Where do Republicans go from here? Is it more populism? Trumpism without Trump? Trumpism with Trump? Warmed-over Reaganism? Will the party embrace a middle-class agenda? Or maybe it will just return to the anodyne mediocrity that gave Donald Trump an opening in the first place.
These questions are being hashed out on social media, on chat shows, in magazines, journals and other public spaces. But in my experience the most interesting and honest conversations are happening in private, with people trying to answer the question, "Who are we and what comes next?"
So far these questions have been mostly theoretical. But the debate about the nature and direction of the American right became much more concrete when the Biden administration included a child allowance as part of the COVID relief bill that just passed. While most of the attention was focused on the terms of the $1,400 stimulus payments and the proposed increase in the minimum wage, the child allowance is a major initiative that received comparatively little attention.
The Biden plan will pay families a cash benefit of up to $3,600 per year for each child under 6 years old and $3,000 per year for those aged 6 to 17. A version of this plan was proposed in 2017 by Sens. Michael Bennet and Sherrod Brown as a stand-alone bill that never went anywhere. In the relief bill that passed the Senate over the weekend (and must now be passed again by the House), it is available only this year, but the authors of the proposal surely hope that once in place it will be made permanent.
Things got interesting for Republicans when Sen. Mitt Romney outbid the Biden administration's proposal with his Family Security Act, which would provide an even larger child allowance, giving parents a $1,400 cash payment at birth followed by up to $4,200 per year for children under 6 and $3,000 for kids 6 to 17.
Republicans have long prided themselves on being the pro-family party. But what does that really mean? The debate over the child allowance makes that palpable. And it's forcing Republicans to decide who they are. Will they be the party of capital gains tax cuts or of cash payments that make it more practical for parents to raise their own children? Is there a way for the party to embrace both?
Not that long ago, Republicans would have locked arms denouncing the Biden proposal. And to be fair, even Sens. Mike Lee and Marco Rubio, whose pro-family bona fides might have made them at least open to these plans, quickly denounced the Romney plan as "welfare assistance," explaining that "an essential part of being pro-family is being pro-work."
But many Republicans aren't quite so sure a child allowance is a bad idea. In fact, a growing number believe that government policy that directly supports children and family life is not just beneficial, but essential to the health, vitality and sustainability of the nation. That's because supporting a family of four in the middle class has not been possible on a single median wage for a long time, which has meant that most families need two incomes or some other kind of support. As a result, many young people report both delaying having a family and having fewer children than they want.
Somewhere along the line, American conservatism came to define itself — at least in its actions — as primarily about money. Taxes and GDP got policy support; families and communities got lip service. That's changing, at least with the Republican rank-and-file. A recent poll shows 68% of Americans, including 60% of Republicans, support a child allowance like the ones put forward by Biden and Romney.
As I've talked this over with friends and colleagues, I've found that there is quite a bit of support for the idea of a child allowance. At a gut level, people understand that it's gotten objectively harder for the average person to afford children without working so much to make ends meet that they don't have the time or energy to spend the time with their kids that they need. The general sentiment is that the family is a haven in a heartless world and we should support anything that makes it easier for families to thrive.
I've observed two things in these discussions that also map directly onto the broader fault lines in right-of-center politics. The younger people I've spoken to are more likely to support a child allowance than the older. The dividing line seems to be around age 50, with support increasing among younger people, while opposition increases in frequency and vehemence with age. The other is that people who work in politics are more likely to oppose this idea, probably because they are the ones most invested in an ideological outlook and with the most institutional incentives to toe the line.
A cynic might reply that of course people in their 20s, 30s and 40s would be more likely to support this plan; after all, they're the ones most likely to have kids and receive the cash. There is something to that, but I don't think this is a case of raw self-interest driving people to get their hands on some free money. What's really going on is that these people are in a very different place financially than Generation X and especially baby boomers when they were raising young children. Millennials, many of whom are now in their 30s, own a share of national wealth that is roughly one-quarter what the boomers owned at the same age and are well below where Gen X was, too.
They're the ones feeling the brunt of the brutal slowdown in real wage growth that started in the 1970s, of the steep rise in the cost of education, of the financialization and globalization of the economy that have all made it harder to start a family and raise children. These private conversations have been instructive. One conservative friend in her late 20s, upon hearing about the Biden plan, told me, "What the heck, I guess I'm a Democrat now." She was joking about switching parties, but not about her support for the child allowance. Other young Republicans might go the additional step, which would spell doom for Republicans who are already struggling with younger people. My friend is a frequent critic of Romney, but she likes his plan — a lot.
Elected Republicans who reflexively oppose a child allowance may need to catch up with their voters — and with economic reality — on this. Some might be getting the message. Another friend, who spent years working closely with Jack Kemp and might have been expected to oppose the idea for any number of reasons, told me he strongly supports a child allowance. He essentially waved off the sorts of concerns raised by Rubio and Lee as being trifles compared with the importance of supporting family formation and the stability that comes with it.
The long-term trend of "demotherization," as social scientists gracelessly put it, is not good for children or the many women who report that they would prefer to be at home with their children, especially when they are young. What's worse, both the earned-income tax credit and temporary assistance for needy families reinforce the problem, because they are means tested and linked to the mother working outside of the home. Scott Winship of the American Enterprise Institute explicitly worries that a child allowance would create the possibility that single mothers "could afford not to work."
Strangely the concern that mothers — whether single or married — could afford not to work seems to be a fetish for many Republicans who are otherwise pro-family, at least in their statements. What's incongruous about the Lee and Rubio statement is that when they say that being pro-family is being pro-work, they are saying, in effect, that only wage-work outside the home counts as real work. That's false and inhumane. Raising children is in fact the most essential work there is. Kids need their parents. It's hard and time-consuming, but ultimately the most satisfying thing that most people do. Conservatives should believe in parents raising their own children rather than outsourcing it.
The formula is simple or at least ought to be: Americans should be able to support a family of four, own a home and send their kids to school on a single median wage.
The party that understands this, talks about it honestly and addresses the problem effectively will win a lot of elections. And they'll deserve to. Many conservatives are on board, but congressional Republicans and most of the Washington ecosystem around them is lagging behind economic and political reality. If they don't catch up soon, they'll find themselves whipsawed between ascendant Democrats and angry, disaffected Republican voters.
Christopher Buskirk is editor and publisher of the journal American Greatness, a co-author of "American Greatness: How Conservatism, Inc. Missed the 2016 Election and What the D.C. Establishment Needs to Learn," and a contributing opinion writer to the New York Times, for which he wrote this article.