The Repubs won’t Douthat (crosspost from Crooked Timber)

Ross Douthat is something of a punchline at Crooked Timber . But, as I’ve argued here, he’s just about the last member of the once-numerous class of committed Republican intellectuals, all the rest having either defected to the left (Bartlett, Frum, Lind, Ornstein, Sullivan and many others) or descended into hackery (Reynolds, Brooks, the whole of the AEI/Heritage/CEI thinktank network[^1]). And, every now and then he writes something that raises important issues, at the cost of pointing up how hopeless his own program for Republican reform has become.

In this piece responding to the election of Bill De Blasio, Douthat tries to make a case that the Democratic Party won’t be able to take even the minimal steps needed to address the problem growing inequality (in both outcomes and opportunity). He starts with the obvious point that Obama came to office with a tax policy that could not possibly make a serious dent in the problem (repealing the Bush tax cuts for those with incomes over $250k) and proceeded to weaken it still further.

By itself this is pretty unimpressive. The fact that Obama is not a wild-eyed socialist, or even a traditional US liberal, but rather a moderate conservative may be a revelation in some Republican circles, but it is scarcely news to the rest of us.

Douthat’s more substantive claim is that the weakness of Obama’s tax policy is not a reflection of Obama’s own preferences but is dictated by the demands of the Democratic Party base. In Douthat’s telling, the base is dominated by socially liberal high-income earners who are absolutely resistant to any increase the taxes they pay.

This is a caricature, but most caricatures have some validity. As I’ve argued here, most people in the top 20 per cent of the income distribution, but outside the top 1 per cent, have done reasonably well in terms of income growth over the past thirty years, but have not, unlike the 1 per cent, been able to insulate themselves from the degradation of public services and the consequences of growing inequality.

Although only a minority of this group votes for the Democrats, their wealth and propensity to vote make them an important constituency. To have a plausible chance of political success, the Democrats need to convince at least some of this group that the benefits of living in a better society outweigh the costs of higher taxes.

But it’s important not to overstate this. Even if a more progressive tax program cost the Democrats some votes at the top of the income distribution, they could more than offset that by attracting middle and working class voters away from the Republicans, or simply by motivating them to vote.

It’s true, as Douthat says, that there is plenty of resistance to this program within the Democratic Party. But the once-overwhelming dominance of Wall Street and its advocates has been greatly weakened, notably because the financial lobby overwhelmingly supported Romney and shared his contempt for ‘the 47 per cent’. Unlike the situation in 2008, Wall Street is now clearly aligned with the Repubs.

And this is where the failure of Douthat’s own program (and the weaker versions proposed by other ‘reformers’ such as Levin and Ponnuru) becomes obvious. Douthat wants the Republican party to beat the Dems to the punch by offering an economic program that appeals to middle and working class voters. It’s patently obvious, however, that there is zero support for this program in any of the leading factions of the Republican Party, either among the leadership or in the activist base. There isn’t a single program benefitting the working class, from Social Security to the Earned Income Tax Credit to unemployment benefits to food stamps that can command the support of more than a handful of Republicans in Congress, and those few are likely to be driven out before long.

It seems clear, reading between the lines, that Douthat has already recognised this. As the NYT official Republican columnist, he faces some pretty big costs if he jumps ship (not to mention his tribal affiliation with conservative Catholicism). Still, I can’t see how he can go on pretending much longer.

[^1]: Some of these were always hacks, but we didn’t notice so much back in the day.

11 thoughts on “The Repubs won’t Douthat (crosspost from Crooked Timber)

  1. “Even if a more progressive tax program cost the Democrats some votes at the top of the income distribution …”

    There’s more to it than that. Democrat campaigns need to be bankrolled by their billionaires (e.g. Steven Spielberg), just as the Republicans are bankrolled by theirs (e.g. the Koch brothers). Taxing the very rich in a serious way could put this support at risk.

  2. OT.


    murdochs subdidised “australian” front page.

    “detention closures proof of beating boats”

    Fin, page 20.

    Decmil Group awarded $147 million contract for the construction of expanded offshore processing facilities on Manus Island in Papua New Guinea.

    five months after the wholly owned subsiduary Decmil Australia was awarded a $137 million contract to construct a major facility on the island.

    the scope of works includes accomodation facilities for transferees and staff,as well as broader “hospitality” and processing facilities.( my quotation marks)

    the company is liasing with the government in terms of fine tuning additional requirements and timing.


  3. perhaps the republicans could follow abbott’s strategy – he promised a lower standard of living (less super, reduced benefits etc) for many lower income earners and still managed to win

  4. John, obviously this drift away from the Republican party resembles the rightward drift of a lot of left-leaning intellectuals in the 70s and 80s. But it strikes me that the Republican party has been much slower in responding to this intellectual drift than the Democratic party were. E.g. even by the mid 80s the Democrats were nominating what look like pretty centrist, establishment figures. (Looking back, Mondale and Dukakis seem like stock-standard social democrats).

    It seems like there is an asymmetry here, with the Republican party being much more interested in tribal identification and cultural signals than in winning intellectual arguments. (You see some of this in the so-called “hack gap”.) But I’m interested in your thoughts. Is my gloss a fair one?

  5. i hear you @Uncle Milton

    but if spielberg’s a liberal he should want to help out here. i don’t know what his take on this is today but he’s certainly televisual and if he were amenable to go on t.v. and magnanimously consent to a haircut for the good of the country it could have quite an effect and put the republicans & kochs on the rocks on this issue. ideally lest this kill the golden egg laying campaign goose he would get national campaign finance reform in return. -a.v.

  6. Mainstream Democrats are still so right-wing it hardly makes any difference who “governs” the USA. Indeed, an airtight case can be made that the plutocrats or capitalist oligarchs run the country through the agency of corporate capitalism. No substantive change will happen or can happen until that power nexus changes. There is no political economy historical inevitability about this although there is geophysical and ecosphere inevitability. Thus the USA could remain corporate capitalist until a collapse into barbarism induced by climate change, sea level rise, ecosphere disaster and resource limits. I see no hopeful signs for the USA in terms of “regime change”.

    The right wing should be much heartened by my comments. I am predicting they will remain in power until physical and secular doomsday… albeit this doomsday is quite close historically speaking.

  7. The oddest thing about talking to conservatives that it seems enough for them to prove something as being left wing rather than needing to prove something as wrong. Its not a phenomenon I understand…the closest comparison is I have had family members that were in the Jehovah’s witness church and any quote from a mainstream Christian group would be treated similarly (the argument didn’t need to be countered, it was enough to identify the source as part of “Christendom”)

    If the culture of the republican party in the usa resemble that of jws that is concerning. It is very difficult for anyone to leave a group like that. The implication is be that there might be extreme social pressure to be republican if you already are one.

  8. @alfred venison

    Maybe, maybe not. Rich American liberals can be liberal in many different dimensions – gay marriage, foreign policy, the environment, even pro-union, which makes them natural supporters of the Democrats, provided the Dems don’t go after their money with higher taxes.

  9. @Ikonoclast

    I had thought that on the 100th anniversary of the Russian Revolution there might have been some likelihood of a revolution in the USA, given how such a large proportion of the population are seeing their standard of living going backwards.

    Unfortunately, as you say, I think the 1% will remain in control until doomsday – celebrity culture seems to be the “soma” which placates the masses.

  10. Uncle Milton?

    maybe that’s why there is an attempt to cast the fin with it’s ads for rolls royce and cockroach cars (long,low ,sleek ,shiny and fast) as outlets for the “soshalist” left wing conspiracy?

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