This small book does an excellent job of summarizing the political history of the Republican Party the past 60 years or so. It offers a critique of where it went, if not wrong, at least out of focus the past eight years. It is a companion to David Frum's book, "Comeback," and the authors refer to Frum's ideas frequently although he is not credited at the end. Some of their ideas I agree with, some I don't know enough about to criticize and I disagree with their health care chapter although I agree on its importance. The emphasis is on the appeal of the Republican Party to the "Sam's Club voter," a term they claim to have originated and which has been used by Governor Pawlenty of Minnesota. It is a very useful concept and the heart of this book. Their argument is that the family is a crucial institution for the lower income and less educated American. They discuss how the family, as an institution, has been badly damaged in the past 40 years and they offer suggestions on how to undo some of the damage.
The first three chapters are probably the best and summarize the history of attempted Republican reforms that would attract the working class voter to form a new coalition after the Roosevelt New Deal coalition broke up in the 1960s. They point out that, after 30 years of steady progress, wages for working class people stagnated beginning about 1973. They say little about the high inflation of the Carter years but I remember it well and think it deserves more emphasis because of its terrible effect on affordability of home ownership.
They point out, as does David Frum, that the high crime, high inflation and stagnant economy of the 70s were all mostly solved during the Reagan era and, following that, the working class had less affinity for the Republican party of George Bush. Their analysis of the attraction of Ross Perot for the working class voter was insightful and explains much. They point out that the Clinton years were actually quite conservative although I would give more credit to the Republican Congress after 1994 than they do. I agree that the impeachment frenzy was a terrible error and forced Clinton to the left as he sought allies.
They are quite complimentary to George W Bush's domestic agenda and the 9/11 attacks probably harmed the Republican Party by bringing a preoccupation with the war on radical Islam that diverted it from a realignment on domestic issues. They quote Bush as saying essentially that the war trumped all the domestic issues. That worked until the war began to go sour in 2005. From Chapter six on, the book is about suggested solutions, many of which are innovative and worth consideration.
I was disappointed with their chapter on health care because they use the French system as an example of how not to reform it. They misstate the principle of the French system which is that the patient pays the doctor in a fee-for-service transaction, then is reimbursed by the health plan, a non-profit corporation regulated by the government, at a 75% rate. For some service, the reimbursement is less and the patient has the option of purchasing coinsurance, like our "MediGap" policies, to cover the remaining 25%. There are a number of technological efficiencies that American doctors would love to see. The fee schedule is low for French doctors but medical education is free and doctors have the option to bill more than the government fee schedule. It is an interesting program to study and a possible alternative to the Canadian-style single payer system favored by the American left. They complain about the drain of the French health system on the economy but it uses about 10% of the GDP, whereas our own health care consumes over 16%. The French economy is harmed by the cost of the welfare state and the regulation of employment. If we could get to 10% of our economy for health care, it would save many billions. Health care is the single biggest issue for "Sam's Club voters" and should be a major focus for the Republican Party. I was disappointed to see this error. The French system is pluralistic, like ours, and a useful model to study. It is also the best health care system in Europe and probably the world. I should add that I am a physician with 40 years of private practice and a graduate degree in health care policy.
This book is a valuable addition to the debate on where the Republican Party goes over the next few years whether John McCain is elected or not. The best parts are its analysis of where we have been and how some opportunities were missed. I agree with the basic premise that the high income investor classes and education elites are no longer the base of the Republican Party. They are more concerned with life-style and cultural issues and are confident they can evade the additional taxes that President Obama has in mind. The natural base for the Republicans is now made up of traditional families, the people described in "The Millionaire Next Door," and potential middle class voters who need a fairer system to climb the ladder of success. These authors have many ideas on how to accomplish this that are worth the price of the book.
on July 14, 2008
I'm center-left politically, reasonably well informed but not involved in politics. The bulk of this book is a concise but incredibly insightful political history from the New Deal forward that I couldn't put down. I read plenty of political magazines and blogs, yet on every page I would think, Yes-that makes sense! Why hadn't I thought of it that way before? I loved it so much that I bought copies of the book for four members of my family (who are mostly center-right to Rush Limbaugh right).
