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“The Impossible Dream”: Conservative Scolds Have A Vision, But They Don’t Have A Plan

The New York Times‘ two conservative opinion columnists — David Brooks and Ross Douthat — aren’t always in sync. But they certainly agree about the problems afflicting poor and working-class Americans.

Each has written a column in the past week commenting on Robert Putnam’s new book (Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis) about the growing quality-of-life gap between college-educated and high-school educated Americans. Brooks does a nice job of summarizing some of Putnam’s more alarming statistics:

Roughly 10 percent of the children born to college grads grow up in single-parent households. Nearly 70 percent of children born to high school grads do. … High-school-educated parents dine with their children less than college-educated parents, read to them less, talk to them less, take them to church less, encourage them less and spend less time engaging in developmental activity. [The New York Times]

These and related trends are indeed troubling, and it’s good that Brooks and Douthat are highlighting them, are troubled by them, and want Republican politicians to address them. If GOP candidates for high office spent half as much time focusing on such problems as they do promoting tax cuts for the rich, we’d all be better off.

Yet Republican lawmakers don’t slight those issues simply because they’d rather ingratiate themselves to wealthy donors. They also skirt them because the way that conservative policy intellectuals think about class convinces candidates for high office that there’s nothing that can be done politically to address the problem.

As far as Brooks and Douthat are concerned, the primary driver of bad outcomes among the poor and working class is culture, not economics. Yes, life is economically harder for people lacking college degrees than for those who have them, but life was hard — and in many cases much harder — for everyone, and certainly for the poor, in the past. And yet families formed and stayed together at much higher rates than they do today. Here is Douthat’s pithy statement of the conservative view: “In a substantially poorer American past with a much thinner safety net, lower-income Americans found a way to cultivate monogamy, fidelity, sobriety, and thrift to an extent that they have not in our richer, higher-spending present.”

When liberals read claims like this, they freak out. That’s in part because they believe that economics is a much more important variable than culture in explaining the social pathologies of the lower classes.

I’m inclined to give the conservatives the benefit of the doubt on this. Culture does matter. The poor and even middle classes did struggle much more in the past, in purely economic terms, than they do today. And yet they did form families and keep them together at much higher rates.

But what policies follow from this? That’s where I fear Brooks and Douthat go off the rails.

Brooks is a little more strident about it, and Douthat a bit more circumspect, but their advice is roughly the same: We need to combat the libertarian drift of American culture since the 1960s by taking a stand against “relativism,” “nonjudgmentalism,” and “permissiveness.” That’s because, while the upper classes may be doing fine in the easy-going, live-and-let-live culture bequeathed to us by the counterculture and sexual revolution, the lower classes clearly aren’t. What they need is more public shaming and scolding of irresponsible behavior.

What would this look like, practically speaking? This is the sum total of what Brooks recommends: “Reintroducing norms” has three steps. First, an unnamed someone — a newspaper columnist, perhaps? — needs to revive a “moral vocabulary.” Then we need to practice “holding people responsible.” (How we aren’t told.) Finally, because elites aren’t exactly beacons of virtue these days either, we need to hold “everyone responsible.”

That’s it.

Douthat’s proposals, contained in a single sentence, focus exclusively on the moral failings of the upper class “for failing to take moral responsibility (in the schools it runs, the mass entertainments it produces, the social agenda it favors) for the effects of permissiveness on the less-savvy, the less protected, the kids who don’t have helicopter parents turning off the television or firewalling the porn.”

All of this might add up to a plausible strategy for changing pathological behavior if it were wedded to concrete policies or a practical plan of action. But as it is, it’s just a micro-sermon vaguely advocating a bit of paternalism with a dash of noblesse oblige.

(I realize that Douthat has championed specific family-friendly policies in the past, but I don’t see how tweaking the child tax credit would meaningfully effect the kind of complex social pathologies he highlights in his recent column. A few extra dollars a month isn’t going to make it possible for a single mom to become a helicopter parent, let alone make it likely that a media executive will produce more wholesome entertainment.)

