The Republican Civil War

Can the GOP make a comeback by embracing the welfare state?

Grand New Party: How Republicans Can Win the Working Class and Save the American Dream, by Ross Douthat and Reihan Salam, New York: Doubleday, 256 pages, $23.95

After seven-plus years of George W. Bush, conservatives find themselves in a civil war. Bush partisans and neoconservatives have ditched “compassionate conservatism” and“national greatness conservatism” as slogans, but they still believe in a more vigorous, active government than did the right-wingers of yesteryear. Deficit hawks, libertarian-leaning conservatives, Barry Goldwater acolytes, and a great many rank-and-file Republicans, on the other hand, continue to profess something closer to Thomas Jefferson’s creed that the government which governs best governs least.

In Grand New Party, Ross Douthat and Reihan Salam, two twenty-something bloggers affiliated with The Atlantic Monthly, add their voices to the growing chorus of conservatives urging the GOP to embrace big government. Their book joins recent volumes by Bush speechwriters David Frum (Comeback: Conservatism That Can Win Again) and Michael Gerson (Heroic Conservatism) in arguing that if it wants to return to power, the Republican Party must shed whatever libertarian scruples it retains and commit to an activist state. What the country really needs, apparently, is even more federal programs such as No Child Left Behind and public-private partnerships such as Bush’s faith-based initiatives.

Douthat and Salam advocate paternalistic government for the good of the working class, which, they say, “wants, and needs, more from public policy than simply to be left alone.” American workers suffer from “anxiety amid affluence, economic stress amid stock market highs.” And since “too many on the Right seem to have confused the American tradition of limited government for an ahistorical vision of a government that does nothing at all,” Douthat and Salam offer a program to keep Uncle Sam busy, doing everything from subsidizing summer schools to building an information superhighway on the scale of “Lincoln’s transcontinental railroad or FDR’s rural electrification program.” Who says the era of big government is over?

Douthat and Salam rest their case on two premises. First, the working class (“Sam’s Club voters”) holds the key to a permanent political realignment. America is “a fifty-fifty nation, waiting for a new majority to emerge,” and if the GOP can win the workers, it will have a lock on national power for decades to come. Second, blue-collar Americans are facing “a crisis of insecurity and immobility, not poverty, and it’s a crisis that has as much to do with culture as with economics.” Divorce, single parenthood, and misplaced educational priorities are just a few of the forces that Douthat and Salam believe are dragging Sam’s Clubbers down.

An “ideologically innovative conservatism” that can “win working-class votes, craft a political majority, and redeem the promise of American life,” Douthat and Salam say, will give Republicans a grasp upon power like New Deal Democrats had between 1932 and 1964, “an era of unprecedented political consensus, social equality, and cultural solidarity.”

So just who is this “working class”? Douthat and Salam provide no consistent definition. On page 2, it means “the non-college-educated voters who make up roughly half of the American electorate,” which would include the poor. But four pages later the authors have narrowed the term, asserting that “working-class voters aren’t poor” and “if you’re a Sam’s Club voter today, you’re more likely to belong to a family that makes $60,000 a year than one that makes $30,000.” That would make Sam’s Clubbers solidly middle-class; according to the Census Bureau, median household income in 2006 was $48,201. Yet Douthat and Salam insist “the working class of today is defined less by income or wealth than by education—by the lack of a college degree and the cultural capital associated with it.”

Americans without college degrees are indeed about half the electorate. But Americans without college degrees who are more likely to have household incomes of $60,000 than $30,000 are a much smaller demographic. Douthat and Salam decline to say just how small it is. According to the Census Bureau’s historical income tables, in 2006 the median income for householders age 25 and up whose highest educational attainment is a high-school diploma was $39,426. Those households, we can safely say, are more likely to be making $30,000 than $60,000.

An uncharitable reader might want to accuse Douthat and Salam of cheating—of using wider or narrower definitions according to what’s most useful for their argument at a given moment. But Grand New Party is more sloppy than dishonest: The vague, inconsistent definition of working class is of a piece with the book’s lack of footnotes, endnotes, and bibliography. The authors cite some of their sources in the text, providing references for quotes but often not for statistics and qualitative claims about the working class. This method of argument, assertion without evidence, is not likely to convince anyone who does not already accept Grand New Party’s thesis.

There are many difficulties with Douthat and Salam’s central premise. A minor one is that they don’t consider how many voters the GOP would lose by courting the working class with various wage subsidies and tax favors. How many wealthy Americans would desert the party as a result? How many poorer Americans would demand a bigger place at the trough for themselves? The latter question raises a more important problem that Douthat and Salam do not address: how Republicans can expect to outbid Democrats in showering government largesse on the mythical Sam’s Club bloc. Any subsidy the Republicans can propose, the Democrats would be willing to double or triple. Certainly Democrats have no compunctions against tilting the tax code to buy votes. The GOP would have to jettison every last vestige of limitedgovernment principle just to keep up.

Former Wisconsin Gov. Tommy Thompson is one of Douthat and Salam’s role models for rethinking government. Thompson’s “neoconservatism in action,” as they call it, doubled state spending but cut the welfare rolls; he “managed the unexpected feat of sharply increasing public spending on the poor while also increasing working-class support for poverty-fighting programs.” And he stayed in power for 14 years! But Thompson produced no electoral realignment. Far from it: The Republican who filled out his last term as governor after Thompson joined the Bush administration was defeated as soon as he came up for election. So much for working-class loyalty to the GOP.

Douthat and Salam are quick to blame Republican failures on small-government conservatives. “Unelectable fidelity to [government-cutting] principle…doomed Goldwater in 1964 and Gingrich 30 years later,” the authors contend in one puzzling passage. Gingrich was not doomed in 1994, of course; that was the year Republicans, running on a largely anti-government message, won control of Congress for the first time in four decades, making Gingrich speaker of the House. Republicans could use a little more “doom” like that.

Conversely, the authors attribute Republican pick-ups in the 2002 elections to “compassionate conservative” programs such as No Child Left Behind. A skeptic might suggest that 9/11 had a little more to do with it. Douthat and Salam try mightily to redeem Bush’s early domestic agenda, but they don’t mention that his approval rating hovered around 50 percent—hardly the stuff of realignment—until Al Qaeda slammed airplanes into the twin towers and the Pentagon. Before Bush was a failure as a war president, he was a mediocrity as an education president.

Grand New Party leaves a lot to be desired as a road map for Republican political victory. If anything, its advice would be more apt to lead to realignment for the Democrats, who could be confident of holding on to their majorities for decades to come while the Republicans pushed a me-too platform. But what about the other side to Douthat and Salam’s book, their argument that the working class is suffering a prolonged anxiety attack?

“Rising inequality and increasing risk aren’t immiserating Sam’s Club voters,” Grand New Party tells us, and in fact “working-class voters aren’t poor. They’re relatively prosperous.” Yet these voters fear losing their health insurance and are troubled “by stagnating wages, by high out-of-wedlock birth rates, by mediocre high schools and the hard road to a college degree.” Douthat and Salam cite the liberal journalist Garance Franke-Ruta’s summary of the plight of the Sam’s Club class: “Lower- income individuals simply live in a much more disrupted society, with higher divorce rates, more single moms, more abortions, and more interpersonal and interfamily strife, than do the middle- and upper-middle class people they want to be like.”

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