The Republican Civil War: Can the GOP Make a Comeback by Embracing the Welfare State?

By McCarthy, Daniel | Reason, November 2008 | Go to article overview

The Republican Civil War: Can the GOP Make a Comeback by Embracing the Welfare State?


McCarthy, Daniel, Reason


Grand New Party: How Republicans Can Win the Working Class and Save the American Dream, by Ross Douthat and Reihan Salam, New York: Doubleday, 256 pages, $23.95

AFTER SEVEN-PLUS years of George W. Bush, conservatives find themselves in a civil war. Bush partisans and neoconservafives have ditched "compassionate conservatism" and "national greatness conservatism" as slogans, but they still believe in a more vigorous, active government than did the right-wingers of yesteryear. Deficit hawks, libertarian-leaning conservatives, Barry Goldwater acolytes, and a great many rank-and-file Republicans, on the other hand, continue to profess something closer to Thomas Jefferson's creed that the government which governs best governs least.

In Grand New Party, Ross Douthat and Reihan Salam, two twenty-something bloggers affiliated with The Atlantic Monthly, add their voices to the growing chorus of conservatives urging the GOP to embrace big government. Their book joins recent volumes by Bush speechwriters David Frum (Comeback: Conservatism That Can Win Again) and Michael Gerson (Heroic Conservatism) in arguing that if it wants to return to power, the Republican Party must shed whatever libertarian scruples it retains and commit to an activist state. What the country really needs, apparently, is even more federal programs such as No Child Left Behind and public-private partnerships such as Bush's faith-based initiatives.

Douthat and Salam advocate paternalistic government for the good of the working class, which, they say, "wants, and needs, more from public policy than simply to be left alone "American workers suffer from "anxiety amid affluence, economic stress amid stock market highs." And since "too many on the Right seem to have confused the American tradition of limited government for an ahistorical vision of a government that does nothing at all," Douthat and Salam offer a program to keep Uncle Sam busy, doing everything from subsidizing summer schools to building an information superhighway on the scale of "Lincoln's transcontinental railroad or FDR's rural electrification program." Who says the era of big government is over?

Douthat and Salem rest their case on two premises. First, the working class ("Sam's Club voters") holds the key to a permanent political realignment. America is "a fifty-fifty nation, waiting for a new majority to emerge," and if the GOP Can win the workers, it will have a lock on national power for decades to come. Second, blue-collar Americans are facing "a crisis of insecurity and immobility, not poverty, and it's a crisis that has as much to do with culture as with economics." Divorce, single parenthood, and misplaced educational priorities are just a few of the forces that Douthat and Salam believe are dragging Sam's Clubbers down.

An "ideologically innovative conservatism" that can "win working-class votes, craft a political majority, and redeem the promise of American life," Douthat and Salam say, will give Republicans a grasp upon power like New Deal Democrats had between 1932 and 1964, "an era of unprecedented political consensus, social equality, and cultural solidarity."

So just who is this "working class"? Douthat and Salam provide no consistent definition. On page 2, it means "the non-college-educated voters who make up roughly half of the American electorate," which would include the poor. But four pages later the authors have narrowed the term, asserting that "working-class voters aren't poor" and "if you're a Sam's Club voter today, you're more likely to belong to a family that makes $60,000 a year than one that makes $30,000." That would make Sam's Clubbers solidly middle-class; according to the Census Bureau, median household income in 2006 was $48,201. Yet Douthat and Salam insist "the working class of today is defined less by income or wealth than by education--by the lack of a college degree and the cultural capital associated with it. …

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