Leave Us Alone: Getting the Government’s Hands Off

February 19th, 2009 at 11:21 pm David Frum | No Comments |

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Here are two important books that stake out important positions in the looming debate over the future of the Republican party and the conservative movement:

Grover Norquist Leave Us Alone: Getting the Government’s Hands Off Our Money, Our Guns, and Our Lives

and

Ross Douthat & Reihan Salam Grand New Party: How Republicans Can Win the Working Class and Save the American Dream.

Grover of course is chairman of Americans for Tax Reform, and a legendary activist for lower taxes and lighter regulation. Douthat and Salam are the authors of one of the most discussed articles in recent years on conservative politics: “The Party of Sam’s Club.” (Great title!) They argued in this 2005 essay that the GOP needs to shift toward economic policies more favorable to the working class: white working class voters being the great redoubt of GOP voting strength. Now they have extended and elaborated their article to fuller length.

Grover’s book is everything that Grover’s friends would expect from him: vigorous, lucid, and entertaining.

He perceives American politics as a struggle between two coalitions, one good and one wicked. The good coalition, the “leave us alone coalition”

is a coalition of groups and individuals that have one thing in common. They do not want the government to give them something. Or take something from others. On the key issue that motivates their vote, they want one simple thing: They just want to be left alone.

They are taxpayers who want lower taxes. Businessmen and -women, entrepreneurs, investors who wish to run their own affairs without being regulated and taxed out of existence. Property owners who do not wish to be taxed out of their homes or property. Gun owners protective of their Second Amendment rights. Homeschoolers who are willing to spend the time and energy to educate their own children, asking only that the government leave them alone. Conservative Catholics, evangelical Protestants, orthodox Jews, Muslims, and Mormons, all members of the various communities of faith who wish to be left alone to practice their faith and pass it on to their children. (3-4.)

Against them are arrayed the forces of the “takings coalition”:

These groups and individuals view the proper role of government as taking things from one group and giving them to someone else. Taking what? Money, property, power, and control. …

Let’s go around the table as the Takings Coalition gathers.

Seats are reserved for trial lawyers, labor-union leaders, government employees’ unions, recipients of government grants, and the two wings of the dependency movement: those who are locked into welfare dependency and those who earn $90,000 a year managing this dependency ….

Joining them are the social welfare industrial complex of hospitals and health-care professionals …. the big-city political machines. … those who live off government grants in universities and others in the taxpayer-subsidized “nonprofit world” … those businessmen and -women who believe they benefit from government contracts, subsidies, or tariff barriers …. businesses such as contractors and builders ….

The last set of chairs is for the “coercive utopians.” These folks want to change the world. They want to change you. And they are willing to wield the blunt instrument of the state to make you, your family, and your life fit their procrustean bed …. (34-35)

Like (I assume) most readers of NR, I broadly agree with what Grover wants to do, and I support most of his policy proposals: more choice in schooling, less government spending, lower taxes, etc.

That said, his description of US politics seems to me to fall dangerously short of an accurate picture of reality – and his priorities and emphases worryingly unsuited to the politics of the present-day.

Reading Grover, it is hard to understand why, say, David Geffen is a Democrat. Here’s a man who has nothing to seek from government and whose wishes to be left alone by outside authority are surely well above the average. Nor is it easy to understand why, say, so many low-income whites vote Republican: They depend heavily on government and show no reluctance to accept new benefits.

You’d never know from Grover’s book the role that crime and welfare played in building the Republican coalition – or the role that Terri Schiavo, stagnating wages, and corruption have played in undoing it.

You’d never guess that it advocates of medical marijuana, euthanasia, gay rights, and expansive definitions of privacy – “leave us alone” issues if any ever existed – almost always gravitate to the Democratic rather than to the Republican party. Or that Republican voters now list immigration, not taxes, as their most important issue.

There is no place in Grover’s schema for the millions of voters who cast Republican ballots in 2002 and 2004 on foreign policy grounds – indeed Grover makes only the most glancing reference to foreign policy, which he sees as an issue of interest almost exclusively to armed force personnel, police, prison guards, and veterans as a special-interest voting bloc. (See pages 18-19.)

