The second is that the basket of cultural issues with which the GOP has often been able to win these voters is a mere distraction. Actually, these voters have a keen self-interest in arresting social breakdown: "Safe streets, successful marriages, cultural solidarity, and vibrant religious and civic institutions make working-class Americans more likely to be wealthy, healthy, and upwardly mobile." Marriage in particular is key. The rise in illegitimacy blights the prospects of the working class, even as the college-educated upper-middle class disproportionately benefits from the social and economic rewards of stable family life.
If they aren't the stuff of social realism, working-class anxieties are real. Can't anyone get a college education and climb in economic status? Yes, but the odds are stacked against those whose parents aren't already upper-middle class, creating an "inherited meritocracy." Douthat and Salam's worst case is a "steady degradation of everyday working-class life under the pressures of rising illegitimacy, insecurity, and stratification."
Douthat and Salam want Republicans to work to forestall this future, and to speak persuasively to working-class voters. A first step is acknowledging "the persistent unpopularity of the GOP's small-government message among the Sam's Club constituency." Douthat and Salam float an activist program geared to buttressing families and addressing working-class discontents: a $5,000-per-child tax credit; subsidies for parents providing their own child care; expanded transportation infrastructure to ease the suburban commute; etc.
The details are less important than the trajectory. Their proposals have been dismissed as "Clintonian triangulation from the right." But back in 1992, Bill Clinton's political achievement was considerable. He broke with the stale pieties of his own party, and -- with new emphases and a few well-aimed policies -- renovated its image. Republicans await a figure who will pick up the challenge of Grand New Party.