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From the left and the right, these two thinkers are upending Washington’s neoliberal consensus

Progressive Matt Stoller and conservative Oren Cass are unlikely allies on a lot of things — and they believe the times are on their side

Matt Stoller, left, and Oren Cass are seen in Washington on Jan. 31, 2024.
Matt Stoller, left, and Oren Cass are seen in Washington on Jan. 31, 2024. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

As I walked into the room, Matt Stoller and Oren Cass were knee-deep in a discussion about the causes of Shays’ Rebellion and the Whiskey Rebellion.

I had left them alone to fetch some seltzers before our interview. Hardly two minutes later, Stoller, a former Senate committee staffer under Bernie Sanders who now serves as research director at the progressive American Economic Liberties Project, was noting how the two farmers’ uprisings were sparked by tax policies. 

“It was a way of driving the small farmers out of business and consolidating power in the hands of the industrial distillers,” Stoller said, the words spilling out as if his mouth was struggling to keep pace with his brain. “It was about building a political coalition on behalf of the Federalists.”

Cass, the conservative founder of American Compass who cut his teeth writing economic policy papers for Mitt Romney’s 2012 presidential campaign, nodded along, waiting patiently to speak. “It’s all competition policy,” he said.

It’s not really all that surprising to find these two conversing casually about the causes of lesser-known 18th-century conflicts. While their detractors contend their analyses can be sloppy or their conclusions overstated, no one who knows Stoller or Cass would question their intellectual curiosity. Despite their well-earned reputations, especially Stoller, for throwing rhetorical bombs online, these guys are soft-spoken nerds.

What is surprising — when yawning polarization and deep cynicism permeate every level of U.S. politics from president down to the PTA, so much so that roughly 40 percent of Republicans and Democrats see the other party as an imminent threat to the nation — is how much they agree and how much they’ve convinced their usually diametrically opposed co-partisans to agree with them too.

After Donald Trump’s election in 2016 shook the political world like an “earthquake,” as Cass often puts it, partisans of all stripes cast about for explanations. Many pinned it on voters’ dissatisfaction with an economy that showed GDP and stock indices rising, even as real wages stagnated and the cost of housing, health care and education skyrocketed. 

The question, then, is how to respond. On the left, Stoller provided a kind of conservative answer: a return to New Deal policies, particularly robust antitrust enforcement. On the right, Cass offered a somewhat progressive vision of conservatism, one centered on the nation’s common good and supporting workers.

It’s less that they are fully ideologically aligned and more that they see the enemy of their enemy — the old Washington consensus on economic policy, what alternately gets called neoliberalism, free-market fundamentalism or Chicago School economics — as their friend.

“I love economics,” said Cass. “I think economists are very bad at economics.”

They both loathe economic forecasting and projections, likening those complex mathematical models to the rotting guts examined by ancient haruspices to divine the will of the gods.

What they find the most insulting is how economists assume away so many real-world influences and constraints in building their models while ignoring the role government plays in creating the requisite conditions for commerce, like property rights, contract law, minting money and building roads. “They try to say ‘this is science’ [when] what they have created is astrology, and I am super offended at that,” said Stoller.

Cass compares commerce to sport: They’re both communal human interactions developed around a set of rules that governing bodies can change to influence how the participants play the game (or market).

“The funny thing about the competitors is they’re not trying to be entertaining. They’re just trying to score points,” said Cass. “They’ll even find ways to score points that everybody hates. And nobody sits there and goes, ‘Well, guys, that’s just human [nature].’”

If Major League Baseball can end the shift and add a pitch clock to create a faster, more offensive-minded American pastime that has more fans watching, then why can’t the U.S. government subsidize high-paying manufacturing jobs to create a more equitable economy that we all enjoy working in more?

Heresies for all 

Over the past half-century, policymaking in Washington has been dominated by a bipartisan intellectual framework centered on consumer welfare, free markets and cost-benefit analyses. Binyamin Appelbaum describes the period between 1969 and the 2008 financial crisis in his book “The Economists’ Hour.” The primary difference between the two parties’ economic policies, he suggests, was that Democrats were Keynesian free traders who liked slightly higher taxes and Republicans were Chicago School free traders who liked slightly lower taxes.

The attempt to distill all human relations into mathematical formulas ignores too much of our humanity, Cass and Stoller both argue. We don’t work merely for wages, but because of the sense of meaning and pride work provides us. The immiseration unleashed by free-trade agreements on the Rust Belt wasn’t just that people lost wealth. They lost their identities, as welders and providers.

In the aftermath of this crumbling neoliberal consensus, Stoller and Cass both frame their work in communitarian terms. Stoller talks about the American anti-monopolist doctrine that was lost when Democrats began to buy into the argument that the government should focus just on growing the economic pie through deregulation. “This old tradition that [Rep. Wright] Patman kind of carried forward, which came from [Justice Louis] Brandeis, which came from [Thomas] Jefferson, which came from the English … there was an explicit set of campaigns from the right and the left to destroy that tradition,” Stoller said. 

“When you get rid of something that is so fundamental to the American order, society gets unbalanced.”

While he remains focused on the rubber-meets-road-level policies more than the philosophical debates that currently animate the right-wing intelligentsia, Cass still likes to quote Edmund Burke as he promotes American Compass’ “common good” conservatism centered on families, communities and the nation. We are not atomized individuals who come together to form a society, as the classical liberal would say, but a society that informs who we are as individuals.

“A big part of this end-of-history phenomenon was that the neoliberal consensus was also about sort of forgetting that there was anything before,” Cass said. 

