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Book Review: Grand New Party: How Republicans Can Win the Working Class and Save the American Dream

October 3, 2009

0385519435.01.LZZZZZZZBlake once declared Milton to be “of the devil’s party without knowing it.” Substituting Ross Douthat and Reihan Salam for Milton, the reverse of Blake’s dictum appears to hold true: that is, Douthat and Salam imagine themselves to be members of the devil’s – Republican – party, but unwittingly lean liberal in their new book Grand New Party: How Republicans Can Win the Working Class and Save the American Dream. To be sure, Douthat and Salam chafe at social liberalism, and are highly critical of the sexual revolution, arguing that working class anxiety over stagnating wages and rising inequality can be attributed to a decline in family-values. Unlike many pull-yourself-up-by-the-bootstraps conservatives, however, Douthat and Salam do not deny the importance of economics in shaping family life, but defend New Deal programs, propose eliminating the regressive payroll tax, and would allow government to play a role in health care. At the same time, Douthat and Salam’s attempt to argue that strong family-values lead to better economic outcomes ends up demonstrating just the opposite: that rising incomes tend to stabilize family life. That’s where the “without knowing it” part of their not belonging to the devil’s party comes in.

The first half of Grand New Party traces the shifting political loyalties of working class voters – a demographic memorably described by Tim Pawlenty as “the party of Sam’s club” – from the New Deal through the Bush years. The opening chapter describes “The Old Consensus” established by Roosevelt and continuing until the late sixties. Douthat valorizes Roosevelt as a coalition builder whose blend of social conservatism and economic liberalism helped “save the ideal of a self-sufficient working class” at a moment when many intellectuals were “ready to abandon” free market capitalism. Unlike liberals today, however, Roosevelt and his contemporaries recognized the importance of family life in creating economic stability. One response to the Industrial Revolution had been policies targeting economic inequality, from tariffs to immigration quotas. But industrialization had harmed American worker in more places than just his pocketbook — marriage rates were falling, divorces rising, and crime increasing. In response, women like Jane Addams and Josephine Baker – Douthat and Salam dub them the “maternalists” – championed motherhood and domesticity in order to produce greater self-reliance within families. In keeping with the maternalist spirit, many New Deal initiatives guaranteed a “family wage” to male laborers, enabling them to support a family on a single income. Even seemingly progressive measures like the Social Security Act of 1935 came with socially conservative strings attached, as benefits were initially reserved for male professions.

At times, Douthat and Salam wax nostalgic for the economic equality and social cohesion achieved by this bygone era. Yet they are well aware of its shortcomings:

If you ran General Motors or worked for it, there had arguably never been a better time to be an American. But if you were a small businessman or an avant-garde artist, if you didn’t like your union boss or didn’t want to get drafted to go to Korea or Vietnam, if your old neighborhood stood in the way of your city’s big redevelopment plan or you wanted to start an airline to compete with Pan Am – well, then maybe the golden age wasn’t so golden after all.

Whatever its achievements, the old consensus was, in short, destined for failure, enforcing as it did a stifling conformity. And by the late sixties, it had failed. With the economy stagnating and social mores shifting, Democrats and Republicans began to take markedly different approaches to courting the working class vote. Republicans would respond to working class concerns over crime and family breakdown, even as Democrats expanded New Deal entitlements in response to economic stagnation. Since then – to quote the familiar maxim — Republicans have sought to keep government out of the boardroom, and Democrats to keep it out of the bedroom.

Yet neither party has achieved a lasting working class majority. For its part, the Republican Party has failed to recognize that the working class “wants, and needs, more form public policy than to be left alone.” For a variety of reasons – among them immigration and globalization – wages began to stagnate in 1973. Such stagnation played into the hands of Democrats. Douthat and Salam argue that Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society programs nevertheless tended to alienate working class voters by eliminating the “coercive and moralistic element from government spending” – taxing the already-strapped working class to support the lazy and indigent, in other words.

Moreover, the Republicans had an advantage on crime and sex. When violent crime increased dramatically in the 60s and 70s – with much of it directed toward the working class – Republican politicians put more cops on the street and called for stricter jail sentences. Even more importantly, Republicans realized that economic stability depended on strong families, and that the sexual revolution had tended to undermine them. According to Douthat and Salam’s line of reasoning, the birth control pill began “stratifying America as never before.” As Douthat and Salam explain, the “old moral guardrails” were stripped away, causing the working class to suffer, unlike those Americans who had “other guardrails to fall back on – wealth, education, good looks.”

I won’t recount Douthat and Salam’s full discussion of the Nixon, Carter, Reagan, Clinton and Bush presidencies here. Suffice it to say, Douthat and Salam portray moderates – especially Republican moderates — as the rightful stewards of New Deal programs, and repeatedly praises Republican politicians like Ronald Reagan and Tommy Thompson for choosing to “fix the welfare state, rather than abolish it.” Reagan did this by means of the Earned Income Tax Credit, a wage subsidy for low-income workers; Thompson through implementing sweeping welfare reforms as governor of Wisconsin. (Clinton too wins approval for NAFTA and a generally moderate track record, despite his party affiliation.)