The authors do a great job of describing the enduring appeal of the New Deal in the mid 20th century, emphasizing that it was not only egalitarian but moralistic, then describing the trends that fractured the coalition in the the mid 60s and early 70s. I found their political history to be rich, sharp, subtle, and without precedent. I'm amazed that they could be so sensitive to the motivations and excesses of both the left and the right, yet write with such verve. It's critical but evenhanded, intellectual in the best sense, never dry or academic.
In a world that seems to be a left-right Punch and Judy, an echo chamber of ideologues and bashers, this book provides a space for real dialogue. I'm no fan of GWB, but this book helped me better appreciate his intial intentions (if not his god-awful execution). It also paints a much more convincing picture of the roots of social conservatism in the working class than Thomas Franks' "What's the Matter with Kansas," which makes them look like rubes. Conversely, I'm hoping it will explain to my more right-wing family members why an "ownership society" that promises more economic growth by cutting taxes and entitlements won't play well with a working class that may have more material weath, but also stagnant paychecks, more inequailty, and eroding stability and social solidarity.
The latter, shorter part of the book, their prescriptions for transforming the GOP agenda, is provocative, but inherently messier and to some extent less satisfying (politics being the art of the possible, not a temple of ideological purity). My reactions changed from "Yes, of course!" to "Maybe, but..." and "Hmm...I just can't see it." Nonetheless, I think it's admirable for the book to say, in essence, Now that we understand each other, how do we ensure a 21st century America that supports liberty, prosperity, and safe communities for every working American? Exactly the conversation we need to have as we face the 2008 election.
on September 29, 2009
One of the easiest things to do in politics is criticize. Many political books do just that - and little else. Standing on the sideline playing Monday morning quarterback is easy and leaves little room for others to criticize you. Rare is the political science book that not only goes beyond that but actually offers concrete and practical solutions to real problems facing today's society. This is what makes Grand New Party, the joint effort by Ross Douthat and Reihan Salam so unique.
In Grand New Party, Douthat and Salam criticize both political parties for forgetting the American working class and letting politics take precedence over solving problems. Yet the authors don't stop there; instead, they quickly move beyond the usual partisan bickering to offer well-crafted answers to problems facing American culture and the economy. Though both authors write from a conservative perspective, they effectively criticize both parties and provide a sound defense for their conservative beliefs and principles.
The authors claim identifying and courting working class voters is essential to each major political party if they hope to win elections. They then set out to explain how Republicans can stay true to conservative principles and win back America's working class by tackling "the threats to working-class prosperity and to the broader American Dream." Quoting Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty, the authors note the Republican Party needs to focus on being the "the party of Sam's Club" instead of the "party of the country club." When defining the "working class," the authors state this is not a class of poor farmers and factory workers as the Democrats so often categorize it, but a relatively affluent class that could typically be found in administrative, vocational and IT jobs.
The book is divided into two main sections. The first half examines American political history dating back to Roosevelt's New Deal and continuing to the present day. The authors examine how each political party has, at times, captured a winning majority of the country and subsequently lost it.
Starting with FDR, the authors make a good case that one of the chief reasons he was able to build and hold together such a strong political coalition was that his policies, while fiscally liberal, were also overwhelmingly socially conservative. While admitting that the New Deal's attempts "at centralized planning and relentless scapegoating of business may have actually worsened the Depression," the authors also explain that many of the New Deal's policies were designed to strengthen the traditional family. This was primarily done through homeownership programs and welfare payments that rewarded families for having children and encouraged wives to stay home. These policies promoting traditional values and economic security (albeit at the great cost of increasing government dependency) were what ultimately built one of the most successful political alliances in American history.
This political alliance was not broken until conservatives used several issues to woo blue collar Americans away from the Democratic Party including crime, tax cuts, cultural issues and foreign policy in 1968. Since Nixon's first victory, the American political landscape has been a seesaw battle, and the authors detail the battles both political parties have waged to capture the American working class.
Throughout the first half of the book the authors assail Democrats for naiveté in their policies and beliefs that have shown a complete lack of understanding about the issues that matter most to conservatives. They write:
"Ironically, it was Clinton himself - hailed, briefly, as the Saint George to Reagan's dragon - who did as much as any politician to make the 1990's a conservative era. His first-term incompetence, in particular, accomplished what Reagan's genius couldn't bring about - the end of Democratic dominance in the Congress...He reminded working-class voters why they had deserted the Democratic Party in the first place - by proposing vast new entitlement programs (or having his wife propose them for him, which was itself an example, to many people, of feminist overreach), promoting lifestyle-liberal pet causes like gays in the military, and generally aping the lack of discipline and overattention to detail that had undone Jimmy Carter, with a dash of baby-boomer entitlement thrown in. He didn't throw over neoliberalism entirely, but he hewed to it on issues - NAFTA, in particular - that were calculated to alienate precisely those Perot voters he needed to strengthen his majority."