That line of thinking leads more Reaganite Republicans to sometimes call Cass a socialist. More often, he and Stoller are labeled as populists, a term they don’t reject but not one they particularly embrace either.  

In challenging old party orthodoxies, both catch some flak. “I always use the term ‘market fundamentalism’ because this sort of post-Reagan, ‘end of history,’ however you want to describe the period, has this incredibly fundamentalist character,” said Cass.

“We both get … treated as a heretic,” Cass added, pointing to Stoller.

Is the realignment for real?

On economic policy, the divide in Washington’s thinking is more generational than partisan, both Cass and Stoller argue. If you’re in your 40s or younger, the defining conflict of your life wasn’t the Cold War, it was 9/11 and the subsequent U.S-led occupation of Iraq and Afghanistan. Gen Xers entered the workforce during the booming ’90s. Millennials graduated into an economy brutalized by the 2008 recession. The older generations benefited from deregulation and financialization, while millennials and Gen Z ended up paying the price.

Stoller courts some of his liberal criticism by unreservedly praising Republicans when they agree with AELP’s positions and unflinchingly criticizing Democrats when they don’t. Among many Democrats, saying a single kind thing about the likes of Sen. Josh Hawley, let alone Trump, is apostasy in the highest, especially when there are elections on the line. 

“It really does have a Protestant Reformation vibe to it,” said Stoller.

Democrats have always seen themselves as the party of the workers, so Stoller acknowledges he’s faced fewer headwinds than Cass. And that’s why he will give kudos to Hawley or seek out opportunities to speak to conservative audiences. “I talk more to the right because that’s where the problem is. That’s who needs convincing.”

This isn’t just bipartisanship for bipartisanship’s sake, or wanting a conservative check on progressive overreach, Stoller said. These issues are so big and complex, the nation simply needs bright minds of all ideological shades working on them in good faith. “No one knows how to fix Boeing,” he said.

There can be no doubt that Democrats, on balance, have embraced the anti-monopolist and economic populism espoused by the likes of Stoller and his allies, while Cass and his colleagues have lots of work ahead of them. AELP celebrated when President Joe Biden selected Lina Khan to lead the Federal Trade Commission and Jonathan Kanter to head the Department of Justice’s Antitrust Division and continued to cheer the administration as it blocked merger after merger and launched antitrust lawsuits against the country’s largest companies, including Meta, Amazon, Google and Apple. 

Stoller is a progressive Democrat, but AELP bills itself as nonpartisan and is not focused on elections. This is one area where the groups fundamentally differ. American Compass is explicitly charting a new path for the Republican Party, arguing that a working-class coalition is the only electorally viable future for the GOP.

Despite that partisan mission, Cass has recruited allies from across the ideological spectrum. Stoller is on American Compass’ advisory board, as is labor leader David Rolf, and the group’s funders include left-leaning organizations like ​​the Hewlett Foundation. There is hope that an American Compass-led Republican realignment — creating a large number of socially conservative but fiscally moderate Republicans, a kind of return of the Dixiecrats of yore — could usher in a series of bipartisan deals on economic policy. 

The group’s influence has grown. American Compass helped write the labor policy section of the Heritage Foundation’s road map for another potential Trump administration. And when we spoke earlier this year, Cass had just left a celebratory meeting with Rep. Jason Smith, the chairman of the Ways and Means Committee, whose bill expanding the child tax credit and providing R&D investment tax breaks was about to pass the House, 357-70

But not everyone is on board. That same bill, which Smith negotiated with Senate Finance Chair Ron Wyden of Oregon, hit a snag in the other chamber as Republicans such as Senate Finance ranking member Michael D. Crapo of Idaho pushed for changes. Uncertain of getting enough GOP support to defeat a filibuster, Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer has yet to call for a vote.

When asked for more signs of the ideological tide turning, Cass pointed to a bill — backed by Republican Sens. J.D. Vance, Marco Rubio and Hawley, along with Democratic Sens. Sherrod Brown, Bob Casey and John Fetterman — to beef up freight rail safety regulations after the East Palestine, Ohio, derailment in February 2023. But despite the bipartisan support, that bill has also languished.

There’s a chance this communitarian segment of Republicans ends up little more than a mirror image of the GOP’s libertarian wing — a handful of gadflies who usually vote in lockstep with the party while occasionally crossing the aisle on a certain subset of issues. 

Still, Cass says the momentum is with his side, pointing to a younger generation of staffers and thinkers. “There’s no question what the right of center is going to look like 15, 20 years from now,” he said. 

Ultimately, the confounding factor in trying to chart the course for a post-Trump GOP is the fact that the Republican Party is still very much mid-Trump.

“At this point, the main sort of — what’s the word? — mitigating factor is just the presence of Trump,” Cass said. 

Should Trump win again in 2024, Cass expects more of what he saw in 2016: an incoherent jumble of policies. But unlike back then, when congressional Republicans pulled out their dusty old playbook of cutting taxes and trying to gut Obamacare, Cass expects his ideological allies to take the lead on the Hill and in staffing the administration. 

“You have Trump looming over all, but at the end of the day, one of the things I think is most encouraging is that you don’t see mini Trumps,” said Cass. 

“There is no Trump heir apparent who is going to continue on as Trump did. There is no Trumpism, it is just Trump,” Cass said. “There will be a post-Trump era, and if you ask who are going to be the leaders of the Republican Party in the post-Trump era, I’m extremely encouraged by who those folks look like they will be.”

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