Grandiose Old Party

Two young conservatives have a plan
to revitalize the GOP: embrace
massive social engineering.

By Kevin Drum

 

Grand New Party:
How Republicans Can Win the Working Class and Save the American Dream
By Ross Douthat and Reihan Salam
Doubleday, 256 pp.

During the week I spent reading Ross Douthat and Reihan Salam’s Grand New Party, I had half a dozen different reactions to it. First I was annoyed. Then intrigued. Then, at various times, impressed, curious, and taken aback. And finally a bit baffled. But that’s a good thing, right? Better than being bored, certainly.

Let’s start with “annoyed.” Douthat and Salam, a pair of young conservatives who currently work at the Atlantic, believe that the Republican Party needs to grapple with the economic concerns of the working class more seriously if it’s going to become a party with long-term majority prospects. To set the stage for their recommendations, though, they first offer up a short political history of the past century or so, paying special attention to the relationship of both major parties to the economic and social concerns of the working class.

Douthat and Salam are primarily concerned here with how politics intersects with the family, a subject that modern liberals are famously a bit squeamish about, and they start by reminding us that, early in the 20th century, progressives were concerned about the effects of urbanization on family life in much the same way that today’s conservatives are concerned about rap lyrics and sex education. Maternalists like Jane Addams and Josephine Baker, for example, fought for the eight-hour workday and nationwide maternity clinics partly because they were alarmed at the effect of widespread industrialization on family life. Later, a similar ethos infected the New Deal, which was largely designed to ensure that men earned a “family wage”—that is, enough to support a traditional household without the need for women to work outside the home.

All good stuff. But then, out of nowhere, they interrupt their narrative to make sure we also know that the New Deal’s “relentless scapegoating of business may have actually worsened the Depression.” Wha…? Where’d that come from? I’m not going to have to endure a bunch of winger rants about FDR, am I? Then, a few pages (and a couple of decades) later, we’re told that, although conservatives failed to support civil rights in the 1960s, it’s unfair to hold that against them. “The racist smear is one of liberalism’s most wearying rhetorical tropes,” they say. Yikes. Am I going to have to read this entire book through gritted teeth?

In a word, no. As it turns out, Douthat and Salam do have an occasional tendency to stud their book with movement conservative landmines, but if you take a deep breath it’s not so bad. They may protest too strongly about the racist underpinnings of things like states’ rights federalism and the “law and order” movement, but if I were a conservative who was born more than a decade after the Civil Rights Act was passed, I might be tired of everything I believe in being attributed to racism too. And besides, sometimes the liberal imputation of racism to practically everything really is a wearying trope, isn’t it?

So, let’s move on to “intrigued.” Douthat and Salam may take a few shots at liberals here and there, but they take plenty of shots at their fellow conservatives too. That’s a lot more fun. What’s more, many of their criticisms of both liberal and conservative tropes are worth listening to.

In fact, for the most part Douthat and Salam are refreshingly free of the siege mentality that infects so many conservatives of the Gingrich/DeLay/Bush generation, which allows them to take on the Republican Party’s longstanding fealty to big business and the rich with neither defensiveness nor credulity. Of the post-9/11 Bush years, for example, they say:

The economy recovered relatively swiftly … [but] the working class was getting left behind again. The median income stagnated, the average hourly wage declined, and inequality increased. Wealth was being created at a breakneck pace, but it fell into fewer and fewer hands—not just the top 10 or 25 percent this time, but the top 1 percent, the CEOs and hedge fund managers, a trend ripe for populist backlash.

This is refreshing. Most conservatives play endless rhetorical and statistical games to deny that inequality is increasing or that the working class is stagnating. But Douthat and Salam understand something many of their co-religionists don’t: that it’s not possible to address working class economic concerns until you admit that the working class has legitimate economic concerns in the first place—and that eventually the GOP is going to run out of ways to tap dance around this.

While their book is aimed at conservatives, this candid admission also helps give them the credibility to make arguments that liberals could stand to listen to as well. For example, there’s the simple observation that although the working class has stagnated in recent decades, it’s stagnated at a relatively high level. You can pick your statistic—household income, family income, prime working age income, whatever—but they all tell the same story: Americans are pretty well off. This isn’t to deny the growing problems of income inequality and middle class stagnation, but rather to suggest that addressing it requires a different style of political rhetoric than it would if, as in the Depression, a quarter of the country were unemployed.

In fact, Douthat and Salam argue persuasively that this state of affairs—relative economic security, not economic distress— is the reason that so many white working class voters have abandoned the Democratic Party even as Republicans continue to be the party of plutocrats and corporations. If they were as poorly off as they were in the 1930s, abortion and gay rights wouldn’t mean much to them, but as long these voters are comfortable—not rich, maybe, but not too badly off, either—then why not vote for the party that represents their social values?

