Whither the ‘Grand New Party’?
Twelve years ago, a duo of young right-of-center intellectuals foretold the future of conservatism.
Half a year into Barack Obama’s first term, Ross Douthat and Reihan Salam, then both associate editors at the Atlantic, published a title that remains to this day the most visionary policy book of our generation. It was smart, radical, and brimming with electoral savvy and policy knowledge. Twelve years later, the book’s prescriptions couldn’t have aged any better.
Grand New Party (2009) grew out of an earlier essay the two authors wrote in 2005 for the Weekly Standard, titled after a catchphrase of Minnesota’s then-governor Tim Pawlenty. Republicans are “the Party of Sam’s Club,” their essay argued, not just the country club. As Salam and Douthat surveyed the state of the GOP a year into George W. Bush’s second term, they found a party “increasingly dependent for its power on supermajorities of the white working-class…who are surprisingly comfortable with bad-but-popular liberal ideas like raising the minimum wage, expanding clumsy environmental regulations, or hiking taxes on the wealthy to fund a health care entitlement”.
The difficulty—and the motive for expanding their 2005 essay into a proposal-ridden book-length project four years later—was that just as its electoral coalition contained more of the working class, the GOP’s agenda had barely budged since the Reagan revolution. “Conservatives seem too often to be stuck addressing themselves to the problems of a bygone era,” they wrote in a foreword to a new edition of the book. It wasn’t just electoral dynamics that had rendered the GOP’s platform outmoded and out-of-touch—there had been profound changes in American society and the economy in the decades after the Reagan presidency. From the breakdown of the working-class family to the excesses of meritocracy, Grand New Party offered a prescient preview of every dysfunction that would ail America in the decade following its release. The book’s analysis was sharpened by two factors—the authors’ grasp of the complex interaction between the economy and social mores, and their identification of the possibility that economic disparities can be entrenched even in a free-market system.
Salam and Douthat are both textbook examples of “social conservatives,” understood not in the narrow sense of supporting the conservative movement’s anti-abortion crusade, but as mounting a larger defense of the traditional family. They defended the family not only as a moral good in itself, but also for the economic benefits it bestows on children. One of the perversities they identified in meritocracy is that even after public policy has evened out everyone’s access to opportunities in the public space, the private home will remain a domain of intolerable inequities unless the state puts its thumb on the scale to encourage family formation and disincentivize out-of-wedlock births. “Over the last thirty years,” they wrote in the book’s introduction, years before Michael Sandel and Daniel Markovits’s groundbreaking work on the meritocracy, “familial stability has gone from being a near-universal feature of American life to a privilege reserved for the mass upper class, whose wealth and education protect them from the disruptions that create divorce and single parenthood, and who have the social capital to pass these advantages to the next generation.”
In a conservative firmament still unwilling to admit of a role for the state as a conduit to shared prosperity, Salam and Douthat championed a renewed concern about excessive inequality. Rising economic stratification, they wrote, is “the greatest domestic danger facing American society and the real source of conservatives’ growing political peril.” If the overtaxed, over-regulated economy of the 1970s had laid the groundwork for Reagan’s economic platform, the social anxiety and inequality of the early 2000s were pushing Generation Y into the Democrats’ arms—unless the GOP updated its platform to reflect changing circumstances. The authors’ prescription to contain the Great Divergence wasn’t of the tax-and-spend type, but rather a “reformicon” wish list of wage subsidies, school choice, immigration restrictionism and local development in the heartland—some of which Trump fleetingly embraced. But Douthat and Salam’s almost heretical verdict on tax cuts was that they were out of political whack, noting that Americans are “weighing the benefits and costs of government spending and finding they’re coming out ahead.”
The book was even more prescient, however, in the realm of politics. “Some combination of the populist left and the neoliberal center,” they wrote in a passage that eerily augurs the Biden presidency, “is likely to emerge as America’s next political majority if the conservative movement can’t find innovative ways to address the anxieties of working-class America.” Yet while Trump addressed those issue, if only rhetorically, Biden’s majority took hold in spite of it. What Salam and Douthat seemed to overlook in retrospect was the possibility that in moving towards this new pro-worker conservatism, the GOP would shed a substantial portion of its elite, suburban voter base—one of the possible rationales for Trump’s 2020 loss, and for the GOP’s uncertain viability going forward. The authors, however, did predict correctly that a “conservatism that seeks to win the working class needs to win the pan-ethnic working class,” a point made by Oren Cass in the aftermath of the 2020 race. This is Trump’s working-class paradox—winning in 2016 with an almost exclusively white working-class majority in key swing states but going on to lose four years later despite making considerable inroads with black and Latino voters.
The book’s broader diagnoses are even more astute. Douthat and Salam liken American politics to a race for the children and grandchildren of the Roosevelt coalition, the non-college-educated voters who make up roughly half of the electorate and have been switching parties since the late 1960s. They go on to remark that American public opinion, including of this key demographic, remains to the right of most other Western democracies, an even truer fact when considered in light of the electoral college, which may starken the incentive to embrace the economic populism likely to deliver the Rust Belt. The authors’ best insight, perhaps, was foretelling the intertwining of bread-and-butter aspirational conservatism with today’s culture war over national identity. “The risk is that our way of living is changing permanently for the worse, and that the democratic culture that has always made our country distinctive among the nations—of independence, of ownership, of home—will fade into history.” If the neo-feudal concentration of economic opportunity made a populist pivot urgent for the GOP, the ruling class’ reneging on American nationalism made it a necessity. We can’t say we weren’t warned.