The Home of American Intellectual Conservatism — First Principles

October 10, 2015

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The Case for Sam's Club Republicans
(from IR 43:2, Fall 2008)
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).

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 fl awed. 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.

Herein lies the great virtue of Ross Douthat and Reihan Salam’s Grand New Party, an expansion of their seminal Weekly Standard essay, “Party of Sam’s Club” (Volume 11, No. 9, November 14, 2005). Douthat and Salam—young conservatives who are willing to break ranks with their elders and think in new directions— concentrate their attention on this segment of the electorate, those who seek savings by buying in bulk at Sam’s Club and who aren’t embarrassed about it. In contrast to Frank’s Kansans, the working class they describe is less blue-collar and less rural, more likely to work in health care or office administration than on the farm, and above all, more likely to live in one of America’s far-flung “exurbs” rather than on the land. They are not poor, but given the massive dislocations engendered by the modern global economy, they are insecure, their wages have stagnated, and the prospects for their children’s future look dimmer than ever.

Douthat and Salam rightly note that, for this segment of the electorate, traditionalist social issues are intimately connected with their economic concerns and anxieties. “Safe streets, successful marriages, cultural solidarity, and vibrant religious and civic institutions make working class Americans more likely to be wealthy, healthy, and upwardly mobile. Public disorder, family disintegration, cultural fragmentation, and civic and religious disaffection, on the other hand, breed downward mobility and financial strain—which in turn breeds further social dislocation, in a vicious cycle that threatens to transform a working class into an underclass.”

Douthat and Salam—unfashionably, even heretically, in contemporary Republican circles—recognize that the new globalizing age, with the attendant dislocations being experienced by the “Sam’s Club” citizenry, calls for some considerable amount of government intervention. Given that Sam’s Club citizens are in many respects the backbone of the American citizenry, the nation has a decided interest in actively protecting the increasingly fragile institutions that support the values of hard work, self-sacrifice, family values, communal norms, and good citizenship.

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