Joel Kotkin writes that the Republican party can win by moving to the left of the Democrats on economic issues:

This aspirational element should be the centerpiece of the Republican message in this age of growing class bifurcation. . . . Without some unforeseen economic rebound, class issues will dominate our politics in the future even more than they do today. To recover, Republicans . . . need to outmaneuver the Democrats on their ability to provide opportunity and upward mobility to a broad range of Americans. . . .

Romney, himself an economic royalist, could not bring himself to denounce the administration’s policies that have worked out wonderfully for large banks now enjoying record profits while pummeling the middle class. . . . The [Republican] party’s hodgepodge of corporate managerialism, social regressiveness, and, above all, protection of the plutocratic class is demonstrably not compelling to most Americans. . . . Outrage against looming tax hikes would be justifiable, if the true motivation were not so plainly to preserve the privileges of the haute bourgeoisie. . . .

Instead of making silly attacks on President Obama as a “socialist,” he would be more accurately portrayed as the tribune of both the crony capitalists on Wall Street or Silicon Valley and of big labor, particularly public-employee unions.

What’s the positive message that Kotkin recommends?

Republicans can offer their own vision of what growth-inducing services such as new roads—as opposed to the increased regulation and transfer payments and pension bloat peddled by Democrats—government can and should provide. This could appeal to Hispanics, Asians, and younger people who would be the prime beneficiaries of tangible investments.

I don’t know if this would work: it’s not clear to me that the votes are there for a policy of spending on roads rather than education or health care. After all, the main tactic used by Republicans to oppose Obama’s health plan was to argue that it would lead to a cut in Medicare. Nor to I see the political success that would be gained by picking a fight with teachers unions in order to cut salaries and spend the money on new streets and highways. This might be what Kotkin wants but is it really the way to win elections?

Setting that last bit aside, I can see how liberal Democrats would like Kotkin’s plan: the Democratic party gets to stay where it is, while the Republicans would have a few differences (less regulation, some cuts in pension obligation) while being opposed to rich plutocrats. I’d expect that many liberals would accept that trade—and even the ones who didn’t would enjoy seeing Obama, Schumer, etc., opposed by Republicans who are slamming Wall Street rather than fighting to cut the estate tax.

But I don’t imagine that many Republicans will take Kotkin up on his offer to “embrace class warfare on today’s gentry.” Is he kidding? It was a Republican president, George W. Bush, who cut income tax on the rich, cut the estate tax on the rich, and started the bank bailouts. Since Bush left office, Republicans have opposed financial regulation, supported the Citizens United ruling (which empowers super-rich people to throw millions at campaigns, as was indeed done during the Republican primaries), and of course they opposed the Occupy Wall Street movement as well as would-be bankbuster Elizabeth Warren. Now, as far as Kotkin is concerned, that might be fine: many conservatives have offered arguments for supporting unlimited campaign donations and opposing financial regulation. Nonetheless, I don’t see how you can possibly get from there to “embracing class warfare on today’s gentry.”

I’m reminded of Louis Menand’s desire for a Republican party that is “permissive on social issues and at ease with big government, yet ever faithful to the gods of business and finance.” There’s no need for Republicans to be that party; Obama and the Democrats are already there.

Kotkin’s desire for a Republican party that’s actively anti-plutocrat seems even more unrealistic, no matter how pleasant it might sound to liberals.

To put it another way, what exactly does Kotkin mean by wanting Republicans to “embrace class warfare on today’s gentry”? Would he raise the capital gains tax and the estate tax? Add a new millionaire’s bracket for the income tax? Cap the home mortgage deduction? Crack down on the rules by which private planes get preferential treatment at airports? Patent reform? A Tobin tax on financial transactions? Crack down on offshore tax havens? Fiscal and monetary policies that encourage inflation (which is, among other things, a way to dilute the assets of rich people who are just sitting on their money)? I can’t picture the modern Republican party getting behind any of these ideas. Kotkin’s goal of class warfare would place him on the left wing of the Democratic party, I think, so it seems a bit odd for him to imagine that the Republican party will follow him there.

[Cross-posted at The Monkey Cage]

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Andrew Gelman

Andrew Gelman is a professor of statistics and political science and director of the Applied Statistics Center at Columbia University.