Off the Rails: How the Party of Lincoln Became the Party of Plutocrats
It’s time for Republicans to finally embrace the healthy role that Americans want government to play, writes Joel Kotkin.
For a century now, Republicans have confused being the party of plutocrats with being the party of prosperity. Thus Mitt Romney.
To win back the so-called 47 percent—an insulting description Romney doubled down after the election when he blamed his loss on Obama’s “gifts”—Republican might look farther back, past Calvin Coolidge and Herbert Hoover to their first president, Abraham Lincoln.
Not only did he spring from the ranks of the plebeian, not the preps, but—as Michael Lind points out in What Lincoln Believed—he aimed to both increase opportunity and expand national power. A corporate attorney, he backed railroad interests and their expansion, which paced the nation’s economic ascendancy, but saw this as part of creating greater opportunity, particularly in the West, for the country’s middle and working classes. He also enacted the Homestead Act, which supplied aspiring settlers with a gift: 160 acres of federal land.
Whether or not these acts were populist in their intent, their effects helped people achieve their aspirations. Expansion westward was nothing less than the basis of the American dream, allowing millions, many from land-poor and feudalized Europe, an opportunity to strike out on their own.
This aspirational element should be the centerpiece of the Republican message in this age of growing class bifurcation. The loss of upward mobility long predates President Obama, though it has accelerated under him—with median household incomes down by more than $4,000 since he took office. Even the tepid economy has not done much to improve middle-class fortunes since nearly three-fifths of new jobs are in lower-wage positions.
Without some unforeseen economic rebound, class issues will dominate our politics in the future even more than they do today. To recover, Republicans, now losing consistently (and often deservedly) on cultural issues, need to outmaneuver the Democrats on their ability to provide opportunity and upward mobility to a broad range of Americans.
In his time, Lincoln understood the usefulness of class warfare. Tied to industrial interests, he waged a bloody class war on the slave-owning gentry of the South, a group so detestable it makes today’s Wall Street elites seem almost saintly by comparison. Financiers and industrialists may have supported this brutal war between the states, but it was largely aspiring yeoman farmers, skilled workers, and small merchants—all beneficiaries of Lincoln’s expansive economic vision—who fought it.
In recent decades, Republicans—conscious of their patrician backers—have suppressed thinking about class, often criticizing Democrats for having no such scruples.
This made them unable to turn issues such as the bank bailouts to their favor; Romney, himself an economic royalist, could not bring himself to denounce the administration’s policies that have worked out wonderfully for large banks now enjoying record profits while pummeling the middle class.
In the past, Republican deflected class concerns by focusing on cultural issues, national defense, or ideology—but these tactics have worn themselves out. Of course, some conservatives will blame their defeat on a candidate of uncertain convictions and without commitment to the social regressive policies. Yet evangelicals mounted a record effort to get out the vote; it’s hard to see how Romney would have done better trying to sound more like Todd Akin and Richard Mourdock.
What should concern Republicans was declining turnout in traditionally GOP-leaning suburbs, the very places where middle-class professionals and business owners reside. These voters were not energized by Romney. So even though he improved the GOP’s 2008 vote among the middle class and independents, Romney’s total was about 1,000,000 below that of John McCain. Had Romney equaled McCain’s performance in four states (Florida, Ohio, Virginia, and Colorado), he would have won, rather than losing to a president who received 7 million fewer votes than in the previous election.
Let’s take a measurement of base stagnation: the nation’s population has grown 20 million since George Bush was elected in 2004, but the GOP vote has actually shrunk. This correlates as well with a stunning decline of roughly 8 million white voters compared to 2008. The white population may be getting old, but it’s not dying off that rapidly.
This low turnout is remarkable given how unfavorably Obama is viewed by much of the yeoman class. In fact, as Gallup notes, nearly 60 percent of small-business owners disapprove of Obama. The problem was many simply did not see Romney as a viable—let alone an attractive—alternative. In contrast, the Obama team did a far better job of turning out their base of minority, youth, single and childless women, and union members—an effort that delivered their margin of victory in swing states including Ohio, Nevada, and Colorado.
To change the political dynamic, Republicans need to address class concerns, particularly those of small property owners and aspirant small entrepreneurs. Yet the GOP has no program for this group other than lower taxes and hollow promises to cut the budget (which, of course, they have not done, even when holding both houses of Congress and the presidency). The party’s hodgepodge of corporate managerialism, social regressiveness, and, above all, protection of the plutocratic class is demonstrably not compelling to most Americans.
It’s hard for a Main Street business owner, or sole proprietor working from home, to relate to a plutocrat, like Romney, who pays lower effective tax rates than they do. Outrage against looming tax hikes would be justifiable, if the true motivation were not so plainly to preserve the privileges of the haute bourgeoisie. This is a politically doomed approach; while small business is widely revered by Americans, big business and banks are among the least well-regarded.
Class also would provide a means to define negatively the current regime. Instead of making silly attacks on President Obama as a “socialist,” he would be more accurately portrayed as the tribune of both the crony capitalists on Wall Street or Silicon Valley and of big labor, particularly public-employee unions. Obama should also be toxic to grassroots entrepreneurs, who will bear the brunt of the new regulatory regime, health-care system, higher energy prices, as well as rising income taxes.
Rather than label him as a radical, Republicans should identify him as an avatar of those who are doing best in our concussed economy, and presumably want things to stay that way. His most ardent backers include many of our richest, most celebrated citizens—fabulously wealthy Hollywood types, the Silicon Valley elite as well as those controlling our major media and universities. There’s a reason Obama bested Romney in eight of America’s 10 richest counties.
In Marin County, Calif.—where Obama claimed nearly 75 percent of the vote—expensive energy and higher housing prices represent not a burden but an environmental good, and, when it comes to housing, an economic opportunity for some to benefit from artificial, government-imposed scarcity. Ban new single-family homes, and the value of the existing stock goes up; for the elite investing class, incentives for “green energy” developments offer insider opportunities to enjoy windfall profits at the expense of middle-class-rate payers.
If Wall Street wants to join the “progressive” gentry parade again, as it did in 2008, Republican should encourage them. Being the candidate of the phenomenally unpopular financial overclass may have bought Romney the nomination, but it sealed his fate in the general election.
To reclaim its Lincolnesque transformation, the GOP needs to fundamentally pivot on the role of government. Laissez-faire ideology has its merits, but cannot compete successfully with a population weaned on the welfare state, whose members are keenly attuned to their vulnerability in our volatile era.
By admitting that government is sometimes a necessary partner in nurturing and sometimes financing infrastructure critical for economic expansion, Republicans can offer their own vision of what growth-inducing services such as new roads—as opposed to the increased regulation and transfer payments and pension bloat peddled by Democrats—government can and should provide. This could appeal to Hispanics, Asians, and younger people who would be the prime beneficiaries of tangible investments.
As generational chroniclers Morley Winograd and Mike Hais have suggested, most younger people support government action to solve problems but generally dislike the kind of top-down solutions often supported by Democrats. As these voters age, seek to buy homes and start businesses, they might listen to a sensible alternative that does not seek to enhance the left-wing clerisy’s ambition to control all aspects of their lives.
It’s time for Republicans to break with the traditions of Goldwater, Reagan, and, particularly, Bush and shift to something more akin to the party’s roots in the mid-19th century. This party needs less preaching and libertarian manifestos that essentially defend plutocracy. Instead it’s time to embrace class warfare on today’s gentry, and embrace the aspirations of today’s middle-class. Honest Abe in 2016?