Republicans and the Working Class?

Last week, Jack Metzgar considered how definitions of class are being used in political analysis, noting that the press and some political analysts have defined the working class either as those who don’t have a college education or as those earning less than $50,000. Ross Douthat and Reihan Salam use the first definition as the foundation for their new book, The Grand New Party: How the Republicans Can Win the Working Class and Save the American Dream.

Briefly, Douthat and Salam believe that both Democrats and Republicans have misunderstood the shift in working-class voting patterns – from Democratic to Republican – that Jack described. When Democrats argue that the working class has been distracted from class interests by the war and national security and symbolic and cultural issues, they fail to understand that those “symbolic” issues have been at the heart working-class insecurity. For example, crime, welfare policy, immigration, and especially family values are closely tied to financial security and social mobility. At the same time, Douthat and Salam contend that Republicans have overrated the working class’s philosophical shift to conservative Goldwater/Reagan values.

Rather, they argue, Republicans appeal most effectively to working-class voters when they engage in “limited government pragmatism rather than small government Puritanism.” This “applied neoconservatism” reflects the domestic policy-minded neo-conservative approach last seen in the 1970s. Based on this analysis, Douthat and Salam argue that Republicans should rethink social policy formulations to include more family-friendly policies such as changes in the tax code to encourage family building, tax credits for parents who care for children at home, more spending on highways (because suburbs are better than cities for raising children), job subsidies for entry level employment, summer enrichment programs for poor kids, more cops on the streets, new school funding formulations, more progressive income tax, and a national healthcare plan similar to that being offered by Democrats. No doubt, these policy ideas will resonate with many working-class and middle-class voters.

One might ask if this is just another version of the Republican’s bait and switch and campaign-based Democratic-lite politics used to entice working-class voters. We all remember Bush’s promises of “compassionate conservatism.” That may have been persuasive in the past, but not this time. Deep divisions split the Republican party between the small government “moneycons” who run the party and younger big government social conservatives and Sam’s Club Republicans (aka the working class) who think the Goldwater/Reagan wing of the party has run out of ideas and that a political massacre is on the horizon. After all, Republicans have already lost three special elections in solid Republican districts in the last year, and over 80% of the population now believes that the country is on the wrong track.

If Douthat and Salam are correct, John McCain will have difficult task navigating between his larger donors and more progressive social conservatives within the Republican Party. This is going to be particularly true in swing states like Ohio. In the past, shrinking Northeast Ohio – long a Democratic stronghold — has been balanced by socially conservative, Republican-dominated and growing Southwest Ohio. Yet, in 2006, Republicans were largely swept out of state offices as result of job losses, a “culture of corruption,” and growing discontent among the working-class and social conservatives over economic and social policy. Job losses have continued, especially in automotive manufacturing and particularly in the largely conservative Dayton/Cincinnati area. Furthermore, as we found when we conducted focus groups with the Wall Street Journal earlier this year, working-class discontent with the war had grown significantly. Support for the war and security issues were central to the Bush victory in Ohio in 2004, but this year the key will be economics. Both candidates, but especially McCain, need to provide specific plans that economically support working-class Ohioans, if they are to win their support in 2008.

John Russo

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4 Responses to Republicans and the Working Class?

  1. Jimmie says:

    I think that this election, more than most in the past, will have the candidates talking about the same topics. I think both Obama and McCain will be looking at the “middle class” and how this group will effect the election. Far right conservatives will vote Republican and far left will vote Democratic. How the candidates show their past and emphasize how they will work to help people will be the deciding factor on who wins the election.

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  2. Jasmine Ortega says:

    I’m a little irritated with the fact that everyone’s attention is on the war. Most people are focusing on the candidate’s opinon on the war than on economic reform. However, they really can’t be blamed for that because no one knows if what the candidate is preaching is true (are they just pulling our leg, are they really going to follow through, etc…). This line of thought can be largely linked to how Bush did in office. He never really did what he said he was going to do and if he did, if was half way and failed. Thus, his attention was on the war and that’s what kept him in power-keeping the people in fear.

    Now people are so fed up with the war that they’re not paying attention to anything else and that’s what they’re basing their vote on.

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  3. Neal Linkon says:

    At the end of the day, fear is what motivates many voters. In the last election, fear of terrorists was the driving force for enough voters to swing the election. You are correct that this year it will be fear of being broke, or should I say, more broke than usual.

    What worries me, though, is if neither candidate can distinguish himself on that front, then other, even more irrational fears will drive the results. Are there enough people in the U.S. who fear having a president of color? We may look back on the previous post on working class white voters when all is said and done.

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  4. Cathy Chovan says:

    When we discuss politics it is always discouraging to me that we have a binary system. Over the years I’ve felt more and more disinherited with our political structure and it appears to me we have a choice between Republican’s and Eclectic Republican’s. As a working-class woman neither party appeals to me anymore because no one has taken sincere steps towards health-care reform and maintaining a balanced economy since the 1990’s… Not to mention, both parties are always defiling someone’s identity (gays, playing racial politics’…) there’s always a bottom and never a focus on a bottom-up-approach…

    Although for many years I was a devout Democrat, I’ve come to a point where I believe it’s time for a new path to emerge in American politics. I sincerely fear that if we do not pave our way out of the special interest groups and corporate mania that consumes our democracy we are on a sinking ship.

    This fall I am seriously thinking about voting Nader!

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