Nor does he offer a convincing analysis of the power of the pro-life issue in American politics.

[B]oth pro-lifers and pro-choicers … see themselves as wanting only to be Left Alone, and given their underlying beliefs, they are both right.

On the basis of this analysis, he suggests that either group can belong to his coalition so long as they subordinate their concern for abortion to his concern for lower taxes and lighter regulation of business. He analyzes the gay rights issue the same way.

But what if gay voters decide that gay rights matters more to them than taxes? What if immigration divides economic libertarians from homeschoolers? What if new issues displace the old? Grover argues that no such things can possibly happen. There is no possible arrangement of coalitions other than the ones that exist now – because nobody has anyplace to go. The politics that Grover helped shape in the 1980s, he insists, are the politics that will last to 2050 – and beyond. Nothing will change. Nothing can change.

By now it should be clear that Leave Us Alone does not describe American politics as they are, but as the author wishes they were. Grover is an important and intelligent man, and he has written an important and intelligent book. But it is a book that describes the politics of a past already faded into history.

To get a glimpse of the future, turn instead to Grand New Party, and especially to its intellectual core, its final chapter. The Republican party has won elections by championing the values of the white working class. Douthat and Salam urge the party to step up and champion those voters’ interests as well.

To my mind, the most interesting thing Douthat and Salam say is their implicit critique of George W. Bush’s rhetoric of “compassion.” Republicans, they argue, should use the language of respect, not the language of compassion. Respect is the language of equals; compassion, of superiors.

Two things I would have liked to hear more about:

The first is how the GOP should cope with the remorseless relative decline in the voting weight of the white working class. Because of immigration, poorer America is becoming less white; because of education and upward mobility, white America is becoming less poor. As white voters prosper, they also become less socially conservative. How would Douthat and Salam respond to that reality?

Douthat and Salam do not say. Nor do they have enough to say – and here is the second thing to which I wish they had given a more detailed answer – about how the GOP should express its nationalism in a post-Iraq political environment. White working-class voters are not as conservative as they are often represented on issues like abortion. (Even among whites without a college degree, prochoicers still outnumber prolifers.) The conservatism of the white working class is first and foremost a nationalistic conservatism – and given the well-known opposition to the Iraq war of one of the two coauthors, it would have been especially interesting to hear from him on that subject. Yet Grand New Party neglects foreign and security policy entirely.

These gaps are all the more frustrating because the young authors of Grand New Party have such creative and interesting minds. The n again, this is not the last we are going to hear from these two new voices. Douthat and Salam are exploring a path toward a renewed Republican future – and they are not afraid to take the risk of reporting back before the destination has come into sight.

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4 Comments so far ↓

  • Johnnnymac66

    I’ve lived all of my 51 years in Chicago. I learned world politics by reading Gigi Geyer, Evans & Novak, George Will, and many, many others. I learned Chicago politics by reading Mike Royko, Studs Terkel, and many others.
    For me, the tipping point with Evans came when he “outted” Valerie Plame, a crime I believe was treasonous. I wrote him and told him exactly that, and was not surprised when I received no response.
    From that point on, I’d glance at his columns, but never again believed anything in them.
    When Hunter Thompson would inject himself into the stories he was writing, it was funny. Outting an undercover CIA operative because of a personal grudge wasn’t at all funny.
    I still believe Robert Evans committed treason against the United States.

  • WaStateUrbanGOPer

    Novak comes off as a sort of American, Jewish-cum-Catholic verson of Evelyn Waugh: nasty, vindictive and palpably self loathing. But he wasn’t unpatriotic. Moreover, he was correct about the War on Terror and Iraq. Compare his foreign policy views to David Frum’s, and then tell me: who comes out looking better on the geopolitics of the past decade?

  • WaStateUrbanGOPer

    Oh, and by the way Frum, you’d fail your mother-in-law’s course, too: it’s ABC 20/20, not “NBC 20/20.”

  • lolapowers

    Mr Frum, I so wholeheartedly agree with you, Novak was indeed a dark soul !

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