Recently, Ross Douthat of the New York Times pointed out that ‘liberal gloating’ over the re-election of Obama might not be the most objective world view (I posted it on my blog under the Noted and Quoted tag). But I also wanted to discuss this in more depth.
Liberals look at the Obama majority and see a coalition bound together by enlightened values — reason rather than superstition, tolerance rather than bigotry, equality rather than hierarchy. But it’s just as easy to see a coalition created by social disintegration and unified by economic fear.
It really depends on how you look at it. This is the core difference between progressives – that’s who we’re really talking about here, not liberals – on one side, and conservatives on the other. Both sides have somewhat of a point – but the essential problem for America is that the media spends all its time and energy pushing the progressive side of every argument, while demonizing the conservative side. People end up under-informed at best, or more typically I think, completely mis-informed.
What unites all of these stories is the growing failure of America’s local associations — civic, familial, religious — to foster stability, encourage solidarity and make mobility possible.
This is a crisis that the Republican Party often badly misunderstands, casting Democratic-leaning voters as lazy moochers or spoiled children seeking “gifts” (as a certain former Republican presidential nominee would have it) rather than recognizing the reality of their economic struggles.
I’m not sure they misunderstand this crisis, so much as they see specific Democratic Party policies as having caused it by ignoring the effect of perverse incentives: paying people to do essentially nothing, which is almost always a bad idea, for both the individual and the state. Democrats consistently (and maddeningly) ignore this proven fact and the empirical evidence supporting it, despite many well-known examples, including the success of welfare reform in the late 1990s which showed that toughening the requirements on looking for work led to fewer people on welfare.
More generally, replacing perverse incentives with positive ones can influence behavior in a direction that is both better for the individual and the state. This is not about politics, it’s about policy, and the ways that different policies create different incentives, leading to different outcomes — sometimes, vastly different outcomes). Good policies lead to good outcomes, by definition.
But if conservatives don’t acknowledge the crisis’s economic component, liberalism often seems indifferent to its deeper social roots. The progressive bias toward the capital-F Future, the old left-wing suspicion of faith and domesticity, the fact that Democrats have benefited politically from these trends — all of this makes it easy for liberals to just celebrate the emerging America, to minimize the costs of disrupted families and hollowed-out communities, and to treat the places where Americans have traditionally found solidarity outside the state (like the churches threatened by the Obama White House’s contraceptive mandate) as irritants or threats.
This is a great flaw in the liberal vision, because whatever role government plays in prosperity, transfer payments are not a sufficient foundation for middle-class success. It’s not a coincidence that the economic era that many liberals pine for — the great, egalitarian post-World War II boom — was an era that social conservatives remember fondly as well: a time of leaping church attendance, rising marriage rates and birthrates, and widespread civic renewal and engagement.
No such renewal seems to be on the horizon. That isn’t a judgment on the Obama White House, necessarily. But it is a judgment on a certain kind of blithe liberal optimism, and the confidence with which many Democrats assume their newly emerged majority is a sign of progress rather than decline.
I’m pretty much on board with all of that. And kudos to Ross Douthat, who has caught my attention before as being one of the few pretty reasonable and level-headed columnists in the legacy, mainstream media, for having the courage to write this in the pages of the New York Times. Imperfection in the progressive liberal world view – imagine that!
Over and over we see progressives stake out the “what could possibly go wrong” turf by rushing to implement grand social experiments that might sound good initially, but (in the long run) always seem to overrun vital social and cultural institutions like family, church, and community. Turns out, these are important, and any conservative can tell you why. Progressives, not so much.
Key Takeaway Point of the Day: You should not have to label yourself a “conservative” in order to cherish the importance of family, church, and community.
Note the implicit built-in assumptions on the part of the progressive: that (1) despite centuries of acquired organic and cultural wisdom, those social and cultural institutions need major changes, and that (2) smart people in a strong central government can manage those social and cultural institutions (and our lives) for us, much better than we can do it ourselves, so (3) we should be obedient and happy to pay for this “help”. The libertarian/conservative view rejects all three ideas out of hand, with good reason, but the progressive of today embraces them ever more fervently, despite the ongoing collapse of what is basically the same “blue” social model in Europe. They’re just 40 years ahead of us.
For various reasons, these experiments often turn into slow motion social disasters – see “The Great Society, LBJ”, for starters, which has led to the breakdown of the urban black family and the eventual rise of gangs, drugs, and crime, and is directly responsible for the failures in education and jobs in those communities. But the same progressive and liberal voices insisting on such changes are also deeply invested in the outcome of those changes. So, if and when these high-profile programs fail completely in accomplishing their goals, but do introduc systemic social problems, these progressives and liberals will never admit they were wrong and that a new approach is warranted.
Douthat makes the point that, once again, this is the fatal flaw in the Progressive world view: too much faith in big ideas, and too little courage to admit when they aren’t working.
Here’s a truism that only conservatives will admit to: change isn’t always good. To believe that change is always good is to implicitly claim that thousands of years of human civilization has created zero traditions of enduring social and cultural value that we should refuse to tinker with, and instead let them evolve naturally without government “help”.
Again: you shouldn’t have to label yourself a “conservative” in order to cherish the importance of family, church, and community.