The book, Grand New Party, written before the 2008 Obama-McCain Presidential election, is by two notable younger conservatives. The first, Ross Douthat, is now one of the more conservative op-ed columnists at The New York Times. His co-author, Reihan Salam, is currently the executive editor ofThe National Review, the conservative magazine founded by William F. Buckley. Douthat’s and Salam’s politics are not mine, nor would their ideas form the foundation for a Liberal Republican revival. But there are many ideas in their book worth considering, some of which are described below.
The goal of reviving Liberal Republicanism is to bring back to America pragmatic, consensus-oriented politics. Reviving consensus-oriented politics requires that we elect politicians who could be the swing votes in Congress, voting with more conservative Republicans or more moderate Democrats on an issue-by-issue basis. Therefore, in building a Liberal Republican platform, it is important to consider the substantive policy proposals of thoughtful conservatives like Salam and Douthat.
It is also important to understand the different world view most conservative people have compared to most progressives. As Atticus tells Scout in To Kill A Mockingbird, “You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view…until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.” Reading Grand New Party serves both of these purposes–to be exposed to thoughtful conservative policy proposals and to the world view of these leading conservative thinkers.
Salam and Douthat make noteworthy observations and intriguing proposals in their book, including the following:
1. They emphasize that working-class insecurity–and they emphasize insecurity–is a function not only of economic problems, but of social issues as well. They note that even people who are currently comfortable, are reasonably frightened about losing what they have. They state, “Safe streets, successful marriages, cultural solidarity and vibrant religious and civic institutions make working-class Americans more likely to be wealthy, healthy and upwardly mobile. Public disorder, family disintegration, cultural fragmentation and civic and religious disaffection, on the other hand, breed downward mobility and financial strain–which in turn breeds further social dislocation, in a vicious cycle that threatens to transform a working class [and increasing numbers of mid-level white collar employees too] into an underclass.”
2. They state that, “Even when non-college-educated Americans are pulling the lever for the GOP, they consistently give the Democratic Party higher marks on issues ranging from education to health care to Social Security, and two generations of conservative activists, authors, and politicians haven’t been able to change their minds.” They point out how the working class has vacillated between both parties, and that after each Republican success, the working class “has become disillusioned with conservative governance and returned to the Democratic column.” The authors state that “The working class wants, and needs, more from public policy than simply to be left alone.”
3. They state that “The poorest Americans haven’t turned Right over recent decades, under the influence of those ‘hallucinatory’ culture war issues. Instead, they’ve turned Left, voting for Democrats more reliably than even in the heyday of the Great Society. But this hasn’t delivered liberals a majority, because most working-class voters aren’t poor. They’re relatively prosperous, in spite of left-wing claims about their supposed immiseration…The larger non-college-educated demographic is enduring a slow-burning crisis…a crisis that has sent them ricocheting from Nixon to Carter to Reagan to Clinton to Bush [and then to Obama and now Trump] in search of a politics that addresses their concerns…It’s a crisis of insecurity and immobility, not poverty, and it’s a crisis that has as much to do with culture as with economics.”[Emphasis mine]
4. Salam and Douthat argue that “[T]he ‘social issues,’ from abortion and marriage law to the death penalty and immigration, aren’t just red herrings distracting the working class from their economic struggles…Rather, they’re at the root of working-class insecurity. …Over the last thirty years familial stability has gone from being a near-universal feature of American life to a privilege reserved for the mass upper class.”
5. Douthat and Salam state that “The turning point was 1973, the year that hourly wages, which had steadily risen for thirty years, began to stagnate or even fall…rising immigration rates, following the 1964 reform, created a glut of low-wage labor; and skill-biased technological change meant that the market for employment increasingly privileged education over hard work…Blue-collar workers were struggling for the first time since World War II…but they were still better off than any working class in recorded history. These voters were receptive to economic populism…but they weren’t particularly receptive to the kind of tax-and-transfer redistributionism that the Democrats of the 1970’s and ’80’s were associated with, because it seemed primarily aimed at taking money out of their pockets and handing it out to the undeserving poor. Blue-collar voters were the working class, after all, and the genius of the New Deal had been to use government power to help those who helped themselves–to offer a helping hand to people clamoring up the ladder, rather than lavishing subsidies on the indigent. If you had a job, in the New Deal dispensation, you received Social Security benefits. If you saved for a home, you earned a home-mortgage deduction.”
