Putting Parents First

Published December 4, 2006

The Weekly Standard, Vol. 012, No. 12

We are beginning to get used to national security elections in America. The 2006 election cycle was the third in a row focused almost exclusively on the war on terror and Iraq. Apart from immigration and the vague odor of corruption, it is hard to find a single domestic issue that candidates consistently stressed on the stump this year. Indeed, neither party has campaigned on anything that might be called a domestic policy vision or platform since September 11.

But there is reason to think the 2008 election will be different. The war on terror will surely still be crucial, but if we are indeed in a generational struggle, then concerns of war and peace will come to coexist with more familiar social and economic issues in the public’s mind, as was the case during the Cold War. And in the absence of George W. Bush, the next presidential election will also be less taken up with disputes over the minutiae of every administration decision. Polls already show voters increasingly concerned again with familiar domestic priorities like education and health care.

For conservatives, this presents a challenge and an opportunity. It is a challenge because conservatives today lack a coherent domestic policy vision that would either build upon or move beyond the Bush agenda. Those who approve of “compassionate conservatism,” or of Bush’s tax or education policies, are hard pressed to point to a logical next step. And those who complain about the president’s direction–about spending, government programs, a new entitlement, and so on–have been short on realistic alternatives.

But the prospect of a revived domestic policy debate is also a great opportunity. Conservatives have been held together more by ideas and ideals than by a desire for political power or government goodies. The need to think anew about social and economic policy presents a chance to think anew also about how to appeal to more voters and about the kinds of common aims that can strengthen and expand the conservative coalition. If conservatives these days seem worn down, the kind of wonkish battle of policy ideas that has often been their forte in the past may be just the tonic they need.

The family and the market

American conservatives have worked politically in recent decades to advance two sets of goods: the family and the market. They have advocated traditional values that sustain cultural vitality, and economic freedom that brings material prosperity. These two sets of ideals are mutually reinforcing to an extent. The market relies on a stable and orderly society made possible by sturdy families and strong social institutions; and freedom from unduly coercive authority is an essential prerequisite for making moral choices.

But markets and families are also in tension with one another. The market values risk-taking and creative destruction that can be very bad for family life, and rewards the lowest common cultural denominator in ways that can undermine traditional morality. Traditional values, on the other hand, discourage the spirit of competition and self-interested ambition essential for free markets to work, and their adherents sometimes seek to enforce codes of conduct that constrain individual freedom. The libertarian and the traditionalist are not natural allies.

As the modern conservative movement took shape, conservatives were spared the full burden of mitigating these internal tensions because they confronted adversaries, at home and abroad, who opposed both of the goods conservatives aimed to advance. The left at its height viewed capitalism and traditional social institutions like the family as equally unjust and oppressive, and sought to use government power to replace or to undermine both.

This allowed conservatives to serve the cause of family and market by opposing big government. That doesn’t mean the conservative coalition always held together amicably, but a common enemy can go a long way toward smoothing over differences. And opposition to government was not just a slogan. It genuinely served the interests of the family and the market in a time when both were under siege. It truly was the case, as Ronald Reagan put it in his first inaugural address in 1981, that “in this present crisis, government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem.”

But the “present crisis” Reagan addressed is long past. Because of welfare reform and conservative pro-family policies, it is no longer fair to say that government is the greatest threat to American families. In the wake of Reagan’s and Bush’s tax cuts, the federal government is not the drain on Americans’ pocketbooks or the deadweight on economic dynamism that it was in 1981. The federal government remains too big and overbearing. But opposition to government can no longer do as the primary means of advancing the interests of families and markets–which has been and should remain the twofold aim of American conservatives.

The genuinely statist left, which opposed both the family and the market, has not exactly disappeared, but it is beleaguered and badly bruised. American “progressives”–triangulated out of bounds by Clinton and then driven out of their minds by Bush–are in sorry shape, notwithstanding their good cheer at the recent election results. They are cynical “realists” in foreign policy, badly confused in domestic policy, with no clear purpose but power, no clear adversary but Bush, no clear ideals but clinging desperately to every tattered remnant of a failed vision even they no longer take seriously. When their electoral fortunes wax, as they surely have this year, it is not because voters think highly of them but because of the country’s low opinion of Republicans.

