28 December 2010

Can Republicans reach out to the 'Have-Nots?'

Conservatives are pessimistic by nature. In America Reaganite entrepreneurial optimism challenges the pessimistic impulse, but it always seems to pop to the surface even in optimistic times. Thus, in the midst of Republican celebrations of their takeover of the House of Representatives, Jonah Goldberg publishes a column warning the GOP that it faces demographic doom. While the latest census numbers appear to favor "red" states, Goldberg sees long-term demographic trends favoring Democratic constituencies. "the core Democratic coalition of minorities, secular suburbanites, single mothers and people dependent on the government for their jobs is growing," he writes, "The core Republican coalition of culturally or religiously conservative whites is comparatively shrinking."

What this means, Goldberg suggests, is that Republicans won't be able to get by simply by preaching to the choir in the future. The GOP -- or any conservative movement, presumably, -- will need to persuade people who don't automatically buy into party doctrine. The columnist explains the nature of the challenge:

The only way for the GOP to make real progress toward becoming a majority party is by making and winning arguments. That’s true of all political parties, but some more than others. The Democratic party is dedicated to transferring money from people and institutions it doesn’t like to people and institutions it does like. Since there will always be more “have-nots” than “haves,” that puts the GOP at a disadvantage, which is why making persuasive arguments is so much more essential for conservatism than it is for liberalism, and why coasting on short-term demographic advantages is so much more dangerous.

Goldberg himself might not be the best person to respond to his own challenge. Even the "have-nots" are unlikely to believe that Democratic redistributionist policies are motivated purely by like or dislike. In their eyes, Goldberg may automatically handicap himself by identifying his own party with the "haves." The beginning of persuasion will probably include convincing people to reject the implicitly adversarial dichotomy of "haves" and "have-nots." While Republicans claim to abhor "class warfare," they may find it hard to abandon class consciousness as long as they believe that classes are formed by right and wrong behavior. If he wants to convince "have-nots" that they shouldn't "punish success" by oppressing the "haves," won't he have to make them believe that, in most cases, they deserve their "have-not" status? That doesn't seem like the approach most likely to win votes, but it's probably the argument Republicans want to make. Theirs remains a moralistic attitude; on some level they remain convinced that the poor don't deserve the standard of living they claim as their right. But if they want to win elections, they'll have to find some way to flatter the "have-nots" without compromising their own principles too severely. The more philosophically conservative approach, I suppose, would be to argue with whatever statistics help you that welfare states are unsustainable and that their inevitable collapses leave dependents worse off than when they started and less capable of helping themselves out of austerity. Beyond that, Republicans must somehow persuade "have-nots" to trade an already-fading trust in government for faith in entrepreneurs and a readiness to entrust them with the maximum freedom from regulation, taxation, etc. as a condition of their own employment. To sum up, "have-nots" must be made to appreciate their condition of dependence on employers and renounce any sense of entitlement inconsistent with employers' profit margins. No wonder Goldberg sounds pessimistic. But maybe he has a better idea. If so, he isn't sharing.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I don't believe that argument will work. For many reasons, chief of which would be that the have-nots may agree that a welfare state that sustains them will inevitably collapse, they have no other choice but to support it.

Unless the Repugnicans are willing to change at least part of their platform and agree that publicly funded education is a necessity to give the have-nots a chance at becoming haves. Which means there would also have to be jobs that pay more than a living wage available to them after they have an education.