But I don’t know, man.
Ruffini excoriates the GOP for becoming the party of Joe the Plumber, saying
This culture of identity politics means we get especially defensive about the Liberal Majority’s main lines of attack, because we think of our position as inherently fragile. The one that spawned the Cult of Joe the Plumber was the meme that Republicans want tax cuts only for the rich and that we don’t stand for working Americans. When find a highly visible figure who contradicts this notion, we swing into action. And we go on to press the argument to the point to absurdity, replete with plungers and custom “Joe” yard signs to prove our working class chops. These are the not the marks of a movement that assumes it operates (or should operate) from a position of political and cultural supremacy.
Ruffini, it seems, thinks that the problem with conservatism is with its cultural outsider branding, which allows liberals to get halfway towards their political goals through pure assumption. He writes, “Put another way, Republicans thrive as the party of normal Americans — the people in the middle culturally and economically….When you think about it, a majority built around this solid middle-American base should beat the disjointed liberal rich/poor coalition.” (emphasis his). Well, that’s a comforting thought for conservatives. Is it true that the Republicans are the party of the solid middle-American base? I don’t think it is.
Part of the reason I grew to regret being so intemperate in my response to Robert Stacy McCain, beyond simply being dragged to that level, is that my post lost sight of what to me was the point in the first place: McCain, like Ruffini here– and, I fear, Reihan and James as well– seemed entirely assured of one central idea, the notion that the standard conservative economic message is deeply popular with the American people and a political winner. If conservatives can just argue conservative principles, the idea seems to be, they will win. Ruffini and McCain are obviously more sophisticated than Glenn Beck, but that ultimately is the Glenn Beck message: the Republicans just need to move back towards core conservative economic values.
I confess I am consistently confused by this assumption, and by the great faith so many conservatives put in it. As I have said many times, Americans love the idea of small government. They just don’t seem to actually care about shrinking the government outside of rhetoric. Americans love their entitlements. They like having an FDA and a host of other regluatory bodies. They dont want to reduce the military budget significantly. They want, and have come to expect, an awful lot of things from government. The fact that they say they want small government means no more than the fact that they say they want a balanced budget. It’s theater, and it’s rhetoric. It’s not founded on anything politically actionable. I’m sorry, but people who say that they want small government yet refuse entitlement reform and a shrinking military budget are not to be taken seriously. They are not dedicated to the idea to the degree that they are actually willing to sacrifice to make it a reality.
What’s more, the considerable advantage conservatives have in rhetoric, it seems to me, is slipping. I think that more and more people are recognizing their little hypocrisies when it comes to the size of government. Can anyone imagine a politician delivering a speech as straightfoward and unapologetic about growing government than Obama’s from the other night? The goal posts are shifting.
Ruffini mentions some demographics: “We are naturally the party of the middle, and we don’t need gimmicks to prove it. Demographically, Democrats rely on being the party of the upper sixth and the lower third, while Republicans tend to do better with everyone in between. ” Let’s say for the purpose of discussion that this is true. Ruffini doesn’t mention another kind of demographics: the fact that the center of the Republican power base, the white male, is an ever-shrinking portion of the American electorate. And I can’t help but feel like this assumption, the assumption that the middle class– the people– is a white and Christian and straight bloc is a big part of the problem that the GOP has making inroads into racial minorities and women. Not that I think Ruffini would ever intentionally exclude those people, and not that such exclusion would make even a lick of sense from an electoral standpoint. But that’s the point. There’s no intention to it, no malice, from most Republicans. It’s just a thoughtlessness about the changing American racial landscape that continues to doom the GOP when it comes to Hispanic or black Americans. “We are the middle, and the middle is white and Christian.” No wonder so many feel divorced from the coalition of the right.
Ruffini and those like him are doing important work in steering the Republican party away from the naked identity politics that Joe the Plumber represents. The question is not whether this is worth doing but whether it actually leads to the electoral bonanza many of them are so sure will follow. At the end of the post, Ruffini says “We need to be confident, like the left is, that we are the natural governing party because our ideas are in alignment with basic American principles, and quit treating middle class, working class, or rural Americans like an interest group to be mollified by symbolic, substance-free BS.” I agree completely. The question is whether a party fresh out of new economic ideas, squeezed by demographics and facing a terrible self-inflicted wound to its brand has anything else to bargain with.