In 2000, candidate George W. Bush campaigned on a domestic agenda of “compassionate conservatism,” which he said would not “balance the budge on the backs of the poor.” This sounds good, doesn’t it? It softens the stereotype of mean and rich Republicans out to cut back on government spending left and right and establish fiscal order at the expense of the neediest Americans. Yet, as New York Times columnist Ross Douthat and Slate‘s Reihan Salam argue in their thought-provoking and important book, Grand New Party (Anchor, 2009), this language in fact perpetrates the notion of a class dependent on the hand of government to survive that is so antithetical to what is at the essence of the American story. This philosophical stance that resists big government largesse and encourages self-reliance and -drive to achieve upward mobility is actually one of the key principles that, in my view, defines what it means to be a conservative.
“While his [Bush’s] instincts were sound, the language of compassion strikes the wrong note. It speaks to upper-middle-class empathy, not to the aspirations of poor Americans with the drive to succeed. For a generation, anti-poverty campaigns have fallen into this trap too often, emphasizing pity over self-help, framing government interventions in terms of charitable outreach, and poor-mouthing the prospects of the very people they set out to help. In the process, they have created an assumption that the poorest Americans simply aren’t capable of the kind of drive, ambition, and zeal for self-improvement that defines the American character.” (194)
For too long, too many in the Republican Party have neglected or failed to adequately address the issues affecting the American working class. This is the argument – which many thoughtful Republicans and political observers consider critical – made by New York Times columnist Ross Douthat and Slate columnist and National Review executive editor Reihan Salam in their 2008 book Grand New Party: How Republicans Can Win the Working Class and Save the American Dream. These two writers, along with several others, advocate a vision for conservatism dubbed “Reform Conservatism,” which Douthat explained more carefully here. To get a glimpse, however, here’s a notable passage where the authors answer the charge that Republicans have cynically exploited “culture war” issues to pull working class Americans to their side:
“The ‘social issues,’ from abortion and marriage law to the death penalty and immigration, aren’t just red herrings distracting the working class from their economic struggles…Rather, they’re at the root of working-class insecurity. 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. Public disorder, family disintegration, cultural fragmentation, and civic and religious disaffection, on the other hand, breed downward mobility and financial strain – which in turn breeds further social dislocation, in a vicious cycle that threatens to transform a working class into an underclass” (7-8).