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A Material Agenda for a New GOP

The Democrats’ pivot to identity politics presents an opportunity for Republicans on economics.

(Lucian Coman/Shutterstock)

For half a century, "civil rights" organizations and the Democratic Party have worked hard at creating coalitions of the disaffected, ‘slicing and dicing’ the electorate along lines of race, religion, gender, nationality, and sexual orientation.

Convulsions on campuses and in cities have caused politically necessary majorities to turn against measures they see as “defining deviancy down,” seeking to curb the police and other agents of socialization. The rise of new "minorities" has further complicated the task of coalition-building.


This presents an opportunity for Republicans, who might capitalize on the left’s pivot to identity politics by presenting a concrete vision on economics—one informed by the tradition Democrats have abandoned, including by its failures. Some suggestions follow for policies that stress work, not welfare—an agenda that should appeal even to more orthodox Republicans.

Appropriately given current political trends, any economic reimagining must begin with educational reforms. The union monopoly over school governance could be reduced through model state laws or federal-grant conditions requiring each school to have its own building-level board, with a budget allowing control at least of building maintenance and textbook acquisition. Reciprocal admission to the teaching force of scientists, career-changers, and retirees who have not spent a year taking frequently worthless education courses would also be valuable. Governor DeSantis of Florida has recently made a beginning in this direction.

Reform of college admissions on the British and French model, heavily stressing achievement tests, would let students and parents know what is expected of them and induce colleges to take an interest in what is taught in high schools. Since the retirement of Robert Maynard Hutchins from the University of Chicago, few college presidents and faculties have taken any interest whatsoever in what goes on in high schools. Enhanced assimilation of the last two years of high school to community and conventional colleges, or vocational training, with an eye towards their eventual elimination, has been achieved as to the 12th-grade year in the Province of Quebec and in many parts of Britain, where Sixth-Form Academies are increasingly common.

A Third Morrill Act is needed to provide training in building trades, practical nursing, and computer science in the spirit of the residential agricultural and mechanical colleges of the 1880s. Almost all vocational training today takes place in non-residential institutions. The vision that once informed the Tuskegee and Hampton Institutes, conceived as schools for artisans and small businessmen, with workshops as well as classrooms, was decried by the Marxist W.E.B. Du Bois and others as perpetuating slavery. The historically black colleges became, as the sociologist David Riesman observed in The Academic Revolution (1960), conventional colleges of an inferior type. Vocational education in high schools is terra incognita to "liberal" reformers. Several years ago it was discovered that Baltimore’s flagship science high school did not have a single computer-science teacher. Much adult education in building trades is confined to the disappearing construction unions that, despite the "Philadelphia Plan" of former Secretary of Labor George Shultz, treat apprenticeships as inherited prerogatives.

Extending beyond the educational realm, employees under the age of 25 could be provided an exemption from federal payroll taxation. Such a measure was adopted by the Germans after their unpleasant experience with youth unemployment in the 1930s and produced youth unemployment rates below the adult rates. The strategy has also been employed in the Netherlands (in a complicated way), Poland, and Croatia (in a simple one).


A revived, voluntary Civilian Conservation Corps would offer social affiliation not only to the disaffected youth from cities but to those of beleaguered rural states such as Indiana and Vermont. As FDR observed, “Continued dependence upon relief induces a spiritual and moral disintegration destructive to the national fiber. To dole out relief in this way is to administer a narcotic, a subtle destroyer of the national spirit.” The original CCC provided initial training in army camps, to supply physical training, cure of diseases, and work discipline. (This was where General George Marshall gained his reputation.) Its successor, in order to avoid the follies of the Johnson administration’s Job Corps, should do the same thing.

A public-works program should concentrate on declining communities in Appalachia and the Midwest, including the reclamation of abandoned mines, soil conservation and flood-control works, and reforestation. The creation of new public-private national parks on the British and Japanese and Adirondack State Park model, which grandfather existing private uses and do not require great amounts of land acquisition, ought to be considered.

In the market at large, restrictions on abusive corporate practices must be instituted, including denial of tax benefits to "corporate welfare" payments by states competing for new industries through extravagant infrastructure payments and tax abatements. Such subsidies should be limited to manpower training.

A new commission is needed to review military manpower policies in particular, which have been unreformed since the advent of the volunteer army nearly 40 years ago. A recent commission on this subject populated by narrowly experienced bureaucrats produced a damp squib. There has been a failure to provide incentives for the enlistment of middle-class and college-trained youth; the result has been an Army too small for the tasks assigned to it. Its members, drawn from a largely Southern underclass, suffer multiple rotations into combat zones. The resulting 8,000 suicides by veterans each year take place in poverty-stricken communities and go unremarked upon by the media; if those in the last decade were memorialized in Washington, the necessary wall would be considerably longer than the Vietnam Memorial.

Bold GOP members of Congress might even pursue passage of the TEAM Act. Proposed by a commission appointed by former Secretary of Labor Robert Reich and former Secretary of Commerce Ron Brown—including former Democratic cabinet officers W.J. Usery, Juanita Krebs, and Ray Marshall, presided over by the respected labor arbitrator John Dunlop—it proposed relaxing the ban on company unions, allowing local employee-participation committees to negotiate local productivity deals including wage increases, such as the plant-level unions fostered by the War Labor Board under the co-chairmanship of former President William Howard Taft during the First World War. Subsequent to its veto by President Clinton at the behest of the United Auto Workers, with their dreams of industry-wide bargaining and national strikes, unionized manufacturing employment declined by two-thirds to less than a million, and Volkswagen forswore locating a plant in Ohio because of the unavailability there of German-style works councils. The upshot is a proletarianized work force in which tens of millions of workers in places like Walmart (on whose board Hillary Clinton uncomplainingly sat for more than ten years) have no bargaining rights at all, even with respect to employee grievances and work schedules such as bathroom breaks.

Lastly, Republicans must emphasize reconfiguration of the existing housing stock as the major source of needed small-unit, low-income housing. This is most easily achievable through tax credits for construction of second kitchens in owner-occupied housing, as done in Germany, Japan and Finland. Such a reform will make available needed small units without raising the fears of massive neighborhood change usually associated with conventional low-income housing projects. Small tax incentives should be employed to encourage mutual-aid organizations among the elderly, as well as cooperative land-readjustment associations for urban renewal.

These reforms presuppose rules and institutions that are available to all. Their theme is work, not welfare. Together, they constitute a plausible Republican platform to dispel the notion fostered by the Democrats that the GOP has been reduced to a cult of personality. In this scenario, the Democrats will be saddled with their universal dedication to identity politics and its inflationary consequences. By contrast, the menu of measures set forth above is not notably expensive, not burdened by political controversy, and not divisive either.


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