Grand New Party: How Republicans Can Win the Working Class and Save the American Dream
By Ross Douthat and Reihan Salam
Doubleday, $23.95, 244pp.
The political chattering-class incarnations of Sigmund Freud have been busy this
year trying to solve the ultimate electoral mystery: "What does the middle
Who knew the answer might turn out to be summed up in two words — Sarah
Of all the answers offered to all the questions about independent voters, of
all the tax incentives and complicated plans of how to offer
"market-based" universal health, one answer escaped everyone —
probably because it sounded just too fantastic: Nominate someone who has
accomplished extraordinary things while living a normal American life.
Democrats have been asking "Wither goes the working class?" with
considerable angst since the days of Reagan. The refrain usually goes, "We
offer more benefits, so why are those people voting against their own economic
Unfortunately, many of the Republican solutions floated this year accepted
that premise, at least to the point of assuming the "Reagan coalition is
dead" and "working-class whites" are going to return to the
Democrat Party in droves after a generation of alliance with the GOP.
In the 1990s, I worked with UAW local leaders who were trying to convince
General Motors they had kicked the radicals out of power and now were a good
group to do business with, I tried to imagine those guys being all gung-ho for
Hillary Clinton, but it doesn't compute. Likewise, it's also hard to picture my
former clients being gaga over the fact that Joe Biden rides Amtrak and his
wife isn't rich.
No, Hillary became the repository of the hopes of clingy religious gunners
by default when it became obvious she was the only Democratic alternative to
Obama. In fact, only after Obama took a commanding lead in the primaries could
one could see any passion for Hillary among those voters.
Obama had one thing right, though – his problems with bitter gunners were
not primarily about economics. There wasn't a dime's bit of difference between
him and Hillary on that score. And for Republicans, neither specifically
appealing to "Hillary voters" nor crafting complicated economic
incentives is more than the icing on the cake.
Michael Gerson and David Frum, among others, have offered their plans to
rebuild a governing Republcan conservative-ish majority. I like to think of
these treatises as well-meaning and thoughtful attempts to come up with A
Compassionate Contract with America.
The roadmaps proposed by Republican pundits and strategists mostly take a
safe road to mainstream respectability. However, today's economic and energy
crises give Republicans an opportunity to drive a long-term wedge between
Democrats and its blue-collar base. But the solution requires an attack on
radical environmentalism -- the liberals' new religion — which would mean those
Republicans wouldn't be welcome at Manhattan cocktail parties any time soon.
Despite being relatively new faces in Republican thinking circles — or maybe
because of that — Ross Douthat and Reihan Salam, the Atlantic Monthly's
neo-neoconservatives, have garnered a good deal of attention with Grand New
Party: How Republicans Can Win the Working Class and Save the American Dream.
Douthat and Salam have the target exactly right. Their assertion that every
significant and successful political movement has captured the loyalty of
"working-class Americans" is a truism that a political party should
always keep in mind.
In fact, to avoid the usual labels and to recognize the changing nature of
the American middle, Douthat and Salam have coined the phrase "Sam's Club
voters." Unlike in he past, these voters are as likely to be teachers as
autoworkers, or working in a health care field as often as a construction yard.
They're people smack dab in the median income levels of the American economy,
working in areas where downturns in the economy or rising costs makes a real
difference in their lives.
But Douthat and Salam rightly point out that cultural trends are just as
important to Sam's Club voters as those more normally considered economic ones.
"Public disorder, family disintegration, and
civic and religious disaffection, breed downward mobility and financial
strain—which in turn breeds further social dislocation in a vicious cycle that
threatens to transform a working class into an underclass."
The authors are certainly correct that family instability is an
impoverishing factor for many. But while median incomes may have been largely
stagnant for a decade, little evidence shows the underclass is populated by
former Sam's Club voters or that many in upper-income levels once were. While
some in the working poor meet that description, few fall into what is
considered America's permanent and self-perpetuating underclass.
Grand New Party spends considerable time tracing the voting trends of
the American middle from Nixon's Silent Majority to the Reagan Democrats
phenomenon. They refute the leftist claims that racism was a primary motivating
factor of thenation's shift toward the GOP in the 1970s, citing crime and
general social disintegration as primary and legitimate motivators. Still, the
authors never stray too far from conventional orthodoxy. "Right
wing." for instance, is generally used as a apjorative and something that
turns Sam's Club voters off.
Is it Really the Economy, Stupid?
