Ross Douthat and Reihan Salam’s smart but wishful Grand New Party: How Republicans Can Win the Working Class and Save the American Dream grew out of a 2005 Weekly Standard essay, “The Party of Sam’s Club.” At the time, the article was a ground-breaking challenge to conservative Republicans’ procapitalism, antigovernment ideology. Douthat and Salam argued that “Sam’s Club” voters—white workers stressed by economic and social instability—had swung to the Republicans not because they loved small government, free markets, and “extremism in defense of liberty,” but because they loathed liberal ideas about, and policies on, family, welfare, crime, and race.

The authors—both editors at the Atlantic—warned conservatives that these voters were never bent on shrinking government support for health care, education, or the environment. Rather, they “wanted to keep the welfare state in place but didn’t want the Democrats to run it.” If Republican legislative majorities were to wreck the entitlement system, Douthat and Salam warned, the GOP would lose the working class. But now, even after last year’s election—and our current economic woes—it remains to be seen whether Republicans are ready for what Douthat and Salam are proposing.

The book opens with a history of U.S. politics since the New Deal, reminding conservatives that not even Ronald Reagan meant to slash government as much as, say, John McCain’s economic adviser Phil Gramm would have. But Douthat and Salam also remind liberals that the New Deal supported a rather conservative social order based on traditional families and hard work, not bureaucratic redistribution. The authors defend that social order, along with working-class anger at liberals’ desires to upend it. But they also argue that economic instability provokes family instability as people slide down the social scale. As Douthat noted movingly in Privilege, a memoir of his undergraduate years at Harvard, upper-middle-class elites have the luxury of staying married while working-class marriages buckle under economic stress, giving way when family stability matters most.

That reality prompts Douthat and Salam to acknowledge some liberal wisdom. They note that in social-democratic Sweden, a high proportion of adolescents live with both (often unmarried) parents, which makes them less prone to commit crimes and suffer poverty. That should cause U.S. conservatives to admit that “generous benefits for mothers and children have not everywhere and always led to family breakdown.” The authors want government to do some expensive things that encourage—but do not force—the protection of traditional families, including wage supplements for some workers. Perhaps Barack Obama is their man!

The irony is that as their proposals unfold, the book loses the argument of its subtitle. We don’t hear much about conservative-Republican solutions lately—and no wonder: just three years after Douthat and Salam’s Weekly Standard article, the GOP is in serious trouble. Opportunistic Republicans and “free market” conservatives can’t reconcile their yearning for ordered, sacred liberty with their slavish obeisance to every whim of capital, while national sovereignty and family stability are threatened by financial crisis.

Unable to resolve such contradictions, partisan conservatives resort to default positions: they conjure enemies at home and abroad to blame for the party’s failures, or they indulge variants of religious consolation—from “revivalist” effusions to inquisitorial musings about the weakness of the flesh in a fallen world. Douthat and Salam know that there is something wrong with that. But it will take more than better-targeted subsidies and incentives to address the damage done by such evasions.

Republican reformers need to admit that global, corporate capital is indifferent to family and community stability. Today’s capital doesn’t care about the American republic; the Ford Motor Company no longer even calls itself American, not least because it can make cars $1,500 cheaper in Canada (thanks to that country’s universal health care). So why not point toward an alternative to both the Republican and Democratic parties—a coalition that would work with other countries to reconfigure how corporations are chartered and enabled? The Republican Party itself emerged from the ruins of the Whigs amid a crisis it helped unleash. Something similar may be required now.

At the same time, perhaps to offset a chilly reception on the Right, Douthat and Salam seem to have orchestrated their book’s acknowledgments and media promotions to curry a little favor with liberals. They did not play up some of their more socially conservative beliefs and sources. They barely touch race, aside from a gesture toward class-based affirmative action. And Douthat says little of his defense, in other venues, of theo-conservative views like those of the late Richard John Neuhaus that go far beyond merely justifying the infusion of religious belief into political activity. Citizens have the right to base their public advocacy on their religious beliefs, but they can’t expect public debate and policy to be based on their premises. I don’t sense that Douthat has this balance right.

Still, I would encourage Douthat and Salam to keep writing and to leave behind youthful dreams of conservative Republican triumph. They seem close to acknowledging the central truth that a healthy society, like a healthy individual, walks on both the left foot of social provision and the right foot of irreducibly personal responsibility and freedom. Without the right foot, even the best-intentioned liberal social engineering can turn people into clients, cogs, or worse. The authors are right to remind liberals of this. But without the left foot, individual dignity and conservative moral values wither and die.

Both the Left and the Right tend to cling to their own truths so tightly that they become half-truths that curdle into lies. That leaves each side right only about how the other is wrong. If Douthat and Salam cling to conservative truths and Republican partisanship, they will be less effective and trustworthy critics than they seem now. Worse, they could lose the opportunity to help renew the civic project of Eugene V. Debs, Jane Addams, and FDR. Roosevelt restored the spirit that the capitalism of his time had blighted. Ronald Reagan euthanized that civic-republican spirit in a false American dawn. If, on the other hand, the authors can put party and “movement” loyalties aside, they may guide us well—on both feet.

Jim Sleeper, a writer on American civic culture and a former columnist for the New York Daily News, taught political science at Yale from 1999 to 2021.

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Published in the 2009-02-13 issue: View Contents
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