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Making a Majority: Can Conservatives Win the Working Class?

Over at NRO, Henry Olsen of AEI has written a very interesting (and sprawling) "memo" outlining the challenges for conservatives if they hope to reclaim the public mind after this election. After last Tuesday night three points particularly stick out as worth thinking about right now.

First, if conservatives are going to build November 2 into an enduring political majority, they need to start by understanding their political opponents, the progressives. Today the Democratic Party is the home of progressives, who according to Olsen are more or less defined by their idea of freedom, which is that government must remove "material and immaterial obstacles to some individuals' ability to make the decisions they would prefer to make, even if removing those obstacles places obstacles in the paths of other Americans."

Olsen notes, however, that there is a running civil war among progressives over how to advance their goal. Liberal progressives (the "wine set") have "lofty ambitions" for transforming America right now while moderate progressives (the "beer set") want to work more modestly and slowly. (EJ Dionne has written the liberal argument in The Washington Post; Evan Bayh makes the moderate's case in The New York Times.) The two groups don't have fundamentally different goals (for example, Bayh calls universal health care a "noble aspiration"), but they do have very different attitudes. Liberals are impatient and willing to act without public support if they have the political power; moderates believe in accommodating and working on public opinion before advancing. Bill Clinton was a moderate (at least after 1994); Barack Obama is a liberal.

Second, conservatives need to understand when and why progressives crash politically, as they did on Tuesday. Olsen shows that since the Democrats have become the party of the progressives, they have suffered big defeats four times after holding both the White House and Congress with "large supermajorities": 1965-1966; 1977-1980, 1993-1994; and 2009-2010. Each time, it was the loss of working class voters (including independents) that ruined them, as we saw in the Midwest this election. (Both Ron Brownstein and David Brooks have recently made the same argument.) Such voters deserted the Democrats in reaction against the policies and attitudes of liberal progressives (something the Blue Dogs have been warning about for a while).

This is because liberal progressivism runs contrary to a number of what Olsen calls "The Seven Habits of the Working Class": hope for the future; fear of the present; pride in their lives; anger at being disrespected; belief in public order; patriotism; and fear of rapid change. He explains these at some length (it is really worth reading), but for now it is enough to note that in some of these habits the working class is aligned with conservatives (hope for the future, pride in their lives, patriotism), in some with progressives (fear of the present), and in other habits they are aligned with conservatives or progressives depending on the policy. For example, Olsen argues, working class people like the police (conservative) and public education (progressive); and they do not like ObamaCare and privatizing Social Security for the same reason (fear of rapid change).

Third, Olsen argues that conservatives need to understand what it means when working class voters abandon the Democratic Party (as they did in this election). As many people have said, conservatives shouldn't overinterpret their mandate like the liberals did in 2008. On November 2 working class people did not so much vote pro-conservative as anti-liberal. This means that conservatives need to win these voters over to their principles if they want to begin to really make limited government conservatism the center of gravity in American politics.

Here, according to Olsen, is where conservatives run into a problem. To win working class voters, conservatives need to understand and respect their "Seven Habits" when running for office and when advancing policies. According to Olsen, Ronald Reagan was great at doing both (hence Reagan Democrats). George W. Bush also did a good job in 2000 and especially 2004.

Yet Reagan created Reagan Democrats, not new conservatives committed to limited, constitutional government. He tapped into the conservative elements in these voters, but he did not convert them. Olsen suggests that Reagan went as far as a conservative could go because working class voters simply will never wholeheartedly embrace limited government conservatism just as they have never really embraced liberal progressivism. They may not want ObamaCare but they do want the security of Medicare.

The question then is whether it is possible for conservatives to persuade such voters. The only way would be to show working class people that the principles of constitutional self-government fit with their "habits," especially if those habits can be broadened by persuasive arguments. For example, conservatives could talk about education not by calling for the immediate abolition of the Department of Education or by attacking public education altogether (which the working class respects and depends on). Rather, they could emphasize reform ideas like school choice, which is consistent with the working class "habits" of hope for the future and of taking pride in knowing what's best for your kids and being responsible for doing it. Of course, school choice is an idea rooted in the principles of limited government, but conservatives don't have to talk that way in order to begin to persuade working class voters to support conservative education reforms. Persuasion has to happen step by step. Once the idea of school choice becomes part of their "habits," for example, the working class would move further away from any alignment with progressives on the issue. The same could be possible for health care and Social Security.

In considering the problem that Olsen poses to conservatives, we shouldn't forget that enduring political change only happens in American politics with the right combination of principle and persuasion. Persuasion must be rooted in principle, but it also must respect people's habits, interests, and attitudes. You don't persuade people by shouting at them to change their habits when they don't fit with the principles of limited, constitutional government. You go to them, talk to them as equals, and try to persuade them that their concerns are met by those principles. You respect them as fellow citizens. Then they can hear what you are saying and start to embrace your principles. If conservatives could be persuasive in that way, November 2 could be the beginning of a new political alignment.

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