Grand New Party and Consensus

One of the themes that Ross Douthat and Reihan Salam hit often in Grand New Party is that conservatives have been most successful when focusing on the efficiency of government rather than on gutting the services it provides; smart government as opposed to small government.  They cite several times the observation that working-class voters want a liberal welfare state managed by conservatives.

Their return to that theme echoes hints in their introduction that their main argument is for a conservatism that works for genuine poverty relief and social security and enables real social and economic mobility.

Douthat and Salam focus on job assistance and training, wage growth, and family support as means of securing the welfare of those whose place in the middle class is more tenuous and lifting others out of poverty.  Their fixation on encouraging family formation veers dangerously close to the social engineering with which they caricature the most excessive and self-righteous of 1970s liberals and, in practice, has rarely been anything more than repression.  

Liberals and progressives (like myself) tend to focus more on structural causes of poverty and insecurity like economic structures that encourage wage stagnation, the disadvantages of generational poverty, or discrimination and disadvantage entrenched on the basis of race or gender.

With all that said, however, their point is well taken.  There are aspects of a social safety net - they mention health care as a primary concern of the working class - that do not lend themselves to local solutions, but their zeal for diffuse localized anti-poverty measures has merit.  Support for job training can be more effectively applied, for example, by a more localized agency that is sensitive to changes in economic conditions on the ground.

The most important part of Douthat and Salam’s assessment of conservative politics, however, is not in the minutia of their ideas, but in their signaling of a broad area of consensus.

Their identification of poverty relief and addressing economic instability is fundamentally different than the current notion among Republicans that poverty is the failing of the poor.  Their focus not on gutting the federal government at all costs but on prioritizing poverty relief and the social welfare of citizens with the money at their disposal is a massive area of agreement with most liberals including those on the furthest reaches of the left wing fringe.  More importantly, it provides a legitimate basis for productive disagreement.

Arguing against those charged with running a government about whether that government is worth preserving at all or whether the poor or insecure have any right to expect relief of some kind is a waste of time, but while I disagree with many of Douthat and Salam's proposals but see the merit in others.  Their position is different.  Disagreeing over how the government can best function and the means by which the government can help those in need is solid ground on which something could be built.