Sunday, September 07, 2008

Saving The Party Without Ideas


David Frum has a lengthy opinion piece in the New York Times, arguing that economic inequality is not good for the Republican Party. For the most part, he's channeling his inner David Brooks - sharing superficial caricatures of American life, with a shallow analysis of what lies beneath.
I live in Washington, in a neighborhood that is home to lawyers, political consultants, television personalities and the chief executive of the TIAA-CREF pension fund. Not exactly an abode of the superrich, but the kind of neighborhood where almost nobody does her own yardwork or vacuums his own floor. Children’s birthday parties feature rented moon bounces or hired magicians. The local grocery stores offer elegant precooked dinners of salmon, duck and artichoke ravioli.
Right. And, I'm sure, it sells arugula. Let there be no doubt, by any definition other than (perhaps) his own, David Frum is among the "elite".

After noting that a mere four miles away, there's a neighborhood struggling with poverty, he depicts D.C. as an unequal nation where, increasingly, everybody votes Democratic:
As a general rule, the more unequal a place is, the more Democratic; the more equal, the more Republican.
David Frum grew up in Canada. I recognize that he was from a wealthy family and had a famous parent, but I still find it interesting that somebody with roots in Canada would make this type of generalization. Oh, you can point to the fact that Canadians are relatively socially conservative, and can even argue that their government is presently led by the Conservative Party. Yet the "big government" programs and "social safety net" that Frum would be among the first to denounce are untouchable.
My fellow conservatives and Republicans have tended not to worry very much about the widening of income inequalities. As long as there exists equality of opportunity - as long as everybody’s income is rising - who cares if some people get rich faster than others? Societies that try too hard to enforce equality deny important freedoms and inhibit wealth-creating enterprise. Individuals who worry overmuch about inequality can succumb to life-distorting envy and resentment.
Yet which group is most likely to feel that life-distorting envy and resentment. Did you guess, the already successful people just below Frum's class of wealth, who aspire to join it?
In fact, a poll of New Yorkers found that those who earned more than $200,000 a year were the most likely of any income group to agree that "seeing other people with money" makes them feel poor.
Perhaps due to his Canadian upbringing, Frum seems not to appreciate this nation's embrace of the Horatio Alger myth. In my opinion, the people he laments as turning away from the Republican Party aren't doing so out of envy, save perhaps for a few who want to move into his neighborhood.

What you see in nations like Canada and England is how a socially conservative population can reject what Frum urges us to regard as an inherently conservative view of the role of government. People like Frum assume that social conservatism automatically translates into economic conservatism. More cynical pundits and politicians flip that around - they exploit wedge issues to make voters believe that if they don't vote Republican they will end up with a government that will undermine their social values.

That latter group has it right - after all, if "red state" conservatives were voting based on conservative economic principles, we wouldn't be experiencing a series of close elections seemingly decided by those "wedge issues" - immigration, anti-gay ballot initiatives, etc. Despite its comparative economic homogeneity, this does not work as well in a nation like Canada, as due to the demographics of that country it seems to be harder to scare Canadians about the "other" - gay people, arugula-eating pro-choicers, scary foreigners, immigrants who are "trying to take our jobs".... Without those wedge issues, it's a lot harder to get people to vote against what they see as their economic interest.

Note that I'm not condescending to Canadians by telling them what their economic interests are, and thus suggesting how they should vote. I'm observing the reality. Canadians are not about to vote to significantly reduce or eliminate their national health plan, as they know it's not in their best interest. The Conservative Party knows that whatever social wedge issues it attempts to raise, it's not going to survive an election cycle if Canadians believe it will end Medicare. This type of issue is less pronounced in the U.S., although there seems to be a deep-seated Republican concern that a successful national health care system would have a similar effect here - people would reject an economic agenda that sought to undermine the program that is effective in providing them with healthcare.