The authors propose a series of economic incentives and programs to attract
Sam's Club Voters to the GOP. Central to their plan is the kind of family and
child tax credits that presidential nominee John McCain advocates.
Probably the hardest proposal for conservatives to swallow would be the
notion of "wage subsidies." The authors consider the Earned Income
Tax Credit, which gives low-income workers extra cash at tax time, to be a
success but approvingly quote Mickey Kaus' observation that it would be better
"to hear that they are hiring at Home Depot for $10 per hour than 'If you
manage to find an employer to hire you… and then you apply to the IRS you'll
someday get a few hundred dollars back.'"
That may be more appealing, but even more so are direct welfare payments.
The authors contend, "Far from being a new entitlement, wage subsidies
would be an anti-entitlement, with government helping only those who are
already helping themselves." Anyone who has had experience with the
federal jobs training/creation programs of the 1970s and '80s might have a more
jaded view of such experiments.
Douthat and Salam contend that educational choice appeals to Sam's Club
voters, but there is little evidence of that. Inner-city voters tend to favor
some kind of school choice, but Sam's Club-types who may be a bit house poor
because they moved away from ghetto schools, in vote after vote, opt to keep
the status quo in their public schools.
They do admit the downward pressure on American wages, particularly in
unskilled and blue-collar work by massive immigration and propose a crackdown
on illegal immigration while favoring legal immigration.
Interestingly, since Grand New Party is about winning votes from
working-class voters, the authors maintain a free trade position. This may be
sound economics, but it's hardly a winning issue in most battleground states.
Ironically, it is the flip side of the illegal immigration issue. Blue-collar
Americans tend to make opposing both an issue of patriotism as much as an
Douthat and Salam unfailingly bring everything back to economics. After a
discussion of social factors for a rightward shift in the middle class, the
authors take a step back:
"Working-class social conservatism, and the
turn to the GOP it inspired wasn't just the residue of ancestral prejudices, it
was and is a rational response to lives lived without the security provided by
education and family wealth. For the working-class American, who inhabits a
more precarious world than the rich, or the upper middle-class, family
stability is a prerequisite for financial stability and so working-class voters
are less likely to benefit from greater sexual freedom and more likely to
suffer from its side effects "
No paragraph in this book illustrates the strengths and weaknesses of the
authors' argument than this one. It is all true enough, and Douthat and Salam
are correct that the sexual revolution was fought by and for the elites; and
the farther down the social ladder one was, the more likely one was to be a
casualty. But economic factors are not the primary reason middle American looks
at these trends with dismay.
As a lifelong resident of the Flint area, the Michigan region claimed as the
homeland of Michael Moore, I've worked and lived with people who immigrated to
the United States or migrated from the South to work in GM's auto plants.
They're the very core of the people Douthat and Salam are targeting -- and I
have never once heard anyone bring up economic consequences while tut-tutting
moral or social decay.
But that's not the only time that Douthat and Salam are so taken with their
thesis or highbrow opinion to the point that it colors their analysis. Here's
an example of how the authors think pop culture influenced Sam's Club voters to
drift away from Republicans in the 1990s:
"The defining novel of the era was Michael
Crichton's Rising Sun, a yellow peril thriller in which a lazy,
spendthrift America has fallen under the thumb of crafty, 'business-is-war
Japanese.' The defining work of history was Paul Kennedy's The Rise and Fall
of the Great Powers, which announced the end of American preeminence … and
the defining movie, perhaps was Falling Down in which Michael Douglas'
everyman character is laid off by a defense contractor and … wanders through
Los Angeles taking on greedy Korean grocers, crazy gangbangers, panhandlers,
country clubbers and neo-Nazis — the melting pot recast as a multicultural nightmare."
That's neat and sounds good-- but it's just not how it happened. While movie
critics and cultural elites were sure Falling Down captured the angst of
the working man caused by Republican presidents, actual working people stayed
away in droves. It was Michael Douglas's least successful movie of the period.
It was bookended by Basic Instinct, which made three times as much money (for
reasons that had nothing to do with angst) and Crichton's anti-feminist
Disclosure, which tackled reverse sexism in the workplace-- and made a third
again as much money. Rising Sun, in fact, was Crichton's least successful book
and movie of the era, dwarfed by Jurrasic Park and soundly beaten by Disclosure.
