The GOP and the Working Class
Republicans are beginning, finally, to construct a positive case for why one of their own should move into the White House. A compelling one will require more than the fiscal and economic emphasis we have seen so far. Obama's mess has done grave damage to more than our AAA rating. His cursed "Change" agenda threatens our social fabric. Republicans need to demonstrate that they understand that, and show how they intend to reinforce it. That need for a message should also help them decide on a messenger.
Thus far, Paul Ryan has done his part by transforming the traditional Republican fat, lactose, salt, and gluten-free cucumber budget sandwich into a compelling agenda of freedom, prosperity, and security, and an example for the country of what leadership actually looks like. Even the predictable partisan and fearful codger reactions will prove useful, if the eventual Republican candidate has the wit to draw the contrast between accepting responsibility and paralysis, between considered action and fear mongering lies and cynical manipulation.
Likewise, Majority Leader Eric Cantor has contributed the beginnings of a prosperity agenda, replacing Jimmy Obama's secondhand shared sacrifice cardigan with Jack Kemp's shared prosperity jersey. Thus far, Cantor's vision is no more than a sketch, and has captivated only Larry Kudlow, but it is a start. Again, the right kind of Republican candidate can make a growth agenda sing, not merely in economic tones, but also in terms of the continued health of our society and culture.
The case is certainly there to be made. While our fiscal woes dominate the political stage, a lot of seeming disparate trends point to a development equally dangerous. While these trends did not begin with Obama, his policies have intensified and accelerated them. (What is worse, one could make an argument that many of them fit Obama's apparent growing government through growing dependence agenda.) If they are not addressed, we are going to see a "fundamental transformation" of our society all right: the traditional foundation of law-abiding, productive, patriotic American life, the white non-college-educated worker and his family, are in danger of losing their sustaining faith in the system. In his National Journal piece citing a survey documenting the severely diminished expectations of working class whites, Ronald Brownstein contrasts their gloom with the relative optimism of blacks and Hispanics, which he attributes to a sense among the latter of "long-term opportunities that are opening to them that were previously closed on the basis of race or ethnicity." This Hope Differential may or may not persist. Already there is evidence that Black and Hispanic workers are not blind to reality, either. Strivers rarely are.
Non-college educated Americans are the people upon whom this society largely depends to keep its pipes from leaking and its cars running, and to staff local volunteer fire departments and rescue squads. They transport our goods and construct those shovel-ready projects, machine a needed part and keep us safe in our streets and in a very dangerous world. Equally important, how they choose to live their lives has a decisive impact on our culture. Our civil institutions cannot survive their alienation.
Working-class faith is being shaken by more than diminished economic prospects. From the simple diversions of everyday life, like festive public gatherings and modest family meals out, to fundamentals of civic life like the equal application of the law or the integrity of elections, novel and unsettling realities intrude doubt and distrust that diminish what has been a strong sense of community. What had been articles of faith, like the value of homeownership and the wisdom of sacrificing to attain it, or schools as the partners of parents in reinforcing shared values, has been upended, by events and by policy. Working class families have long been persuaded that college is the sure path to social and economic advancement, and have been willing to pay the high price for it. Now they are learning that these costly degrees promise neither a job, nor even much by way of education.
In all, it is a very grim situation for all of us when a large proportion of our friends and neighbors feel like forgotten suckers. "Message -- I care" won't do it alone, nor will raptures about the opportunities of manipulating symbols in a global economy. Republicans need to prove that they care enough to have developed some ideas that actually speak to working class families' immediate concerns. Perhaps the Governor of a big energy-producing state might be enlisted to speak convincingly about how expanded domestic energy production can promise both enhanced security for the nation and significant employment opportunities for skilled and unskilled workers who have not had the pleasure of being fleeced at Third-Rate U. That might be a start.