Magazine | December 3, 2012, Issue

Who Cares?

That’s what voters want to know

Almost anyone who has studied the Declaration of Independence has been told at some point that, in reality, it offers Americans the sober promise of life, liberty, and property rather than the heady but qualified utopianism of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. “Pursuit” is a general get-out clause, of course. “Happiness” would have been understood by a gentleman farmer of the late 18th century as meaning a state of life that makes contentment possible, i.e., the secure possession of property. And the most liberal of Whigs would have known that no kind of political regime could guarantee its citizens a psychological state of well-being. No government official can compensate Jack for the fact that Jill loves someone else.

That said, the full committee drafting the Declaration crossed out “property” and inserted “the pursuit of happiness.” At the very least they intended to convey a nuance. And as the age of scarcity recedes into history, the voters seem more and more disposed to agree that the U.S. government should offer more to them than the opportunity to accumulate property and the right to its secure enjoyment.

There are many explanations of why President Obama won the election just completed: His GOTV organization was better; he effectively demonized his opponent by an early negative-campaigning blitz; the ethnic balance of the electorate had shifted in his favor; the white working-class voters who might have compensated for this shift stayed at home; Mitt Romney was ill suited to win their votes; etc., etc. But one factor seems to have been present in most of these explanations — namely, that the Republican party was seen as a cold, aloof, mercenary, and self-interested party with no interest in promoting the happiness of the people, however defined, and that Romney was all too representative of his party. In short: The GOP didn’t care about ordinary Americans. The Democrats fixed on this image, reinforced it, and were able to play on it in relation to every item of political controversy.

The American Enterprise Institute’s polling expert recently cited a very revealing exploitation of this trend from Canadian politics. When Michael Ignatieff, a policy academic much respected by the United Nations and other bodies, returned to Canada to head the Liberal party, his Conservative opponents ran a series of ads lampooning his personal aloofness, his transnational sympathies, and his long absence with the slogan: “He didn’t come back for you.” Ignatieff was the leader of the “caring” party and he had a long and creditable record of support for human rights. But these things did not insulate him. The charge that Ignatieff was a remote, ambitious intellectual with no interest in ordinary Canadians struck home; the Tories won; the Liberals slipped to third place.

In the U.S. election, the Democrats’ exploitation of this same theme had its most surprising impact in relation to contraception and abortion. Considered as single issues, neither made any sense (even when aggravated by occasional clumsy comments on rape from individual candidates). Republican candidates don’t oppose easy access to contraception; the GOP’s maximalist position on abortion is to return it to the states for decision. And though most Americans oppose most abortions, more women than men do so. One opinion expert was thus puzzled to discover that the Democrats’ charge of a war on women, though implausible on its face, had seemingly won over even some conservative women like herself. She concluded tentatively that women thought of it as an expression of concern for them at a time of widespread economic and emotional insecurity.

It is an odd expression of concern, but the election results seem to bear out this view. Married women (who presumably enjoy more of both sorts of security than their unmarried sisters) voted heavily for the GOP. Single women, with or without children, went strongly Democratic. But they outnumbered their married sisters; and, in this election, women voters as a whole outnumbered their male counterparts by a substantial 54 to 46 percent. If family breakdown and marital instability continue to rise, therefore, both political parties will be faced with a large and growing constituency of voters who look to government not only for support but even for signs of concern. What goes for single women is equally true for other blocs of voters, such as the elderly retired who are dependent on government. And at least some other electoral blocs, not directly wanting state aid, nonetheless judge political parties by the degree to which they show such concern for others.

#page#Three points should be made about this. The first is that governments, unfortunately, cannot solve the deep social problems that lie at the root of the unhappiness of these large groups. They can alleviate their distress in practical ways, such as providing the right kind of income support; they can avoid making their problems worse through perverse incentives, such as, e.g., preferring welfare over work; and they can shape law and social policy to encourage more responsible behavior, for instance, holding men responsible for their children.

There will need to be a change in the social attitudes of ordinary Americans, and of elites as well. The campaign against smoking succeeded largely because it was a campaign conducted by almost all respectable people (with the exception of a few principled libertarians) against a minority that felt guilty about its habit. Indeed, the campaign went farther than it should have in bullying people. Its tactics needed, in my view, a stronger cause to justify them. But it does show what a social campaign can achieve once elites put their shoulders behind it — as Victorian elites put their shoulders behind the cause of stabilizing family life and reducing crime.

The second point follows from this: It is that concern for others cannot be reduced to expressing sympathy for them. Concern will often, indeed usually, require straight-talking to those whose problems are self-generated. They know their own situation well and will see uncritical “caring” as glossing over their real problems and likely to run into the sand. Republicans are in fact better equipped than Democrats to offer this “tough love” to suffering groups because they are widely seen to be more practical and realistic in their overall approach.

Third, talk is cheap. And “compassionate conservatism” — which my Hudson Institute colleague Michael Horowitz defines as offering half of whatever financial benefits the Democrats offer — is cheaper still. Voters have been exposed to self-interested political boasting about compassion for so long that they increasingly react like Emerson: “The louder he talked of his honor, the faster we counted the spoons.”

The hunger in the electorate is less for a specific welfare policy than for evidence that a political party has got an authentic interest in ameliorating people’s distress. That can be provided in this case only by the Republicans’ actually doing things — especially things that run counter to the caricature of Republicans in popular culture. Horowitz has developed a range of such practical policies under the general rubric of the Wilberforce Agenda, and he has constructed a series of coalitions to push them through. It’s a heterogeneous collection of reforms that includes a campaign against sex trafficking (the equivalent of slavery in our time), measures to assist Christians threatened by persecution worldwide, and the funding of techniques to circumvent the Internet firewalls erected by dictatorial regimes to prevent millions of their citizens from accessing news independently. The most interesting idea from the standpoint of getting the Republicans reconsidered by the American people is the prevention of prison rape. This is a widespread and horrible crime, but it is treated in the popular culture merely as a dirty joke. Laws have been passed against it, but they are hardly enforced. The assumption of most people would be that this is the kind of social evil that the Right would never care about. It is the kind of social evil that the nation and the administration seem not to care about.

It is therefore the kind of social evil that the GOP should tackle as soon as possible as a down payment on its future reputation.

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