Back in the 1970s, founding neoconservative Irving Kristol proposed a more aggressive and explicitly political response to the post-’60s rise in permissiveness: government censorship of pornography and other forms of vulgarity. Nothing like this got enacted, of course, and it would be even less likely to catch on today. (A government-run firewall against porn, anyone?) But at least it was a policy proposal that, if it became law, might have contributed in a modest way to a change in mores.

By contrast, what Brooks and Douthat are advocating is guaranteed to have no such effect, because it can’t even be described as a policy proposal. That makes their writing on the subject an outgrowth of the libertarian drift of American culture rather than a strategy for combating it.

Brooks and Douthat know where they are and where they want to go, but they have no politically actionable ideas for how to get from A to B.

What do the conservative scolds want? The impossible.


By: Damon Linker, The Week, March 17, 2015

March 18, 2015 Posted by | Conservatives, Education, Poor and Low Income | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“Waging A Hopeless War Against Demographic Shifts”: Fox News Has Already Lost Its War On Christmas

Take down the Christmas tree Holiday Conifer and pack up the Nativity set Biblical-themed diorama: The War on Christmas is over, and the secularists have won.

While Fox News was busy insisting that Santa (and Jesus) are white, a couple of new polls pointed to something that the network has been warning about for years: Christmas has gradually become less of a religious holiday, and more of a cultural one.

First up, a Public Religion Research Institute survey released Tuesday found that almost half (49 percent) of Americans believe stores should use non-denominational greetings like “happy holidays.” That’s up slightly from three years ago, when 44 percent preferred a less-religious platitude to the traditional “Merry Christmas.”

At the same time, just under half of all Americans (49 percent) now believe the Biblical story of Christmas — virgin birth, angels, three wise man, and so on — is historically accurate. That’s a steep decline from a decade ago, when fully two-thirds of Americans believed the story was completely true.

So what happened to America? In a word: Aging.

Younger Americans are far less likely than older ones to view Christmas as a religious holiday. Much like how same-sex marriage, marijuana legalization, and other once-untouchable wedge issues have been blunted by the nation’s shifting demographics, the same phenomenon is evident in America’s changing views of Christmas.

A recent Pew poll bears out this point. In the survey, 51 percent of respondents say Christmas is “more of a religious holiday,” while 32 percent say it is more so a cultural one. But among adults ages 18-29, only a 39 percent minority say they celebrate Christmas as a religious holiday; among those 65 and up, 66 percent say the same.

Moreover, though seven in ten respondents in the survey say they typically went to religious Christmas services as children, only 54 percent say they plan to do the same this year.

The shift reflects America’s growing body of so-called “nones,” or the religiously unaffiliated, whose share of the population rose from 15 to 20 percent in the last five years alone. With that group on the rise, and with millennials beginning to skew the nation’s overall demographic makeup, an uptick in support for a more secular Christmas should be expected.

So Fox News is sort of right in saying that “Yes, Virginia, there really is a War on Christmas.” But the war isn’t one being waged by fanatical, intolerant liberals and foaming-at-the-mouth atheists. It’s one being waged by inexorable shifts in America’s demographics and beliefs.


By: Jon Terbush, The Week, December 18, 2013

December 19, 2013 Posted by | Christmas | , , , , , , | 1 Comment

“Substance Over Style”: New Term, New Truthers, Same President Obama

If I had to pick my favorite political ad of the last few years, a strong contender would be the one from 2010 Delaware Senate candidate Christine O’Donnell, in which she looked into the camera and said sweetly, “I’m not a witch. I’m nothing you’ve heard. I’m you.” The combination of a hilarious lack of subtlety with a kind of sad earnestness made it unforgettable. And it’s the message that almost every politician tries to offer at one point or another (the “I’m you” part, not the part about not being a witch). They all want us to think they’re us, or at least enough like us for us to trust them.

So when the White House released a photo over the weekend of President Obama shooting skeet, the smoke of freedom issuing forth from the barrel of his gun, you could almost hear him saying, “I’m not an effete socialist gun-hater. I’m you.” If “you” happen to be one of the minority of Americans who own guns, that is. Even at this late date, Obama and his aides can’t resist the urge, when confronted with a controversial policy debate, to send the message of cultural affinity to the people who—let’s be honest—he is most unlike.

