Friday, October 18, 2013

Day of the Democratic Dead. By Henry Olsen.

Day of the Democratic Dead. By Henry Olsen. National Review Online, November 1, 2010. Also at AEI.

Populism, American Style. By Henry Olsen. National Affairs, No. 4 (Summer 2010).

After the Wave. By Henry Olsen. National Affairs, No. 6 (Winter 2011).

What the Working Class Wants. By Christopher Chantrill. Road to the Middle Class, November 1, 2010.

To Lead the White Working Class. By Christopher Chantrill. Road to the Middle Class, November 2, 2010.

On Losing. By Ronald Reagan. National Review, December 1, 1964. Reprinted in National Review Online, June 6, 2004.


There must be something unique to the concerns of the white working class, then, that liberal progressivism rubs the wrong way. What might that be?
One could try to discover the answer by recourse to recent polls. If one examined the Ap-GfK poll from September 6–13, for example, one would find that working-class voters believe that government intervention in the economy is more harmful than beneficial by nearly a two-to-one margin. One would also find they are more distressed about the economy and more likely to say they have suffered financially or that a relative has lost a job. Over half say President Obama does not understand ordinary Americans’ problems. It should come as no surprise, then, to learn the same poll shows Republicans leading Democrats by 22 points on the generic congressional ballot, whereas Democrats led Republicans by 12 points two years ago.
But such recourse cannot account for the recurring white-working-class swings toward the GOP in prior years. Issues change, yet the same pattern has recurred for over 40 years. Something deeper must be at work, something that operates at the level of values rather than that of ideas. To discern what those values are, we must make inferences from these past elections rather than rely on contemporaneous data; we must turn off our computers and rely on the Force.
When I started to do this, I focused on American voters. But I soon realized that working-class voters exhibit similar traits in other countries as well. Ask an American working-class voter why he supports Democrats, and he or she is likely to say it’s because Democrats support “the little guy.” Reading about English voters in Claire Berlinski’s biography of Margaret Thatcher, There Is No Alternative, I found the exact same phrase used by English miners to describe their support for Labour. When I found the same phrase being used by Australian working-class voters to describe their attraction to the Australian Labour Party, I decided I needed to learn more.
So I reached out to Patrick Muttart, former chief of staff to Canadian prime minister Stephen Harper. Muttart is perhaps the world’s leading expert on working-class voters in English-speaking countries, having studied their behavior and attitudes not only in Canada but also in Britain, Australia, and America. He has found that in each country, working-class voters may form the base for successful center-left governments but are crucially responsible for the rise of center-right leaders like Harper, Australia’s John Howard, and Margaret Thatcher.
He was kind enough to speak with me at length. He emphasized that working-class voters do not fit neatly on the traditional left-right continuum. They are fiscally conservative, wanting low rates of taxation and wanting government to live within its means, but economically populist, suspicious of trade, outsourcing, and high finance. They are culturally orthodox but morally moderate, in the sense that they don’t feel their lives will change much because of how social issues play out. They are patriotic and supportive of the military, but suspicious of foreign adventures.
Most importantly, they are modest in their aspirations for themselves. They do not aspire to be “type A business owners”; they want to go to work, do what’s asked of them, not have too much stress in their lives, and spend time with their families. They want structure and stability in their lives so that things are taken care of and they don’t have to worry.
Drawing on Muttart’s insights and my own thinking, I believe there are seven salient values or tendencies that are common to working-class voters across the decades. Call them the Seven Habits of the Working Class. They are:
*Hope for the future
*Fear of the present
*Pride in their lives
*Anger at being disrespected
*Belief in public order
*Fear of rapid change
Let me address each of them in turn.
Hope for the future: One of the striking facts about America is how readily we believe that we can prosper through hard work and our own efforts. Polls show that Americans overwhelmingly believe this to be true. These polls also show there is a high correlation between the belief that one is in control of one’s life and the belief that one can prosper through one’s own efforts.
Working-class Americans share classic American beliefs very strongly. They value economic growth because they believe they personally benefit from it. Unlike Continental Europeans, working-class voters do not envy the rich. They believe that Bill Gates has earned his billions, and while they do not believe they can become billionaires, they believe their children can.
Fear of the present: Working-class voters may believe that they and their children can move upward, but they are as or more motivated by their fear of moving downward. They recognize that their relative lack of education means they are at more risk of being laid off in downturns. Their relative lack of earning power means they find it harder to save for retirement, afford medical care, or pay for their children’s education. Their relative lack of specialized skills means they are more vulnerable to competition from unskilled immigrants and more likely to remain unemployed if they lose their job. This gnawing fear that everything they have built is at risk of falling apart is a central feature of their political identity.
