The Home of American Intellectual Conservatism — First Principles

April 24, 2019

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The Case for Sam’s Club Republicans
Patrick Deneen - 09/10/08

A review of Grand New Party: How Republicans Can Win the Working Class and Save the American Dream by Ross Douthat and Reihan Salam (New York: Doubleday, 2008), 256 pages, $17.

The following review is featured in the current edition of Intercollegiate Review (43 no. 2; Fall 2008).

Thomas Frank’s 2004 What’s the Matter with Kansas? was one of those rare books with a significant intellectual afterlife, still cited and debated years after its publication. In his polemic, Frank sought to expose the grounds for the decades-long success of the Republican Party among those segments of the American electorate known as “Reagan Democrats.” This part of our population is marked by concerns that are partially addressed by each major party. They are generally people of modest economic means, often blue-collar workers who have been buffeted by the wrenching dislocations experienced especially in the American industrial sector during this age of “outsourcing” and globalization. They stand to benefit from the social safety net of a compassionate welfare state and hence have natural affinities with the Democratic Party—the party they generally favored until the presidency of Ronald Reagan. They are also socially conservative, however, deeply hostile to liberal policies that seek to effect “social justice” such as (in an earlier period) forced bussing and school integration, and more recently, the stripping of Christian symbols and language from the public square, court-approved abortion-on-demand, and efforts to redefine marriage. Thomas Frank sought to address an important question: Why in recent years have these erstwhile Democratic voters overwhelmingly supported the Republican Party?

His explanation was at once penetrating and deeply flawed. He argued that these Americans were voting against their economic and class interests based on an insidious Republican appeal to conservative values. For Frank, such social and moral values could only be epiphenomenal: compared to the cold, hard substance of economic interests, conservative values are secondary, even fanciful. The Republican appeal to conservative values served as a sly electoral diversion away from the real economic interests of this portion of the electorate. What’s more, Frank argued, Republicans only too gladly harvested the votes of “Kansans” while offering only the merest symbolic blandishments in return. The wealthy got cuts in top marginal tax rates; social conservatives got to watch the president appear on a giant video screen on the anniversary of Roe v. Wade.

Frank’s analysis stemmed from classical Marxist assumptions. The undereducated working class is vulnerable to ideological deceptions by the elite; they labor under “false consciousness” even as they neglect their real (i.e. economic) interests. His analysis was most profoundly Marxist in assuming that all true human interests are economic, with class resentment and aspirations for financial equality the most basic motivation for human behavior. What he failed to notice is that the values the “Kansans” support are reality-based, but not fundamentally “interest”-based: they highlight commitments to family, community, and traditional ways of life that not only endorse self-sacrificial bonds but actually reject presuppositions of personal self-seeking that certain economic theories presume.

Still, Frank’s analysis remains important because he correctly observed that the traditionalist commitments of “Kansans” have not been well served during recent periods of Republican rule, in considerable part because the economic policies of Wall Street Republicans (and Wall Street Democrats, for that matter) have often had destructive effects on the fabric of social life that supports traditional and conservative institutions and associations. While Frank’s Marxist assumptions ignored this connection, the main architects of Republican and Democratic policies alike have been equally neglectful of the ways in which economic policies can prove to be supportive, or destructive, of social mores. “Kansans” have been poorly represented by both parties.

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