The Return of Lower-Middle-Reformism and Upper-Middle-Reformism

Ross and I were just talking about David Frum’s latest comment, which presents a stark choice between the two reformisms.

The first is on display at the excited rallies that cheered Sarah Palin. This is a choice to fall back on the core base of the party. This is almost entirely white, almost entirely resident in the middle of the country, moderately affluent, middle-aged and older, more male than female, with some college education but not a college degree. Think of Joe the Plumber – and you see the core of the Republican Party.

Yet the Joe vote is, as Frum notes, shrinking, and so Republicans need ever larger supermajorities.

In order to keep competitive, the GOP has had to win more and more of the Joe vote. This year, an economically squeezed Joe did not come through. But once the dust settles, Republican leaders will say: 2008 was unusual. Iraq, Bush, the financial meltdown, and a too-moderate candidate: No wonder we lost.

But herein lies the small problem with Frum’s analysis. What will it take to win these supermajorites? To some extent, it will take the same changes in tone and policy direction that will accomplish Frum’s other goal. Frum suggests, roughly speaking, a path of upper-middle-reformism, or pursuing the college-educated.

A generation ago, Republicans were dominant among college graduates. Those days are long gone. Since 1988, Democrats have become more conservative on economics – and Republicans more conservative on social issues. College-educated Americans have come to believe that their money is safe with Democrats – but that their values are under threat from Republicans. There are more and more college-educated voters.

But how?

This will involve painful change, on issues ranging from the environment to abortion. It will involve even more painful changes of style and tone: toward a future that is less overtly religious, less negligent with policy, and less polarising on social issues.

I tend to think that the Republican party can remain the culturally conservative party while also being less negligent with policy. On the less polarizing front, it’s true that, as Gertrude Himmelfarb notes in One Nation, Two Cultures, religious revivals tend to evolve into moral revivals. The promise of McCain’s 2000 campaign, to my mind, was the creation of a conservatism that was less sectarian in character, yet no less moralistic (and I recognize that the term is used derisively). Barack Obama can talk about the perils of fatherlessness, and surely conservatives can talk about the need to help families stay together in a similarly broad-minded, accessible way.

And, as David Gelernter and many others have argued in the past, the way to remain a Big Tent party is to be the party of democracy. It is a commonplace that the end of the Roe-Casey regime would pose a dire threat to Republican party. Yet Ross and I both tend to think that this would give Republicans the space to decentralize, and to talk about other issues.

Granted, this is far from from a no-brainer: I tend to think that a post Roe-Casey world would create the need for some national solution as a patchwork of state laws creates the possibility of interstate clashes. But assuming it is a democratic solution, I think the temperature would go down to some extent. This process would likely take many years, of course.

I’m eager to read Will Saletan’s thoughts on how an Obama presidency might shape the politics of abortion. Perhaps we will see some kind of third way, though I’m skeptical.

Have to run out — more thoughts soon.