The political chattering-class incarnations of Sigmund Freud have been busy this year trying to solve the ultimate electoral mystery: "What does the middle class want?"
Who knew the answer might turn out to be summed up in two words — Sarah Palin?
Of all the answers offered to all the questions about independent voters, of all the tax incentives and complicated plans of how to offer "market-based" universal health, one answer escaped everyone — probably because it sounded just too fantastic: Nominate someone who has accomplished extraordinary things while living a normal American life.
Democrats have been asking "Wither goes the working class?" with considerable angst since the days of Reagan. The refrain usually goes, "We offer more benefits, so why are those people voting against their own economic interests?"
Unfortunately, many of the Republican solutions floated this year accepted that premise, at least to the point of assuming the "Reagan coalition is dead" and "working-class whites" are going to return to the Democrat Party in droves after a generation of alliance with the GOP.
In the 1990s, I worked with UAW local leaders who were trying to convince General Motors they had kicked the radicals out of power and now were a good group to do business with, I tried to imagine those guys being all gung-ho for Hillary Clinton, but it doesn't compute. Likewise, it's also hard to picture my former clients being gaga over the fact that Joe Biden rides Amtrak and his wife isn't rich.
No, Hillary became the repository of the hopes of clingy religious gunners by default when it became obvious she was the only Democratic alternative to Obama. In fact, only after Obama took a commanding lead in the primaries could one could see any passion for Hillary among those voters.
Obama had one thing right, though – his problems with bitter gunners were not primarily about economics. There wasn't a dime's bit of difference between him and Hillary on that score. And for Republicans, neither specifically appealing to "Hillary voters" nor crafting complicated economic incentives is more than the icing on the cake.
Michael Gerson and David Frum, among others, have offered their plans to rebuild a governing Republcan conservative-ish majority. I like to think of these treatises as well-meaning and thoughtful attempts to come up with A Compassionate Contract with America.
The roadmaps proposed by Republican pundits and strategists mostly take a safe road to mainstream respectability. However, today's economic and energy crises give Republicans an opportunity to drive a long-term wedge between Democrats and its blue-collar base. But the solution requires an attack on radical environmentalism -- the liberals' new religion — which would mean those Republicans wouldn't be welcome at Manhattan cocktail parties any time soon.
Despite being relatively new faces in Republican thinking circles — or maybe because of that — Ross Douthat and Reihan Salam, the Atlantic Monthly's neo-neoconservatives, have garnered a good deal of attention with Grand New Party: How Republicans Can Win the Working Class and Save the American Dream.
Douthat and Salam have the target exactly right. Their assertion that every significant and successful political movement has captured the loyalty of "working-class Americans" is a truism that a political party should always keep in mind.
In fact, to avoid the usual labels and to recognize the changing nature of the American middle, Douthat and Salam have coined the phrase "Sam's Club voters." Unlike in he past, these voters are as likely to be teachers as autoworkers, or working in a health care field as often as a construction yard. They're people smack dab in the median income levels of the American economy, working in areas where downturns in the economy or rising costs makes a real difference in their lives.
But Douthat and Salam rightly point out that cultural trends are just as important to Sam's Club voters as those more normally considered economic ones. They write:
"Public disorder, family disintegration, and civic and religious disaffection, breed downward mobility and financial strain—which in turn breeds further social dislocation in a vicious cycle that threatens to transform a working class into an underclass."
The authors are certainly correct that family instability is an impoverishing factor for many. But while median incomes may have been largely stagnant for a decade, little evidence shows the underclass is populated by former Sam's Club voters or that many in upper-income levels once were. While some in the working poor meet that description, few fall into what is considered America's permanent and self-perpetuating underclass.
Grand New Party spends considerable time tracing the voting trends of the American middle from Nixon's Silent Majority to the Reagan Democrats phenomenon. They refute the leftist claims that racism was a primary motivating factor of thenation's shift toward the GOP in the 1970s, citing crime and general social disintegration as primary and legitimate motivators. Still, the authors never stray too far from conventional orthodoxy. "Right wing." for instance, is generally used as a apjorative and something that turns Sam's Club voters off.
Is it Really the Economy, Stupid?