Pride in their lives: Working-class voters are generally not a despondent group. Life is harder for them in many ways, but they take pride in who they are. They are not “bitter people, clinging to religion or guns”; they celebrate their lives and crave respect from the educated and wealthy classes. They flock to politicians who show genuine respect for their lives, and turn on those who display contempt or disdain.
Anger at being disrespected: This is the flip side of their pride. Working-class voters are very cognizant of their status in American life. They rarely occupy executive positions in their jobs and are consumers rather than producers of ideas. They feel keenly this relative lack of control over important features of their lives, and resent being ordered about as if they were merely pawns in someone else’s grand plan. They particularly dislike having their lives belittled as unsophisticated or inferior to the lives of educated or wealthy folk.
This anger can be expressed against big business, big government, or big anything. If working-class voters feel they are being treated as mere tools, they will react with anger whether the source of the treatment is an employer, a politician, or an academic.
Belief in public order: Working-class voters rely more on the public order to provide a structure in their lives than do upper-class voters. They can’t afford private security services or retreat to homes with large yards far from unruly elements. They live closer together and in closer contact with crime. Accordingly, they place a high premium on effective police and fire services and greatly respect policemen and firemen.
Patriotism: Working-class voters are highly patriotic. They love their country openly in ways that often seem odd and embarrassing to the educated class. They are likelier to express open support of and deference to the military (while simultaneously recognizing that “big military” is wasteful); their children volunteer for the military in much greater numbers than those of any other class. This is partly economic — learning a trade in the military is a better opportunity for them than for people who think they can graduate from college — but it is also genuinely patriotic.
This sentiment is particularly strong among recent immigrants. One way to show your devotion to your new country is to revere its symbols and institutions, and for the working class the military is perhaps the most accessible institution of all. Hispanics in particular enlist in the military, and it is no surprise that Republican presidential candidates who are strongly supportive of the military, like Reagan and George W. Bush, have fared best among Hispanic voters in the last 45 years.
Fear of rapid change: Working-class voters recognize that they are less equipped to handle sudden changes; consequently, they value stability highly. They fear sudden recessions and distrust sudden changes in government programs. Ronald Reagan, the conservative who has best understood the working class, put his finger on it in a prescient 1964 National Review article on why Goldwater lost: “Human nature resists change and goes over backward to avoid radical change.” Upper-class educated people may embrace risk and change, but working-class voters do not.
Now consider these values in the light of the primary features of liberal progressivism. Liberal progressives inherently crave rapid, transformational change; working-class voters abhor it. This was as true in the 1960s (the Great Society) and the early Clinton years as it is today. The impatience that characterizes liberal progressivism often leads to the impression that its apostles feel contempt and disdain for those who disagree; working-class voters sense this and react against it. Liberal progressivism requires high tax rates, not only on the rich but also on the middle and working classes (overseas, this is accomplished via the VAT); working-class voters know this will choke off economic growth and increase the financial stress in their lives. Liberal progressivism typically displays less concern with public order and the institutions that provide public order; working-class voters opposed this in the 1960s and 1980s when it appeared that crime was rampant, and they remain sensitive to it to this day.
Many of the Obama administration’s actions directly attack these core beliefs. Working-class Americans crave economic security, but they see an administration that talks more about health care and climate change than about jobs. The current recession exacerbates their natural fear of downward mobility, but they see an administration seemingly incapable of providing the very thing they want most from a center-left government. In the Henry Louis Gates and Ground Zero mosque controversies, liberal progressives saw an articulate leader defending individual rights; working-class voters saw someone who questioned the police, perhaps the bedrock institution that provides public order, and showed an insufficient degree of patriotism.
Some of President Obama’s personal habits also rub working-class voters the wrong way. The president’s urbane articulateness and emphasis on rational argumentation attracts many highly educated voters, but is offputting to the working class. His preternatural calm and seeming lack of emotion also work against him. These traits have been lampooned by Doonesbury and commented on in the recent New York Times Magazine profile, but historically, working-class voters have been drawn to politicians who connect with them on an emotional level, from FDR to Ronald Reagan to Bill Clinton. They need their politicians to demonstrate warmth and humor; they respond to speakers who use example, story, and narrative as much as specific analysis to make their points. President Obama’s aloof and academic manner is the exact opposite of what working-class voters want in their leaders.
