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The Economics Of GOP Change

Ross Douthat warns that the chastened GOP would be making a huge mistake by rushing to embrace immigration amnesty as a way to solve its Hispanic problem. Excerpt:

At the same time, a Republican Party that moves too far leftward on immigration risks alienating its white working-class supporters, an easily disillusioned constituency whose support the party cannot take for granted. These voters already suspect that Republican elites don’t have their interests at heart: Mitt Romney lost last week because he underperformed among minority voters, but also because a large number of working-class whites apparently stayed home. If the party’s only post-2012 adjustment is to embrace amnesty, they aren’t likely to turn out in 2016 either.

What the party really needs, much more than a better identity-politics pitch, is an economic message that would appeal across demographic lines — reaching both downscale white voters turned off by Romney’s Bain Capital background and upwardly mobile Latino voters who don’t relate to the current G.O.P. fixation on upper-bracket tax cuts.

One of the reasons I loved Mike Huckabee’s campaign in 2008 was because he was socially conservative and more in touch with Main Street than Wall Street. If that guy hadn’t sold out to Fox News celebrity, and instead ran for president this year, I bet he would have won. Huck’s time has passed, but his message has not. Douthat recommends today the work of the University of Chicago economist Luigi Zingales. Me too. Here’s an excerpt from a piece Zingales wrote earlier this year:

According to a survey conducted as part of the Financial Trust Index, which I codirect, only 19 percent of Americans reject the free-market system. But 51 percent are suspicious of the excessive power of big business. In other words, they are pro-market, but not necessarily pro-business, especially when business is large and politically powerful.

In fact, by inverting Scher’s argument, one can see that a pro-market, but not pro-big-business, platform would be a winner for Republicans. From Tea Party supporters to Republican-leaning independents, a vast majority of potential Republican voters already hold these positions. The party establishment lags behind, partly for ideological reasons and partly for financial ones.

Ideologically, the Republican establishment doesn’t appreciate the difference between being pro-market and being pro-business.

He went on to suggest that Mitt Romney was the ideal person to stand up to the GOP’s big-business clients, precisely because he understands markets so well, and is from the plutocratic class. Nixon-to-China stuff. Of course, Romney did no such thing. Woulda coulda shoulda, and all that. Back in 2009, Zingales was trying to wake the GOP up in the wake of the financial bailouts, telling them how they’ve become prisoner to the big financial interests, and how they need to change to retain the confidence of ordinary Americans. They didn’t listen.

Will they listen now? As Douthat says today:

Both shifts, demographic and economic, must be addressed if Republicans are to find a way back to the majority. But the temptation for the party’s elites will be to fasten on the demographic explanation, because playing identity politics seems far less painful than overhauling the Republican economic message.

Back when I lived in Texas, it was common for Republicans from the professional classes to be wide-open to immigration. They quite rightly recognized the value of the very hard work Latin American immigrants did, and their contribution to the economy. But what they didn’t appreciate was the price that many downscale Americans paid for all that immigration. If you were a working-class American who, because you lacked health insurance, depended on the public hospital overwhelmed by illegal immigrants, or you sent your kids to public school in a district swamped with the non-English-speaking children of illegal immigrants, or you saw downward pressure on wages because illegal immigrants were willing to work incredibly hard for lower salaries — well, you paid a heavy price for the country’s relatively open borders. And the upper-class Republicans looked down on you as nothing but racist and nativist.

There’s going to be a lot of that coming from the GOP elites in the days ahead. The GOP really does have a Hispanic problem, no doubt about it. But as Douthat indicates, it’s much easier at the elite level to confront the so-called bigots in the grassroots than to confront the wealthy GOP donor class, which doesn’t want to see its interests threatened. The problem with this is that the white working class, and maybe even many in the middle class, will just quit showing up for Republicans, or get into the voting booth and think there’s not a whole hell of a lot of difference between the two welfare parties, except the class of their clients.

As a Fox News personality, Mike Huckabee is too much of a Conservatism, Inc. figure now ever to run again for president. But the GOP needs today a version of what Huckabee offered in 2008.

UPDATE: I updated this post to take out all the stuff from my friend the small businessman, after some of you raised legitimate questions about his story. He didn’t tell it to me thinking it was going to end up in a blog post, nor did I listen to it thinking I would use it some day, so I had better question him closely. It was a remark he made in passing. Even though I’m not using his name or disclosing information about his business, it wasn’t fair, though, for me to use his anecdote here, given the context and I wish I hadn’t done it.

The comments thread is closed, though. It got ugly.

about the author

Rod Dreher is a senior editor at The American Conservative. He has written and edited for the New York Post, The Dallas Morning News, National Review, the South Florida Sun-Sentinel, the Washington Times, and the Baton Rouge Advocate. Rod’s commentary has been published in The Wall Street Journal, Commentary, the Weekly Standard, Beliefnet, and Real Simple, among other publications, and he has appeared on NPR, ABC News, CNN, Fox News, MSNBC, and the BBC. He lives in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, with his wife Julie and their three children. He has also written four books, The Little Way of Ruthie Leming, Crunchy Cons, How Dante Can Save Your Life, and The Benedict Option.

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