The GOP plotted to restore the Bush dynasty, but instead triggered a class war. That’s the thesis of David Frum’s latest piece for The Atlantic, “The Great Republican Revolt,” which is really worth reading:
The angriest and most pessimistic people in America are the people we used to call Middle Americans. Middle-class and middle-aged; not rich and not poor; people who are irked when asked to press 1 for English, and who wonder how white male became an accusation rather than a description.
You can measure their pessimism in polls that ask about their expectations for their lives—and for those of their children. On both counts, whites without a college degree express the bleakest view. You can see the effects of their despair in the new statistics describing horrifying rates of suicide and substance-abuse fatality among this same group, in middle age.
White Middle Americans express heavy mistrust of every institution in American society: not only government, but corporations, unions, even the political party they typically vote for—the Republican Party of Romney, Ryan, and McConnell, which they despise as a sad crew of weaklings and sellouts. They are pissed off. And when Donald Trump came along, they were the people who told the pollsters, “That’s my guy.”
They aren’t necessarily superconservative. They often don’t think in ideological terms at all. But they do strongly feel that life in this country used to be better for people like them—and they want that older country back.
I don’t read a lot of Frum since I disagree with him so strongly on gun control and other left-leaning views, but he correctly identifies the divide between the donor class and the party rank-and-file. After discussing the long history of GOP compromises and sell-outs, he offers several alternatives to help the party heal the rift:
- Double down on comprehensive immigration reform to hopefully win over Latino and Asian American voters.
- Make a tactical concession on immigration enforcement to win back the party base.
- Reform the entire GOP agenda. I’ll let Frum explain:
Admittedly, this may be the most uncongenial thought of them all, but party elites could try to open more ideological space for the economic interests of the middle class. Make peace with universal health-insurance coverage: Mend Obamacare rather than end it. Cut taxes less at the top, and use the money to deliver more benefits to working families in the middle. Devise immigration policy to support wages, not undercut them. Worry more about regulations that artificially transfer wealth upward, and less about regulations that constrain financial speculation. Take seriously issues such as the length of commutes, nursing-home costs, and the anticompetitive practices that inflate college tuition. Remember that Republican voters care more about aligning government with their values of work and family than they care about cutting the size of government as an end in itself.
My advice is for the GOP to combine options 2 and 3, but my “reform” is very different from the swing to the left noted above. Frum has long advocated accepting Obamacare and other progressive programs, much like Eisenhower made peace with the New Deal. If you want to turn the Republican internal cold war into a full-blown civil war, option 3 is excellent advice.
Instead, the party elite should do something far more radical: Admit that it completely failed on comprehensive immigration reform, repeatedly lied about it to the base, and apologize with contrite words and concrete action. This is not the grudging “tactical concession” offered by Frum, but a full repudiation of amnesty and anything that smacks of open borders.
I don’t think illegal immigration is the biggest issue facing the country and I live in Arizona of all places. But it has become a proxy for the chasm that divides the elite from everyone else. Until the GOP proves its honorable intentions on immigration, forget trying to persuade the base on anything else. Even with this about-face, it will take a few election cycles before Republican voters trust their party on the issue. Nevertheless, confession must precede forgiveness.
Then begins the reform of the party agenda. Contra Frum, it cannot be a list of Democratic-lite policies; DC Republicans’ slouch toward progressivism is the reason the base is so furious.
The party can “open more ideological space for the economic interests of the middle class” by ending the self-serving racket that is the DC/Wall Street/Chamber of Commerce power structure. End idiocies like the Ex-Im Bank which exist only to serve big business. Instead of worrying about the tax rates of the highest earners, eliminate loopholes and lobbyist-written rules that advantage the monied class. Cut through red tape that interferes with charities, non-profits, religious organizations, and small businesses. Stop trying to slow the growth of the government and shrink it outright.
A large part of the GOP base doesn’t want government to do a better job of taking care of them; They want to take care of themselves. If Washington stops meddling in the inconsequential, it can focus on those few things that only the federal government can do, such as protecting the country.
My recommendations are far less “congenial” than Frum’s, because the elites would have to place their fellow Americans’ welfare above their own vanity, power, and quarterly dividend statements. I’m not advocating a temporary pose to trick the yahoos, but a change in heart, mind, and direction. The party bosses must admit that much of the work they do in Washington is either useless or counter-productive.
Even worse, they need to admit that, at least on a few issues, the “yahoos” were right.