The Agenda

Some Thoughts on the Politics of Conservative Moralism

In “Grand Old Opportunity,” Yuval elaborates on the opportunities and the constraints binding Democrats and Republicans, and he concludes (not surprisingly) that GOP politicians would be wise to embrace the politics of conservative reform:

The political and economic appeal of lower health care, education, energy, and tax bills should be obvious, and the moral force of saving the safety net and combating the collapse of poor families and communities is plain. Yet amazingly, neither party has seriously offered such an agenda.

The Democrats have an excuse: Their electoral coalition makes it impossible for them to offer that agenda. Progressives are committed to every jot and tittle of today’s broken welfare state, environmentalists are allergic to oil and gas, teachers’ unions oppose meaningful K-12 reform, the professors would never put up with a new business model for higher education, public employees will resist every effort to modernize government services, and cultural liberals see a moral awakening as a recipe for repression. Far from owning the future, Democrats are helplessly stuck in the past. There is a reason why the president ran on no agenda and why Democrats now offer only blind reaction.

Republicans have no such excuse except inertia. In fact, a growth agenda geared to reviving upward mobility and offering relief to middle-class families would be a perfect marriage of conservative principles and Republican political objectives. It would powerfully appeal to demographic categories the Democrats imagine they own while uniting core Republican constituencies and exposing progressivism for the spent force it is.

The substantive policy agenda for such a modernized conservatism largely exists in the world of right-leaning wonks, but the politicians have been slow to embrace it. It is high time they did, not only for their party’s sake but for their country’s.

Yuval’s remarks bring to mind one of the central challenges facing conservative reformers, which is the difficulty of reconciling a religiously-infused cultural populism with a changing electorate. Conservative reformers share a common interest in seeing America as it is in 2013, and as it will be in the decades to come: an urban, multiracial, aging, and secularizing society, in which nonmarital family structures are widespread and the foreign-born share of the population is set to reach historically high levels. Most conservatives lament at least some aspects of this landscape, in particular the transformation of family structure and secularization. Indeed, one could argue that the point of the conservative reform project is to alter the trajectory of family transformation, by addressing the sources of gender gaps in educational and labor market outcomes and (perhaps) by fostering the kind of moral awakening Yuval invokes above. 

The problem, however, is that the electorate has already been shaped by the rise of nonmarital family structures, religious diversity, and secularization, and this complicates efforts to foster a cultural revival. Individuals living in nonmarital households may well be troubled by the economic insecurity that flows from family disruption, but they won’t necessarily embrace a politics that identifies family disruption as a social scourge. Rather, they might be more amenable to what some on the left are calling a politics of “household diversity,” in which nonmarital families are afforded greater recognition and esteem as well as more generous taxpayer-financed support. It is possible that an instinctive cultural conservatism will win out, and that today’s young will not just aspire to form neo-traditional families but actually form them in practice, overcoming various economic and cultural obstacles in the process. But this outcome is hardly inevitable, or even likely. 

On a more prosaic note, the religiously-infused cultural populism identified with Republicans is, for obvious reasons, very Christian. There was a time when Republicans were not just Christian-identified but Protestant-identified, but that time has passed; Republicans are now associated with religiously-observant conservative Christians of all denominations. Republicans have made impressive efforts to reach Jewish voters, with some limited success. But a large majority of Jewish voters, including economically right-of-center Jewish voters, back Democrats. This wouldn’t be too significant in itself, given the relatively small Jewish share of the electorate. Yet as Razib Khan has suggested, it seems as other non-Christian religious minorities (Hindus, Buddhists, and Muslims) are following the Jewish pattern. Religiously unaffiliated voters — a growing constituency — appear to be somewhat less hostile to the GOP than members of non-Christian religious minorities, but they’re pretty hostile. One wonders if there is a way to talk about a moral awakening without fostering anxiety and dread among members of non-Christian religious minorities.

In 1998, the economic historian Robert Fogel offered thoughts on the American future, focusing on the need for a moral awakening:

The new equity issues in the United States do not arise from the shock of rapid urbanization, the destruction of small businesses, or the massive destitution created by long-term unemployment. Rather, the new issues are to a large extent the products of the solutions to these problems, achieved by a combination of economic growth and social reforms.

The most serious threats to egalitarian progress — certainly the most intractable forms of poverty — are related to the unequal distribution of spiritual (immaterial) resources. These include such immaterial resources as a sense of purpose, a vision of opportunity, a strong family ethic, a sense of community, a work ethic, a sense of discipline, a capacity for self-education and an appreciation for quality. Without these and other spiritual resources, individuals will be increasingly unable to cope with the new world or to share in its abundance, and they will become estranged from the mainstream of society.

Spiritual resources are unequally distributed among young and old, among men and women, among various ethnic groups and among rich and poor. Those among the rich who are continuously preoccupied by sensual gratification are as likely to fail in self-realization as the poor who share that preoccupation. It is vital for the future success of our nation that we discuss ways to distribute immaterial resources to the most deprived members of society, which includes the chronically poor, the alienated young, the defeated midlifers, and the estranged elderly.

Realization of the potential of an individual is not something that can be legislated by the state, nor can it be provided to the weak by the strong. It is something that has to develop within each individual, and must be fostered within a society committed to developing the most virtuous aspects of human nature.

Fogel’s economistic language about “the unequal distribution of spiritual (immaterial) resources” is very much an artifact of our normative diversity, and this normative diversity arguably makes a moral awakening less likely to emerge than in a society with more in the way of common cultural symbols and allegiances. If some kind of moral awakening does happen, it’s going to look and sound very different from those that came before it.


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