Ross Douthat weighed back into the raging debate over the various proposed forms of conservative populism yesterday, when he made the case for why the Republican Party’s past effective identity as the “party of the rich” need not be its future.

Will Wilkinson over at the Economist had made the case that the “libertarian populism” advanced by folks like Tim Carney and Ben Domenech could never sustain the GOP, because 1) “right-wing populism in America has always amounted to white identity politics,” and 2) “political parties are coalitions of interests, and the Republican Party is the party of the rich, as well as the ideological champion of big business.” The first point is deserving of its own attention elsewhere, but Ross responds well to the second when he says: “I’m generally skeptical of these kind of essentialist arguments, since coalitions can break apart and re-form in unexpected ways, and the parties have been known to change positions dramatically as their ground shifts beneath their feet.”

Moreover, Ross points out that

between 1988 and 2008 the Republican Party went from winning wealthy voters by 34 points overall, and by 17 points more than the party won the median voter, to losing the wealthy vote by the same total – 6 points – as it lost the electorate as a whole. In the election that put Obama in the White House, whatever the G.O.P.’s prejudices and policy stances, it was no longer functionally the party of the rich.

This stark shift occurred because “the composition of the richest 5 percent changed (becoming more professional and less managerial/entrepreneurial), and the views of the upper class diverged more sharply, on social issues especially, from the views of the G.O.P.’s heartland/Southern base.” Moreover, the Democratic Party has undergone a significant change in the post-Clinton era, “becoming much more pro-business and backburnering the priorities of a weakened labor movement,” as well as courting the nouveau riche of Silicon Valley and the greater New York finance and hedge fund community.

In 2012, however, the Republican Party won the wealthy back by nominating a man made in their own image: Willard Mitt Romney. He won 47% of the vote.

As Ross puts it: “Bush-era compassionate conservatism was abandoned and nothing really took its place: Apart from some purely cynical China-bashing, the party’s only economic pitch to hard-strapped Americans was a ritualistic invocation of the unemployment rate.” As Jay Cost of The Weekly Standard showed in a CNN graph currently making the rounds for its brutal clarity, middle- and working-class voters had a fairly clear choice before them:

Now that the Romney alternative isn’t staring them in the face, and as President Obama has concentrated his first 6 months of the second term on gun control and immigration reform, the President is hemorrhaging what working class white support he marshaled during the election. As Nate Cohn details at The New Republic, 

Obama’s support among white working-class voters has taken a huge hit, opening an unprecedented 41 point education gap among white voters. Incredibly, the poll now even shows Obama with a stronger approval rating among affluent whites than downscale whites—something that’s never happened for a Democrat in a presidential election.

While Republicans clearly still have work to do in reversing their stigma in minority communities, the path towards a new conservative coalition could not be clearer. As Democrats become increasingly comfortable allying with the wealthy and like-minded, the “lower-middle” cohort will be searching for an advocate.

Can the GOP become what working class Americans are looking for?