Frum describes the argument over same-sex marriage as a "distraction", and yes it's a distraction from debate of economic issues. But it's a distraction that has been introduced and fostered by the Republican Party and that has benefited the Republican Party. Given all the magic shows he has surely seen while taking his kids to parties in his neighborhood, surely Frum recognizes the purpose of that sleight of hand - it's to keep people from noticing what the other hand is doing. Needless to say, that's not because the Republican Party believes that the public will support its agenda.

Frum also demonstrates an odd understanding of egalitarianism:
To witness the slow-motion withering of the G.O.P., drive a little farther west into the Washington metropolitan area, to Prince William County. Here is exurban America in all its fresh paint: vast tracts of inexpensive homes, schools built to the latest design, roads still black in their virgin asphalt.

Whether in Virginia, Missouri or Illinois, there are no more egalitarian and no more Republican places in the United States than these exurbs. The rich shun them, and the poor can find no easy foothold, but the middle-income, middle-educated, white married parents who form the backbone of the G.O.P. are drawn to them as if to a refuge.
Yes... what better demonstrates a classless society with equal access to power, influence, and wealth than a community the poor can't afford to enter, and which the rich view as far beneath them.

In classic "What's the Matter with Kansas" style, Frum suggests that these voters are turning away from the Republican Party due to lax Republican immigration policy, despite his belief that they are enriched by low-cost immigrant labor, speculating that they may resent paying "the higher local tax bills that can result from immigration." But if that's the reason, why wouldn't they be turning to a conservative, anti-immigration party or candidate instead of the Democratic Party?

It may be true, as Frum suggests, that the Republican Party would benefit from entering into the health care debate with meaningful proposals that could reign in inflation, and he describes some of the weak tea that a few within the Republican Party hold up as solutions, but he needs to come to terms with the fact that the primary reason that the Republican Party is terrified to enter the debate is that other than its usual scare tactics - it's "socialism", "a government bureaucrat will choose your doctor", etc. - their ideas are inferior.

And at the end of the day, whatever the merits of Frum's brand of economic conservatism, isn't that the problem? He is aligned with a party that, as evidenced by the last eight years of mismanagement, has no real interest in pursuing conservative economic policies. Their public lip service to economic conservatism is paper thin, and they aren't prepared to debate the issues. Frum dogmatically adheres to the view that the Republican Party could produce some compelling ideas, but for some reason just hasn't gotten around to doing so. The evidence suggests that he's waiting for a magic trick that will never come - what you see is what you get.

The Republican Party is now the party of distracting wedge issues, not the party of ideas. And you don't have to look past the hollow speeches at the Republican National Convention to know, that's not about to change. When Frum writes,
The prevailing Republican view - “of course government always fails, what do you expect it to do?” - is not what this slice of America expects to hear from the people asking to be entrusted with the government.
He needs to acknowledge that it's not only that we're expected to vote for a party that takes that view, it's also that they now have a very long record of failure.

Yes, as Frum suggests, the Republican Party is threatened by growing inequality, diminished opportunity, and middle class wage stagnation. As is the Democratic Party. As is the nation. Yes, it would be nice if we could move into a real debate about economic issues, and how to place the middle class on firmer economic ground. But right now there's an election going on and, as McCain's campaign will be the first to tell you, this election is not about issues. So we'll save that debate for another day.

1 comment:

  1. One of the issues the Republicans are quick to exploit are the politics of envy - "Class warfare", (as you note) "immigrants are taking our jobs", "they'll take your inheritance with death taxes", "affirmative action hurts white people".... The facts behind those claims are never examined, as they're far more complicated than sound bite politics.

    It's hilarious for Frum fretting for the Republican Party because of "life-distorting envy and resentment", because that's it's nesting ground. But he's right about this much: the Republicans drum up worry about inequality -- somebody else getting something that belongs to you, or that you deserve more than they do -- to build up envy and resentment in their base. That's called "motivating the base".

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