But Douthat and Salam also have plenty to say about the Republican shortcomings, giving the book a refreshingly objective take on politics. They write about the costly and obsessive hatred Republicans showed toward Clinton. They state:
"Yet just as liberals had hated Nixon, practically to the point of derangement, so many conservatives loathed Clinton. Looking back, this seems difficult to believe - not that the Right opposed Clinton, or even despised him, but that they let their feelings play such havoc with their political good sense."
What was the high price conservatives, and America, paid for Republicans' petty political rivalry? Possibly a chance to reform Social Security with private accounts. The authors explain:
"The small-government Right lost an opportunity as well, one that hasn't reappeared since. Years afterward, in 2005, it was revealed that Clinton had been seriously considering pushing Social Security reform in the waning years of his second term, with a proposal that might have included some form of private accounts. A bipartisan compromise that moved the welfare state rightward might have gelled if the Right hadn't spent two years trying, fruitlessly, to wrap a noose around Boy Clinton's neck."
Such a compromise, though, would have required the Right to work with Clinton, which conservatives could never seem to resign themselves to doing...After feuding with radicals for the better part of a generation, one would have expected conservatives to appreciate rivals who were open to compromises with the Right, who thought the free market was a great thing and who were happy to deregulate industry and streamline government, who could accept welfare reform and chatter about private Social Security accounts.
As a conservative, I found this assessment both disheartening and discouraging but hardly surprising. Political partisanship has kept the two major political parties from reaching reasonable compromises on several such issues over the years. Still, the authors did a great job at praising and criticizing both political parties for past decisions and policies.
In the second half of the book, the authors discuss the current climate of American society and policies they believe can adequately address the economic insecurity and stagnation facing us. They begin by rattling off, at near breakneck speed, a series of statistics examining the relationship between conservatives' social and economic philosophy. Using numerous studies and empirical data, the authors convincingly demonstrate that the American working class is predominantly culturally conservative not just due to religious conviction and fervor, but because it also makes good economic sense. The authors write:
"Given the impact of familial dissolution on the working class's prospects, then, the oft-heard talking point that social conservatism represents an attempt to distract working-class voters from their "real" concerns dramatically misses the point. Indeed, social conservatism, with its emphasis on stable, traditional families, is a perfectly rational response to the economic consequences of atomization. Liberal pundits get a great deal of mileage out of the fact that the so-called Red states, in spite of their piety and social conservatism, have higher rates of divorce, teen pregnancy, and out-of-wedlock births than their Blue counterparts. But this isn't evidence of Red American hypocrisy, or stupidity; rather, it's evidence that lower-income Americans (Red states are generally poorer than Blue states) have been adversely affected by the dislocations and disarray that followed the Sexual Revolution, and have responded by embracing a conservative politics that promises to shore up the institutions that provide stability and support - their families, their churches, and their neighborhoods."
Later they add:
"In reality, you can't disentangle the sociological trends that have created familial instability from the economic trends, at home and worldwide, that have increased financial insecurity for working-class voters."
In the last few chapters the authors discuss specific policy solutions to a variety of problems facing American society today, including proposed solutions to immigration, education, crime, taxes and economic growth. I was immensely impressed by all of their ideas and wondered why Republican politicians haven't run on these policies. The books' ideas and plans are all backed up by hard statistics and common sense. In some areas they represent compromises between the positions of the Right and the Left but still represent a vast improvement over the current status. In other areas they are simply conservative principles applied to twenty-first century problems (hmm, I wonder why that sounds familiar).
One such issue they discuss at length is health care. In typical form, they take one step back so they can later take two steps forward. For instance, surprisingly for conservative authors, they begin by complimenting the French health care system. Douthat and Salam write, "There's no question that the average French family receives a higher quality of care than the average American family." They back this seemingly heretical statement by pointing out that the French rates of death from heart disease and diabetes "are far lower" and "the same goes for infant mortality." They add, "Better still, the French can choose any doctor or specialist - more choice than your average insured American gets from an HMO."
