I can relate to the GOP’s current identity crisis.
It reminds me of a realization I had about myself not too long ago, in a conversation with an Italian banker. As the English tutor for his wife and his two small children I often, and quite enthusiastically, accepted invitations to stay for dinner. Right around the second glass of wine, we would find ourselves talking over the general state of things: the beleaguered but noble idea of the EU; American congressmen’s struggles with monogamy; the Church. One night we were talking about the role of government. As is typical, I was clawing to apply the principles of my Social Doctrine classes, trying to convey that government has the responsibility to create an environment in which people will be more likely to do good. He waited until I finished, squinting to follow my complicated sentence patterns. Then, he simply said, “I tend to pay more attention to what people actually do.”
If you’re out of practice at applying your ideas to real life, you’re message will hold little weight in the eyes of others. This is something for the GOP to remember if they aim to repair the divorce they’ve had with the working class. As reflected by last week’s exit polls, it’s going to require more than empathy, theory, or dressing up the party line, much to the talking heads’ dismay.
In 2008, fewer than half (44.9 percent, according to Census Bureau data) of adults in households making less than $30,000 per year voted. These are people who might be tempted to finance their home insurance through Costco if they have one, are likely renting furniture and paying to cash checks, and are spending afternoons fulfilling work training requirements if they are jobless. We know that holding out subsidized health care, contraceptives, and cheaper student loans is not the answer, but we also cannot expect to rally the full contribution these people can make to their own upward mobility, to their local governments, and to the country by standing at a distance and repeating slogans about bootstrapping or touting prospective trade deals with South American countries.
Of those who did vote, as Catherine Rampell explained shortly after Romney’s infamous 47 percent remarks in September, a substantial chunk supported John McCain: 25 percent of those making under $15,000, and 37 percent of those making $15,000 to $30,000. This is part of a phenomenon that has kept sociologists scratching their heads for years. The working class has for some time now tended toward the party that stands for big business and small government, even as it enjoys the programs the party aims to limit. In 2012 that chunk narrowed, not as a proportion of the electorate but in its support for the GOP. As Fred Bruer points out:
Because of the economic travails of the past four years, members of those working-class/lower-middle-class households rose from 19 percent of the electorate in 2008 to 21 percent in 2012. Meanwhile, members of households making under $30,000 a year rose from 18 percent of voters to 20 percent of voters. So the income segments of the electorate in which Republicans perform worse have been growing, and, among those on the economic edge, Republican electoral performance is declining.
If the shabby articulation we saw in this election of the moral principles that underpin social conservatism is any indication, the culture wars will not redeem the GOP among these voters.
But conservative policy has always offered a kind of “tough love” in matters of the family and economy. The GOP needs to elaborate on the substantive questions of health care exchanges, education for second-generation immigrants, and how to prioritize entitlement spending pulling from on the ground experience, research, and principles. The trick is to not allow prudence to be mistaken for tone-deafness. As Rod mentioned on the issue of single-parent families living in poverty, service creation alone is not enough. Sustainable relief and real upward mobility grows from the structures and relationships natural to man. It summons a level of personal investment from the recipient, while reminding him/her of the relationship between rights and responsibilities. This is what the Right has to offer.
Now, get to work.