Simply talking about the American Dream, though, in no way guarantees that a party will win elections or govern well, as we’ve seen in our own political history. Immediately after the Second World War, the majority of Americans believed that the high level of government involvement needed during the war was the same level America needed afterward. So from FDR to LBJ, the role of government became increasingly expansive.
But as Douthat and Salam demonstrate in their book, Grand New Party, this Democratic-led consensus was also conservative at heart, seeking to preserve home and hearth from the forces of lust and greed. The New Deal was therefore built on the premise that, “Private virtue and cultural solidarity create economic security and independence; economic security enables people to persist in virtue; and wise public policy promotes both virtue and security at once” (Douthat & Salam, ch. 1; see our first post for Works Cited).
In practice, this meant promoting the American Dream through the traditional combination of hard work and large families. Put simply, “the genius of the New Deal had been to use government power to help those who helped themselves . . . . If you had a job . . . you received Social Security benefits. If you saved for a home, you earned a home-mortgage deduction. If you worked hard and played by the rules, you received a pension, medical care, and a large enough salary [distributism’s family wage] that your wife could afford to stay home with the kids” (Douthat & Salam 2). The result was an unprecedented period of rapid and widespread economic growth, combined with the post-WW2 Baby Boom.
But the Democratic Party then turned to social change. And when they proved unable to stem the 367% increase in violent crime between 1960 and 1980, they gradually lost the trust of the American people—and their majority (Douthat & Salam 2). Working-class voters have been divided between Democrats and Republicans ever since. When the economy takes a turn for the worst Democrats tend to dominate, and when we don’t feel safe we almost always turn to Republicans.
And it is these swing voters who have driven every major shift to the Right since—Nixon’s Silent Majority, Reagan Democrats, the 1994 Republican Revolution, and the Tea Party—before shifting back Left when conservatism was no longer working for the working class (see Douthat & Salam’s Introduction). The lesson is clear: whoever can put working-class families back in reach of the American Dream, can also build a working majority. And when Republicans have gathered the courage to be the party of reform, they have done just that.
It was Nixon (price controls, Watergate, and all) who took Milton Friedman’s idea of the negative income tax seriously and sought to replace the entire array of federal welfare programs with direct cash payments through his Family Assistance Plan (Douthat & Salam 3). Building on this, Reagan lowered middle-class taxes by closing corporate loopholes and instituting the Earned Income Tax Credit, “which effectively provided a wage subsidy for the working poor” (Douthat & Salam 3). And it was the Gingrich-led House who negotiated with President Clinton to pass welfare reform with a strict work requirement.
The goal, however, should not be just a smaller government; but a better one. As Reagan himself said, “Now, so there will be no misunderstanding, it’s not my intention to do away with government. It is rather to make it work—work with us, not over us; to stand by our side, not ride on our back” (Douthat & Salam 3). And by making government work well, we are creating the space to strengthen working-class families.
Campaigning in 2000, George W. Bush said, “I don’t think [Congress] ought to balance their budget on the backs of the poor . . . . I think we ought to make the tax code such that it’s easier for people to move from near poverty to the middle class” (Douthat & Salam 5). And it is this very middle class who feels these concerns most closely—those who work, “do not consider themselves poor or rich, and who can imagine their fortunes turning either way. It is in effect . . . where most families are” (Wehner in Room to Grow 10). As both sides understand heading into the 2016 election season, middle-class concerns and lower-class outliers should therefore drive the substance of our reforms.
But this does not mean we can divorce economic issues from the broader social and family issues that make the American Dream worth fighting for in the first place. As Yuval Levin urges, “Conservatives must . . . help the public see that the agenda they offer is rooted not just in fiscal concerns but in a political, moral, and social vision much better aligned with the realities of American life and the character of Americans’ aspirations” than what is offered by the Left (Levin, RTG 16).
Take, for example, the Sexual Revolution. Sexual liberation was bad enough for the rich, but it has been disastrous for the lower classes, perpetuating a sick cycle of instability: unstable relationships, rising illegitimacy, poverty, and increasingly poor educational and job opportunities. And since the poor marry the poor, and the rich marry the rich, the cycle is perpetuated across generations. Perhaps some numbers would help: In 1965, Johnson launched the War on Poverty in part because 25% of black children were born out of wedlock. But by 2005, whites had reached the same proportion, Hispanic illegitimacy was at 45%, and blacks were at almost 70% (Douthat & Salam 6).
So while we talk a lot about income inequality, we rarely address the real reasons why this has come about: “the combination of working-class illegitimacy and . . . the well-off marrying the well-off . . . may be responsible for over 30 percent of the growth in income inequality between 1979 and 1996,” perhaps the largest of many such factors (Douthat & Salam 6). It is no wonder, then, why “children from both two-parent and single-parent families are more likely to experience economic mobility when they hail from communities with a lot of two-parent families” (Wilcox, RTG 100).
The American Dream (however broadly that term may be used) remains the central hope of blue-collar workers for themselves and their families, and it must be the goal of any future economic reforms to put that dream within the reach of as many Americans as possible. But this does not mean Big Government, Big Business, Big Labor, or even Big Education, but creating spaces in which a Big Society has the room to grow. As Levin again reminds us:
The premise of conservatism has always been [à la Burke]. . . that what matters most about society happens in the space between the individual and the state—the space occupied by families, communities, civic and religious institutions, and the private economy—and that creating, sustaining, and protecting that space and helping all Americans take part in what happens there are among the foremost purposes of government. (Levin, RTG 16)