We should give the White House some credit, though. This came about because in an interview with The New Republic, Obama was asked whether he had ever fired a gun, and he responded that he shoots skeet “all the time” at Camp David, prompting conservatives to begin demanding photographic evidence. His aides knew that a photo of Obama shooting skeet wasn’t going to convince anybody of anything, and in fact would just spur the President’s most deranged opponents to make fools of themselves. Which is why White House communications director Dan Pfeiffer tweeted the photo “For all the ‘skeeters,'” and senior advisor David Plouffe did the same, writing, “Attn skeet birthers. Make our day – let the photoshop conspiracies begin!” Lo and behold, a bevy of conservatives obliged with fine-grained analyses of why the photo was faked or staged, making it clear that their opposition to President Obama is rational and policy-based, and they are absolutely not a bunch of crazy people.

And to Obama’s credit, in the interview that started the discussion about skeet shooting, he displayed what we actually ought to seek from politicians: an effort to understand people’s differing perspectives and the things that are important to them. “Part of being able to move this forward is understanding the reality of guns in urban areas are very different from the realities of guns in rural areas,” he said. “And if you grew up and your dad gave you a hunting rifle when you were ten, and you went out and spent the day with him and your uncles, and that became part of your family’s traditions, you can see why you’d be pretty protective of that.”

That’s true, and the gun owners Obama is referring to are, according to opinion polls, supportive of the kinds of measures he’s proposing, like universal background checks and limits on certain military-style guns and large-capacity ammunition clips. Nevertheless, I couldn’t help but be reminded of the controversy from the 2008 campaign, when Obama was recorded saying people in small towns “cling to guns or religion” (you may have forgotten it, but people on the right haven’t, I assure you). A supporter had asked him how to convince people in economically depressed small towns in places like Pennsylvania who are hostile toward Democrats to change their minds, and his answer was actually an attempt to explain to the questioner where those people might be coming from. What he was saying was that they felt let down by politicians who promised them again and again that they could improve their economic circumstances, and so they turned to cultural issues—and more particularly, resentments—to define their political identity and determine their votes. He ended by saying that even if you can’t convince very many of them, it’s important to try. It may have been phrased inartfully (to use Mitt Romney’s formulation), but it was an attempt to understand and bridge personal divides, even if it became exactly the opposite. He couldn’t say “I’m you” to those small-town white voters, but he was trying to say, “I get you.”

Let’s not forget too that part of what made Barack Obama so much more appealing than the average Democratic candidate to so many liberals in 2008 is that, in fact, he is them. Multi-racial, hailing from a big city, educated, sophisticated and urbane, Obama looked to many liberals like the kind of person they might encounter in their daily lives, maybe even the kind of person they imagine themselves to be. Much as liberals have derided the efforts of politicians from both parties to create cultural affinity—from George W. Bush, son of Kennebunkport, pretending to be a down-home reg’lar fella, to John Kerry, well, hunting—their cultural connection with Obama was thrilling to them. But liberals don’t get that same thrill from him anymore, for the simple reason that he’s been president for four years, and those feelings of affinity from 2008 have been overwhelmed by the feelings they have about everything that has happened since, both good and bad.

And that’s true of the rest of the country too. Americans may not follow politics very closely, and they may not know very much about policy, but in 2013, if there’s one thing they have a pretty good idea about, it’s their feelings on one Barack Hussein Obama. After a first term full of consequential policy changes and significant real-world developments, substance has inevitably become far more important than style. The ones who find him alien and threatening wouldn’t have their minds changed by a thousand photos, no matter what they seemed to communicate. Obama surely knows that. But maybe someday, a Republican candidate will stage a photo-op to convince voters that despite all appearances, he’s just like college professors or Brooklyn hipsters. Instead of the “heartland” voters being pandered to, it’ll be the coastal urban dwellers. “I’m you,” he’ll say. And just as they do now, voters will respond, “Yeah, right.”


