The Agenda

Upper-Middle- and Lower-Middle-Reformism Revisited

Matt Yglesias makes an important point that is worth making very explicit:

It’s always the case that the poor vote for Democrats and the rich vote for Republicans (but by a smaller margin) while the middle class is contested terrain. But compare the GOP’s best year (2004) to its worst (2008) and you’ll see a dramatic shift among low-income voters to the Democrats. Whether you want to attribute that to fundamentals or message or whatever, the same point holds—the shifts are pretty broad-based and whatever it is that makes a party more popular with the middle class probably also makes it more popular with the rich and the poor.

Roughly a million years ago (there were other posts, I believe, but they’ve gone digitally rogue), I made the case that the GOP discourse on reform reflects two broad tendencies, namely upper-middle-reformism and lower-middle-reformism. Upper-middle-reformism is focused on the deterioration of support for Republicans among college-educated upper-middle-income voters, particularly in dense coastal metropolitan areas. It tends to emphasize social issues and environmentalism and, to a lesser extent, quality-of-life issues, and it tends to posit that the Republican economic message is not the party’s central problem. Lower-middle-reformism, in contrast, rejects the notion that the Republican stance on social issues is the party’s most crucial challenge and it emphasizes issues like wage stagnation, the cost-of-living, and the barriers to upward mobility.

To be sure, conservative reformers tend not to be ideal types. Many embrace aspects of upper-middle-reformism and lower-middle-reformism. Yet one of the chief virtues of lower-middle-reformism, in my view, is that it actually does much of the work upper-middle-reformism aims to do without jettisoning social conservatism and cultural populism. The theory is that a more substantive domestic policy agenda organized around upward mobility will tend to make the GOP seem (and hopefully become) more inclusive and intellectually serious, thus making it more appealing to voters turned off by the party’s perceived cultural narrowness. Ideally, we’d see a fusion of these two tendencies, with greater emphasis on lower-middle-reformism coupled with an acknowledgment that the social conservatives should, in light of the fact of normative diversity and the rise of the religiously unaffiliated, increasingly emphasize local democracy over a nationalized cultural politics. But striking the right balance will be a challenge. 

Reihan Salam is president of the Manhattan Institute and a contributing editor of National Review.

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