Magazine April 6, 2020, Issue

The Blind Spots of the ‘Bootstraps’ Debate

From the cover of Tightrope: Americans Reaching for Hope (Knopf)
Tightrope: Americans Reaching for Hope, by Nicholas D. Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn (Knopf, 320 pp., $27.95)

‘It’s a physical impossibility to lift yourself up by a bootstrap, by your shoelaces,” Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a bartender turned congresswoman, recently told a House of Representatives committee meeting. “The whole thing is a joke.” Evidently not the ha-ha kind: Perhaps democratic socialists have a greater appreciation for the gravity of metaphors.

AOC cited Martin Luther King Jr., who had once criticized the “bootstrap,” observing that African-American emancipation in 1863 had done next to nothing to improve the material fortunes of blacks, who were subjected to yet another hundred years of shame, stigma, and segregation. What MLK had actually said was that “we ought to do all we can to lift ourselves by our own bootstraps,” only that it is “a cruel jest to say [so] to a bootless man.”

Of course, there are others who will support AOC’s efforts to denounce this much-abused American cliché. “This ‘bootstraps’ narrative, that all people need to do to get ahead is lift themselves up,” write Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn in Tightrope: Americans Reaching for Hope, “is at the root of our failures to adopt policies that would have helped the country and given opportunity to children.” Their book is a meticulously reported and — for the most part — well-presented study of the paradoxical American tragedy: that in one of the wealthiest nations on earth, 68,000 people die every year from drug overdoses, 88,000 from alcohol abuse, and 47,000 from suicide.

Bursting with pathos, the authors dart their attention through the 50 states like a lighthouse beam. We meet families such as the Knapps from Yamhill, Ore. — Kristof’s hometown — who, while he was winning opportunities to study at elite schools and write for the New York Times, were “tumbl[ing] into unimaginable calamity.”

The Knapp kids undertook their own Dantesque journey through drugs, alcohol, crime and family dysfunction. Farlan, a talented wood-carver and furniture maker, died of liver failure from drink and drugs. Zealan burned to death in a house fire while passed out drunk. Rogena suffered from mental illness and died from hepatitis linked to her own drug use. Nathan burned to death when the meth he was making exploded. Four siblings, once happy kids bouncing on the seats of school bus Number 6, dead, dead, dead, dead.

Kristof and WuDunn argue that the social and political inheritance of working-class Americans is now so perilous that in order to make something of themselves they must first become “escape artists,” walking a tightrope across chaos to safety. The authors’ purpose is — quite nobly — to shed light on the swirling sewer of human misery in America’s own backyard, expose its downward currents, then direct readers to policy solutions that might provide a way out.

This means undoing conservative catastrophes such as Nixon’s “war on drugs” and creating more social “escalators” of opportunity to “restore people’s dignity and spark their ingenuity.” Anticipating the counternarrative, as found in J. D. Vance’s memoir Hillbilly Elegy, that the crisis is more spiritual than policy-oriented, Kristof and WuDunn suggest that success stories such as Vance’s occur mainly on account of “lifelines from institutions,” which, in his case, was the military. While they rightly value the role of such institutions, their focus is on the adoption of liberal policy measures.

“Canadians and Europeans pay higher taxes and get universal health care, less poverty and homelessness, lower addiction rates and arguably more humane societies,” they write. Sounds rosy. But take my hometown: Glasgow, Scotland, the drug-death capital of the world, which saw a 27 percent increase in drug-related deaths last year. Drug-related overdoses are more common in Scotland than in the United States, despite the government’s adhering to many of Kristof and WuDunn’s big-state solutions. The New York Times ran a piece last summer suggesting that the problem in Scotland might be Westminster-led austerity, but, actually, it’s the Scottish government — a full-blown socialist one by American standards — that’s precipitated the embarrassing decline in almost every public service it runs. To focus, first, on money is to get things back-to-front.

Kristof and WuDunn’s critique of the U.S. war on drugs, which, they say, “led to mass incarceration,” includes some good points about the overly harsh treatment of nonviolent offenders and the impact their imprisonment has on the community. But as John F. Pfaff argues in Locked In, even decriminalizing drugs “won’t change demographics, it won’t really break down the barriers to upward mobility, and it won’t necessarily help the state reassert its monopoly on violence.” Again, there’s evidently something more fundamental going on.