So what's not to like? The authors point out that adopting such a program in the United States is not feasible or practical. Why? Because France can only afford this type of insurance because of one simple fact: French doctors make less than a third of their American counterparts. In addition, the authors write:
"In France you never have to worry about paying for medical care. Apart from modest copayments, the government spicks up every tab. This means that health-care consumers are almost completely insulated from the cost of medical services. As a result, costs are rising at a rapid clip, despite price controls and stingy government reimbursements for medical services."
So what do Douthat and Salam propose? After pointing out that four-fifths of medical costs can be attributed to one-fifth of the patients, they advocate a "politically safe" solution that Bill Frist first proposed while the Senate Majority Leader that would make it cheaper for employers to provide coverage to their employees. They write:
"Under a federal reinsurance program, the government would step in as soon as costs exceed a certain level: If a cancer patients spends more than $50,000, for example, the government would take on some share of any additional expenditures...This means all Americans - not just the employees of a particular company - would share the burden of paying for health care for the unlucky few. As a result, employers would no longer fear hiring an employee who has a daughter with a chronic illness, and insurance companies would have less reason to discriminate against high-risk patients. This would be a particular boon to small businesses and old industrial companies like General Motors, which have been crippled by the health-care costs generated by aging and ailing retired workers."
To discourage insurance companies from running up costs, Douthat and Salam recommend that the government only pay a certain percentage above the "catastrophic level," suggesting 75 percent. Obviously, Douthat and Salam go into far more detail in their book, but that is the basic outline of their plan. In similar fashion the authors attack a variety of dilemmas facing American society throughout the last few chapters, making it a policy wonk's dream.
In Grand New Party, readers are introduced to two young, smart conservative writers. Douthat and Salam are not afraid to think out of the box, which makes the book all the more refreshing and attractive. The authors effectively claim that to win elections, capturing the votes of the American working class is a necessity and then quickly go on to explain how the Republican Party can do just that. Here's hoping policy makers in the party are listening.
on August 1, 2009
The book that remains to be written is a discourse on why intellectuals cannot see past their (to them) invisible ideological prisms. Because the primary complaint of both right & left-wingers about this erudite work is that it dares to cross the lines--the very many lines--that separate political purity from operational effectiveness.
The authors point out that liberals got so angry with W that they were often reduced to blubbering in hysterical fits of anger. This made any policy discussions useless. As Ann Coulter wrote, we argue, they insult.
But right-wingers are cursed by ideology, too. The conservative contradiction between small business self-reliance and big business greed has never been satisfactorily resolved. The result is that both political stripes posture to their audience, while acting in the most selfish manner to feed off their individual government troughs.
Thus the many equivocal reviews which, if you read between the lines, have both sides complaining that the solutions that Douthat & Salam provide are neither fish nor fowl. What they really mean is that they are not used to prescriptions that deviate so far from party lines. They resent being made to wallow in the filth of the real world.
Yet powerful ideas take on a life of their own, long after catchy insults wither and die. What is so impressive about this work is its great erudition, and the wealth of clear-eyed thinking that lays out the great circle routes of the shortest distance between two points: where we are in our many divisive policies and how to get where we need to be.
on August 8, 2010
The United States has a lot of problems. On occasion, someone might have a bright idea on how to solve those problems. This book, asserting it can fix all America's problems, the GOP needs to offer an agenda that would help a pan-ethnic working class.
Unfortunately, it seems that the people most in need of reading this book have not done so. Arizona attempted to solve its immigration problem in the most nativist way possible, alienating the emergent Latin American cohort. Republicans in Congress are defending the ecocidal terrorism and corporate incompetence of British Petroleum, meanwhile blaming regulation as the culprit. (As if the United States political system has had no relationship with Big Oil.) Meanwhile the Family Values ethos wanes amidst the sexual hypocrisy of George Rekers, Ted Haggard, Mark Foley and Michael Steele. Clearly, the GOP is in need of some serious ideological triage. Then again, when the car's totaled, you aren't going to waste your time debating trim color.
The book is a concise history of modern conservatism's failures and both tactical and strategic solutions to those failures. The title suggests the solutions lie with the working class (read: non-college--educated), who are given the pithy label "Sam's Club voters." This is classic conservative damage control, offering a plain-spoken wake-up call to those fed up with government bureaucracy, corporate malfeasance and moral decline. The solutions all seem to stem from a libertarian ethos. Self-reliance is a term that gets bandied about a lot, positing a frontier mythos, with a lot of macho posturing thrown in.