It is no coincidence, then, that working-class voters regularly turn from Democrats when liberal progressivism is on full display. In this election, with liberal progressivism on display as boldly as it has ever been, the reaction will be stronger than it has ever been. There is absolutely nothing wrong with Kansas; working- and middle-class voters just want something different from what liberal progressives offer.
Will the American middle and working classes’ turn to the GOP end the partisan and philosophical conflict of the last two years, or are there tensions between the conservative movement and those groups of Americans that remain to be worked out before a new, more stable political era is created? This is a topic well beyond the scope of this memo, but I will conclude by offering a sober, yet positive, assessment.
Conservatives often assume that elections like 2010 show America has a consistent conservative majority. I think it is more accurate to say that they show that America has a consistent anti-progressive majority. The task conservatives have today is to transform the anti-progressive majority into a pro-conservative one. This will be harder than it seems.
The American conservative movement was founded in explicit opposition to the progressive project. It was also founded on the premise that a return to the governing principles of the Founders’ Constitution was feasible and desirable. The first principle is anti-progressive; the second is pro-conservative. The dynamics of working- and middle-class attitudes I have outlined above raise the specter that these principles in their pure forms can be politically incompatible.
The same abhorrence of rapid change that fuels working-class fear of liberal progressivism works against rapid conservative political action. In that 1964 article, Reagan argued that conservatives lost not because of their ideas, but because liberals portrayed them “as advancing a kind of radical departure from the status quo.” Today’s Tea Party enthusiasts have displayed a desire for rapid transformation of public policy nearly as strong as that of the liberal progressives. Moving too far, too fast down this road will alienate the very voters who just came over to the GOP.
There are other, deeper tensions at work. Working-class voters crave order and stability. They value the degree of these things that the welfare state and public institutions have provided. They also respect entrepreneurs but have no desire to be forced to emulate them. They respect private economic activity, but fear that business will cast them aside in the pursuit of profits. A conservatism that conveys the message that we seek to abolish the welfare state or that people have value only if they enthusiastically participate as risk takers in a dynamic, turbulent economy will not appeal to them.
Conservatives often speak in language and propose policies that the working class perceives as threatening. Conservatives celebrate freedom, opportunity, achievement, being our own boss, entrepreneurship. Working-class voters want these things, but in moderation. They know that not everyone can graduate from college or own a business. They want a political and economic system that rewards and supports their modest vision for their own lives, rhetorically and practically. Conservatives must figure out how to reconcile their core principles with working-class desires if they are to form a lasting, stable political coalition.
We’ve done it before. Ronald Reagan in 1964 said “We represent the forgotten American — that simple soul who goes to work, bucks for a raise, takes out insurance, pays for his kids’ schooling, contributes to his church and charity, and knows there just ‘ain’t no such thing as a free lunch.’” He knew that to attract the working- and middle-class voter, “that simple soul,” conservatives need to express what they already believe, that the simple soul has value as a creature made in God’s image.
Reagan did this in both word and deed. His State of the Union addresses often featured a reference to a person in the audience. This person was invariably an ordinary man who had had a moment of extraordinary heroism, not a captain of industry or a great entrepreneur. When Reagan went to Normandy, he did not laud the genius of Eisenhower or the courage of Patton; he praised “the boys of Pointe du Hoc.” His celebration of average men and women who did their duty, and oftentimes more, reassured and inspired them.
His deeds also struck a balance between advancing freedom and respecting stability. Rasher conservatives often criticized him for failing to do more to reduce the size of government, but he understood, having been a supporter of FDR himself, how much the safety net meant economically and spiritually to the working and middle classes. He knew that his task was to plant the tree of liberty in the garden of Roosevelt. As he said in 1964, “time now for the soft sell to prove our radicalism was an optical illusion.”
His success is manifest. For nearly 30 years, politicians have labored to define themselves in the light of his legacy. Even President Obama was said he wants to be transformative like Reagan. Thanks to him, conservative sentiments are today stronger among the American people than at any time since the Great Depression.
Today’s conservatives have a rendezvous with destiny. The peculiar political challenge of our time — repairing our nation’s finances and avoiding national bankruptcy — requires us to reform our welfare state. This forces us to confront the tensions outlined above, and to do so in a way that reassures rather than frightens the vast American middle that has turned to us now in response to the last two years. If we seize this opportunity and act with principle and prudence, we truly can say we have met our challenge. In so doing, we truly will have “preserved for our children this, the last best hope for man on earth.”