6. The authors state, “When their wages stagnated and the economy slowed down, [the working class] didn’t demand more government spending–they demanded less, and the lower taxes that went with it. The tax revolts of the 1970’s were first ignited by the kind of voters…’suburban warriors’…in prosperous areas like Orange County. But the antitax movement succeeded because working-class voters joined in. After thirty years of seeing government as their ally in the quest for prosperity and self-sufficiency, they looked at what the Democrats seemed to be selling–dependency, rather than independence; condescension, rather than solidarity–and said thanks but no thanks.”
7. Douthat and Salam believe that “[Pre-Clinton] the best minds of the Democratic Party ran the liberal enterprise into the ground. They had put liberalism on the side of welfare rather than work. They funded housing projects that were among the most hellish places on earth. They defended absurd extensions of criminals’ rights.”
8. Salam and Douthat state, “What the liberal critique of GOP-style social conservatism does identify though, is the conservative habit of diagnosing the working class’s cultural problems and then pretending that those problems are the only ones there are…Divorce and illegitimacy lead to economic disadvantage, but the reverse is also true, [economic disadvantage lead to divorce and illegitimacy] and understanding the working-class crisis requires starting with culture but then turning to economics as well.”
9. Douthat and Salam state “[E]conomic instability, not poverty or prosperity, [is] a central concern of today’s working class, whether you’re talking about the small business owner who can barely afford health care or the autoworker who discovers that his corporate pension is a mirage.”
10. Salam and Douthat believe that “Inequality and instability only undermine a democratic order when the lower classes feel like there aren’t enough ladders leading upward. We don’t envy the rich if we think that our kids have a chance of joining them and we are more likely to accept significant risk if the chances for significant rewards are great as well.”
11. Douthat and Salam believe that mass immigration has “pulled the working class downward. Large-scale immigration from Mexico has been good for the economy as a whole, but like so many recent economic trends, it has made the rich richer and the poor more insecure. The college-educated have reaped the benefits of a steep decrease in the price of labor-intensive services…A recent study suggests that immigration accounts for roughly a third of the overall decline in the black employment rate over the last forty years.”
12. The authors state that “[T]he most likely scenario for a near-future America–no cultural Armageddons or dramatic collapses; [is] just a slow but steady degradation of everyday working-class life under the pressures of rising illegitimacy, insecurity and stratification. This, in turn, will make economic populism ever more politically potent.” (This book was written in 2008 and eight years later we elected Donald Trump President.)
13. The authors advocate for raising the child care credit to $5000 and allow it to offset income and payroll taxes. They would also like to have tax reform structured to encourage marriage but believe it to be a nonstarter politically. (Isabel Sawhill agrees, pointing out that even in Singapore, which is generally successful with such social policy engineering, attempts to encourage marriage have not had great success.) But Douthat and Salam do advocate tying tax relief to responsible parenting. They state that the government could offer subsidies to parents who provide child care in the home and pension or tuition credits that reflect the economic value of years spent in household labor. They observe that data show increasing numbers of working-class parents would like to work part-time or not at all when their children are young. They also advocate for Social Security payroll tax contributions to be uncapped. (The cap in 2017 is $128,700 dollars, so someone who makes that amount and someone who makes ten times that amount pay the same amount in Social Security taxes. Unearned income isn’t subject to social security taxes at all.) Finally, Salam and Douthat advocate for means-tested payments of Social Security benefits.
14. Douthat and Salam cite a study by sociologist Katherine Newman who, in the early 1990’s, interviewed three hundred applicants for work at a fast-food restaurant in Harlem. Two hundred of them were hired by the chain and one hundred were not. Professor Newman followed up her earlier study in her 2006 book, Chutes and Ladders. She found that many of her subjects had more in common with less disadvantaged people than she expected on matters of work and welfare, as opposed to an anti-work, anti-advancement “oppositional culture.” Douthat and Salam state “On matters of work and welfare, she [Professor Newman] noted, they [her interview subjects] were often ‘closer to a conservative, ‘red state’ perspective than the liberal,, ‘blue state’ view that most sociologists, myself included, subscribe to.'” Salam and Douthat state that Professor Newman’s findings suggest that there isn’t a bright line dividing the poor from the rest of the working class, either economically or culturally.
