White working-class voters typically aren't in vogue, with the political chatter tending to revolve around "soccer moms," the "youth vote" or other boutique demographic groups of the moment. But the late charge of Hillary Clinton's doomed presidential campaign made white working-class voters surprisingly fashionable.
They'll stay that way if the important new book "Grand New Party," by two young writers for The Atlantic, Ross Douthat and Reihan Salam, has the impact on the political debate that it should. In an incisive analysis of the past 30 years of our politics, Douthat and Salam puncture self-comforting delusions of both the right and the left, and persuasively advocate a reorientation of the GOP to address working-class concerns.
They define working-class voters -- "Sam's Club" voters, in the phrase they borrow from Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty -- as that half of the electorate that lacks a college education. Neither party has been able to build a durable majority, Douthat and Salam write, because of "the refusal of America's working class to pick a side and stick with it." These voters supported Nixon in 1968, Reagan in 1980 and Gingrich in 1994 -- before defecting back to the Democrats for Jimmy Carter in 1976, Bill Clinton in 1992 and Nancy Pelosi and Co. in 2006.
Their economic forebears were a pillar of FDR's New Deal coalition -- understandably, in Douthat and Salam's telling, since the best of New Deal policies helped graduate them into the middle class by rewarding work and aiding economic aspiration (with Social Security benefits, the home-mortgage deduction, etc.). They came unmoored from the Democratic Party when LBJ's Great Society "cost them money and seemed to undermine their values into the bargain."
The Democrats have labored under twin misapprehensions in seeking to woo these voters back. One is that today's working class could be pulled straight out of a John Steinbeck novel. In reality, according to Douthat and Salam, a Sam's Club voter is "more likely to belong to a family that makes $60,000 a year than one that makes $30,000," and "far more likely to be working in education or health care, office administration or business services than on a farm or an assembly line."
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.