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Rich Frum, Poor Frum

I highly recommend reading David Frum’s sharp and provocative analysis in the New York Times, on the “Vanishing Republican Voter,” who is, despite other ideological underpinnings, falling prey to the siren call of Democratic economic policies. It’s easy, especially these days, to throw culture and grievance into the bag of cats that is identity politics, shake it all up and see the glimmer of GOP victory in November—but calmer heads than mine agree: Read against economic realities and those alone, the Republican coalition is weak.

The starting point is, well, reality: Tally the economic developments of the last seven years—which have allowed exponential wealth accumulation for some, and linear or flattening purchasing power for others—and you have a shockingly divergent American economic landscape (“two” Americas, one might say). And though the idea of equality is anathema to conservative orthodoxy, Frum gamely concludes, “As America becomes more unequal, it also becomes less Republican. The trends we have dismissed are ending by devouring us.”

He points out that cities and states with the greatest amount of income disparity vote blue or blueish, while homogenous, suburbanized enclaves, as well as broadly coequal state populations tilt to the GOP. I can’t speak to the latter point (which is intelligently dissected and disputed here), but liberal Chicago, Washington and New Haven—highly segregated by race and income—certainly fit the trend. Further, while the superrich continue to vote Republican, middle- and now upper-income Americans, as well as the richest states, vote Democratic (kinda). What to make of this?

Frum cites “a long list of reasons for this anti-Republican tilt among the affluent" (including distaste for "assertive nationalism"). He also credits Rubinomics. But primarily, Frum sees the defection of the wealthy—well educated, highly skilled, market-savvy—as a referendum on competence and efficacy. The successful by definition embody "Republican" virtues of self-determination and competition, and yet:

[W]e arrive at a weird situation in which the party that identifies itself with markets, with business and with technology cannot win the votes of those who have prospered most from markets, from business and from technology. Republicans have been badly hurt in upper America by the collapse of their onetime reputation for integrity and competence. Upper Americans live in a world in which things work. The packages arrive overnight. The car doors clink seamlessly shut. The prevailing Republican view — “of course government always fails, what do you expect it to do?” — is not what this slice of America expects to hear from the people asking to be entrusted with the government.

See, when the valets never scuff, and the line at Whole Foods is orderly, how can the national debt be so high? This is a contentious thesis, with a whiff of elitism to it (see also Mike’s amazing anthropological take on the “GOPtopia” that is McLean, VA)—but any offended mandarins might be better served actually addressing what Frum says is a failed approach to the widening gap in social capital (as exacerbated by today’s health care, education and commodity price shocks):

[T]he trend to inequality is real, it is large and it is transforming American society and the American electoral map. Yet the conservative response to this trend verges somewhere between the obsolete and the irrelevant.

If you’ve not already, do read the whole piece. Though I see few concrete prescriptions offered (save Frum’s evident support for a bipartisan Senate bill to shift health care costs from employers to a public pool, while reducing tax penalties for those who buy their own insurance)—this narrative reads more like truth to power than that “straight talk” we’ve heard so much about.

--Dayo Olopade