Egalitarian Conservatism

Why do Republicans suddenly worry about growing economic inequality?

David Frum. Click image to expand.
David Frum

Suddenly, conservatives care about inequality.

In the Sept. 7 New York Times magazine, David Frum writes that inequality

taken to extremes can overwhelm conservative ideals of self-reliance, limited government and national unity. It can de-legitimize commerce and business and invite destructive protectionism and overregulation. Inequality, in short, is a conservative issue too.

It is inequality’s secondary effects, not inequality itself, that worry Frum. Although “[w]e should be more troubled that the poor remain so poor,” if that were all there was to it, Frum wouldn’t see any need to do anything about it. Indeed, “[e]quality in itself never can be nor should be a conservative goal.” Inequality puts itself on the conservative radar screen by doing something much, much worse than opening a chasm between America’s haves and have-nots. It causes Republicans to lose elections!

“As America becomes more unequal,” Frum explains, “it also becomes less Republican.” Frum cites the examples of Fairfax County and Prince William County, both in Northern Virginia. As these counties have grown, they have grown more economically diverse, with poor immigrants at the bottom of the income scale and rich professionals at the top. To the extent that poor immigrants vote, they vote Democratic for the same reason poor people have voted Democratic for the past 70-odd years: the Democratic party favors government services for, and assistance to, society’s most vulnerable members. Rich professionals vote Democratic, Frum writes, because in the 1990s, “Rubinomics”—i.e., the policies of Clinton Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin—”emancipated higher-income and socially moderate voters to vote with their values rather than with their pocketbooks.” I’m more inclined to credit Reaganomics, particularly the virulent strain that took hold during the past dozen years or so, which decreed that the inheritance tax was so destructive to animal spirits that it had to be eliminated. I also suspect that the Democrats’ emergence as the party of fiscal solvency played a role. But I take Frum’s point. Wealthy professionals are more inclined to dislike the Republicans’ drift toward extremism on social issues, the environment, and what Frum calls “assertive nationalism” (which I would call rash militarism and an arrogant, short-sighted disregard for our allies).

Frum’s analysis assumes that the shrinking white working class has become a Republican stronghold. As I’ve observed before (“Who Is The Working Class, Anyway?”) that may or may not be true, depending on whose definition of “white working class” you adopt. According to one view popularized by Paul Krugman, the white working class remains Democratic if you ignore the South, a region that the Democrats lost with the passage of civil rights legislation in the 1960s. According to another view popularized by Thomas “What’s the Matter With Kansas?” Frank, the Republicans have seized the white middle class nationwide by promoting reactionary values. Another caveat Frum himself makes is that while Democrats have been gaining on wealthy professionals, Republicans still enjoy an advantage at the very highest income brackets. Coincidentally, the super-rich are also the group whose income is growing the fastest. A bigger problem for Frum’s analysis (and for the Republicans in general) is a recent study by the Pew Research Center For The People and The Press that found Democrats gaining ground on the GOP “across all income and education groups” (and especially among the “middle-income voters” Frum is counting on to vote Republican). All this adds up to the possibility that inequality, far from being an electoral disaster for the GOP, is at worst a wash, and possibly a plus. (If you happen to be Republican, dear reader, please don’t let this get around.)

In their book Grand New Party, conservatives Ross Douthat and Reihan Salam similarly fret about inequality. Their approach to the problem is more complex than Frum’s. It is also, I’m glad to report, motivated at least partly by sincere egalitarianism—especially as it relates (or, rather, fails to relate) to the excesses and inherent limitations of that great sacred cow, meritocracy. Those excesses are real but seldom acknowledged openly in the political realm, and Republicans have been using them against Democrats at least as far back as Richard Nixon’s claim that the “silent majority” supported him. (See this Sept. 3 column by Frum in The Week, which can’t quite decide whether to explain cheap anti-meritocratic partisanship or to express it.) Inchoate resentment of meritocracy’s shortcomings is one subtext—admittedly, not the nastiest—to Republicans’ baffling attacks on Barack Obama for doing what we all tell our children to do: Study hard in school so you can succeed in life.

Like Frum, Douthat and Salam are also concerned with secondary effects of growing inequality. They’re particularly worried that rising inequality promotes support for the welfare state. “So long as Americans believe that the poor can rise by their own efforts (and the rich can fall),” they write, “they’re likely to resist efforts to create a European-style nanny state that curtails independence in the name of universal security.” That strikes me as imprecise. When I hear the phrase “nanny state,” I don’t think of the sort of income-support programs that Douthat and Salam appear to have in mind here. I think of the sort of safety regulations that we’d need even if society were magically to become perfectly egalitarian. Conservatives love to mock these rules in the abstract but seldom criticize them with much specificity because they do boring but vitally necessary things like set standards for meat inspection to make sure it won’t poison you and impose design restrictions on automakers to maximize your chances of surviving a car crash. Rich people depend more on such protections than the poor, it seems to me, if only because they consume more. Douthat and Salam also cite inequality as one reason to oppose illegal immigration—not so much because it depresses wages but because the poverty of the immigrants themselves contributes significantly to income inequality in the U.S. Here Douthat and Salam more appropriately raise the issue of welfare payments and health insurance, which impose real costs on society (albeit ones that may be offset by the wealth created in the aggregate by their low-wage labor).

There are plenty of reasons to quarrel with conservatives’ reasons to care about inequality. Perhaps the wiser course for liberals, though, would simply be to feel grateful that they do care—and to explore points of agreement on how to reduce it once the partisan warfare of the presidential election is done.