Reflections on Grand New Party

Personally, I was most interested in the policy proposals that pepper the book’s second half. But I predict that the single most influential piece of the book, over the long haul, will be the elegant answer it provides to Thomas Frank’s famous puzzlement about the behavior of Kansans.

After accepting a free copy of this book and the hospitality of a launch party from its authors—who are friends and occasional, invaluable guides to the strange ways of Washington—I couldn’t pretend to neutrality. So my overall assessment—that it’s one of the best nonfiction books I’ve plowed through in the last several, nonfiction-book-heavy years—may be of little interest. I’ll stick to specifics.

First and most abstractly, the book is a good book because it does more than simply fluff out an existing magazine piece. When I was editing at The American, I noticed that most of the galleys crossing my desk in the factual, thought-provoking genre were expansions of essays from periodicals. The books were often repetitious, poorly structured and generally a waste of time for anyone who had already read the magazine piece in question. This is one reason why, over time, I’ve spent more and more of my reading hours on periodicals rather than books. But Grand New Party is packed with new and thought provoking syntheses.

There are lots of interesting policy ideas culled from the best of think-tank land. I particularly liked the idea of subsidizing agricultural carbon management, the “weighted student” school payment formula from San Francisco, and the idea of shifting educational timelines so that public schooling begins earlier in the lives of the poorest children. Some other proposals, like wage subsidies, doubling the police force, or an extensive national system of summer camps, would certainly be beneficial, but the argument that benefits would accrue from some particular spending proposal is not enough on its own to justify federal expenditure, particularly in the context of a budget deficit and substantial national debt. (Of course, we could each supply our own list of cuttable programs to weigh these added expenditures against. And the net cost of the programs will be mitigated by the help they actually do provide, which in most cases would have some economic footprint.)

The book’s key contribution, though, is in responding to Thomas Frank the way Daniel Patrick Moynihan might have done if he were still around. Whereas Frank worries that cultural conservatism persuades many voters to engage in a kind of self-harm by voting against redistributionist policies designed for their benefit, Reihan and Ross remind us that cultural conservatism often enables people to be more economically secure. At the same time, they point out, the American left sometimes uses welfare as a chance to feel better about its empathy, which isn’t flattering to the targets of help.

Finally, a terminological note: Grand New Party does well in defining a broad middle class, the Sam’s Club demographic. But the term “upper-middle class,” both before and after reading Grand New Party, strikes me as impoverished (so to speak). It’s often applied to groups that are a small fraction of the population, such those attending four-year, nationally ranked colleges and universities. “Mass upper class” does a better job of reflecting the way some things once enjoyed by a mere handful of people are now enjoyed by a whole category or slice of the national population. Middle class can then be reserved for the Sam’s Club demographic, who would (I suspect) themselves object to being segmented into upper and lower: They are all distinguished by their shared and at least partly successful pursuit of a bourgeois American Dream. Moving down the ladder from there, we have the “working poor”, who aspire to middle class status but presently require significant help or a stroke of luck to get there, and finally the truly needy: those who are persistently destitute, or who are locked in cycles of social dysfunction from which it is difficult to imagine them emerging.

To recap in the form of a text-only chart:

Mass Upper Class: People who are tuned in to the U.S. News Rankings.
Middle Class: The Sam’s Club group so ably documented in Grand New Party.
Working Poor: People on the downswing from Middle Class status because of family circumstances, loss of health insurance, or similar.
Needy: People for whom needing help is, and likely will remain, the dominant feature of their engagement with the rest of society.

Maybe other people have their own charts in mind; maybe it is clear to others how the structure is supposed to look. But given the frequency with which individual “classes” show up in political conversations, I wish we’d see a few more ontologies—a little more setup, before zooming in on a particular subset of the population.