David Brooks thinks that this election is about averting national decline. No argument there, but he further thinks that President Obama is abandoning the larger issues to the Republicans, which I wish was the case, but I don’t see the evidence. They are alarmed for sure, but except for Gingrich, I don’t see the large vision or the grandiosity for sweeping reform.
One thing is certain about the Obama strategy: The wraps are off. This much has been made crystal clear by the State of the Union address and various bus tours to the election swing states. There is not even the pretense camouflaging the class warfare strategy and this represents a huge calculated risk that the electorate is as economically illiterate as I fear, that the economic anxiety factor is as pervasive as has been noted by many observers, and that the Republicans have no clue as to how to respond. And in fact a little of all three will contribute to Obama’s re-election, which will almost certainly speed American decline.
But before commenting on how to respond, back to the question of the pending national decline. The New Criterion recently published “Is America in Decline: A Symposium”, with essays by a number of contributors, most prominently Charles Murray with a paper adapted from his new book, Coming Apart: The State of White America. In it, he outlines a fascinating analysis of the trend in what he calls “the founding virtues” among non-Latino white Americans aged 30-49. Two of them are virtues in themselves–industriousness and honesty–and two of them refer to institutions through which right behavior is nurtured–marriage and religion.
The results of the study are worthy of analysis in all their complexity, but the essential finding is that as recently as a half century ago there was a civic culture that embraced all classes of Americans. Today that is no longer the case. Americans have formed a new lower class and a new upper class that have no precedent in our history, and it is not the emergence of classes that is new, but rather the fact that for the first time these divergences break on core values and behaviors. And for all four of the founding virtues, the statistical divergence breaks between those with at least a bachelor’s degree and a professional background and those with no higher than a high school diploma and with blue collar or low level white collar employment. I won’t go into the data, but the statistical divergence is compelling and, as Murray indicates, the divergences in the founding virtues essentially divide the two classes into two different cultures. They simply differ on some of the most fundamental dimensions of life and this is manifest in both their cultural and geographic isolation from each other. This does not bode well for the American exceptionalism that was built on a common sense of the American way of life based on the founding virtues that Murray has identified.
So if this divergence in civic culture is a reality, how do we respond? The progressive left has a view, which is espoused by Robert Reich thusly: “Obama must show America that the basic choice is between two fundamental views of this nation. Either we’re all in this together, or we’re a bunch of individuals who happen to live within these borders and are mainly on their own”. This is the communitarian strain that runs through the progressive worldview, and it results in the preference for only public delivery of public goods, which drives the entitlement welfare state, more government supervision of fairness and social justice, etc., a model which has proven to be a disaster.
Interestingly, another, more conservative view backed by some specific proposals, is from Rick Santorum on the Republican primary campaign trail. He understands that Reich is correct to an extent. A nation is not an agglomeration of autonomous individuals, it’s an organic system of family and social relationships and he proposes a limited role for government in assisting local entities with incentives such as increased child tax credits and other enabling initiatives to help sustain these relationships. Maybe some help here, but too much reliance on government handing out checks and not enough emphasis on the restoration of civic culture and the work ethic.
The bottom line is that there is no viable political response yet in the offing to the major dilemma of this generation, which is the solution to the structural displacement of employment and economic opportunity and the American Dream by the unrelenting competitive pressures presented by the globalization of markets. This is not just a problem for income inequality, but has implications as well for the class divergence and decline in civic culture that Charles Murray has identified. And much of the decline can be traced to the failed Great Society programs of the 1960s and some further policy mistakes in the early Nixon years of the 1970s.
We also instinctively and empirically know that this cultural and economic dilemma is largely a result of our deeply flawed public education system, but we do not yet have the political will to properly respond to it, and I don’t see any of the Republican Presidential candidates talking in large enough terms about it. Thankfully, there are a number of state Governors who are talking the talk and walking the walk, however, and they deserve our attention, encouragement, and support. And remember, elections have consequences.