The Surprising Way The GOP Could Actually Win The Culture War

Whenever I hear rumblings about how “Reformicon” Republicans are rethinking their party’s brand and platform, I recall this 1980 passage from George Will (emphasis added):

The Republican platform of 1980 stresses two themes that are not as harmonious as Republicans suppose. One is cultural conservatism. The other is capitalist dynamism. The latter dissolves the former. Capitalism undermines traditional social structures and values. Republicans see no connection between the cultural phenomena they deplore and the capitalist culture they promise to intensify.

This is as pithy an analysis as you’ll get of the dilemma for Republicans who’d like to remake their movement. Mitt Romney’s 2012 presidential campaign helped solidify the party’s demographic problem into a political narrative: “Republicans are the party of wealthy, white Americans.” They generally reify the market as a natural meritocracy and celebrate its winners above all others.

Republicans desperate to swap out these labels have offered a series of conservative proposals that support “traditional social structures” in the United States, policies that are purportedlypro-family” and/or “pro-middle-class.” But these efforts have repeatedly run up against the party’s core ideological commitments: protecting low tax rates for the wealthy and avoiding redistribution of resources to poor children and adults. As a result, each dramatic new reform unveiling has turned out to be substantively similar to past Republican efforts to redistribute wealth to the wealthy.

Or, to use Will’s framing from above, the Republicans keep siding with capitalism over families and the market over the middle class.

Which is a boring story on its own. But each time I think about Will’s warning about the party’s incompatible priorities, I wonder if we’ve reached a moment when the other side of the conservative equation is available for reanimation. If conservatives ever get serious about treating families as a key social—and economic—institution, I think there might be a real reform opening.

As a relatively young father,* I can testify that the economic challenges of balancing work, family, and long-term savings projects right now are excruciating. Upward mobility is increasingly localized, so access to the American Dream is becoming the province of the few who live in those communities. And then, the new residents flocking to economically vibrant areas drive up the cost of living to gobble up the higher incomes that attracted folks in the first place. And long-running wage trends make this worse. Americans work and produce more, but their wages have been flat for far too long.

Conservatives sometimes talk about delayed marriage and parenthood patterns as evidence of the supposed cultural depravity of inhabitants living in economically vibrant cities. But surveys show that Millennials want to get married and settle down. It’s just that most aren’t sure they can afford it. It’s harder to chart a path from higher education to work to marriage to home ownership to parenthood to paying for college and retirement now than any time in recent memory—especially in a single-income household. Which is just to note that perhaps the supposed collapse in “middle-class family values” may have a lot to do with the growing difficulty young parents have in securing a place in the middle class. This is especially true as far as having kids is concerned.

The Democratic Party has ready answers to this situation: better family leave policies, early education programs, etc. But in an odd way, those policies are geared towards making it possible for parents to work more and harder. That is, universal pre-K makes it possible for parents to get back to full-time employment sooner by starting public education earlier and family leave policies are aimed at maintaining parents’ professional trajectories. That is, most of the Democrats’ policy answers amount to accepting and softening the reality of families’ two-income households. They’re designed to make it easy for parents to have kids and continue working.

First: it should be possible for “family values conservatives” to recognize how these financial pressures translate into familial strain. That is, working more and harder all the time makes it hard for people to be good parents.

Second: what if the GOP tried to think of substantive policies that supported the parents side of “working parents,” rather than the working side? Republicans could take seriously the possibility that the American worker’s punishing workload is increasingly inhumane in the most literal sense: It is not conducive to living through the basic human reproductive lifecycle. Reform conservatives arguing in this vein could make the case that more broadly shared American prosperity would lower the financial stress on many working families and open the door for parents to spend more time at home instead of the office. And, being conservatives, they could justify their reforms as helping parents afford to be able to spend more time with their children in the early years.

As a progressive who spent more than two years as my kids’ primary caregiver (and who misses it desperately), that’s the sort of Republican reform effort that could get my attention. But I’ll admit that getting mega-donors like Foster Friess and Sheldon Adelson to relinquish the party’s reins in favor of any resource redistribution substantive enough to be meaningful…well, that’s unlikely.

* That is, I’m periodically called to speak as a representative of “Millennial parents.”

Conor P. Williams, PhD is a Senior Researcher in New America’s Education Policy Program. Follow him on Twitter @conorpwilliams. Follow him on Facebook.

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