Douthat and Salam stand out from other conservative voices in their defense of the New Deal and in reassessing the Reagan Revolution in a more rational light. These two are not cut from the same cloth as frothing lunatic Glenn Beck or mealy-mouthed racist Rand Paul. Unlike many of their ideological peers, they have their eyes on the future, not some mythologized vision of the Fifties during which America was white, straight and Protestant. Those days are gone.
While this reviewer does not subscribe to their political ideology, some of their solutions do offer innovation. They praise the New Deal in the sense that it saved capitalism from itself. They also favor tax breaks for young families raising children. They do not consider gay marriage to be a virus that will end Western Civilization. It's good to see smart conservatives arguing with clear heads. Amidst the Tea Party hysteria, Rand Paul's racist bleats, and politicians blathering on about "the Real America" (whatever that is--clearly not New York City or Washington, D.C.), movement conservatives could learn a thing or two during their exile in the wilderness. That is, unless they want to reside there permanently. Permanent exile befits a party whose pose is one of perpetual persecution. Conservatives adopted this pose even when they controlled all branches of government and had polls favoring them. No one likes whiners, least of all conservatives. So stop bawling, read this book, and start offering alternatives.
The libertarian ethos of the book falls short when they defend a market-friendly health care system. While they admit the United States definitely has a health care problem and it is financially detrimental to the working class, their solution does not hold up. Amid calls for more intelligent consumer decisions and the evils of socialized health care, they imply that shopping for health care is like any other economic activity. One the one hand they condemn government health care because of rationing, then tell consumers that they should avoid wasteful health care decisions. Maybe they have better ideas about how to sell this to working class parents whose children have chronic ailments. While the American health care system is in dire of radical reform, should the free market even apply to this sector of society? Should we exchange our government police and fire departments for market-friendly mercenaries?
The market is good in that it offers choices to consumers, although, ironically, not in politics. In that case, the consumer gets two choices and they are both rather dismal. No wonder the majority of the population chooses not to vote. The market has its uses, but it is neither a panacea nor a pagan idol. Other essential aspects of running a country should not be market-based, since the profit motive could affect the commitment to the public good.
It's ironic that a book purporting to advocate the working class is not written to the working class. The political commissars of the GOP are the intended audience. A second drawback is the relatively minimal attention to foreign affairs. While global capital and the "global labor glut" get attention, military and diplomatic matters get short shrift. In a global age, domestic and foreign affairs are inextricably linked. Our energy policy directly affects our foreign policy. The United States needs to reassess our foreign policy for ethical and economic reasons, questioning our longstanding relationships with dictators and despots. Is cheap oil worth supporting nations with awful human rights records? The same goes for Sam's Club and other big boxes that purchase goods from the People's Republic of China, a one-party dictatorship that has been given Most Favored Nation trade status by the United States. Do these foreign relations hold true to conservative ideology? On the other hand, is everything fine so long as the goods are cheap?
In the end, the book offers inventive solutions for both the short-term and long-term. Whether this will result in the working class achieving the American Dream remains debatable. One final thought readers should keep in mind: the reason these books exist and get published is in the hope that the Party will get elected and achieve a majority. The movie Trading Places (1983, John Landis) has Eddie Murphy getting lectured by Ralph Bellamy and Don Ameche about how commodities trading works. Following the lecture, Murphy says, "Sounds to me like you guys a couple of bookies." Douthat and Salam are another couple of bookies, except they don't trade in commodities but in votes. They hope that adding the working-class vote to the GOP side, along with the other standard constituencies, will result in a new GOP majority. To anyone reading this book: Caveat Emptor. To any working class voter reading this book: Don't give away your vote lightly. Both parties only want your vote. Once that is achieved, they get back to the business of government. These days that means personal enrichment and buying expensive gifts for their trophy wife.
on July 12, 2008
If most of the Beltway Right has given up on drowning government in a bathtub, few have been as bold as Douthat and Salam in arguing that the GOP should try to win elections by promising to give the masses tons and tons of federal stuff. It wouldn't be outright socialism, of course, though a large bureaucratic apparatus would be necessary. The GOP would instead make its backers feel like the welfare state is working for them--that it will help them get their kid into college, increase their hourly wage, get their brother a job on the force, or perhaps give them some tax breaks that make those big city liberal snobs envious. Accompanying it all is a full-throated egalitarian rhetoric. Among talk of the "common man," the reader encounters sentiments like, "The ultimate goal should be a politics of solidarity, a constellation of policies that make all Americans ... believe that we're all in this thing together."