In fact, the paperback edition of Tom Wolfe's The Bonfire of the Vanities,
written in 1987, was still on the bestseller list when Rising Sun made its
brief splash years later. And Paul Johnson certainly defined the elite
pessimism about America's future. If Sam's Club had been around, it's hard to
imagine there would have been huge stacks of the book in the half price
Interestingly, the authors laud George Bush's Compassionate Conservative
approach, and talk approvingly of "building" on the concept. In fact,
they fault Bush for not continuing more in that vein and blame his neglect to
do so for this political slide.
"Of course, once the Iraq War turned sour… the
ties that bound this majority together began to fray. Having failed to follow
through on a reformist agenda when his popularity was at its peak, Bush was forced
to fall back on fear — of terrorists and liberals — to keep his hold on power
and it wasn't enough."
But if anything, one could argue the opposite is true. It was Bush's bold
(and now largely forgotten) plan to take on Social Security and other entitlements
that gave the Democrats a way to hammer the president with independent voters
even before many discouraging words were uttered about the Iraq War.
Defending Workers Against the Democrats' War on Blue-Collar Work
The authors hit close to the mark with their suggestion that the GOP
encourage educational experimentation in preparation in skilled trades.
This is on the right track, but the authors completely blow it. They propose
that Republicans thrown in the towel on the environment. Conservatives, they
say, who deny that global warming is man made have a "head in the sand
approach" that plays into a "liberal narrative of a know-nothing
But this is exactly the wrong approach. Before working-class Americans will
listen to the kinds of policies the authors proscribe, Republicans need to make
the Democrat Party an unacceptable choice.
The way to do this is simple: Prove that the Democrat policy on blue-collar
work, while constantly crying rivers for the working class, is to eliminate it.
It only took just one summer of $4 gas to get us to "Drill, baby,
drill" and persuade the Democrats to let the decades-old offshore drilling
ban expire. This is a good start, but it's only the tip of the Alaskan iceberg.
This should lead into a Republican appeal to blue-collar workers that
liberal environmentalism is their biggest enemy. If a plan involves digging,
drilling, cutting, fuel consumption, petroleum or paving, Democrats oppose it,
restrict it, put up hurdles or actively try to outlaw it, mostly in the name of
Public schools try to shoehorn everyone into college, while governors talk
about emerging sectors, as though it's better for every kid to work for Google
than drive a bulldozer. (Given the choice, I'd take the bulldozer, myself.)
Just as the sexual revolution and other cultural shocks of the last
half-century were largely about the elites, as the authors point out, while
those lower on the ladder paid the price, the same could be said about
environmentalism. While Al Gore buys carbon offsets, miners, loggers and
autoworkers are losing their jobs and being told they should learn to design
websites or work in the tourist industry.
This mantle has been waiting for conservatives to pick it up for at least a
decade, and there will never be a better time. This is now a unique opportunity
to give conservative economics a populist appeal. Middle-class — especially
blue-collar — independent voters are also moved by emotion and passion. They
respond to patriotism and candidates who they can identify and "us"
who will work against "them."
What political pull manufacturing unions have left has been based on such
appeals. There is now a chance to break that last hold on those voters —and if
McCain is still tying to make the Times and Post like him by talking about how
much he respects Al Gore, Republican congressional "leadership"
should at least try to live up to that label by taking this fight to the
opposition beyond just the drilling issue.
Looking for an unbreakable FDR-style majority will get us nowhere. That
existed in the days of precinct delegates doling out patronage and delivering
party messaging, and could only be maintained in the days of the mainstream
media monopoly. It cannot hold up in the new media mix—which is why Democrats
are trying to resurrect the un-Fairness Doctrine. But adding more blue-collar
workers to the ranks of Independent voters is a great start.
In the meantime, Republican intellectuals should take a break from studying
polling reports and demographic trendlines, then hoist a few cold ones in
places where if you mention the word Birkenstock, they will wonder if you are
talking German beer.
Thomas Sowell had it right in a recent column: "The working class are
in fact today among those most skeptical about the visions of the Left.
Ordinary working-class people did not lead the stampede to Barack Obama, even
before his disdain for them slipped out in unguarded moments."
Hillary took quick advantage of this weakness and made the Dem battle for
the nomination a horse race.
With less than four weeks left, there is enough time for McCain — but only
barely. But with blunders like his campaign geniuses stepping on Palin's debate
performance by announcing they are pulling out of Michigan, rather than sending
Sarah and Todd to barnstorm the northern parts of the state; and with McCain's
own lackluster debate performance, it's hard to be optimistic.