The authors propose a series of economic incentives and programs to attract Sam's Club Voters to the GOP. Central to their plan is the kind of family and child tax credits that presidential nominee John McCain advocates.
Probably the hardest proposal for conservatives to swallow would be the notion of "wage subsidies." The authors consider the Earned Income Tax Credit, which gives low-income workers extra cash at tax time, to be a success but approvingly quote Mickey Kaus' observation that it would be better "to hear that they are hiring at Home Depot for $10 per hour than 'If you manage to find an employer to hire you… and then you apply to the IRS you'll someday get a few hundred dollars back.'"
That may be more appealing, but even more so are direct welfare payments. The authors contend, "Far from being a new entitlement, wage subsidies would be an anti-entitlement, with government helping only those who are already helping themselves." Anyone who has had experience with the federal jobs training/creation programs of the 1970s and '80s might have a more jaded view of such experiments.
Douthat and Salam contend that educational choice appeals to Sam's Club voters, but there is little evidence of that. Inner-city voters tend to favor some kind of school choice, but Sam's Club-types who may be a bit house poor because they moved away from ghetto schools, in vote after vote, opt to keep the status quo in their public schools.
They do admit the downward pressure on American wages, particularly in unskilled and blue-collar work by massive immigration and propose a crackdown on illegal immigration while favoring legal immigration.
Interestingly, since Grand New Party is about winning votes from working-class voters, the authors maintain a free trade position. This may be sound economics, but it's hardly a winning issue in most battleground states. Ironically, it is the flip side of the illegal immigration issue. Blue-collar Americans tend to make opposing both an issue of patriotism as much as an economic one.
Douthat and Salam unfailingly bring everything back to economics. After a discussion of social factors for a rightward shift in the middle class, the authors take a step back:
"Working-class social conservatism, and the turn to the GOP it inspired wasn't just the residue of ancestral prejudices, it was and is a rational response to lives lived without the security provided by education and family wealth. 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 "
No paragraph in this book illustrates the strengths and weaknesses of the authors' argument than this one. It is all true enough, and Douthat and Salam are correct that the sexual revolution was fought by and for the elites; and the farther down the social ladder one was, the more likely one was to be a casualty. But economic factors are not the primary reason middle American looks at these trends with dismay.
As a lifelong resident of the Flint area, the Michigan region claimed as the homeland of Michael Moore, I've worked and lived with people who immigrated to the United States or migrated from the South to work in GM's auto plants. They're the very core of the people Douthat and Salam are targeting -- and I have never once heard anyone bring up economic consequences while tut-tutting moral or social decay.
But that's not the only time that Douthat and Salam are so taken with their thesis or highbrow opinion to the point that it colors their analysis. Here's an example of how the authors think pop culture influenced Sam's Club voters to drift away from Republicans in the 1990s:
"The defining novel of the era was Michael Crichton's Rising Sun, a yellow peril thriller in which a lazy, spendthrift America has fallen under the thumb of crafty, 'business-is-war Japanese.' The defining work of history was Paul Kennedy's The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers, which announced the end of American preeminence … and the defining movie, perhaps was Falling Down in which Michael Douglas' everyman character is laid off by a defense contractor and … wanders through Los Angeles taking on greedy Korean grocers, crazy gangbangers, panhandlers, country clubbers and neo-Nazis — the melting pot recast as a multicultural nightmare."
That's neat and sounds good-- but it's just not how it happened. While movie critics and cultural elites were sure Falling Down captured the angst of the working man caused by Republican presidents, actual working people stayed away in droves. It was Michael Douglas's least successful movie of the period. It was bookended by Basic Instinct, which made three times as much money (for reasons that had nothing to do with angst) and Crichton's anti-feminist Disclosure, which tackled reverse sexism in the workplace-- and made a third again as much money. Rising Sun, in fact, was Crichton's least successful book and movie of the era, dwarfed by Jurrasic Park and soundly beaten by Disclosure.
In fact, the paperback edition of Tom Wolfe's The Bonfire of the Vanities, written in 1987, was still on the bestseller list when Rising Sun made its brief splash years later. And Paul Johnson certainly defined the elite pessimism about America's future. If Sam's Club had been around, it's hard to imagine there would have been huge stacks of the book in the half price display.
