A Darker Kind of Politics

by Reihan Salam

Last week, I write a short post in which I gave Sen. Patty Murray (D-WA) credit for her new EITC expansion proposal. And though I didn’t endorse the proposal, I’ve noticed that some of Murray’s allies were pleased to see a conservative take her proposal seriously. That’s fair enough. My intention was to give credit where credit is due, and Murray deserves credit for devising an attractive, work-friendly policy that addresses the marriage penalty for low-income households.

The Washington Post columnist E.J. Dionne also praised Murray’s proposal, and he added some thoughts on the political right:

Writing earlier this year in National Affairs magazine, Henry Olsen of the Ethics and Public Policy Center was more biting. “Modern conservatives,” he argued, “have tended to discount the moral value of the average person, focusing instead on extolling the moral superiority of the great.”

Two other conservative thinkers, Reihan Salam and Rich Lowry, say the antidote is for Republicans to become “the party of work.” As they see it, work “stands for a constellation of values and, like education, is universally honored.” The GOP, they said, “should extol work and demand it.”

Yes, that last phrase — “demand it” — could lead to a darker kind of politics involving the demonization of those who simply can’t find jobs. Thus did Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., get into trouble for mourning “this tailspin of culture, in our inner cities in particular, of men not working and just generations of men not even thinking about working.”

No matter what Ryan was trying to say, he seemed to be emphasizing the flaws of the unemployed themselves rather than the cost of economic injustice. My Post colleague Eugene Robinson captured this well: “Blaming poverty on the mysterious influence of ‘culture’ is a convenient excuse for doing nothing to address the problem.”

One way of reading this last paragraph is that it really doesn’t matter what Ryan was trying to say as long as it seemed, to someone somewhere, that he was blaming the unemployed, despite the fact that blaming the unemployed was plainly not his intention. Ryan went so far as to say that he had been “inarticulate” in his remarks. Yet that is immaterial. The first priority of Ryan’s critics is not to engage with his thinking, but rather to delegitimate it. And when Rich Lowry and I argue that public policy ought to have a strong pro-work bias, Dionne states that we point towards “a darker kind of politics.” Keep in mind that we’ve explicitly called for policies designed to fight entrenched poverty and the cultural isolation that comes with it, both in the article in question and in various other articles we’ve written over the years. Moreover, Dionne is convinced that conservatives who oppose imposing the same statutory minimum wage in Connecticut and Mississippi are unserious:

In making their case, Salam and Lowry quoted Abraham Lincoln on the need “to advance the condition of the honest, struggling laboring man.” If conservatives are serious about this (and about the honest, laboring woman, too) they’ll join Murray in raising the minimum wage and in seeking a tax code more in harmony with the dignity of work.

But what if, in the interests of protecting the least of us, Lowry and I take seriously the prospect that a higher statutory minimum might shut people with limited skills and experience out of the formal labor market, or that it will have a negative impact on net job growth? What if we believe that the best antidote for entrenched poverty is not an increase in anti-poverty spending as such but rather a broader effort to combat economic and cultural isolation, which will include an effort to reform labor market measures that expand rather than shrink the ranks of the marginalized and excluded, like occupational licensing requirements and employer taxes that raise the fixed costs of employment? I don’t make a habit of suggesting that those who disagree with me on various public policy questions are unserious, as I am keenly aware of my limitations. I’d be delighted if this attitude became somewhat more widespread.

The Agenda

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