Grand New Party

This month, John McCain will take the stage at the Xcel Energy Center in Minneapolis, Minnesota, to accept the Republican Party’s nomination for the presidency. As a politician, McCain has many strengths: unmatched war heroism, a brash and appealing style on the stump, a reputation for independence. But as the campaign grinds on, he’s being worn down by a single, consuming weakness: the Republican Party, which yokes him to George W. Bush, to tax cuts for the rich, inattention to health care for the poor, and an agenda that puts the needs of contributors before the needs of the public. Worse, as the election has unfolded, McCain has submitted to the insistent pull of GOP orthodoxy and now drags behind him a tax plan that would give him and his heiress wife a $370,000 tax cut and a health care plan that wouldn’t cover the sick or the poor or the old. Come Election Day, the politician who once wrote a book called Character Counts may find that party counts, too.

Ross Douthat and Reihan Salam know this. They are often mentioned as two of the Republican Party’s leading young intellectuals, but that’s not quite accurate: they have no truck with the current GOP coalition, which marries cultural conservatives to economic royalists and finishes the cocktail with a spritz of hard-core militarists. Rather, they’re partisans of a political party that does not yet exist in American politics: an institution that doesn’t merely pair but actively mixes cultural conservatism with economic populism. In Grand New Party, Douthat and Salam have written a manifesto for Republican reform that, they hope, will allow the GOP’s next nominee to run atop a party more closely associated with the working class than with the upper crust.

Thus far, their book, which has been touted by David Brooks and profiled in The New York Times, has been largely understood as a call for Republicans to refocus on the working class. And, in part, that’s accurate. But the authors’ argument is actually a little more complex: they want to see Republicans focus on the nuclear family, and they understand such a reorientation to be a de facto turn toward the concerns and anxieties of downscale Americans.

Their analysis runs something like this: many Americans are struggling in the modern economy, but they are not, as some liberals would like to believe, in an actual state of immiseration. Rather, they are profoundly anxious about a world in which the social and cultural institutions that conferred order on their lives are in a state of rapid deterioration. Liberals like to poke fun at the “red states,” where cultural conservatism is a defining feature of politics even as divorce and out-of-wedlock births are higher than Massachusetts; but for Douthat and Salam, this isn’t an inconsistency but an explanation. Voters prioritize the defense of what they most fear losing. In the 1950s, divorce varied little by class. The rich and the poor were about equally likely to see their marriages dissolve. By 2000, a woman without a college degree was 9 percent more likely to see her first marriage end in divorce within 10 years than a woman with a college degree. So too with illegitimacy, which has risen from 7 percent among the least-educated third of the population in the 1960s to over 20 percent today. Among the best-educated third, illegitimacy has been stable in the mid-single digits.

The breakdown of the family mostly affects downscale Americans, and so it is no surprise that downscale Americans vote for politicians who promise to save it. Moreover, say Douthat and Salam, these voters are actually making an economic argument, not simply a cultural one. “The most important thing to understand about today’s stratification — economic, social, and cultural — is that it begins at home, where working-class Americans are far less likely than their better-educated peers to enjoy the benefits that flow from stable families.” Children in two parent homes are wealthier, better educated, and more likely to stay out of trouble than children in single-parent homes. Their emotional lives are more stable, and their eventual economic outcomes are better.”

Thus, in Douthat and Salam’s hands, upscale liberals who tend to defend alternative family structures and pay little attention to those raising the alarm about single mothers are, in fact, the real economic elitists. It is all well and good for those with access to the steadying effects of a stable family to deride the necessity of the two-parent household, but those further down the income scale know better. Put another way, John McCain doesn’t have to know how many houses he owns because he’ll always have one to live in. Similarly, upscale liberals don’t need to worry about how many marriages anyone has because they tend to have one to go home to.

Consequently, what Douthat and Salam are calling for is not a series of policies that focus on the direct economic state of the working class — such a policy menu could be better found in any number of liberal books on the economy — but policies that focus on the working class’s ability to start and sustain a traditional family structure, which, according to the authors, will be the most effective path to economic betterment, anyway.

It is a powerful argument, and unlike previous conservative bank shots on economic philosophy (think the mystical forest of supply-side theorizing), there’s more than a kernel of truth to their analysis. And make no mistake: a Republican Party based around Douthat and Salam’s vision would be a far more decent and humane institution than the beastly aggregation of corporate and upper-crust interests that currently strides across the landscape.

But their book suffers from a couple of serious deficiencies. First, just as Democrats who have tried to turn discussions of national security into discussions of economic insecurity have found that voters really didn’t mean “prescription drug costs” when they said “terrorism,” Douthat and Salam are likely to find that voters didn’t mean “marital instability” when they complained of health costs. Explaining that efforts to encourage marriage are really efforts to protect against the collapse of the housing market and the economic stratification of the country will take a truly talented politician.

Worse, the book’s policy section could be cleaved almost entirely from its political analysis. Though most of the policy meat is collected in the chapter entitled “Putting Families First” (a play on Bill Clinton’s “Putting People First”), only a series of tax schemes meant to aid couples with children have any real connection to the first two-thirds of Grand New Party. The bulk of the rest of the ideas are either standard-issue conservative items that don’t really address feelings of economic insecurity, or interesting academic proposals that don’t really address feelings of insecurity and have the added benefit of being nearly unthinkable outcomes of the legislative process.

Here, the connection between the book’s central argument and its prescriptive agenda breaks down: though social institutions have profound economic affects, they are not as easily tweaked as a marginal tax rate or a health care proposal. The government can, after all, give everyone health insurance (plenty of other countries have proven this); it cannot marry us all off. Too often, Douthat and Salam’s solutions are straight economic populism of the sort the Democratic Party already champions (and the Republican Party steadfastly obstructs), or the conservative approaches that Republicans fear to even mention before economically distressed audiences. In most areas, they express no attachment to any particular set of policies and often offer a few ideas that exhibit sharp philosophical and empirical tensions. This makes for interesting reading — their eye for innovative policy thinking is keen — but the promised marriage of cultural conservatism and economic populism does not emerge.

Worse, the shape of the contemporary Republican Party is no accident. The intense focus on a small sliver atop the income distribution is not a coincidence, but the product of a party that relies heavily on the financial support of corporate donors and economic elites. Douthat and Salam don’t engage with the political economy of the Republican Party at all: the “how” of their agenda’s adoption isn’t discussed in the book. And it’s fair to remember that they are intellectual reformers, not hard-bitten operatives. But eight years ago, there was a candidate named John McCain who sought to reform the Republican Party, and eight years later, it appears the Republican Party has reformed him. This pull toward orthodoxy is powerful, and so the fear is that without committing to a policy agenda that could ground the project, Douthat and Salam will see their rhetorical insights being adopted even as their substantive reforms are left on the page. The Grand Old Party, but with shiny new packaging.