Read full review at [...]
This last line comes at the head of five-chapter section on the history of American democracy. It includes some interesting observations, but then it often times reads like a script for a PBS Special: "From Jefferson to Lincoln to Roosevelt to Reagan, our most successful leaders have sought the democraticization of wealth, competence, and social standing." The hero of the tale is FDR, and Douthat and Salam even argue that his New Deal was "conservative," and a useful model for the GOP's Grand New Platform. The villain is a composite of Barry Goldwater, the Old Right, and the acolytes of the "old-time Goldwater anti-government religion."
It is worth asking--before even considering whether Douthat and Salam's plan for winning elections might actually work--what kind of conservatism emerges from a "politics of solidarity"? Or rather, for the Right, what is egalitarianism good for? Judging from Grand New Party, absolutely nothing.
What might be called the post-industrial working class is to be the heart and soul of the new Republican coalition Douthat and Salam envision. These are Americans who live in the Heartland and 'burbs, who are employed in the office parks and hospitals. Some are just getting by; others are quite wealthy. They usually lack a BA, but each has a Sam's Club Membership Card.
Whereas the dirt poor vote Democrat down the line, the "Sam's Club" voters are up for grabs--they pushed Bush over the top in '04, then largely defecting to the Democrats in '06. More recently, they came out for Hillary in Pennsylvania and Indiana. "Hard working, white Americans." Douthat and Salam think they know how to win them over for the long haul. All it takes is the right platform.
"Some of our idea ... will strike you as outlandish," Douthat and Salam inform the reader. "Don't say we didn't warn you." Their proposals are certainly well intentioned, and without question, Douthat and Salam aren't just trying to buy votes, but genuinely care about their new constituency.
Still, the Grand New Platform includes many proposals that might at first glance seem benign, by then start to appear increasingly disastrous the more you look into them. To fight crime, for instance, Douthat and Salam want to hire thousands of "young men from the inner cities" as police officers. Those who work by the hour should receive "wage subsidies," a policy based on the notion that if the government just gives people enough money, they'll all be rich. To bridge the cultural divide between the college grads and those who just got through high school, Douthat and Salam offer a simple solution--more college degrees.
When Douthat and Salam see anything that's authentically conservative and flourishing independently--most notably, homeschooling--their first instinct is to socialize it, so as to better link it to the GOP. Thus homeschooling should be reorganized by "state and local regulators," who would assign parents to teach other people's children.
In other moments, Douthat and Salalm seem to be either extremely vague about what they're actually proposing, or else they're just plain bluffing. To "create jobs," for instance, the government should "embrace large investments in alternate technologies." What might these be exactly? We never learn, only, "The key is to spread the money around."
If there's a kind of "theme" running throughout Grand New Party, it's the authors' total obliviousness to the concept of inflation--that dolling our more of something almost always decreases its value.
This is most obvious with their plan for "wage subsidies." I think most high schoolers who passed the AP Econ exam could explain to Douthat and Salam that simply giving workers more money inflates prices of everyday items (a classic case of too many dollars chasing too few goods). In this way, there's no real distinction between, say, giving everyone $10,000 and one million--in both cases prices would jump at a clip reflecting the size of the handout. (Perhaps "Every American a Millionaire!" is a fitting slogan for the hallow populism of the Grand New Party.)
Moreover, wage subsidies are hardly a new idea. As Charles Murray lays out in Losing Ground, "Negative Income Tax" measures, when tried in the 70s, became strong disincentives for work and career advancement. Furthermore, there were actually higher levels of marital breakdown among participants in the programs--certainly not good news to Douthat and Salam who justify the plan with the sentiment, "Given the right boost, poor young men could be working-class fathers."
Regarding higher education, and the cultural divide between grads and dropouts, Douthat and Salam's propose a plan that would essential inflate the Bachelors Degree into oblivion. So that more Sam's Club voters "get in," the authors throw out the idea of "class-based affirmative action." At the very least, they want to give need-based vouchers to voters and dictate that pubic universities receive federal aid based on the number of low-income students they graduate.
