Now that yesterday’s long anticipated defeat has been confirmed, America’s conservatives can grimly look forward to much criticism and unsolicited advice on what they have done wrong and where to go from here.
Much has been written on this issue already, and the casual and more-than-casual British observer of American politics alike will be familiar with one often quite sympathetic view. According to this account, the Republicans succeeded in the 1980s and since with a small government and optimistic message, cunningly taking the votes of deeply religious voters but delivering nothing to them. But in recent years, the party has allowed the religious right to dominate policy-making and has let rip with government spending. Little wonder that the swing voter in America’s centre ground has now been alienated by reactionary social policies and fiscal profligacy.
This analysis has much to offer in explaining how the Republicans have alienated media and cultural elites. But as an analysis of America’s whole electorate, it does not add up. As I have argued elsewhere, where Republicans have increased domestic spending significantly, it has been out of a reluctant but politically savvy recognition that they could not both oppose government programmes like free prescription drugs for pensioners – backed by nine in ten voters of all ages – and win the presidency. There are good reasons to be opposed to the bulk of the Bush Administration’s higher spending, but the notion that they were an electoral liability is not among them.
On social issues too, the gulf between elite preferences and voters’ preferences is enormous. It is the elites who are most likely to find opposition to abortion or mass immigration offensive. As in Britain, the polls suggest the typical American swing voter is not a fiscally conservative social liberal but some kind of big government social conservative. The most compelling arguments on where the Republicans should now take things are coming from those who recognise this.
Ross Douthat and Reihan Salam’s Grand New Party is such an argument – and the best political book of 2008. Douthat and Salam, both excellent young conservative writers with no illusions about the failures and disappointments of recent Republican rule, have identified the American working class as the key to a new Republican majority. It is the needs and preferences of the non-college educated half of the American electorate, rather than those of metropolitan sophisticates, which must be heeded.
The Republicans have had a good run of elections over the last four decades – even after yesterday, their tally is 7 presidential elections won and 4 lost. But Salam and Douthat show they have never had the sort of consistent governing majority enjoyed by Democratic Presidents such as Franklin Roosevelt and Lyndon Johnson: the working class swing constituency has kept on wavering, repeatedly denying Republicans lasting victories.
The difference between the Carter victory of 1976 and his painful defeat by Ronald Reagan in 1980 was not accounted for by the college-educated population nor by the poor, both groups voting in much the same way one each occasion. It was the relatively prosperous working class voter who made the difference. In 1992, this voter denied George H. W. Bush a second term – many supporting the third party candidate Ross Perot, but soon returning to the fold in 1994 to bring Republicans to power in Congress in a historic victory that ended forty years of Democratic control. But this was also not to last, and Republicans have both won and lost the Presidency twice since. A more direct and conscious appeal to this section of the electorate is not the only conclusion one can draw from these figures – but it is the most obvious, and the one drawn in this book. Failure to recognise that America’s working class “wants, and needs, more from public policy than simply to be left alone” has prevented the GOP enjoying an enduring majority.
If Grand New Party’s focus on the working class is cynical politics, the authors hide it well. The electoral importance of working class votes established, the book turns to a masterful account of life as these Americans live it. Time and again as I read through Grand New Party, I would make notes in the belief that I had discovered a new direction in which to take the points they had raised – only to find a few pages on it had been anticipated and answered by the authors.
What is the non-college educated American’s experience of economic life? Douthat and Salam argue that the essence of their economic needs lies in their insecurity rather than in poverty. There are good reasons to fight poverty – among them, the authors suggest, the fact that it is relatively easy for the high school graduate with a steady job to lose it and fall into poverty – but the economic situation of most working class Americans is more an insecure prosperity. Incomes were lower in 1970 – but a 50% drop in income in a single year was less than half as likely then as now.
The core of Grand New Party’s case is the link between this financial insecurity and how it lends itself to particular social and economic policies.
The authors dispense persuasively with the notion that the left holds the answers. Such policies as “increased spending on failing public schools, a more generous safety net for welfare recipients, amnesty and benefits for illegal aliens, the indefinite extension of race-based affirmative action programs, environmental regulations that kill jobs and drive up real estate prices” could almost be designed to take money out of the pockets of working class Americans.
Economic inequality too is a poor culprit. Growing income inequality, Douthat and Salam argue, owes much to the increase in salaries paid based on performance and productivity, bringing benefits to the whole economy. Reducing inequality by curbing such incentives would scarcely benefit the working class American. I was reminded of Sir Keith Joseph’s argument – rather more ridiculed than it was refuted – that far from inequality and poverty being the same problem, Britain in fact needed more inequality in order to defeat poverty.
What the left and the leave-us-alone right alike miss is the significance of families and lifestyles. Issues such as teenage pregnancy, drugs, illegitimacy and even divorce are vague and rarer problems among wealthier sections of American society. But for those who experience life “without the security provided by education and family wealth” they loom large, and they can be as damaging economically as they are emotionally. The famed conservatism of many downscale American voters on social and moral issues is therefore a very rational response to a threat much more likely, more familiar and more detrimental to their happiness. Douthat and Salam note simply: “Kids in Connecticut prep schools smoked pot and went on to college like their parents; kids in rural Indiana smoked meth and dropped out; kids in the South Bronx smoked crack and died in gang wars.”
Such high-level analysis as Grand New Party offers is perhaps most useful in showing the general direction in which conservatism should move, and the ways in which rival proposals miss the mark or actively work against the interests of the American median voter. But Salam and Douthat do also make recommendations – and for all the strength of their call for a new focus, they bulk are reassuringly conservative:
- In bad economic times, they suggest, people who do not directly benefit are particularly reluctant to see taxes rise to fund social programmes.
- Mass unskilled immigration does enormous harm to the interests of unskilled Americans, and cutting back would tighten the labour market and reduce the demands on government.
- Also of benefit to the unskilled would be a much greater emphasis on vocational qualifications. (This and the previous move would in turn increase the number of marriageable men in many communities.)
- Those who marry should, as David Cameron has long recognised, see benefits in the tax system – as should mothers who wish to stay at home with their children.
- There is a happy medium between the problems of America’s current health care system and the problems of Britain’s current health care system. The authors suggest government insurance in cases of catastrophe as a substitute to the existing private system.
- Additional road building does not, it appears, simply mean more people buying cars with no overall effect on congestion – Dallas has twice as many roads per person as Los Angeles and half as much congestion.
Grand New Party could have been five books. One could identify who the bulk of key swing voters in America are. Another would offer a history of their experience of government. A third would diagnose their current problems. A fourth might propose some of the remedies to these problems. A fifth would trace a path back to power for America’s conservatives.
Mercifully, Grand New Party is one book – but does all five of these things. Many smart Republicans who care for their party’s future will have read it already. Those who haven’t should be turning to it with urgency.