Features » May 30, 2008
Sams Club Politics
On a recent episode of the NBC comedy “30 Rock,” the cutthroat corporate executive Jack Donaghy, played by Alec Baldwin, needed some “cool Republican celebrities” to headline his John McCain fundraising dinner. To his dismay, Democrats had cornered the hip, star market, so Donaghy was forced to turn to the fictional Dennis Duffy, an obnoxious beeper salesman who had recently stepped in front of a subway train to save a fallen stranger. To be certain he had the right man, Donaghy asked Duffy to describe his politics. “Social conservative, fiscal liberal,” the subway hero deadpanned.
The Atlantic Monthly’s Ross Douthat, a senior editor, and Reihan Salam, an associate editor, would likely disavow that label, but the platform they advocate in their thoughtful book, Grand New Party: How Republicans Can Win the Working Class and Save the American Dream (Doubleday, 2008), would likely earn Duffy’s vote.
By urging the GOP to address the economic needs of its working-class base – whom the authors call the party’s “Sam’s Club voters” – Douthat and Salam propose a forward-thinking domestic strategy that could revive a party ailing under the leadership of supply-side ideologues. And while many ideas in Grand New Party deserve serious scrutiny, progressives who are interested in building and sustaining a governing majority should consider the authors’ argument.
Part political history, part domestic policy paper, Grand New Party centers on a simple premise: Working-class Americans are struggling and need government to work for them. Like populists on the left, Douthat and Salam understand growing insecurity – inadequate healthcare, evaporating pensions, income volatility – and a hardening of the country’s socioeconomic classes to be the “greatest domestic danger facing American society.” Their political solution, however, gives as much (if not more) consideration to culture – specifically, the decline of traditional nuclear families – as it does to economics.
The last enduring political majority – President Roosevelt’s New Deal coalition – is, ironically, the standard-bearer for these conservatives’ vision of government. Rather than champion the New Dealers’ public works programs, Douthat and Salam find value in the reformers’ emphasis on dignity, ownership and independence among American families, promoted through the family wage and the 1935 Social Security Act, among other legislation.
But in the 1960s, the authors argue, rising crime, family breakdown, educational and economic stratification, and, to a lesser extent, the shifting racial platforms of the two major parties subverted the “cultural solidarity” so central to the New Deal. With this electoral coalition weakened, conservatives had a chance to cement their legacy by implementing, in the words of then-Nixon adviser Kevin Phillips, “policies able to resurrect the vitality and commitment of Middle America.”
Yet despite significant electoral successes, Republicans failed to consolidate a Roosevelt-like majority, precisely because they embraced a vision of small government at odds with the interests of working-class voters.
After Goldwater Republicans derailed President Nixon’s platform of “ideological conservatism and operational liberalism,” Tricky Dick forged an unsustainable majority built on working-class resentments of the ’60s counterculture, not creative public policy. Stagnating wages persisted and crime rose throughout the Reagan years, proving tax cuts alone weren’t a sufficient buffer against the destabilizing effects of globalization. The Newt Gingrich revolutionaries made pragmatic gains in President Clinton’s first term, but the Right’s irrational hatred of the Democrat ultimately ended their uneasy partnership. And on the stump, George W. Bush articulated a vision of working-class conservatism but abandoned it in favor of corporate welfare and war-making.
So, where are increasingly insecure Sam’s Club voters to turn?
Douthat and Salam hope they will flock to a rejuvenated Republican Party, one that seeks to alleviate the economic burdens of the working class through culturally conservative policy prescriptions. From family-friendly tax reforms to government-subsidized childcare to comprehensive immigration and education reform, Grand New Party outlines a pro-family economic agenda that attempts to foster upward mobility among working families through directed government expenditures, a plan that admonishes the Republican domestic-spending status quo.
The authors should be applauded for tackling the topic of Sam’s Club insecurity, something legislators on both sides of the aisle have ignored for too long. Politically, it’s a smart argument for Republicans, as well. It hits the Democrats where they are weakest (their perceived lack of “moral values”) and could redirect voters’ focus away from cultural issues – same-sex marriage, stem cell research, evolution – that the conservative establishment has pushed for decades, thereby increasingly alienating moderate voters.
A platform like this couldn’t come soon enough for the Right, either. Republicans are rapidly ceding ground to Democrats among Latinos, independents and young people, suggesting they may need white, working-class supermajorities to survive.
But Grand New Party is not without its faults. For one, the authors’ presumption that Republican policies haven’t significantly intensified inequality is flimsy, at best. In his new book Unequal Democracy: The Political Economy of the New Gilded Age, Princeton political scientist Larry Bartels writes that when a Republican president is in power, people at the top of the income scale experience decidedly larger real income gains than those at the bottom. Because of differences in tax policy, social spending and business regulation, the dynamic is reversed when a Democrat is in power. In other words, economic polarization isn’t unavoidable and reforming policies that promote it can help quell family dislocation.
Douthat and Salam’s platform also may not be ambitious enough to address the economic inequities facing the population. For example, there’s little discussion of financial regulation, the need to rein in our bloated defense budget or about the massive debt we’ve accrued as a result.
And while they somewhat plausibly contend that race played only a secondary role in the breakup of the New Deal coalition, it’s clear that Republicans have since exploited those underlying racial tensions for policy, as well as electoral gain. By implicitly reinforcing the sensationalized image of the government-dependent “Other” (see Reagan’s nefarious Cadillac-driving “welfare queen”), Republicans have undermined support for public investment. In a sense, our rejection of a robust safety net is rooted not only in an abstract vision of American exceptionalism, as Grand New Party contends, but also in tensions stemming from our diverse ethnic makeup.
But paralyzing racial animosities are not inevitable. By speaking frankly about racial division and how the corporate class has exploited it for its own gain, progressives can offer a bold, politically popular platform focused on protecting all working families from the failures of the free market.
Regardless of the book’s shortfalls, Republicans should take to heart Grand New Party’s sharp advice. But those on the left needn’t worry. To judge from the medley of Sen. John McCain’s economic proposals – extending the Bush tax cuts, a one-year freeze in discretionary spending – working-class conservatism doesn’t look to be coming any time soon.
Adam Doster, a contributing editor at In These Times, is a Chicago-based freelance writer and former reporter-blogger for Progress Illinois.
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