Mad Men and the Republicans

Mike in Mad Men - What do you get for the man ...

Image by MShades via Flickr

In honor of the ballyhooed third season of Mad Men—and because the GOP, to judge by the sartorial and physical standards of the recent Town Hall Crisis, is less sexy than ever—I hereby repost some thoughts from last fall:

At the moment, there’s some interesting chatter to the political Right—and I’m not just talking about the “interesting” fantasy that Barack Obama is a closet Trotskyite waiting to unleash flying columns of armed, ACORN-trained peasants against the smallholders and petite bourgeois. I’m talking about the earnest debate among the intelligent conservative punditocracy over the imminent GOP Reconstruction. Take Ross Douthat, of The Atlantic:

“Here’s the thing: The Republican Party will be a populist party going forward, or it won’t be a party at all. But the more populist it becomes – the more figures like Palin and Mike Huckabee and Tim Pawlenty replace the blue-blazer Republicans of yore – the more it needs an elite capable of preventing it from spinning away into anti-intellectualism, hidebound dogmatism, and pure folly.”

This vision of a populist GOP enjoys a lot of currency among reformist conservative writers—it echoes things David Frum has written, and Douthat’s own book Grand New Party. I haven’t read the latter, but I understand that it argues that Republicans should cultivate the working class. Certain sections of the conservative commentariat are starting to sound like ska-influenced Oi! bands, what with their Working Class fetish.

Problem is, the transformation Douthat’s talking about has already happened—and it’s a big part of the reason the blood drains from every GOP strategist’s face when he looks at today’s electoral map. Those “blue-blazer” Republicans are already gone. The business-oriented upper-upper-middle class, the more-traditionalist-than-conservative inner-ring suburbanites, the country club set—all used to to be core Republican cadres, but not no more. As Steven Waldman reported last week, mainline Protestants—the group once known as “the Republican Party at prayer”—are breaking big for Obama. As the Wall Street Journal reported last year, the GOP’s lock on the business class is history. Republicans used to win New Jersey and Connecticut, and were once highly competitive in New York State. In the post-Reagan era, the party traded its blue-blazer (or, to put it in modern terms, Casual Friday) appeal for a vice grip on the Palin family vote. Even though the Palin family is quite large, it is not the making of a national majority.

Not that I feel the call to help the Republicans particularly, but I think they could benefit from watching a little Mad Men. Take a look at the early ’60s New York ad execs the show portrays: they’re mostly amoral hedonists distinguished by their loose sexual habits, their hankering for mid-day whiskeys and obsession with success. They are also, to judge by Sterling-Cooper’s kamikaze mission for Nixon in Season One, all Republicans. (Okay, Kinsey’s a liberal and Don Draper is a nihilist, but most of the boys are Republicans.) Would they be Republicans today? I think they would be too worried that Mike Huckabee wants to take away their Tanqueray.

A few years ago, Salon writer Matt Welch made the case for Deadwood Democrats, arguing that the Dems should embrace a wild-west ethic of pragmatic mutual aid instead of goo-goo social justice rhetoric. I would suggest that rather than trawling Wal-Mart parking lots for the next Joe the Plumber, the GOP could help itself by reconnecting with the kind of urbane, self-interested libertarians who haunt the cocktail bars on Mad Men. If nothing else, Mike Huckabee would look a lot better in a more tailored suit.

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About zachdundas

Freelance journalist. Author of The Renegade Sportsman (Riverhead Books). Thank you.
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