Among the many dark tidings for American conservatism, there is one genuine bright spot. Over the past five years, a group of young and unpredictable rightward-leaning writers has emerged on the scene.
These writers came of age as official conservatism slipped into decrepitude. Most of them were dismayed by what the Republican Party had become under Tom DeLay and seemed put off by the shock-jock rhetorical style of Ann Coulter. As a result, most have the conviction – which was rare in earlier generations – that something is fundamentally wrong with the right, and it needs to be fixed.
Moreover, most of these writers did not rise through the official channels of the conservative or libertarian establishments. By and large, they didn't do the internships or take part in the young leader programs that were designed to replenish “the movement.” Instead, they found their voices while blogging.
As a consequence, they are heterodox and hard to label. These writers grew up reading conservative classics – Burke, Hayek, Smith, C.S. Lewis – but have now splayed off in all sorts of quirky ideological directions.
There are dozens of writers I could put in this group, but I'd certainly mention Yuval Levin, Daniel Larison, Will Wilkinson, Julian Sanchez, James Poulos and Megan McArdle.
Ross Douthat and my former assistant, Reihan Salam, are two of the most promising. This pair has just come out with a book called “Grand New Party: How Republicans Can Win the Working Class and Save the American Dream.”
There have been other outstanding books on how the GOP can rediscover its soul, but if I could put one book on the desk of every Republican officeholder, “Grand New Party” would be it. You can discount my praise because of my friendship with the authors, but this is the best single roadmap of where the party should and is likely to head.
Several years ago, Tim Pawlenty, the Minnesota governor, said the Republicans should be the party of Sam's Club, not the country club. This line is the animating spirit of “Grand New Party.” Douthat and Salam argue that the Republicans rode to the majority because of support from the Reagan Democrats, and if the party has a future, it will be because it understands the dreams and tribulations of working-class Americans.
They open the book with a working-class view of recent American history. Douthat and Salam write admiringly about the New Deal. They mention Roosevelt's economic policies, but they also emphasize the New Deal's intense social conservatism.
Liberals write about economic inequality and conservatives about social disruption, but Douthat and Salam write about the interplay between values and economics.
In the 1950s, divorce rates were low and jobs were plentiful, but over the next few decades that broke down. The social revolutions of the 1960s and the economic revolution of the information age have emancipated the well-educated but left the Sam's Club voters feeling insecure.
Gaps are opening between the educated and less educated. Working-class divorce rates remain high, while the mostly upper-middle-class parents of Ivy Leaguers have divorce rates of only 10 percent. Working-class kids are unlikely to complete college, affluent kids usually do.
Liberals have a way to address these inequalities – the creation of a Denmark-style welfare state. Conservatives have offered almost nothing. The GOP has lost contact with its own working-class base. This is the intellectual vacuum that “Grand New Party” seeks to fill.
The heart of the book is the last third, where Douthat and Salam lay out a series of policy ideas to help working-class families cope with economic, health care, neighborhood and family insecurity.
“What all these ideas, from the sober to the speculative, have in common is a vision of working-class independence – from bosses, from bureaucracy, from entrenched interests of all kinds,” Douthat and Salam write.
This is not compassionate conservatism (which flattered the mind of the compassionate donor), it's hard-work conservatism, which uses government to increase the odds that self-discipline and effort will pay off.
A slow swing
I'm not sure how quickly the GOP can swing behind this working-class focus. But the McCain campaign really needs to. So far, McCain's platform is like an omnibus spending bill – lots of decent ideas thrown together with no larger social vision.
It may take a few defeats for the GOP to embrace a Sam's Club agenda, but sooner or later, it will happen. Trust me.