15. On schooling, Salam and Douthat state that “There should also be more experiments with staggered school years, in which holiday breaks are expanded and summer vacations dramatically reduced…poor kids make steady gains throughout the school year, even in the lowest-performing schools. Over the summer months, while middle-class and affluent children have a wide array of enriching experiences, the poor lose ground, sometimes dramatically. The cumulative effect is to widen an already wide educational gap.”
16. On criminal justice matters, they state, “Public order will always be at the heart of any working-class politics…Hiring thousands of new police officers wouldn’t just reduce crime–it would create job opportunities for the working class and in particular for young men from inner-city backgrounds.”
17. They advocate for restoring dignity to work, starting with more training in high schools and online in craftsmanship because highly skilled manual laborers are in great demand and can’t be outsourced overseas. Such jobs also provide a degree of autonomy to skilled workers more akin to a professional than “to the often deadening effects of too many modern jobs, both blue and white collar.” They point out that American schools have been reluctant to “track” students this way, out of concern that acquiring a specific skill set may limit opportunities. But, they state, “in the age of the global labor glut, the opposite may be the case. The twenty-something with a generic college degree and no particular skill set could actually have fewer options…”
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As you can see, there is much common ground between what Douthat and Salam advocate and what more Progressive thinkers like Isabel Sawhill and Christopher Jencks support. For me, it is nice to know that there is more middle ground on policy choices than most of our politicians and media today generally lead us to believe.
1 See the discussion of Isabel Sawhill’s book Generation Unbound for the data on how unstable American family life has become for Americans other than the college educated. [link] Of children born to unmarried parents, by the time the children reach age five, Sawhill states that only one-third of these unmarried couples were still together, in contrast to eighty percent of their married counterparts. “Most of these mothers went on to form newrelationships and to have children with other men, sometimes with a series of different men. The fathers did the same with other women…More than three-quarters (78 percent) of all the children initially born to unmarried parents experienced a major change in their household by the time they were age 5.” Sawhill states “One cannot help worrying about the impacts on the next generation, the children who are growing up without knowing any kind of stable family life. Will they be able to form stable relationships themselves when they have not experienced stability in their own lives?”
2 Except for African-Americans, who were explicitly excluded from most New Deal programs as the price FDR paid to get the legislation past Southern Democratic legislators. Douthat and Salam believe that “[T]he very concept of a class-conscious proletariat was, in some sense, un-American, a contradiction of the country’s original democratic dream, in which differences in wealth were trumped by social equality…All these achievements, though, were built on a foundation of exclusion…[T]he New Deal’s programs tended to exclude African-Americans from benefits…new labor laws excluded agricultural and domestic laborers, both heavily black occupations at the time, from their regulations; so too, until the 1950’s, did Social Security…Over time it became clear that the New Dealers had made a deal with the devil to pass sweeping social legislation, refusing to confront segregation head-on in the interests of keeping the South solidly in the Democratic column.” See Ira Katznelson, Fear Itself-The New Deal and the Origins of Our Times. Racism doesn’t get any more structural than this.
3 The current Republican House tax bill proposes an increase in the child care credit from $1000 to $1600. The Senate tax bill, after prodding from President Trump’s daughter and advisor Ivanka, proposes doubling the credit to $2000. In 2012 a report by the National Marriage Project and the Institute for American Values (whose advisory board reflects a broad range of political views) advocated for tripling the child care credit to $3000. Republican Senators Marco Rubio and Mike Lee advocate for increasing the credit to $3500. A proposal by Democratic Senators Michael Bennet and Sherrod Brown would increase the credit to $3600 for children ages 0 to five and to $3000 per year for children ages six to eighteen.
4 Lee Kuan Yew was perhaps the most successful statesman of the second half of the Twentieth Century. Under his leadership, The Republic of Singapore developed from “third world to first”, with its per capita income increasing a hundredfold in the first fifty years of its independence and by developing world-class education and health systems that are broadly enjoyed. According to Lee Kuan Yew, “We were not ideologues. We did not believe in theories as such…What we faced was a real problem of human beings looking for work, to be paid, to buy their food, their clothes, their homes, and to bring their children up….[W]e were sufficiently practical and pragmatic enough not to be cluttered up and inhibited by theories. If a thing works, let us work it…”See Lee Kuan Yew: The Grand Master’s Insights on China, The United States, and The World, p. 135.