The Agenda

NRO’s domestic-policy blog, by Reihan Salam.

The Disconnect Between Policy Types and the Voting Blocs They Rely On


In the latest issue of In These Times, Bhaskar Sunkara, founder of Jacobin, offers a political blueprint for democratic socialists. In particular, he calls on socialists to form tighter bonds with liberals, as this will create an opportunity for socialists to exploit the gap between liberal technocrats and liberalism’s mass constituency. This is, for non-socialists, the interesting part:

The different ways in which liberals assess this history reveal interesting fractures in the liberal camp. In one corner, labor-oriented liberals rightly pine for that bygone era’s economic security and still dream that someday the promise of mid-century liberalism will be realized in the form of a more robust industrial democracy. In the other corner are those aligned with the professional liberal policy class, like the Washington Post’s Ezra Klein, who in a January 18 blog post titled “After ‘the end of big government liberalism’ ” wrote, “The progressive project of building a decent welfare state is giving way to the more technocratic work of financing and managing it.” Hence the existing safety net must be pruned and innovated upon until it can mesh with the demands of a globalized economy.

These liberal technocrats aren’t idiots. Their understanding of the structural basis of the 1970s economic crisis that undid much of American social democracy and inaugurated neoliberalism is more sophisticated than that of their labor-Left peers. But the disconnect between the aspirations of liberal policy types and the voting blocs they rely on politically is striking. This is a divide socialists can exploit. The bloodless wonkery of Beltway liberals—the corps of writers who are heralded as the “ideas people” of American liberalism—presents the Left with an opportunity to rebuild a rapport with the broader progressive movement, an audience starved for alternatives to austerity.

Bhaskar’s invocation of the disconnect between “liberal policy types” and rank-and-file left-of-center voters brings to mind a passage David Goodhart’s exceptionally intelligent new book, The British Dream, which is unfortunately not yet available in a U.S. edition:

When I said to my neighbour, one of the country’s most senior civil servants, that I wanted to write a book about why liberals should be less sceptical about the nation state and more sceptical about large-scale immigration, he frowned and said, ‘I disagree. When I was at the Treasury I argued for the most open door possible to immigration … I think it’s my job to maximise global welfare not national welfare.’

I was surprised to hear this from such a senior figure in a very national institution and asked the man sitting next to the civil servant, one of the most powerful television executives in the country, whether he believed global welfare should be put before national welfare, if the two should conflict. He said he believed global welfare was paramount and that therefore he had a greater obligation to someone in Burundi than to someone in Birmingham. …

These two men in Oxford reflect a powerful strand in the thinking of Britain’s educted liberal baby-boomers. They take for granted the blessings of a national welfare democracy yet are also markd by the anti-national ideology of the 1960s and 1970s, a lingering reaction against the nationalist extremes of the first half of the twentieth century.

Most people are moral particularists, believing that we have a hierarchy of obligations starting with our family and rippling out via the nation state to the rest of humanity. Charity, like our affections, begins at home. But many of the brightest and the best now reject this old homily. Their idealism is more focused on raising up the global poor or worrying about global warming than on helping out the lonely pensioner up the road. …

Many of the children of the 1960s and today’s idealistic, educated youth want to save the world by supporting the freest possible flow of people across what they regard as increasingly anachronistic national borders. The late philosopher Michael Dummett argued that open borders ought to be accepted as the norm and, by extension, that existing citizens in western countries do not have any special rights to ‘their’ rich and peaceful countries as compared to newcomers. But this offends against the democratic common sense and perhaps a deeper intuition that a society is, at least in part, a contract between generations. 

Bhaskar is a socialist and he is at least as “anti-national” as the civil servant invoked by Goodhart or the liberal policy types. And on the subject of immigration, large swathes of liberalism’s mass constituency is aligned with cosmopolitan liberal policy types, as a large segment of the U.S. less-skilled workforce is foreign-born and inclined to support the regularization of unauthorized immigrants and an increase is less-skilled immigration, particularly if it is oriented towards family unification. But this divide is one that conservatives should keep front of mind. Immigration policy is often thought of as a “culture war” issue or as an economic policy issue of interest primarily to agricultural and high-technology firms. It is better understood as an absolutely central issue, as it has bearing on the future shape not only of the U.S. labor force but of the American national community. So a debate over immigration ought to be a debate about the kind of country we want to have, and how much concentrated poverty we want or can comfortably afford to have within our borders two or three generations hence. 

There are many other ways the cleavage Bhaskar identifies can create opportunities for the center-right. Recently, I’ve been writing about how conservatives ought to approach Social Security reform (make it more sustainable but also more generous by creating a stronger safety net for the oldest seniors and emphasizing pre-funded savings) and the tangled web of multigenerational poverty and crime. These are policy initiatives that are designed to address deep-seated problems, and my sense is that they might also prove politically appealing, as they resonate with widely-held anxieties and aspirations among middle-income and low-income voters. Right now, there appears to be a limited appetite for such ideas among GOP electeds. But as the demographic and economic transformation of the electorate continues, that will change. 

I’d be remiss in not referencing the gap between conservative policy types and the voting blocs they rely on, a phenomenon that, as Sean Trende has suggested, appears to have contributed to a weak Republican performance in the 2012 presidential election. But that disconnect is obviously a central preoccupation in these parts. 


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