June 27, 2008 —Fans of the movie Caddyshack will remember the scene: Danny Noonan, an earnest, working-class caddy at a snooty country club, is doing his best to butter up Judge Smails, one of the club’s more reprehensible members. Petty, shallow, and bigoted, the wealthy judge holds the key, it seems, to Danny’s future: the coveted caddy college scholarship.
Ever persistent, Danny sidles up to the judge. “I planned to go to law school after I graduated,” Danny sighs. “But it looks like my folks won’t have enough money to put me through college.”
“Well,” the judge huffs, marching ahead, “the world needs ditch diggers, too!”
Fast forward to 2008, where, in much of America’s cultural imagination, the Grand Old Party might as well be the party of Judge Smails. Media forecasts predict a bloodbath at the November polls; Democrats gleefully point to Republican “elitism” and favoritism towards “corporations” and “the rich.” Many luminaries in the right-wing cognoscenti, meanwhile, remain convinced that if the party’s problems stem from anything, it’s from a lack of ideological purity and libertarian zeal.
In their new book, “Grand New Party,” Ross Douthat and Reihan Salam, two young editors at The Atlantic, have a different prescription for the GOP. Forget Barry Goldwater, they seem to suggest–it’s Danny Noonan you’re after. America’s working class is the ultimate swing vote, they write, and it has yet to find a home. The GOP may have squandered opportunities in the past, but it can win working-class hearts with a politics that is oriented around the interests of the “Sam’s Club” demographic, that aims to “make government work better, not pare it to the bone,” and ultimately will “lead working-class America out its post-seventies struggles.”
“Grand New Party” argues that Republicans yearning for a purer ideological platform–rhapsodizing about Reagan’s mythic “unbending libertarian purity” and lamenting Bush’s big-government tendencies–are barking up the wrong tree. Limited government is a painfully hard sell, it turns out, even among the GOP faithful. As a 2005 Pew poll revealed, only 11 percent of registered voters are in the “leave us alone” camp. Other, larger GOP-supporting groups (“social conservatives” and “pro-government conservatives,” for instance) tend to want more government involvement, not less, particularly regarding economic issues. Over the past forty years, the authors write, “this problem–that the working class wants, and needs, more from public policy than simply to be left alone–has prevented the Republican party from consolidating an enduring majority.”
Class is a slippery issue in America, making certain definitions difficult. For their part, Douthat and Salam define the working class as “non-college-educated voters who make up roughly half of the American electorate…whose parents and grandparents once formed the heart of the Roosevelt coalition.” This group has played a pivotal role in every election since 1968, and, according to the book, is currently wracked with crisis: a crisis of growing inequality, social insecurity, and “anxiety over health care, pensions, and income volatility.” Republicans are dreadfully out of touch with this insecurity, the authors argue, as well as its main political implication: “rising sympathy for the political left, with its promise of equality-through-redistribution.”
These days, the word “crisis” tends to get bandied about more than it should, and Douthat and Salam admit that America’s working class has enjoyed “persistent prosperity” and numerous benefits from the changing economy (in the form of cheaper goods, improved health care, larger homes, and increased leisure time). At the same time, however, the authors express serious concern over growing social and economic stratification, in which “the country’s mass upper class becomes increasingly segregated from the rest of the population” while the working class grows isolated from the culture of inherited success. The problem, which the authors admit, is that this sorting may be the natural, “logical endpoint” of a meritocracy, not the result of some grand conspiracy. “Grand New Party” is less likely to admit, however, that there may not be much the government can do to stop the forces behind such a major cultural and societal shift.
The same challenge faces what the authors describe as the heart of the problems facing the Sam’s Club demographic: not globalization or the rise of the information economy, but the dramatic decline of the working class family. Social issues, the authors argue, are “at the root of working-class insecurity,” and working-class travails have “as much to do with culture as with economics.” The sexual revolution, they write, wreaked havoc on the working class, leading to skyrocketing divorce, illegitimacy, and single-parent homes. “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.” These cultural side effects, according to the Brookings Institution, “may be responsible for over 30 percent of the growth in income inequality between 1979 and 1996.”
How, then, can the GOP address the issues facing America’s working class? A conservatism that wins, Douthat and Salam argue, promises “to fix the welfare state, rather than abolish it; to reform the Great Society, but leave the New Deal more or less intact.” The successful parts of the New Deal, they write, were the ones that tied social and familial reconstruction to economic aid. In that light, marriage and children should be rewarded with tax credits; welfare work requirements should be enforced; vocational training should grow. Some of the book’s policies are intriguing, and others are vague. In many cases, they are a prescription for pragmatism (recommending school choice, but in a slightly watered-down form; or calling for “an environmentalism that is both pro-growth and pro-jobs.”)
“Grand New Party” gets some important things right, but it also misses one of the greatest challenges to modern political reform: the over-the-top scare tactics frequently used by the ideological left. Whether it comes to school choice, Social Security reform (which “Grand New Party” gives up on, suggesting a payroll-tax-the-rich option instead), or other policies that could dramatically increase the opportunities of the working class, left-wing politicians reliably unleash a firestorm of horror stories, leaving the GOP in the dust. As the authors suggest, fire-breathing rhetoric about slashing government likely won’t help the Republicans. But a compelling narrative about the benefits of freedom and opportunity–a narrative that doesn’t buckle just for political expediency, or, for that matter, in the face of daunting opposition–well, that just might.