Saturday, August 30, 2008

Grand New Party, Same Old Illusions (part II)

Cross-posted from Takimag.

This is the second of two posts critiquing Ross Douthat and Reihan Salam’s new book, Grand New Party. This first can be found here.

I wrote previously that “Douthat and Salam neither defend nor stick to a consistent theory of what motivates voters.”  At least three such theories appear in Grand New Party:

1. First, some voters collect political allegiances as status symbols. Thus, liberal Democrats, Douthat and Salam write, have become primarily interested “in their own moral vanity.” Affluent voters on the coasts have been “wooed leftward by lifestyle politics.” Clinton promoted “lifestyle-liberal pet causes like gays in the military.” In his 2000 campaign, John McCain “promoted the pet causes of the media and the Boboized upper middle class.” In short, upper class whites choose their politics not to advance any particular political goal but to signal to the world their impressive wealth and education.

2. Other voters support the policies and candidates that benefit the fellow members of their socio-economic class. Thus, “working-class social conservatism” is, in the authors’ view, “a rational response to lives lived without the security provided by education and family wealth.” The working class had once trusted the Democrats to give them “a helping hand in a time of financial need” but later embraced Republicans who promised to stop spending their tax dollars to subsidize the welfare dependency of the poor.  After the 2008 election, write Douthat and Salam, working class voters will ask the new administration, “where’s the beef?” that is, what the administration’s policies are actually doing for the working class. 

3. Finally, some voters choose their politics out of ethnic solidarity. Although somewhat coy on question of race, Douthat and Salam clearly assume that some ethnic groups vote as a herd. Grand New Party argues that lawlessness and family breakdown turned “working class voters” against the Democrats. But lawlessness and family breakdown harmed the black working class just as much as, indeed, more than the white working class. The authors even argue that the New Deal was never a good deal for blacks; by inference, therefore, the Democratic Party has never in the authors’ view advanced the interests of working class blacks. Nonetheless, Douthat and Salam virtually concede the hopelessness of any GOP efforts to court black voters. Evidently, therefore, Douthat and Salam do not believe that an appeal to working class self-interest succeeds with all “working class” voters.  Rather, for at least some minorities, ethnic solidarity trumps class interests.

Douthat and Salam never clarify which motives predominate at which times for which segment of the electorate.  They write, for example, that Boboized elites favor fiscal conservatism not for its social cachet but to inhibit the kind of class warfare that would threaten their comfortable existences. Suburban voters, meanwhile, fear school choice programs because they threaten the expensive school districts that they paid good money to live in. So, when exactly do the wealthy vote to express their elite status and when do they vote their class interests? The authors do not say.

Nor are all of the authors’ theories of voter motivation plausible. Grand New Party never establishes, for example, that working-class-ness inspires much group loyalty in America. As Douthat and Salam write, class consciousness has always seemed un-American. Not only that, but working class Americans (like, one might add, working class voters in most other Western countries) retain a keen sense of what the authors call “solidarity,” or what might less euphemistically be called nationalism. Thus, as the authors admit, working class “security moms” vote not to protect their class interests but the lives of rich (and poor) “blue state” Americans on the coasts. Nonetheless, for all the evidence of working class nationalism, Douthat and Salam still treat them as a rent-seeking special interest whose votes can be bought. The authors acknowledge the power of inspiring nationalist rhetoric (or what they call the moralistic “idiom” of American politics), but to win votes, in their view, the GOP must supply its supporters with a medley of government benefits.

Grand New Party also assume an implausible level of working class political diligence. In the authors’ view, wealthy whites only want to know which political allegiances will impress their friends the most, while ethnic voters only want to know how their co-ethnics are voting. Working class white voters, by contrast, spend their time evaluating contrasting policy programs. Thus, working class voters in the Carter years “saw liberal failures—wasteful spending, incompetent economic micromanaging, and pointless overtaxation.” They “saw foreign policy failure as well.” Later, the working class understood Newt Gingrich’s Contract With America better than sophisticated pundits.

Douthat and Salam deny that the Contract with America was “a document of Goldwater-style small-government purity”; rather, it was “pragmatic rather than ideological, targeted explicitly to voters who wanted to keep the welfare state in place.” In other words, a message that escaped most informed political observers somehow made its way into the heads of working class voters, producing the 1994 Republican Revolution. 

Douthat and Salam sometimes downplay their assumption that working class voters actually think through different candidates’ policies.  At one point, for example, they write not that the Democrats’ “tax-and-transfer redistributionism” did take money from the working class and redistribute it to the undeserving poor, but that it “seemed primarily aimed” at doing so. For the most part, however, Grand New Party commits that most common of punditry vices, namely, to project onto a profoundly ignorant electorate thought processes that only take place in the heads of a handful of sophisticated observers. That working class voters might have better things to worry about than the merits of various candidates’ proposals largely escapes the authors.

In the end, it seems fair to say that Grand New Party is not what it appears to be. The authors claim to be offering a blueprint for a GOP victory. What they are really offering is entertainment. In the story they wish to tell, Democrats cater to the vanity of the rich while Republicans champion the common man. The story flatters some readers and scandalizes others. To tell it convincingly, the authors have no choice but to subordinate the demands of analysis to the demands of narrative. Grand New Party may succeed as a literary effort, but as an account of how the world actually works, it largely disappoints.

Post scriptum: I feel it behooves me to note an unfortunate choice of metaphor on page 126. “History’s verdict” on President Bush, Douthat and Salam write, will be that he “brought Republicans to the edge of the Promised Land, but couldn’t guide them in.” Yes, you read that correctly: In summing up Bush’s failures, Douthat and Salam liken him to Moses, the greatest figure in the Hebrew Bible after Yahweh himself.  Surely this comparison is fulsome even in the eyes of the most ardent Bushite. Bush did not win enough actual votes to become president in 2000; after that, he reaped a slight marginal benefit from 9/11. This is not the stuff of Mosaic greatness on even the most generous interpretation.

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