At one out-of-the-way intersection in this other Charlotte, two shirtless young men loll back and forth, never touching or even looking at the backpack balanced on the trashcan between them. Cars stop, business is transacted. They are not too happy about being observed and soon decamp for another corner. A few blocks over, prostitutes are working the lunch trade. But even here, there is evidence of social norms at work: The obvious prostitution and drug-dealing suddenly disappear around 3 p.m., and the sidewalks are full of children coming home from school. One young man rides a bicycle in full football gear: helmet, shoulder pads, the works. Commerce will continue later in the afternoon and spread to the other side of Highway 85 after dark.
I speak with a woman working near a particularly ratty-looking hotel. She says that she has been in the business off and on since she was a teenager — she appears to be in her middle 40s — and has had some other jobs, too, working in retail and in bars. She finished high school, says she drinks but doesn’t use drugs (little vials crackle underfoot in hotel parking lots here), and just simply needs the money. She knows to the penny the price of a beer at the nearby gas station but is a little vague on the whereabouts of her children.
Somewhere between the South End middle class that both parties make themselves hoarse flattering and the dealers and hookers working roadside hotels is a class of people who are indeed poor — what would have been called “the deserving poor” in a different age. And my experience at both of the conventions this year confirms my belief that neither party really has much to say to them. Republicans sincerely believe that economic growth and policy innovations such as universal school choice have the potential to substantially improve the lives of the poor, and they are right about that, so far as it goes. And there are conservatives such as Charles Murray who have offered clear-eyed analysis of the cultural forces at work among the underclass, acknowledging that the poor have problems not caused exclusively by lack of money. But I cannot remember the last time a Republican elected official or party activist brought up the issue of poverty with me in conversation unprodded. The Democrats use the poor as props and as easily managed ballot banks, but in their hearts they believe that deprivation means having to pay for your own birth-control pills while you’re finishing up Georgetown law on the wrong side of 30. (If you doubt that, you were not paying attention to last night’s speeches.) But in the end, both parties are fundamentally middle-class parties, and the middle class is where the votes are.
Bill Clinton spoke a great deal last night about “cooperation,” a word that conservatives should not have conceded to the Left. Where property is secure and people are free to negotiate among themselves, they discover ways to cooperate on a massive scale: How does Bill Clinton think sand becomes semiconductors, or people on three or four continents, all working for different firms with competing economic interests, figure out how to jointly produce a computer or a telephone or a vaccine? Cooperation is precisely what people in the market are engaged in. And genuine cooperation turns out to be very good for the poor. It is precisely the cooperative institutions, both in the marketplace and outside of it, that have made the lives of the poor in the developed world radically better in the past 60 years, while the political institutions, from public schools to the police, have failed them, and failed them consistently.
I have no hope for the Democrats; as I argue in The Dependency Agenda, they are in the business of exploiting poverty and economic anxiety for partisan gain and private financial gain. What I want is a Republican party (and, more important, a conservative movement) that puts the poor if not at the center of its agenda then at least on equal footing with the middle class. The church-based wing of the conservative movement historically has done a pretty good job with that, but there is a real need for free-marketers to get out of the think tanks and into the streets.
— Kevin D. Williamson is a roving correspondent for National Review.