What It Will Take

Building Red America: The New Conservative Coalition and the Drive for Permanent Power by Thomas B. Edsall (Basic Books, 320 pages, $26.00)

The Great Risk Shift: The Assault on American Jobs, Families, Health Care, and Retirement, and How You Can Fight Back by Jacob S. Hacker (Oxford University Press, 240 pages, $26.00)

These are the two most important books on American politics to appear this year, maybe in many a year. Together, they contain the material that should prod liberals and Democrats to think through a revival of both first principles and political tactics. But Tom Edsall's careful analysis, a real downer for Democrats, suggests that this will be a heavy lift indeed.

Building Red America is a reportorial and analytic tour de force on how Republicans and conservatives, despite their lack of a broad popular mandate, have out-organized Democrats and liberals. Edsall is dazzling on both the big picture and on new, revealing details on the ideological, organizational, and coalitional disparities between the two parties. Thus:

[U]nless the Democratic Party finds a way to defeat Republican ‘wedge issue' strategies, radically improves its organizational foundations, resolves its internal divisions on national security, formulates a compelling position on the use of force, addresses the schisms generated by its stands on moral, racial, and cultural issues, develops the capacity to turn Republican positions on socio-cultural issues into a liability, devises a [plausible] economic program … the odds are that the Republican Party will continue to maintain, over the long term, a thin but durable margin of victory.

The conventional view among political scientists and political strategists has long held that successful politicians, especially in presidential politics, must move to the center to appeal to the elusive “median voter.” George W. Bush, as the Republican governor who worked well with Democrats in the Texas Legislature, was perfectly positioned. The rhetoric of his 2000 campaign, reflecting Karl Rove's strategy, portrayed him as “a uniter, not a divider.” Though a conservative, Bush played down divisive social issues, signaling that he respected gays as “God's children,” indicated that he disliked abortion but would not give the “litmus test” to Roe v. Wade, called for an expanded federal role in education, and even declared that he would not “balance the budget on the backs of the poor.”

But then a key Republican operative, Bush pollster Matt Dowd, sent a memo to Rove that upended the conventional wisdom. This became the blueprint for a radically different strategy of energizing the hard-core base. Analyzing the 2000 electorate, Dowd concluded that most presumed swing voters “are independent in name only.” America was hardening into red and blue camps, and the conservative base was angrier and easier to mobilize than its liberal counterpart. Therefore, Dowd persuaded Rove, Republicans could eke out majorities by rallying the base and ignoring the center except at the level of soothing rhetoric.

In office, Bush used his presidency to reward the base -- the seemingly anomalous twin bases of the religious right and the corporate elite. This included funding for religious provision of social services and coded references to religious-right themes, as well as literally trillions of dollars for the corporate and individual elite in tax breaks, privatization, and government spending for the drug, insurance, military-contracting, and energy industries. It was patronage taken to a whole new level. This strategy capped four decades of movement-building on the conservative side.

As Edsall explains, unlike the improbable GOP alliance between Main Street fundamentalists and Wall Street sophisticates, the Democrats' unlikely alliance of an economically stressed working and middle class with an economic elite of social liberals doesn't jell. The “well-educated, culturally libertarian, relatively affluent progressive elite forms a minority of the Democratic electorate and a substantially smaller minority of the national electorate,” Edsall warns, but that elite “sets the agenda” for the party. The result is too much emphasis on social liberalism, not enough on economic populism, and a white working class that increasingly defects to Republicans. This sounds like Tom Frank, but Edsall disagrees with Frank that the cultural can be divided from the economic. He shrewdly observes that for social conservatives many cultural issues are economic: The traditional family is considered an economic lifeline, and the epidemic of divorce, promiscuity, and out-of-wedlock birth supposedly promoted by a liberal cultural elite is seen as threatening livelihoods as well as “values.”

The book, however, has its blemishes. Edsall agrees with Dowd that swing voters are almost nonexistent, but at another point he declares that Democrats are heavily dependent on them. He puts too much emphasis on the damage done by the support for causes like affirmative action, abortion, and gay rights, and not enough on the absence of a compelling economic vision, or what one might look like.

Hacker's The Great Risk Shift addresses the underdeveloped part of Edsall's book: What exactly is going on economically with the vast working middle class? How might its pocketbook distress be turned to the advantage of progressive Democrats? Hacker's is one of those prescient books that names and anatomizes a potent, ubiquitous trend that has been hidden in plain view.

His subject is the shift back to individuals of economic risks that, for two generations, had been borne substantially by government and paternalistic corporations -- most obviously health care and reliable traditional pensions. But as Hacker astutely points out, the risk shift doesn't stop there. Americans are dramatically more likely to lose their jobs, and to suffer wide swings in incomes.

“And yet what do our political leaders tell us?” he writes. “They tell us that we need to take “ownership” of our economic future, giving up the security of [social] insurance in favor of individualized private accounts that leave us at the mercy of market instabilities precisely when we need stability.”

Hacker rediscovers and updates an insight that was once commonly accepted. It is insurance against unforeseen risks that gives the people the self-confidence to take entrepreneurial risks. Hacker's program is ingenious and expansive. It includes expanding Medicare gradually to the whole population and legislating what Hacker slyly calls a universal 401(k) system. But under Hacker's plan “government would automatically turn workers' 401(k) accounts into lifetime guaranteed income at age 65.” In other words, Hacker appropriates the 401(k) label, which describes a wholly inadequate system of individual tax-deferred savings accounts that can run out of money, and turns it into expanded social insurance. Hacker also proposes what he terms “universal insurance” to go far beyond unemployment compensation and protect American workers and families against income volatility.

One quibble: Part of his final chapter reads more like a how-to book (perhaps the advice of his publisher's marketing department). He spends several pages sounding less like a policy strategist or political analyst and more like a modern Polonius, advising families how to thriftily survive the new environment of shifted risks. His advice is sound, but it unfortunately reinforces the dominant narrative that the rest of the book challenges -- you are on your own.

What's also missing is a discussion of the politics of Hacker's shrewd policy prescription. Expanded social insurance aimed at both security and mobility is just the right antidote to the absent economic message that Edsall rightly decries. But the Hacker prescription will be expensive. As Edsall and others like Princeton political scientist Larry Bartels and Harvard's Theda Skocpol have observed, Republicans have been so successful at disparaging progressive taxation and affirmative government (and Democrats so feeble at defending them) that it will take uncommon leadership to make “tax and invest” politically plausible again. This could usefully be the subject of Hacker's next book -- or someone's.

In fairness, in a season when half the nonfiction shelf seems to be primers on how to fix the Democrats, Hacker did not intend The Great Risk Shift as a road map for party politics. His book deserves the widest possible audience, for having nailed the most powerful and underappreciated economic trend of our era, thereby inviting a discussion of the political opportunities. But the challenge of restoring to respectability middle-class populism financed by progressive taxation is a lot harder than designing new forms of social insurance. If someone doesn't rise to that challenge, Edsall's pessimism about the future dominance of the Republican right will be all too prophetic.

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