pay for hard work, combined with dignity and security. Trump understood that.
There are of course, many reasons why these voters – many of whom supported Obama in 2008 – will have trouble voting Democratic at the federal level as long as they identify that party with virtually unlimited immigration, hostility to gun rights, and an inability to speak of the Summer 2020 rioting (and the accompanying rise in the murder rate) with the same passion and contempt as the January 6 riot. They know that neither party establishment really understands them very well, or likes them very much.
So, if not libertarians, what are they? They are independent. They are quite willing to switch from one party to another. They are even independent of the election process. They will stay home if they feel like their interests aren’t being properly represented.
That doesn’t mean that the communitarian conservatives will win these voters over (at least not in the sense of repeating Trumpian turnout and margins.) These right-communitarians tend to be more socially conservative and (some much more religious) than these swing, non-southern, working-class whites. These voters showed they were willing to vote alongside religious conservatives, but they also voted for the first Republican presidential candidate who supported gay marriage. These voters want more from government that libertarian and small government conservatives want to give them, but it is an open question how much the desires and priorities of these voters overlap with those of the right-communitarians on social policy. This marriage might not work, but if it fails, it won’t be because of libertarianism.