Monday, August 27, 2012

America's Moral Challenge

Throughout its history, writes Michael Barone, the Republican Party has attracted "voters who are generally seen by themselves and by others as typical Americans."  For many years that also meant northern and Protestant.  And the Democratic Party base was Southern and also Northern Catholic.

But now everything has changed, and the Republican Party's base is typical Americans that are "white married Christians."  A consequence of this is that over the last two decades the Republican Party has lost the votes of educated suburbanites, as Democrats have attacked the social conservatism of non-college whites as "extremism" while still insisting that the GOP is the party of northeastern big-business WASPs.

You could say that the 2008 was a perfect storm for Republicans as affluent suburbanites recoiled from the Texas taint of the George W. Bush years and happily voted for America's first black president.

Today, of course, the affluent suburbanites aren't quite as affluent, and they feel that they didn't quite get what they bargained for in America's first post-partisan president.

But I think there is a real moral problem with the educated suburbanites that advertise themselves as "fiscally conservative and socially liberal."  Because I think that the socially liberal world-view is responsible for America's biggest problem.

The problem is exposed in Charles Murray's Coming Apart about white America.  Briefly, the top 20 percent, the educated elite, is doing fine.  But the bottom 30 percent is not doing fine.  And the main problem with the bottom 30 percent is that about half the children don't have married parents.  Lower-income women often don't get married to the fathers of their children, and lower-income men often don't work.

There is no particular mystery about this.  America is organized for the benefit of the upper 20 percent and the kind of life they want to lead.  The top 20 percent sends their kids to college-prep high schools and on to college and graduate school.  When they are established in a career at about 30 then it is time for marriage and children.  And 80 percent of 30-49-year-olds in the top 20 percent are married.

For people like this the "socially liberal" world view makes sense.  You are relaxed (but careful) about your sexual life, and take care not to get a kid started before you are ready for marriage.

But suppose you are not college material.  Suppose you don't get on in school.  Then you are living across the grain that the top 20 percent has designed and built for America, and things aren't going to be so easy for you.  There are credential problems associated with the good jobs; there is the minimum wage, which makes it difficult to get started and work your way up by acquiring skills as you go.  There are the swingeing taxes on employment, especially outdoor work like construction, that make labor expensive but sequesters a lot of labor income in government trust funds for Social Security, unemployment, and workers comp instead of giving it straight to the worker.

But heck, if you are a young man you still want to get laid, and if you are a young woman you still want to have a baby.  Social liberalism means that it's OK to get laid and it's OK to get an abortion or raise a kid as a single parent.

Only, of course, kids of single parents have much worse prospects that the kids of married parents, including the problem of abuse from the sexual partners of single parents.

Now I have a word for the situation in which the bottom 30 percent is placed by decades of government and social policy dictated by the top 20 percent.  I call it "injustice."  I think that the educated top 20 percent has ripped apart the culture and the well-being of the bottom 30 percent like a tornado.  They confiscated the right for the bottom 30 percent to solve their own problems and live life on their own terms.  The top 20 percent built the society they wanted for themselves and they threw money at the people that didn't want, or couldn't compete, in their Brave New World.

Nobody has asked "non-college whites" what they want.  And the college whites, the people that live in affluent suburbia and work in office parks with good salaries and benefits, have been led by liberal Democrats to sneer at the opinions of the non-college whites: "bitter clingers" as Candidate Obama explained to his rich-bitch contributors in 2008.

There is hypocrisy here.  The top 20 percent do not actually live the "socially liberal" lifestyle they affect to support.  They are pretty family oriented and pretty careful about their sexual behavior.  After all, the upper-20-percent life trajectory requires a careful husbanding of human and economic capital.   You need to study hard in school and then work hard in your profession.  You need to select a mate carefully, to make sure that your investments in your career aren't compromised.  Fortunately, if you make a mistake--an unwanted baby or an arrest from an excess of high spirits--then Mom will clean up your mess for you.

In my view the great challenge for America in the years ahead is to thrash out a new moral culture.

No, wait.  In my view the great challenge for the upper 20 percent in the years ahead is to give the "typical American" non-college whites the cultural space to build out their own authentic culture without marginalizing it as "extremism" or "bigotry."

This will not be easy for the top 20 percent.  It will take an effort in "consciousness raising" similar to the effort that pushed the civil rights revolution through in the 1950s and 1960s.

The problem is that just as there were powerful Southerners standing in the schoolhouse door pushing back against civil rights there are powerful liberals today in education, politics and culture pushing back against any move to mainstream marriage and reform education and the workplace to make it more non-college friendly.

So things are going to get worse before they get better.  And many people in the bottom 30 percent will suffer grievously.

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