Interestingly, the authors laud George Bush's Compassionate Conservative approach, and talk approvingly of "building" on the concept. In fact, they fault Bush for not continuing more in that vein and blame his neglect to do so for this political slide.
"Of course, once the Iraq War turned sour… the ties that bound this majority together began to fray. Having failed to follow through on a reformist agenda when his popularity was at its peak, Bush was forced to fall back on fear — of terrorists and liberals — to keep his hold on power and it wasn't enough."
But if anything, one could argue the opposite is true. It was Bush's bold (and now largely forgotten) plan to take on Social Security and other entitlements that gave the Democrats a way to hammer the president with independent voters even before many discouraging words were uttered about the Iraq War.
Defending Workers Against the Democrats' War on Blue-Collar Work
The authors hit close to the mark with their suggestion that the GOP encourage educational experimentation in preparation in skilled trades.
This is on the right track, but the authors completely blow it. They propose that Republicans thrown in the towel on the environment. Conservatives, they say, who deny that global warming is man made have a "head in the sand approach" that plays into a "liberal narrative of a know-nothing anti-science Right."
But this is exactly the wrong approach. Before working-class Americans will listen to the kinds of policies the authors proscribe, Republicans need to make the Democrat Party an unacceptable choice.
The way to do this is simple: Prove that the Democrat policy on blue-collar work, while constantly crying rivers for the working class, is to eliminate it.
It only took just one summer of $4 gas to get us to "Drill, baby, drill" and persuade the Democrats to let the decades-old offshore drilling ban expire. This is a good start, but it's only the tip of the Alaskan iceberg.
This should lead into a Republican appeal to blue-collar workers that liberal environmentalism is their biggest enemy. If a plan involves digging, drilling, cutting, fuel consumption, petroleum or paving, Democrats oppose it, restrict it, put up hurdles or actively try to outlaw it, mostly in the name of environmentalism.
Public schools try to shoehorn everyone into college, while governors talk about emerging sectors, as though it's better for every kid to work for Google than drive a bulldozer. (Given the choice, I'd take the bulldozer, myself.)
Just as the sexual revolution and other cultural shocks of the last half-century were largely about the elites, as the authors point out, while those lower on the ladder paid the price, the same could be said about environmentalism. While Al Gore buys carbon offsets, miners, loggers and autoworkers are losing their jobs and being told they should learn to design websites or work in the tourist industry.
This mantle has been waiting for conservatives to pick it up for at least a decade, and there will never be a better time. This is now a unique opportunity to give conservative economics a populist appeal. Middle-class — especially blue-collar — independent voters are also moved by emotion and passion. They respond to patriotism and candidates who they can identify and "us" who will work against "them."
What political pull manufacturing unions have left has been based on such appeals. There is now a chance to break that last hold on those voters —and if McCain is still tying to make the Times and Post like him by talking about how much he respects Al Gore, Republican congressional "leadership" should at least try to live up to that label by taking this fight to the opposition beyond just the drilling issue.
Looking for an unbreakable FDR-style majority will get us nowhere. That existed in the days of precinct delegates doling out patronage and delivering party messaging, and could only be maintained in the days of the mainstream media monopoly. It cannot hold up in the new media mix—which is why Democrats are trying to resurrect the un-Fairness Doctrine. But adding more blue-collar workers to the ranks of Independent voters is a great start.
In the meantime, Republican intellectuals should take a break from studying polling reports and demographic trendlines, then hoist a few cold ones in places where if you mention the word Birkenstock, they will wonder if you are talking German beer.
Thomas Sowell had it right in a recent column: "The working class are in fact today among those most skeptical about the visions of the Left. Ordinary working-class people did not lead the stampede to Barack Obama, even before his disdain for them slipped out in unguarded moments."
Hillary took quick advantage of this weakness and made the Dem battle for the nomination a horse race.
With less than four weeks left, there is enough time for McCain — but only barely. But with blunders like his campaign geniuses stepping on Palin's debate performance by announcing they are pulling out of Michigan, rather than sending Sarah and Todd to barnstorm the northern parts of the state; and with McCain's own lackluster debate performance, it's hard to be optimistic.