During my vacation last week, I read Grand New Party: How Republicans Can Win the Working Class and Save the American Dream by Ross Douthat and Reihan Salam. Douthat and Salam are editors at The Atlantic, and Salam’s writings can also be found at The American Scene.
There’s a bevy of books out there diagnosing “what went wrong” with conservatism and the Republican party, but this is one of the most original ones. Douthat and Salam introduced the “Party of Sam’s Club” idea over three years ago (my original 2005 post on the subject) and Grand New Party (GNP) fleshes out that original idea considerably. Taking inspiration from the New Deal of all things, the authors argue that the GOP should keep its basic social conservatism, but craft economic policies that privilege families with children and the working class. The working class, in this case, is defined as those American adults who do not possess a college degree (the majority), rather than any arbitrary income line. With this definition, the “working class” exists at all income levels, but generally has fewer connections and a smaller safety net than the college educated.
The working class, Douthat and Salam say, has vacillated between the Democrats and the GOP since the crackup of the New Deal coalition in the 1960s. Because the working class generally lives closer to the margins, they’re more sympathetic to social conservatism on issues like crime, affirmative action, family stability (abortion and easy divorce), and accountability in education. But, because they don’t have the social and economic safety net that college-educated types do, they’re much less sympathetic to “cut the government to the bone” Goldwater/Gingrich economic conservatism. Contra Thomas Frank and Barack Obama, cultural issues are “real” for the working class — they’re not tricked into social conservatism against their own interests and neither do they cling to them out of desperation. The working class doesn’t like the Left’s redistributivist economic policies and its destabilizing social policies, but it needs more economic help from the government than your typical Republican “libertarian conservative” is willing to offer (except when there are hurricanes).
Douthat and Salam want a politics that offers meat-and-potatoes economic reforms (as opposed to boutique political class reforms like campaign finance) coupled with social conservatism. The New Dealers coupled their aid to the working class with a pro-family maternalism left over from the Progressive era — they wanted families to be able to sustain themselves on one income, for example. For Richard Nixon, “law-and-order” wasn’t (just) racial codewords, but rather smart politics during a crime-ridden era. Ronald Reagan, whom the GOP wants to remember as a libertarian tax-and-government cutter, was actually a pragmatic figure who supported the Earned Income Tax Credit, which is basically a wage subsidy for the working poor. In 1990s, Republican reformers like Rudy Giuliani, John Engler, and Tommy Thompson in particular are hailed for reducing crime and reforming welfare, and Bill Clinton is appreciated for implementing some of these reforms on the national level (though occasionally against his will).
Douthat and Salam argue what the GOP needs to do is to support reforms that take some of the risk out of working class life, but without being redistributivist. The working class in America, in general, isn’t inclined to punish the rich, Douthat and Salam say, because they want to be rich. But it will support some punitive acts or redistributivist measures if it perceives that the rich has cheated or the system is stacked against them. Obvious reform suggestions include national health care coverage, where Douthat and Salam want something between President Bush’s healthcare accounts and the Democrats’ desire for a Canadian- or European-style system. Illegal immigration also threatens working class life, as illegals take unskilled jobs from the working class by working at lower wages. The authors’ suggestions on illegal immigration are rare for their sanity. They involve policing the borders to stop the growth of the illegal population, but also policing those companies that make a habit of hiring illegals instead of the local unemployed. They oppose guest worker programs (because it would be the government supporting illegal immigrants against its own working class!), but favor eventual acceptance of those law-abiding illegal immigrants already here.
Their other policy proposals are admittedly more fanciful. They support Ramesh Ponnuru’s idea of a vastly-expanded child tax credit which increases every year until the child leaves the nest. They support tax credits and incentives for telecommuting to increase family together time, massive reforms in farm subsidies to encourage green energy production, rebuilding electrical and transportation infrastructure, and even toy with Richard Nixon’s idea of a guaranteed minimum income. It’s enough to make a small government conservative’s head spin.
And that’s the idea. Government-slashing conservatism is not, and never will be, an electoral majority, they say. But all by itself, the working class is. Thanks to meritocracy sealing itself off from those below, the working class is in an increasingly precarious position. The party that gives the working class some support, socially and financially, just might find itself the next majority party.
I suspect that Douthat and Salam are correct that government-cutting conservatism will never be an electoral majority. This is disappointing for those of us who hope fiscal conservatives are poised for a renaissance. But with our political culture stalemated at a 50-50 battle between the rich and the upper-middle class, a politics that puts Sam’s Club rather than country club (as Tim Pawlenty said) first has much to recommend it. I really wish Douthat and Salam had discussed the War on Terror though, which has strong ramifications for the working class (unfortunately, my horrid sense of direction caused me to miss asking them about it at Politics and Prose on Wednesday). For better or worse, GOP policy makers are wedded to the War on Terror concept, and when wars get hot, it’s the working class who fight them. The working class tends to be most comfortable with displays of patriotism, but I have to think a long-term commitment to this war would strain any new relationship between the working class and the GOP.
Highly recommended as a conversation starter.