Such a plan isn't exactly conducive to academic integrity. I'm reminded of a friend of mine who taught writing at a small college in Chicago's South Loop. Saddled with students who were mostly functionally illiterate, he approached his dean with the unfortunate news that he'd have to flunk most of the class. "You need to change you criteria," was the response, and my friend was essentially ordered to prolong the charade, at least until the end of the semester, so as to keep the federal Stafford loans flowing. I doubt that any graduate of this institution was able to bridge the cultural divide, nor that they gained much of anything from higher education other than personal debt.
Whatever else one might say about Allan Bloom, he at least had the guts to assert openly that fewer people should be attending college and that the rewards of academic study are not for the general. Douthat and Salam, on the other hand, treat the BA as a commodity the government can distribute to ensure a more just society. Their plan for higher-ed vouchers is a bit more "free-market" oriented than, say, the "everyone gets to go for free" approach of Denis Kucinich. But then both essentially adhere to the same egalitarian logic.
Even Douthat and Salam's more sensible proposals can't evade the law of unintended consequences. Take, for instance, their plan (borrowed from Ramesh Ponnuru and Robert Stein) to expand the tax credit for each child from $1000 to $5000, a policy they justify not on economic grounds but as a way to "stigmatize illegitimacy indirectly by tying tax relief to responsible parenting."
Lower taxes are great, and more child credits would surely please both social conservatives and budget hawks. But then despite their motives, Douthat and Salam are essentially addressing an effect and not a cause. When a responsible couple decides to get married in order to start a family--as opposed to getting hitched after one got knocked up--they do so only after they've accumulated substantial savings, or else can expect a steady income flow in the foreseeable future. Thus if Douthat and Salam really want the state to manage marriage and families--giving tax credits to this, "stigmatizing" that--it might actually be a better idea to focus on increasing the savings rate of young singles, helping them to generate capital before they take the plunge. Or how about simply taxing everyone less?
What's at issue here is not simply tax policy, but, as one sympathetic critic put it, Douthat and Salam's "willingness to use government as the means to achieve generally conservative ends." Retread liberal policies are presented as "outlandish" new rightwing ideas, which Douthat and Salam are positive will work just fine this time because they'll be implemented by Republicans and have conservative-sounding objectives.
And finally there's the question of whether the Grand New Plan, properly implemented, would actually do much to improve the prospect of the poor of old Republican Party.
Put simply, the GOP lost in '06 because of the Iraq war, stupid. And McCain will probably go down in '08 for the same reason. There are certainly some other factors involved, but these do not include a perceived lack of governmental activism on the part of the Republicans. Indeed, it's quite remarkable just how little the GOP has profited from its "compassionate conservative" agenda of No Child Left Behind, Medicare expansion, and the rest of it. Whether Republicans have ever reaped any benefits from their socialist programs over the years is highly questionable. To adopt Sam's Club socialism, the GOP would essentially be selling its limited-government birthright for a mess of electoral pottage--and then not even get the pottage.
If Douthat and Salam were interested strictly in winning elections, they could spare us the wage subsidies, write a shorter book, and offer the GOP this simple plan:
* Keep the "limited government" rhetoric, it still works with some.
* Actually attempt to limit government.
* Promise to get out of Iraq.
Immigration restriction and ending affirmative action are two others policies with broad popular appeal that seem to be begging to be exploited. But Douthat and Salam either equivocate on these issues or else avoid them entirely.
Ever since '06, the Beltway Right has been busy trying to think up a "conservatism that can win again," that is, a reinvention of the domestic agenda that doesn't tread on the non-negotiable foreign-policy commitments like the war on terror and major trade agreements. For this, Grand New Party fills a gap, and its warm reception inside the Beltway is not surprising--plenty of social programs to please liberals, social cons are thrown a bone or two, and the war is never questioned, barely even mentioned, which satisfies the neocons. On the level of rhetoric, as Bushian evangelical freedom spreading has become embarrassing, and has thankfully been mostly abandoned, a little dumbed-down Sam's Club-solidarity talk might work as a substitute.
