In developing an agenda, Republicans and conservatives need to figure out what the top challenges facing the country are and how to meet them. But it would be pointless to devise an agenda that could not possibly win over a majority of the voters. And of course the same type of politics that might attract one group of voters will repel another. To generalize wildly: Upper-middle-class, college-educated voters tend to find the Republican party’s economics attractive and its social positions less so; vice versa for lower-middle-class voters without college degrees. Which group should the builders of a center-right coalition try hardest to get? I largely agree with Ross Douthat’s take on this question, but I would make an additional point.
I don’t think many people are arguing that if Republicans just emphasized their social conservatism more, they would attract enough additional lower-middle-class voters to win a majority. The argument that Douthat, his co-author Reihan Salam, and I (among others!) are making is that it is possible to craft conservative economic policies that would serve the interests of this group. These policies need not drive away upper-middle-class voters. The Democrats’ promises to help downscale voters have been compatible with an increased appeal to upper-middle-class voters, after all.
And if Republicans can appeal to lower-middle-class voters on domestic policy–health care, taxes, etc.–then they will have less need to make the type of cultural appeals to these voters (we disdain arugula, wave the flag a lot, etc.) that seem to drive some upper-middle-class voters batty. Such an economic agenda might thus help the party directly with the lower middle and indirectly with the upper middle. So I think the party’s best bet is to keep, while doubtless modifying in some respects, its social conservatism while searching for free-market economic policies that would help lower-middle-class voters. I am doubtless biased by the fact that this approach would also be best for the country.