Grand New Party: How Republicans Can Win the Working Class and Save the American Dream
By Ross Douthat and Reihan Salam
Doubleday, 256 pp., $23.95
A few months back, Barack Obama explained why he had not won more support
from voters in Appalachia.
You go into some of these small
towns in Pennsylvania, and like a lot of small towns in the Midwest, the jobs
have been gone now for 25 years and nothing's replaced them. And they fell
through the Clinton administration, and the Bush administration, and each
successive administration has said that somehow these communities are gonna
regenerate, and they have not. And it's not surprising, then, they get bitter,
they cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren't like them or
anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment, as a way to explain their
The onetime lecturer in law was addressing a phenomenon that has puzzled
liberals for years: Since it is self-evident to them that liberal economic
policies benefit working-class voters (defined, for our purposes, as voters
without college degrees), why does the working class so often support
conservatives? The liberal answer, with which Obama appears to agree, is that
the working-class voter is either fooled or scared--never persuaded--into
voting on cultural, not economic, grounds.
The conservative authors of Grand New Party largely agree with this
analysis. The difference is that Ross Douthat and Reihan Salam argue it is
entirely rational for working-class voters to cast ballots on social and
cultural concerns. That's because issues "from abortion and marriage law to
the death penalty and immigration" are "at the root of
working-class insecurity." They reverse the left's chain of causation.
Whereas the left says social pathologies result from economic immiseration,
Douthat and Salam say that economic anxiety increases in direct proportion to
(Full disclosure: The article that served as the basis of Grand New Party
first appeared in these pages--"The Party of Sam's Club," November
14, 2005--and the authors are my friends.)
It's hard to disagree with them. The social disruptions of the last 40
years--rising levels of divorce, illegitimacy, drug use, and crime--have hit
voters without college degrees the hardest. Those disruptions prevent the
formation of stable families. And without stable families, people lack both a
refuge from and a mechanism by which to cope with larger structural changes in
the global economy.
No family, less stability, less of a chance to improve one's condition.
This is bad for the working class, for America, and for the GOP. Republicans
all too often come into power backed by working-class majorities, only to
alienate those majorities and get tossed out of office. Douthat and Salam want
to break the cycle. They think a conservative politics offers the best chance
for a strong and prosperous America, and write that it is therefore necessary
for conservatives to reform the "welfare state so that it serves the
interests of the working class, rather than the affluent."
In so doing, the Republican party may forge a "conservative class
consciousness among working-class voters." And this, in turn, would create
a "unity of political allegiance and socioeconomic identity that, in its
liberal form, made the Roosevelt coalition so potent and enduring." Voilà--there's
your lasting Republican majority. Clearly the left has not cornered the market
on audacity. Grand New Party is an unusual book: part history, part
political analysis, part policy brief. It challenges the widely held idea on
the right that the GOP isn't small-government enough. And at a time when the
word "neocon" is a slur, Douthat and Salam argue that the GOP is most
successful when it governs according to the principles of "applied
neoconservatism." By this they mean "a conservatism that promised to
fix the welfare state, rather than abolish it; to reform the Great Society, but
leave the New Deal more or less intact."
How to do this? The authors have plenty of ideas. Some are
plausible, others are implausible, and still others are a mixture of both. For
example, Douthat and Salam back a dramatic expansion of the child-tax credit--a
sensible idea that could conceivably become law. But then they muse that, in
order to stigmatize illegitimacy, the credit ideally would be "targeted to
married couples (and extended to widows and widowers, and possibly divorcees)
and withheld from single and cohabiting parents." Not gonna happen.
Large portions of the book are written in the language of subsidies and tax
credits and public "investments." The libertarians among us are
likely to blanch, even pass out. To increase the time mothers are able to spend
raising children, Douthat and Salam propose "subsidies to parents who
provide child care in the home and pension credits that reflect the economic
value of years spent in household labor." To reward work, they write that
a "program of wage subsidies" is a "tool that's worth
All of these ideas will cost money; it's unclear how much. The authors
provide neither a cost estimate nor a means to pay for the new expenditures.
It's simply assumed that the money will be there, or that revenues will rise to
cover the cost of the new programs. And while Douthat and Salam are probably
more open than other conservatives to increasing revenue by raising taxes, they
avoid the question of which taxes ought to be raised, and by how much.
This raises a larger criticism, which is that the authors neglect economic
growth. They seem more concerned with how to spend the money that a free
economy generates. But without growth there is no revenue for wage subsidies.
Without growth, all classes stagnate. As Irving Kristol has written, "It was
only the prospect of economic growth in which everyone prospered, if not
equally or simultaneously, that gave modern democracies their legitimacy and
durability." Douthat and Salam often appear to assume that government
programs are the only way to help the working class. Not so. Growth helps, too.
Grand New Party is about domestic policy. But it is also worth
considering the role national security has played in winning working-class
support for the GOP. Reaganism combined a stirring belief in American exceptionalism
with a commitment to American military strength. This marriage of American
ideals and American power has been key to every successful Republican campaign
in the last quarter-century, and nowhere is this more clear than in
presidential contests. Who is the only Democrat to have won the presidency
since Jimmy Carter, the only one to win reelection since Franklin Roosevelt?
Bill Clinton. When did he hold office? During a time when America was widely
perceived to be at peace.
The national security issue cuts both ways. Douthat and Salam barely mention
what they call President Bush's "failure in Iraq." This gives short
shrift to the most important issue of our time. The war on terror, of which
Iraq is a part, has helped and hurt Bush among voters without college degrees.
Congressional Republicans won the working-class vote in 2004 when the war in
Iraq was increasingly unpopular but also seen as winnable. By 2006 Iraq was in
chaos, the war was even more unpopular, and voters began to think the effort
was a lost cause. Republican congressional candidates won only 43 percent of
the working-class vote. The Democrats swept back into power with a narrow
congressional majority. The Iraq war, not the absence of a "world-class
telecommuting infrastructure," drove the working-class vote into the
Democrats' eager embrace.
How long will that embrace last? One troubling sign for Republicans is
Obama's recent hiring of Jason Furman as policy adviser. Furman is a centrist
economist whom Douthat and Salam cite repeatedly. He's just the sort of guy who
could adopt the message of Grand New Party and use it to further
Democratic ends. Meanwhile, Obama seems open to the populist messages of
Democrats like James Webb of Virginia and Sherrod Brown of Ohio. He could mix
populist rhetoric and center-left economic policy into a potent brew. It may be
awhile before the working class gets its fill.
But not necessarily, for two reasons. First, Obama's ideological commitments
to familial diversity, feminism, affirmative action, Roe v. Wade,
and all the other shibboleths of social liberalism will inevitably spur a
reaction among working-class voters. It's just a question of whether that
happens before or after he becomes president.
Second, Iraq in 2008 is nothing like Iraq in 2006. The war is not a
"failure." Voters are beginning to realize this. They may have
reached a consensus that the war should not have been fought, but they are
ambivalent about how to go forward. They trust John McCain's national security
judgment. They are uncertain that a 46-year-old lawyer who seemingly came out
of nowhere four years ago is a plausible commander in chief. McCain's job is to
convince them that he is not.
This may be enough to win the working-class back from the Democrats in 2008.
Those Republicans who want to keep them would do well to read this learned,
judicious, and enjoyable book.