What, then, of family values? Here is where the Left goes astray – and where the imperatives of the Right most closely align with the interest of the working class — Douthat and Salam argue. A true commitment to the working class would, in their view, require a reversal of the “destructive cycle” of the past thirty years, in which “illegitimacy and familial instability breed financial anxiety among working-class families, which leads to further strains on family life, and so on.” Douthat and Salam’s liberal readers are likely to object, and strongly. Tinkering with the welfare state was one thing, but here Douthat and Salam touch a liberal nerve — the sexual revolution. According to the standard liberal view, gender equality depends on a woman’s access to contraception, abortion, and divorce. It’s not that nuclear families are bad thing; it’s just that they ought be formed – and dissolved – freely, leaving women with the option of pursuing any number of alternatives.

I happen to share Douthat and Salam’s reservations about the sexual revolution. Particularly incisive is their observation that the “well-off and well educated” women who have benefited most from sexual freedoms are nevertheless far more likely than working class women to “embrace the kind of bourgeois lifestyle that predominated before the birth control pill changed the changed the world forever.” Nietzsche may have overstated the case in characterizing liberty as an invention of the ruling classes. Still, individualism of all stripes clearly benefits most those who rely on others the least. If the typical Wall Street investment banker is able to pay for his own medical care and put his children through college, it is no wonder he favors lower taxes. Since neither a divorce nor an unwanted pregnancy is likely to cause a financial crisis, he is not going to benefit much from policies designed to bolster traditional marriage. From such a vantage point, libertarianism looks pretty good. On the other hand, what good is lowering the capital-gains tax or loosening the restrictions on divorce to a couple struggling to pay the rent each month?

Where I differ with Douthat and Salam is on the conclusion to be drawn these such observations. What they call a vicious cycle looks to me more like a one-way street. Perhaps it is empirically the case that family breakdown contributes to economic inequality — I do not claim to know one way or the other. The evidence in Grand New Party, however, seems consistently to point in the opposite direction, with rising incomes tending to stabilize family life regardless of sexual norms. Douthat and Salam claim that many upper class women deem marriage a mere lifestyle choice while nevertheless enjoying its benefits in practice. Fair enough, but it does not logically follow that a family-values agenda will produce greater economic equality: what follows is that political ideology matters less to marital stability than does income.

To take a more dramatic example – again directly out of Grand New Party – Sweden has double the number of out-of-wedlock births as Americans, and yet Swedish children experience “far less hardship” than their American counterparts. Douthat and Salam attempt to avoid the seemingly obvious conclusion that there is no strong link between support for family values and economic equality by pointing out that unmarried Swedes are more likely to raise their children together than we are: “[c]ontrary to well-rehearsed claims of American prudishness, the atomized American family has arguably taken the Sexual Revolution further than the supposedly libertine Swedes.” Perhaps I am missing something here, but it seems to me that lower marriage rates in Sweden do indeed correspond to support for the Sexual Revolution. Moreover, the fact that unmarried Swedes nevertheless choose to raise their children together suggests that support for contraception, divorce and so on does not in fact dictate family stability — economics does. In short, if you desire strong family units, as Douthat and Salam do, the welfare state appears to be the way to go. (This may or may not be empirically true. I am simply drawing conclusions from the arguments made in Grand New Party.)

The flipside of the observation that rising income corresponds to greater family stability is that illegitimacy and divorce in the United States are “intimately linked to both emotional and economic stress.” Indeed, and so much the worse for working class families. Again, though, one must be mindful of causality. Douthat and Salam are content to merely repeat the findings of researchers in the social sciences: married men tend to make more money and live longer; divorced women are more likely to become depressed and slip into poverty than married women; and so on. The salient question, however, is: does marriage cause higher incomes or do higher incomes tend to correspond to more successful marriages? While nobody would doubt that poverty leads to all sorts of socially undesirable effects, Douthat and Salam simply assume that family breakdown leads to inequality.

To give Blake’s dictum another twist, if conservative rhetoric has sometimes made the welfare state out to be the Great Satan, Douthat and Salam make Satan look pretty good. So perhaps they are of the devil’s party without knowing it (rather than the reverse, as I suggested earlier). With that said, liberals would do well to heed their objection to laissez-faire sexual mores. To be perfectly clear, I am not advocating a return to the maternalist past; as even Douthat and Salam admit, it had its shortcomings. Rather, now that inequality has reached an all-time high, what the working class surely needs are strong families and communities, not more liberationist rhetoric. (Obviously, the most important thing to do is address inequality itself.) It is not within the scope of this review to evaluate policies intended to strengthen families. For that, I would refer you to the entire second half of Grand New Party, which makes a number of useful proposals – some of them quite liberal!

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