Karen Handel, the Republican candidate for the open seat in Georgia’s 6th Congressional district, made headlines last week in her debate with Democrat Jon Ossoff. Responding to Ossoff’s claim that “the minimum wage should be a living wage,” she said, “I do not support a livable wage.” Widely described as a misstep, Handel’s comment was a “gaffe” only in the political commentator Michael Kinsley’s sense that it was an accurate statement, which revealed a deeper truth that she was unafraid to articulate. Handel did nothing more than restate longstanding Republican Party orthodoxy. Indeed, she correctly called her disagreement with Ossoff “an example of the fundamental difference between a liberal and a conservative.”
There was no reason for commentators to be surprised. For many years, the Republican Party has opposed even modest minimum wage increases, let alone so-called “living wage” laws that set wages well above the national minimum wage of $7.25/hour. It was not always so. In the 1950s, under President Dwight D. Eisenhower, the national minimum wage—first passed as part of the Fair Labor Standards Act in 1938—was higher in real dollars than today’s. When Ike ran for reelection in 1956, the Republican Party platform boasted that “the Federal minimum wage has been raised for more than 2 million workers.” Richard Nixon’s platform in 1960 called for an increased federal minimum wage.
Nevertheless, ever since, the Republican Party has either run against a minimum wage increase or called for its elimination entirely. In 1964, when Barry Goldwater took the party to the right, the GOP platform called for “temporary exemptions” from the minimum wage as a means of increasing employment. By 1984 during the height of the age of Reagan, the party condemned “arbitrary minimum wage rates” that “have eliminated hundreds of thousands of jobs.” When George H. W. Bush ran in 1988, his platform decried “inflationary—and job destroying—increases in the minimum wage.” In 1992, the party described the minimum wage as an area in which “Congress has set itself apart from the people.” From 1996 to 2008, the platform ignored the topic of minimum wages entirely. In 2012, the platform mentioned the federal minimum only to highlight its downside—specifically, preventing Pacific Territories from having “flexibility to determine the minimum wage, which has seriously restricted progress in the private sector.”
In recent years, the Republican Party has turned even more vociferously against the very idea of a minimum wage. This became apparent at the GOP primary debate hosted by Fox News in November 2015, which took place in Milwaukee. Neil Cavuto, a debate moderator, noting the demands of the Fight for $15 movement to roughly double the federal minimum wage from its current level of $7.25, asked the candidates whether they “were sympathetic to the protesters’ cause, since a $15 wage works out to about $31,000 a year?”
The question was directed first to Donald Trump, whom one might indeed have expected to express sympathy for low-wage workers demanding more. After all, he used the term “working class” more than any presidential candidate in a generation and has continued to present the concerns of “American workers” as his own. Yet in his 2015 debate response, Trump was blunt in rejecting the living wage campaign. “I can’t be” sympathetic, he claimed, because with “taxes too high, wages too high, we’re not going to be able to compete against the world.” “I hate to say it,” Trump continued, but the answer to the problem of low wages is that “people have to go out, they have to work really hard and have to get into that upper stratum.”
Ben Carson, then a candidate and now HUD Secretary, who answered next, claimed that “every time we raise the minimum wage, the number of jobless people increases.” Carson claimed instead that jobs could reward workers not with high wages but with social capital to help them “ascend the ladder of opportunity, rather than . . . keep them dependent.”
Although Cavuto moved on and asked a different question about government “giveaways” to Marco Rubio, the Florida senator insisted on returning to the minimum wage in his response, “because they’re related.” Rubio warned, “if you raise the minimum wage, you’re going to make people more expensive than a machine. And that means all this automation that’s replacing jobs and people right now is only going to be accelerated.” Insisting Americans’ unique asset was their ability to achieve success “through hard work and perseverance,” Rubio concluded that “the best way to raise wages” was to “make America the best place in the world to start a business or expand an existing business.”
These positions represent the mainstream of the Republican Party. Mike Pence, the vice president, and Jeb Bush, the presumed GOP frontrunner for 2016, both oppose a federal minimum. Among last year’s Republican candidates, John Kasich alone claimed to favor a small increase in the minimum wage—at least at first—but as governor, he also blocked Ohio cities when they sought such increases.
Taken together, the Republican candidates offered a baffling and bleak vision of the place of working people—and wage labor, in particular—in the polity. Like Karen Handel in last week’s debate, they rejected the idea that government had any role in setting a wage floor that would allow working people to escape poverty. Both Trump and Rubio seemed to endorse low wages not just as a temporary expedient but as a permanent condition, since to raise them, in their vision, is to pit American workers against the insurmountable forces of technological advancement and global competition. To Carson, assisting workers by mandating higher wages would only exacerbate “dependency,” a fate worse than living above the poverty line.