By: Paul Waldman, Contributing Editor, The American Prospect, February 4, 2013

February 4, 2013 Posted by | Politics | , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“Unnecessary And Excellent”: Why “Make Them Learn English” Is The Key To Immigration Reform

Among the provisions in the immigration-reform proposal released by a bipartisan group of senators yesterday was a requirement that in order to get on that path to citizenship, undocumented immigrants would have to “learn English and civics.” They don’t detail exactly how it would happen, but presumably there’d be a test of English proficiency immigrants would have to pass, and perhaps some money appropriated for English classes. There are two things to know about this idea. First, in practical terms it’s completely unnecessary. And second, in political terms it’s an excellent idea. In fact, it could be the key to passing immigration reform.

The reason it’s unnecessary is that every wave of immigrants follows basically the same pattern when it comes to English. People who immigrate as adults tend not to learn much beyond the most basic words and phrases, and continue to speak their native language at home. Their children grow up bilingual, speaking one language at home and another at school and eventually at work. The next generation grows up with only a little bit of the language of the old country, which they pick up from their grandparents, but they spend almost all their time speaking English. And the generation after that often knows nothing of their great-grandparents’ language beyond a few colorful expressions.

That’s how it has worked for one group of immigrants after another, and as Dylan Matthews reminds us, that’s how it’s working for the current group of immigrants. There is some variation among people who come from different places, but the basic picture is clear: you don’t need to “make them learn English,” because they’re going to learn it anyway, or at least their children are. That’s probably how it worked in your family, and it’s certainly how it worked in mine. My great-grandparents, who came to America as adults, knew very little English; my grandparents, who came as children, were bilingual; my parents can follow a conversation in Yiddish but not speak it very well; and my siblings and I just know a few little Yiddish snippets. (When I was a kid my grandmother had an annoying habit of telling long, apparently hilarious stories in which just the punch line was in Yiddish, so I never knew what the hell all the older people were laughing about.)

So why is the “make them learn English” provision so politically important? Because it’s the key that unlocks wide public support for immigration reform. As a group, Americans have contradictory feelings about immigration. We can’t divide the country into “pro-immigrant” and “anti-immigrant” groups, even if you might be able to make such a division among politicians or talk-show hosts. Apart from a small population of hard-core nativists, most Americans acknowledge that we’re all descended from immigrants of one kind or another, whether your ancestors walked across the Bering Strait land bridge, came over on a slave ship, or drove down from Toronto. They also appreciate that immigration gives our country vitality, and that immigrants are exactly the kind of hard-working, ambitious strivers that drive our economy and culture forward. But at the same time, many feel threatened when they see the character of their towns and cities change, and nothing embodies that change more than language. When people walk into a store and hear a language being spoken that they don’t understand, they suddenly feel like foreigners in their own neighborhood, alienated and insecure. I’m not putting a value judgment on that feeling, but it’s undeniable.

So imagine an individual citizen/voter who has those two contradictory feelings. He sincerely wants his country to welcome immigrants, and he thinks that cultural diversity is basically a good thing, but he got a little freaked out last week when he went down to the drug store and felt like he just got transported to Mexico City. He doesn’t like feeling alienated, but he also doesn’t like that tiny voice inside him that says “Send them back where they came from!” He knows that voice isn’t right, but when he sees signs in other languages or hears other languages spoken, that voice gets a little stronger.

What the “make them learn English” provision says to him is: Don’t worry, it’s going to be OK. We’re going to make sure that this wave of immigrants is woven into the American tapestry just like the prior waves of Irish and Italian and Chinese immigrants. They won’t take America over. They’ll become American.

The truth is, that’ll happen whether or not we make undocumented immigrants take an English test before they can become citizens. But there’s no reason not to do it. If some have to take an ESL class in order to pass, that’s fine—accelerating their learning curve a little will be good for them, and the cost probably won’t be too high. The real benefit, though, will be to reassure the majority of Americans whose feelings about immigration are complicated. And once you get enough of them on board, it becomes possible for risk-averse politicians to do the right thing.


By: Paul Waldman, Contributing Editor, The American Prospect, January 29, 2013

January 30, 2013 Posted by | Immigrants, Immigration | , , , , | 1 Comment


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