Policy Ideas for the Middle Class


Rich Lowry

Editor’s note: This is the introduction to a symposium that appears in the February 9. 2009, issue of National Review. Specific policy ideas from the symposium will appear on National Review Online throughout the week.

Contemporary conservatism has too often lost touch with the concrete concerns of middle-class America. For a long time, conservatism thrived politically on the domestic troika of welfare, crime, and income-tax rates. The Left yowled when conservative Republicans ran on these issues, arguing they were distractions from the voting public’s true interests, or a cover for sinister sentiments, or both. But people genuinely hated the perversity of the old welfare system; they truly feared crime; and high income-tax rates–and inflation-driven bracket creep–really did take a big bite out of family budgets.

Conservative success over the years–through welfare reform, tough anti-crime policies, and the income-tax cuts of Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush–has reduced the salience of the old triad. Conservatives have yet to fill the gap. In fact, the situation throughout the 1980s, when the Left mired itself in old orthodoxies while the Right addressed the country’s problems, has been almost exactly reversed. Now it’s conservatism that often feels trapped in amber, wishing it were still 1983.

John McCain’s inability last year to address middle-class pocketbook and quality-of-life issues wasn’t solely due to the ineptitude of his campaign. It reflected a larger lack of interest in doing so on the right, and a lack of consensus over how exactly to go about it. In a disturbing post-election survey, the polling firm TargetPoint Consulting found that people overwhelmingly identify the Democrats with the middle class. If Democrats can keep that advantage, they will be in the majority for a long time.

This ascendancy shouldn’t go unchallenged. Conservatives have a battery of free-market-oriented policies to direct at the problems of the middle class as it lives today. Some of these policies have to do with big, traditional issues (health care and the tax burden on families), while others address concerns that have usually been beneath conservative notice (traffic congestion and the frustrations of air travel). In this exercise, our authors present a dozen such conservative ideas for the middle class. They are offered in a tentative spirit, as the start of what should be an intense discussion on the right about how to engage the middle class again.

Some of our friends will object to the very notion of policies that aim to help a particular “class.” But the policies we are highlighting do not seek to improve the average person’s lot at someone else’s expense. They aim to strengthen the country by encouraging such middle-class virtues as thrift, industry, self-reliance, and mobility. We are, after all, a middle-class nation, and that self-definition is something an intelligent American conservatism should strive to conserve–for the health of both America and conservatism.


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