Wednesday, January 04, 2012

What's the Matter With Iowa?

By Mike Dorf


Thomas Frank's book (and subsequently a movie), What's the Matter with Kansas?, asks why so many blue-collar Americans vote against their economic interests.  The answer isn't hard to find, of course: For roughly the last generation in American politics, the Republican Party has housed social conservatism and economic libertarianism, while the Democratic Party has been home to social liberalism and a somewhat more progressive set of economic policies.  The Kansans who are not plutocrats but voting Republican pretty clearly place greater weight on social issues.

There is no inherent reason why the coalition of social conservatives and economic libertarians that is the modern Republican Party should last forever.  Mike Huckabee's strong showing in the 2008 Iowa Caucuses could have presaged an interesting realignment.  As Arkansas governor, Huckabee had been a social conservative with an economically progressive streak.  It's not surprising that he appealed to Iowa Republicans, because with Huckabee, middle-class social conservatives could vote their pocketbook interests AND their social consciences.

Yesterday's Iowa Caucuses offered an interesting -- and to my mind, discouraging -- contrast.  Pundits and analysts will sort through which of Paul, Romney and Santorum did best in light of expectations, but I'd like to note how each of them presented Iowa Republicans with a different way to reconcile social conservatism with economic libertarianism.

Romney should have been the least appealing candidate to Tom Frank/Huckabee voters.  In caucusing for Romney, a middle-class social conservative would basically be making a bet that Romney understands that if he is to be the Republican nominee, he has to pursue socially conservative policies should he become President, even though it's pretty obvious from Romney's term as Massachusetts governor that he is either a social liberal or, more likely, doesn't care about social issues.  Socially conservative middle-class Iowans would only take that bet if they thought that Romney was the Republicans' best hope for winning the general.

Santorum was a much more obvious choice, as a genuine social conservative who genuinely cares about social issues.  Santorum was hardly the progressive spendthrift that his Republican rivals have attempted to portray in the last week or so, but it is true that, as a Senator, Santorum was not especially right-wing on matters of fiscal policy.  In a rational universe, this would have counted as a plus for him with middle-class Iowans, but in these more ideologically charged times, Santorum had to defend his record by arguing that he really did try to rein in government spending (on programs that benefit the middle class and others) as a Senator.

Which brings me to Ron Paul.  I tend to share the widespread view that Paul's views, especially his foreign policy views, are probably too unorthodox for the modern Republican Party, but I think that focusing on that fact may lead us to overlook the way in which Paul is the vanguard of a new wave of Tea Party Republicans.  For Paul, and even more so for his son the Senator from Kentucky, fiscal conservatism is a social issue.   Paul does not appeal to social conservatives by saying, as Romney and other traditional Wall Street Republicans do, "leave the economy to me and my banker friends and I'll give you the courts and the other stuff you care about."  Nor does Paul attempt to assuage the Wall Street wing of the Republican coalition by giving them low taxes and minimal regulation so that they can leave him to jail doctors who perform abortions, as Santorum does.  Instead, Paul is fervently socially conservative and fervently economic libertarian.  He treats the debt and the deficit -- and for that matter, the supposed sins of the Federal Reserve -- as themselves moral issues.

Don't get me wrong.  I think that Paul's economic views (like many of his other views) are dangerously misguided.  He proposes to end the Fed and replace it with the gold standard, which would be a disastrously contractionary policy.   But in bringing moral fervor to economic libertarianism he has in an important sense dissolved the problem of the odd-couple nature of the modern Republican Party.

Romney will probably end up as the Republican nominee, but as I see it, the likes of Paul are its future.

7 comments:

jax said...

As the wings expand for both parties, I hope a middle can coalesce into a viable choice for the majority of the country. Most people are either apathetic to the dogma being preached by politicians, or they realize 300 million people need to give and take to get where we need to govern as a country. Right now the middle reaps only the scraps left over from the wings fighting with each other. That works fine in good times but is a hard way for the country to run in times of stress.

Bob Hockett said...

Nice insightful thesis, Mike. I think it's further supported, as it happens, by the rhetoric chosen by the likes of Romney and other 'Republicans' themselves. I note that in his 'victory' speech last night, as well as in previous stump talks, Romney overtly characterized the national debt as what he called a 'moral' issue. He even went one better, as do many others of his party these days, in making a 'family values' matter of it as well - by trotting out the familiar 'borrowing from our grandchildren' canard. In effect these people seem to me to be simply and implausibly reframing morally problematic economic prescriptions as morally superior ones. Perhaps the best way to counteract this strategy will be for Dems to agree that the matter is moral, and to argue that the 'Republicans' are on the wrong side of the real moral issue at stake. Continued wealth- and income- redistribution to plutocrats, evisceration of the middle class, and continued economic contraction, unemployment and slowed growth will of course deprive the presently least advantaged and 'our grandchildren' alike of much more than will sensible cheap debt-financing of rebuilding of the nation, as Neil and others have well shown. Let's hope that the Dems make this quite clear in days ahead!

Unknown said...

I enjoyed your post. 2 comments:

1. I don't think the economic benefit to the middle class of left wing economic policies is clear enough to warrant your assuming it as you do without justification.

2. I don't think Ron Paul has dissolved the odd-couple nature of the modern Republican party. He is certainly unusual among Americans generally and (notably) politicians for being both socially and economically conservative, but that doesn't have much of a functional consequence, and it doesn't dissolve the odd-couple problem. Functionally, he is important for being the first popular libertarian, which is not especially closely related to his unifying the two conservatisms (it has more to do with his intensity on each of them, and independently of the other.) And because the conservative electorate is, as you and I both note, divided between social and economic conservatives, the only way to dissolve the odd-couple nature of the Republican party would be to split the party in two: into a party for social conservatives and a party for economic conservatives. Ron Paul doesn't do this.

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