Among the authors’ more short-sighted policy proposals are those relating to sex education. “European countries offer much better comprehensive sex education and easier access to reliable forms of contraception,” they write, making no mention of the fact that in the U.K. a person under the age of 25 is diagnosed with an STD every four minutes and syphilis cases across Europe have increased by 70 percent since 2010. In order to help “save public money many times over” — and help the poor, of course — they encourage the temporary sterilization of “low-income teen girls” through long-acting IUDs. But a more holistic view of sex education would attempt to equip young people to be successful in lifelong sexual unions (i.e., marriage). To that end, they argue that contraception is “perhaps the most effective strategy to promote marriage.” But again in Europe, where condoms virtually grow on trees, divorce is steadily rising while a significant portion of lower-income individuals, with free and ready access to contraception, aren’t marrying at all.

To their credit, the authors (who are married to each other) do admit that “in retrospect, conservatives had a point about emphasizing the importance of family structure.” After all, they say, most educated liberals — like them — tend to live fairly socially conservative lives. Many “talk left” but “walk right,” which may more accurately be described as virtue signaling while being-indifferent to the effects of one’s talk on others.

The authors of Tightrope are right that the wider “bootstraps” debate is not at its heart “a left-right issue.” For an exemplar of the kind of harsh emphasis on personal responsibility that they think is destructive, they quote Kevin Williamson, who wrote in this magazine in 2016 that “the white American underclass is in thrall to a vicious, selfish culture whose main products are misery and used heroin needles.” Ironically, what Kristof and WuDunn seem to miss is that Kevin was writing in response to another current National Review writer, Michael Brendan Dougherty (then at The Week), who, though reaching different conclusions from Kristof and WuDunn’s, found Kevin’s views on the matter to be unduly callous.

To return to the AOC–MLK distinction: It is worth considering whether we think the American white working class is bootless or merely stuck. To suggest that they are bootless would be, even by Kristof and WuDunn’s standard, to equate the rightward policy missteps of the past few decades — “the war on drugs,” “indifference to the loss of blue-collar jobs,” “insufficient health-care coverage,” “embrace of a highly unequal education system,” “tax giveaways to tycoons,” “acceptance of growing inequality,” “the systematic underinvestment in children and community services such as drug treatment,” etc. — with the lasting scourge of slavery on the African-American population. This is unpersuasive, to say the least. MLK spoke of the false freedom afforded to African Americans following their release from enslavement as the “freedom to hunger.” But the white working class today is not, for the most part, starving — in fact, a disturbingly high number are obese. They aren’t bootless. But to suggest that they are stuck by choice (i.e., by staying in their dead-end communities despite being free to leave) and, therefore, ought to be abandoned is callous. For how probable is it that a child born into social chaos will learn the discipline of order and the value of aspiration?

Kristof and WuDunn admit there are no quick fixes, but they are nevertheless confident that the answer lies in a combination of private charity and imitating the enlightened liberalism of Europe. Reverse the conservative-era “policy mistakes.” Get rid of this “distorted obsession with personal responsibility,” and thereby transform the country into an equitable nation. Toward the end, the authors quote the economist Joseph Stiglitz, who had answered his own question, “Can we afford to provide this middle-class life for most, let alone all, Americans?” with, “Somehow, we did when we were a much poorer country in the years after World War II.”

But the “somehow” is, in fact, explained by the “we.” For it wasn’t the government that provided a better life. It wasn’t even churches, charities, local initiatives, and any of the “steps you can take” listed in the book’s appendix (No. 1: “Look into becoming a mentor”). Rather, it was the family — for which there is no replacement and from which the resuscitation of American culture must surely begin.

This article appears as “Balancing Act” in the April 6, 2020, print edition of National Review.

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Madeleine Kearns is a William F. Buckley Fellow in Political Journalism at the National Review Institute. She is from Glasgow, Scotland, and is a trained singer.

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