This is especially true, Douthat and Salam argue, since maintenance of traditional social values has more economic value to the working class than it does to the college-educated middle class. In the well-off suburbs, divorce is rare, crime is low, and kids mostly don’t have children out of wedlock. What’s more, when those things do happen, the better-off classes have the resources to deal with them. To the upper middle class, then, the constellation of issues revolving around the breakdown of the traditional family seems a distant concern.

But what about working class communities? Liberals tend to poke fun at the fact that the very communities that complain most about divorce and crime and single parenthood are the same ones that have the highest divorce rate, the most crime, and the greatest incidence of single parenthood. Hypocrites! If they’re so worried about this stuff, why not lead by example?

But as Douthat and Salam point out, doesn’t it make sense that the people who are most often face-to-face with these problems are also the ones who are most concerned about them? Put that way, of course it does. What’s more, things like divorce, single-parent families, and teen pregnancy incur costs that are harder to deal with the poorer you are, so to a large extent, when working class whites vote for socially conservative Republicans they’re also voting their economic self-interest.

This is thought-provoking stuff, but it only gets you so far. After all, at some point, after working-class wage stagnation has gone on too long and inequality has gotten too high, promises from liberals of concrete assistance start to sound more attractive than yet another round of gay bashing or fruitless temper tantrums against fifty-year- old Supreme Court decisions. Douthat and Salam are well aware of this. In fact, this is what spurred them to write Grand New Party in the first place: a fear that Democrats might finally get their act together and provide a robust, semi-populist agenda that would “wed the free-market centrism of the Clinton years to a revived push for European-style social democracy, the American Left’s age-old dream.”

But this is where Douthat and Salam start to run into problems—and it’s why, in the end, I found myself a bit baffled by Grand New Party. Their agenda is fundamentally natalist: they want to protect the traditional family and they want that traditional family to have plenty of kids. To accomplish that, they propose a variety of initiatives to reduce out-of-wedlock births, make divorce harder, use the tax code to subsidize childbearing, and so forth. The problem here— and it’s one they seem to understand—is that there’s something fundamentally hypocritical about this: it involves an extensive program of social engineering being put in place by conservative elites who don’t really need (or want to be bound by) any of its rules themselves. They’re only doing it because— well, because the lower classes need it. It’s for their own good. In one sense, this arguably isn’t as bad as it sounds. Hypocrisy is vastly overrated as a sin, after all. But even with plenty of lipstick on this pig, it’s still not very pretty. And not likely to gain much support, either. Liberals, who are at least open to the idea of social engineering, aren’t going to support this particular version of it, and conservatives, who might  very well cotton to its goals, are allergic to social engineering. This is very big government indeed, and how many conservatives are likely to support that?

Not many, perhaps, but Douthat and Salam think they’d better start: they argue that America likes big government, America wants big government, and if conservatives keep singing the same old small-government song forever, liberals are eventually going to swoop in and take over the government for a generation. But even if they’re right about that—even if they’re right that conservatives need to wake up and smell the coffee—the scope of their proposals is fairly breathtaking.

Among other things, they propose a massive overhaul of the tax code to encourage family building; subsidies (or pension credits) to parents who care for children at home; more spending on highways; a national health insurance plan very similar to the one most Democrats support today; job subsidies for entry-level jobs; summer enrichment programs for poor kids; more cops on the street; a new school funding formula;  and a more progressive payroll tax.

The tax plan, they say, is revenue neutral, and the job subsidy program they cost out at $85 billion per year. The other programs they don’t put a price tag on. But my very rough estimate pegs the whole thing at several hundred billion dollars per year. Put a gun to my head and I’d guess $500 billion. Like all good social program enthusiasts, they claim that these things will eventually pay for themselves either partly or wholly, but even a liberal like me, who’s practically hardwired to believe that well-designed social programs can kinda sorta pay for themselves, finds that hard to swallow. No matter how you slice it, this is a very big agenda.

Even so, a liberal party might support it. Maybe. But a conservative party? Even a big government conservative party? It’s hard to see how. This would be the biggest expansion of the social welfare state since the New Deal, and it’s difficult to see how this would fly in a Republican Party that still worships at the altar of Grover Norquist. “I don’t want to abolish government,” he famously said, “I simply want to reduce it to the size where I can drag it into the bathroom and drown it in the bathtub.” As of last week, this was still the official position of about 99 percent of the conservative movement.

Grand New Party, then, should probably be taken as the political equivalent of raising the alert level to DEFCON 2: continue along the Norquistian path, Douthat and Salam warn, and the GOP will be doomed to irrelevance for a generation as young people flock to the Democratic Party and stay there for life. Alternatively, admit that Americans like big government and then, as a sort of consolation prize, at least retain the ability to wrest the direction of big government away from liberals. This is either very courageous or very quixotic, but at least it’s not timid. I look forward to the sequel.

   

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Kevin Drum edits the weblog Political Animal and is a contributing writer for the Washington
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