I’m not sure exactly where Ross Douthat was going with this editorial piece in the New York Times this weekend, but it has something to do with how fast both parties should be running away from their association with “the rich” before the next elections. Now, I can understand the dangers and pitfalls of populism in American politics, and no serious party should dismiss them without consideration. Ross is correct in implying that perception on matters of wealth and opportunity and how they intersect with government policy can be a powerful talisman in the hands of a skilled politician. But this still gives me pause.
But if the G.O.P. fully embraces the ideas its younger-generation leaders are pursuing, the Democrats could suddenly find themselves in a difficult spot. Liberals can theoretically outbid a limited-government populism, yes — but given the fiscal picture, they would need to raise taxes significantly to do so, alienating their own donors, the middle class or both. And the immediate liberal critique of Ryan’s new plan — that it’s too paternalistic, too focused on pushing welfare recipients to work — harkened back to debates that the Democratic Party used to lose.
Meanwhile, Obama-era liberalism has grown dangerously comfortable with big business-big government partnerships. It’s a bad sign when even the tribune of left-wing populism, Elizabeth Warren, feels obliged to defend, against libertarian populist attacks, an icon of crony capitalism like the Export-Import Bank.
So there’s a scenario — still unlikely, but much more plausible than a year ago — in which the pattern of 2012 could be reversed: A deepening association with big money and big business could suddenly become an albatross for Democrats, and the Republicans could finally — and deservedly — shake their identity as a party that cares only about the rich.
The message which incorrectly underpins this entire argument is the concept of conservatives and capitalists as people who care only about the rich. That’s a big club which liberals frequently wield with great success against fiscal conservatives, but that represents a victory for clever marketing and plying the fears of uncertain workers rather than a reflection of the truth. I don’t want to go off on some deep dive into Vox-style “explanatory journalism” here, but taking the wrong lesson away from the cautionary tale Douthat tells is a trap, not a solution.
If conservative policy were actually only interested in benefiting rich, corporate benefactors at the expense of the poor and the working class, it would shrivel up and disappear in a single election cycle. Unfortunately, muddled messaging allows populists to paint precisely that picture and run away with some victories. But the underlying truth is a much more appealing story when properly defined and it’s a positive message for people in every economic niche. You see, Republicans should be the party of the rich. But that also includes those who also aspire and work to become rich. The wealthy and successful build the structure for others to participate and follow the ladder upward. The government, by contrast, collects the earned rewards of others and redistributes them while building no structure for others to climb. That’s the message which voters need to be made to understand.
To modify a line from AC/DC… For those about to prosper, we salute you.