Smile Politely

Getting Serious About Courting the Working Class Vote

Barack Obama won big while refusing (for the most part) to go negative. Perhaps he won precisely because he refused to attack his opponent, to “pick on an invalid,” as Ronald Reagan—in an alarmingly effective slam—backhandedly did to Michael Dukakis in the George H.W. Bush–Dukakis election year of 1988. Certainly Obama succeeded, in part, because he responded (in his typically dignified manner) when he, himself, was targeted—something Dukakis, and John Kerry after him, tragically did not do.

We might be tempted to believe that we have entered an era where political battles are won not by going on the offensive, not by “stripping the bark off the little bastard” (our opponent), as Lee Atwater promised to do (and did) to Dukakis, but by hitching smart, workable policy to the soaring rhetoric of change. Getting ahold of a copy of Grand New Party: How Republicans Can Win the Working Class and Save the American Dream, by Ross Douthat and Reihan Salam, editors at The Atlantic—and studying it—further convinces us of this.

Theirs is certainly not the first book to outline a sober plan for a Republican resurgence. But it is, perhaps, one of the most comprehensive and compelling. Douthat and Salam are as smart as Obama, and seemingly as moral. Democrats can appreciate the ethical awakening of their enemy. But they also best beware: the book is an endless wellspring of whip-smart insights and policy proposals that might very well attract and begin to reroute the emerging Democratic majority.

These days, a debate is swirling in GOP circles between old and new. A younger faction of bigger government conservatives is surfacing, and trying mightily to dunk the Goldwater/Reagan limited-government crowd. Grand New Party sits firmly and forcefully in the former camp. Yet, although a manifesto for reconfiguring the GOP, the book contains none of that genre’s impassioned rhetoric. Vigorous without being dogmatic, it unveils one policy proposal after another in reasonable and readable fashion.

Beginning with LBJ and ending with George W. Bush, Douthat and Salam detail what Democrats and Republicans got wrong, and right, in courting the working-class vote. They contrast the working class’s embrace of FDR’s New Deal programs to their rejection of the ones LBJ’s Great Society offered. In noting the difference, the authors explain: The working class “looked at what the Democrats seemed to be selling—dependency, rather than independence; condescension, rather than solidarity—and said thanks but no thanks.” They then explain—in the section discussing the presidency of Richard Nixon—that in failing to follow through with, among other things, his Family Assistance Plan (FAP) (the first substantial attempt at welfare reform), Nixon “became a custodian of the very Great Society that he had run against.” Offering excellent summaries of the accomplishments of reformist figures like Wisconsin governor Tommy Thompson, discussing everything from neoliberalism to neoconservatism to George McGovern, Douthat and Salam profoundly complicate our understanding of recent political history.

One of the authors’ main arguments is this: While the freedoms unleashed by the sixties liberated the well-heeled from the restrictions of the so-called golden era of the fifties, they put off, and in many respects debilitated, the working class, which was just beginning to profit— economically and emotionally—from the benefits of marriage and other traditional institutions. Arguing that the working class is less able to handle the freedom that college-educated liberals embrace may strike many as elitist. But even so, what should be the response to alarming statistics in working-class communities on divorce and illegitimacy rates, and drug abuse that often leads to higher high school dropout rates?

In studying this book, I was reminded of a question a beloved professor once posed to me. Looking around at the papers in my profession celebrating single motherhood and pro-sex feminism, she leaned forward, and quietly asked me how I thought these ideas would play in poor, rural communities, or in the inner city. Would they, in fact, be subversive there? Such a question proved oddly liberating to her nerdy graduate student, who was failing in her desperate, false attempts to be “cool” or “bad” as a way of alleviating the guilt (in liberal circles anyway) of a bourgeois upbringing. I suspect a number of people feel the same way.

While conservatives most likely do not bandy about the word “subversive” at cocktail parties, Douthat and Salam’s ideas are—in certain environments—exactly that, if only Democrats and liberals and English professors could see them that way. Their argument that conservative values lead to economic wealth is reasonable; their evidence supporting it is sound. Perhaps it’s only the screechy, righteous amplification of these ideas by proponents of family values like James Dobson that repels more people than it attracts.

Indeed, lest readers think that Douthat and Salam offer more of the same, the authors do not simply moralize. They want to put money where their mouths are, and, by the standards of traditional Republicans, lots of it. They propose, among other things, subsidies to parents caring for young children at home, a national health insurance plan that resembles the one offered by Democrats, summer programs for impoverished kids, and a reworking of the tax code in a way that rewards traditional families.

Liberal critics like Thomas Frank and Bob Moser are right in calling for a return to economic populism. But Democrats must continue to engage cultural issues—especially as Republicans learn to better connect economic theory to cultural ideologies under the leadership of intellectuals like Douthat and Salam. We can still applaud the liberal ideas of those, well, hip enough to offer them (some of my best friends are cool), but allowing socially conservative do-gooders in threadbare turtlenecks and chinos to also take their place as culture warriors for the Democratic Party would productively expand the tent, as it were.

Douthat and Salam have their critics. Republican detractors dismiss their practical proposals as too idealistic. They insist that interest groups control real-life politics, and that there is no group out there massive enough to shoulder the authors’ considerable agenda. But those who launch this critique have been seemingly brainwashed by Bush Sr.’s once victorious—but now dated—mantra “no new taxes.” Besides, Reagan was misunderstood, the authors remind readers, as his mission was not “to do away with government,” but to “make it work.” Ultimately, then, Douthat and Salam give Republicans and Democrats alike little to caricature, and a lot to ponder.

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