Sam’s Club Socialism

July 10, 2008

Multiple Pages
Sam’s Club Socialism

Under Consideration: Ross Douthat and Reihan Salam, Grand New Party: How Republicans Can Win the Working Class and Save the American Dream, Doubleday (2008), 244 pages.
 
Before drafting God and Man at Yale, William F. Buckley planned on writing a definitive statement of his political and cultural philosophy—Revolt Against the Masses. According to Jeffrey Hart, who relates this anecdote in his history of National Review, the provocatively titled book was meant as a kind of sequel to José Ortega y Gasset’s Revolt of the Masses (1929), the great Spaniard’s Nietzschean treatise on the division between the “mod values” of modern Europe and “noble life.” Buckley’s worldview at the time was close to that of the Old Right and, in particular, Albert J. Nock, a friend of Buckley Sr. (In his 20s, Buckley was in a different, and perhaps more interesting, intellectual place than where he ended up.)

Buckley later said he’d “rather be governed by the first 2000 names in the Boston phone book than by the dons of Harvard,” and he certainly had no qualms with building a mass constituency for conservative candidates and causes. But then he never quite lost his aristocratic anxieties over the rather bad things that usually come about when a centralized state is combined with a demos in the hundreds of millions—especially the leveling and culture-wrecking activities of a political elite acting “in the name of the people.”

The young and highly successful blogger and journalist Ross Douthat, and his friend Reihan Salam, don’t seem to share any of Buckey’s suspicions of mass society, to put it mildly. And this is in evidence in their new book Grand New Party, a blueprint for saving the GOP that has been excerpted and promoted in the new NR.

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.”

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.”

David Brooks gave Grand New Party advance praise as a kind manifesto of a new generation of conservatives who’ve foregone movement orthodoxy. Revolt Against the Masses, it ain’t.  

Without dwelling too long on Buckley’s intriguing unwritten book, 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. 

Book Cover

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. We probably don’t have to publish a title as caustic as Revolt Against the Masses, but we should remember why Buckley wanted to write such a book in the first place.

Richard Spencer is the managing editor of Taki’s Magazine.

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