Sam’s Club Republicanism Died Because It Never Had a Life to Live

15 Aug

National Review on Tim PawlentyNow that Tim Pawlenty’s candidacy is dead, the media is performing an autopsy on “Sam’s Club Republicanism.”

That’s the notion—made famous by Ross Douthat and Reihan Salam in a 2005 Weekly Standard article, which they later turned into a book—that the GOP needs to reconnect with the working-class and independent voters who made it a majority party under Nixon and Reagan. These voters are conservative, but they’re worried about paying their bills and making ends meet. They’re not opposed to government: they just want it to do something for them, as opposed to for the rich. As Pawlenty put it in 2002, the GOP needs “to be the party of Sam’s Club, not just the country club.” Thus was an idea—that’s conservative for branding strategy—born.

Sam’s Club Republicanism often gets touted as the brainchild of “a group of young conservative intellectuals,” but it was never more than a marketing ploy. And hardly a new one. Before the Sam’s Club Republican, there was the Reagan Democrat, the Silent Majority, or, going way back, William Graham Sumner’s Forgotten Man.

It’s not that there is no such thing as conservative ideas; I’ve written a whole book about them. It’s just that conservative ideas are born out of social cataclysms—the French Revolution, abolition, the Russian Revolution, the New Deal, the 1960s—in which people with power lose power. Real concrete power: over peasants, slaves, workers, blacks, wives. Conservatism, strange as it may sound, is the voice of the dispossessed: the aristocrats, masters, employers, whites, and husbands who’ve had their power taken away from them and want it back.

Sam’s Club Republicanism is not a response to that kind of loss.  Nor is it a response, ultimately, to the travails of the working class. What it is a response to is the waning position of the GOP. As Douthat and Salam made clear in their original article, their concern is “the long-term political viability of the Republican party.”

But a larger problem is that even the more idealistic aspects of the GOP program–Bush’s vision of an “ownership society,” the pursuit of a politically risky Social Security privatization plan–have been ill-suited to the present political climate, and to the mood of the American people. It’s not just that the American people have shown little appetite of late for dramatically shrinking the scope of the federal government, or taking more economic responsibility into their own hands–it’s that there’s shrinking support for such goals among reliable Republican voters.

Or as Matt Continetti put it in a 2007 Weekly Standard follow-up piece:

Behind all this new thinking [Sam's Club Republicanism] lies a political reality. Independents are moving rapidly away from the Republican party. According to the National Exit Poll, Republicans lost independent voters by a staggering 18 points in 2006. A recent Pew survey reveals Democrats have a 15-point advantage over Republicans when voters are asked the party with which they identify.

That may be fine as electoral diagnosis, but it’s not the stuff from which conservative ideas are made. And without ideas, as every young conservative will tell you, the movement is nothing.

With Pawlenty out of the race, the various proponents of Sam’s Club Republicanism are now wondering what went wrong. The early consensus seems to be that Pawlenty was never true to Sam’s Club ideals. Referring to a National Review writer who once touted Pawlenty’s potential Sam’s Club street cred, Salam tweeted today, “I have to say, @timpawlenty could have gone much further if he had run according to the @RameshPonnuru playbook.”

But if Sam’s was a club even its founder never wanted to be a member of, perhaps it’s time the Mad Men of the GOP got themselves a brand new brand.

5 Responses to “Sam’s Club Republicanism Died Because It Never Had a Life to Live”

  1. Jacob Slichter August 15, 2011 at 7:18 pm #

    “conservative ideas are born out of social cataclysms—the French Revolution, abolition, the Russian Revolution, the New Deal, the 1960s—in which people with power lose power. Real concrete power: over peasants, slaves, workers, blacks, wives. Conservatism, strange as it may sound, is the voice of the dispossessed: the aristocrats, masters, employers, whites, and husbands who’ve had their power taken away from them and want it back.”

    Corey, I find that powerfully incisive and clarifying. Thank you.

  2. Harle August 17, 2011 at 4:25 am #

    It strikes me that Sam’s Club Republicanism could be something more than a marketing ploy, but that would require conservative policy ideas that aspire to providing actual economic benefits working class Americans. Clearly this branding attempt and Pawlenty himself have been utter failures.

    However, there have been indications that the primaries will compel appeals to this increasingly downtrodden demographic. Economic nationalism–once a core part of the Republican cannon in the form of the tariff and internal improvements– may experience a resurgence. For instance, Romney has at times been surprisingly critical of free trade agreements, and his best hopes for winning the nomination lie in sweeping the Rust Belt, the area hardest hit by NAFTA. “Energy independence,” emphasized by most of the GOP candidates, is also an issue that invokes past greatness while binding together nationalism, jobs, and domestic investment.

    Of course this isn’t Sam’s Clubism, which is ultimately based on globalization and buying affordable stuff from China on credit. The financial crisis has helped reveal the unsustainability or at least the unpleasantness of this model, which may help explain the collapse of the Sam’s Club Republicanism brand.

    • Corey Robin August 18, 2011 at 12:54 pm #

      I think the basic problem with Sam’s Club Republicanism is not that it’s a marketing ploy — that’s the symptom of the problem — but that it cannot identify an insurgent threat both to elites and to some sub-section of the working and middle classes that it needs to be part of a winning coalition. The genius of the Silent Majority, like the Forgotten Man before that, is that it identified an agent that was doing the silencing and forgetting — namely, the welfare state in the latter case, the liberal counterculture in alliance with the judiciary in the former case — that was useful to elites in rallying against the left. Sam’s Club Republicanism doesn’t do that. It can talk policies but unless it can locate the threat to middle class and working class fortunes in something that the elite is also threatened with — that’s the genius of the Tea Party — it can’t do much of anything.

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. Fight Club, or That’s the Year That Was « Corey Robin - December 26, 2011

    [...] I’ve disagreed with critics of my views on the right. I’ve talked about Anne Coulter, Sam’s Club Republicanism, Ross Douthat (again), and the relationship between the American slaveholders and European [...]

  2. Check out BC pol sci prof Corey Robin’s blog | Brooklyn College MA in Political Science and International Affairs - December 29, 2011

    [...] so much. I’ve disagreed with critics of my views on the right. I’ve talked about Anne Coulter, Sam’s Club Republicanism, Ross Douthat (again), and the relationship between the American slaveholders and European [...]

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