What's needed from the real Right is a revival of the critique of egalitarianism.
on March 13, 2016
With a divorce rate of 57% the American Family is going to be saved? Really? These reactionary halcyon ideas speak to simple times from simple minds. Modern pop media culture breeds a distinctly American personality, part narcissism, part coffee brat. To save or resurrect family one has to provide it with the economic opportunity of self reliance. Sounds good, normal, but it's not accomplished by feeding every penny working people can earn and borrow into the coffers of a system rigged to exploit for the benefit of millionaires and billionaires living in 15,000 square foot McMansions and horse-breeding estates. People need human values that give them not just real hope, but real rewards and security from the fruits of their labor that allow them to create and retain value for themselves. Stripped of lifelong pensions in favor of 401K's that are subject to Wall Street pillage and cycles has bred little but anxiety. Since the political class funded by billionaires and corporate money has no interest in rebuilding family other than as consumptive units for corporate profit, I see this book as an exercise in ideological fantasy. It reminds me of the now obviously ludicrous "The Greening of America" that urged a grand awakening of consciousness without any real economic changes.
on August 6, 2008
This book is a combination of a history of the past five decades from the writers' perspectives (specifically focusing on the domestic issues), and a prescription for the Republican Party to re-win the votes of working class voters, whom the writers consider crucial to winning electoral victories and helping American. It takes the somewhat unusual tack (for conservatives) of praising Franklin Delano Roosevelt's New Deal programs, which they argue were designed to promote social stability and self-reliance, and which were distorted into programs that promoted dependency by LBJ and which did not work (in the author's view). They also don't shy away from social conservatism (although they have the candor to admit the problems with the earlier periods, like racism and sexism), arguing the strong social stability (in particular, the nuclear family) actually serves to promote economic growth and better living standards for the working class.
There are two major problems with the book. The first is that they really need to cite and use quantitative evidence more; they occasionally bring up some polls, but offer no citations for them. This is crucial when they make arguments that fly in the face of decades of research in sociology, such as the argument that suburbs actually promote greater social participation and civic virtue, among other examples.
The other problem is that they occasionally make some assumptions and claims without really providing evidence for them. One example is when they criticize what they believe is the new, emerging liberal paradigm (the creation of a much broader safety net while maintaining business superiority - the Denmark example) as somewhat "un-American" and as encouraging dependency, without really arguing as to -why- this is case (especially considering that Denmark's policies are specifically designed to encourage work and competition while providing a safety net), or why what they describe as the "probably too collectivist" 1950s resulting from the New Deal is fundamentally different from the above. Another example is when they argue that the Left is pursuing a Canadian style single-payer policy, but then proceed to critique the FRENCH system, even though most single-payer advocates are advocating a version of the Canadian system.
Generally, however, the book is very, very readable and well-written. I would recommend it for educated readers of all political colors.
on September 18, 2008
Due to some time constraints this past summer, I only recently got to read Grand New Party. I was extremely impressed with both the quality of the writing and the quality of the ideas. We've heard populist language from conservatives before, but in this book the authors take the time to largely strip away the rhetoric and come up with many ideas for how one party might realign itself to actually stand up for the people upon which its success has always depended. Some of the ideas I thought were great, some I thought were awful, but I found virtually all of the ideas challenging and worthy of dicussion.
The historical portions of the book are written with grace and with an eye towards, if not neutrality, certainly an intellectual honesty sorely missing in most political writing. I have never been a consumer of political books and I doubt I will start being so now, but Grand New Party is full of innovative thinking and quality writing. Most political books are full of arguments (and poorly made ones), this one is full of ideas. I typically only read science and the occasional novel, but this is one of my top books of the year and I recommend without reservation.
on November 9, 2013
The two most important books to read if you are interested in America's modern political trends are this book and the Emerging Democratic Majority. Both are tomes, full of data culled from history, sociology, and political science. The two books pulled together could form a third tome, titled "The Battle For The Political Center. Who Will Win?" The answer today is the Democrats, of course, but Douhat and Salam offer a prescription for revitalizing the GOP. I am sure these authors are gritting their teeth over the recent government shutdown. Every idea they put forward would have to succeed with help of Republican and Democrat centrists working together. But with the Tea Party paralyzingly turning the GOP into a nonentity, the ideas put forward in this book are like apples on a tree, waiting to be picked by democratic centrists. Welfare reform, the Affordable Care Act, tax breaks for the middle class are examples, but the authors of this book have lots of other ideas that I am sure President Hillary Clinton will entertain some day.