Implicit in the Republican Party’s opposition to living wages is a rejection of the longstanding vision of American workers as the quintessential citizens of the republic, a vision central to American politics since at least the 1870s, when, already, more than 70 percent of American workers labored for somebody else as employees. In this the new Republican vision, wage laborers should work “really hard” at low wages and without any expectation of advancement as workers. For Rubio and Trump, being “successful” and getting into the “upper stratum” seemed to mean becoming something other than a wage earner. Proposing a world not of worker/employees but of entrepreneurs and businesspeople, the Republican frontrunners hearkened back to then–House majority leader Eric Cantor’s classic tweet on Labor Day in 2012: “Today, we celebrate those who have taken a risk, worked hard, built a business and earned their own success.” In short, conservatives today aspire to a future in which the wage-earning worker will no longer exist—at least not as a category worthy of celebration or as a path to upward mobility, dignity, and citizenship.
Today’s GOP leaders might say they are only upholding party tradition, and echoing the “free labor” ideology that the leaders of a nascent Republican Party championed in the 1850s. As Abraham Lincoln said in his famous 1859 address before the Wisconsin State Agricultural Society in Milwaukee, the same city where the GOP debate took place: “The prudent, penniless beginner in the world, labors for wages awhile, saves a surplus with which to buy tools or land, for himself; then labors on his own account another while, and at length hires another new beginner to help him.” But Lincoln’s vision of social mobility rested upon a belief that “labor is prior to, and independent of, capital.” Wealth and progress, Lincoln argued, were the result of labor and the republic should therefore give pride of place to the worker, for work was “superior” to capital.
By the end of the nineteenth century, Lincoln’s frictionless vision of social mobility had become a pipe dream as workers labored for low wages, with little chance to accumulate the “surplus” that Lincoln realized would be necessary for advancement. By the 1880s, Lincoln’s emancipatory vision of free labor had been coopted by business leaders, politicians, and judges, who began to conceive of dependent, poorly paid workers as free agents fully capable of exercising “freedom of contract” when they took a job. In this conception, the low-wage workers of the time, like today’s, did not need “free stuff” in the form of the right to join a union, and the companies that employed them did not need mandates that set maximum hours or minimum wages.
It was precisely in this period, known as the Gilded Age, that workers in the United States, recognizing that wage earning was a category that they and most of their compatriots would never transcend, began to call for “living wages.” Questioning the mythology that they would likely become independent proprietors and that high wages would damage the economy, labor reformers put forward a vision in which workers—as wage earners—would have money that they could use to consume and thereby lift the economy as whole, as well as leisure so they could develop their capabilities and exercise their rights of citizenship. Living wages, in short, helped the nation realize its republican ideals—including the dream of equality—by giving wage earners equal rights to the benefits that public spending provided, such as education for their children and access to parks and libraries.
Early in the twentieth century, progressives of all parties endorsed this vision, and the short-lived Progressive (“Bull Moose”) Party of 1912 became the first to champion a “living wage” for all workers. As former Republican president and Bull Moose endorsee Theodore Roosevelt put it, “Let us as a people face the fact that there must be a living wage for every employee; and that the employer who does not give it is a bad citizen.”
These laborist ideas—call them the “living wage vision”—contrast with the vision of the modern GOP, which sees the wealthy as “job creators” and “makers” and low-wage workers as “takers” unworthy not just of Lincolnian pride of place but of civic respect. When the original Republicans thought of theft, they immediately thought of chattel slaves forced to live a life of uncompensated labor and then of “wage slaves,” who did not receive the “full fruits” of their labor. When today’s Republicans speak of “theft,” they describe not exploitation at the workplace but the system of taxation that, in their view, “steals” from the rich by forcing them to contribute to the social good. Karen Handel was accurate, then, in describing the conservative position as being opposed to “livable wages.” Underpaid labor is a permanent feature, not a temporary glitch, of the conservative economic worldview, which assigns social mobility to entrepreneurship alone.
The right’s abandonment of the working poor has been brought into sharp relief by the Trump administration. His empty tributes to “American workers” contrast with his policy agenda, which harms that group above all. A progressive agenda needs to promote higher wages not just as an economic necessity but as a civic one. As Franklin Roosevelt, who presided over the first national minimum wage law—the last significant legislation of the New Deal—said in his 1944 State of the Union message, “necessitous men are not free men.”
Lawrence B. Glickman teaches history at Cornell University. He is the author of Buying Power: A History of Consumer Activism in America (University of Chicago Press, 2009) and A Living Wage: American Workers and the Making of Consumer Society (Cornell University Press, 1999). He is working on a history of the meanings of free enterprise in U.S. history.