The left, for now at least, offers little to oppose, and does little but oppose the right. American conservatives, in turn, are no longer primarily an opposition movement but a governing movement. That does not mean conservatives will win every election; but it means they will set the tone. And they will have to think hard about what advancing the interests of families and free markets now entails.

This means thinking afresh about the tension at the heart of the conservative worldview: between the interests of the family and traditional values on the one hand and the interests of the market and economic freedom on the other. Government was never the source of that tension, it was merely a common foe. Limited government is inherent to any conservative governing vision, but if those who run the government no longer explicitly seek to undermine capitalism and traditionalism–if government is no longer the greatest danger to both–then what is that greatest danger? And what is the best way to serve the causes of family and freedom?

The parenting class

What may be an ideological problem for conservatives is also, for Americans in general, a very practical problem. The greatest threat to the interests of families and free markets today is in fact the tension between them. This tension is not just an abstract theoretical challenge, but also a force in the everyday lives of American families, most especially as a source of anxiety.

Unease is perhaps the best way to describe the mood of American voters today. The terrorist threat and the war are of course primary sources of worry. But in survey after survey, there emerges a clear sense of disquiet about all manner of issues besides national security. More than half of Americans with health insurance expressed concern about losing their coverage in a USA Today poll in September. Exit polling in this fall’s election found that less than a third of all voters believe children born today will grow up to be better off than their parents. Similar signs of under lying anxiety emerge from countless other surveys.

Some on the left mistake this unease for a sign of failure or coming collapse, and seek to appeal to voters in the language of crisis and doom. But as liberal labor economist Stephen Rose has argued, the actual condition of the middle and lower middle class does not support these worries. Over the long term, middle class wages have not stagnated but steadily risen. The middle class is “shrinking” largely because the upper class is growing. And a Pew poll earlier this year found that while American families express concern about debt, only 9 percent of all Americans actually reported owing significantly more than they could afford. As Rose put it: “What progressives generally say about the economy is unrelentingly pessimistic–stagnant wages, rising costs, overwhelming burdens of debt. It’s a message that doesn’t resonate with the middle class–not only because it’s overly negative (by itself political poison), but because it’s simply flat out wrong.”

In fact, today’s disquiet seems less the panic of a drowning man than the angst of an overachiever. The worry of middle- and lower-middle-class families arises from a genuine tension between the two things they most eagerly strive to do: build families and build wealth. That tension, and the disquiet it causes, is especially acute for parents. Indeed, Americans in the middle class and what used to be called the working class would be better conceived of today as the parenting class. Their concerns and aspirations are no longer focused on their standing in the workplace, as they were when our political vocabulary was coming of age, but on balancing the pursuits of family and prosperity.

The members of the parenting class do not live on the edge of poverty. But they are anxious about their ability to meet their high aims, like affording a decent college for their children, getting the most from their health care dollar, and (in our increasingly older society) meeting the needs of their aging parents.

This is the anxiety of a successful capitalist economy filled with individuals who want to lead good lives. It is an anxiety produced by the kind of society conservatives seek to promote. It therefore calls for a response from the right, from those who share the aspiration to balance families and free markets, not those who think the system is about to collapse (and deserves to fall).

For three key reasons, this aspirational anxiety should be the focus of a conservative domestic policy agenda, and the lens through which conservatives understand their challenge in the coming years.

First, in terms of simple politics, it is what a key and growing group of voters want addressed. If the Democrats have misdiagnosed the anxieties of the parenting class, Republicans have not recognized them at all. Compassionate conservatism, for all its virtues, does not even try to address itself to parents. A conservative agenda that did so would not only cement a relationship with these voters, it would also appeal to many with similar worries who do not share the strong cultural predilections that have drawn middle- and lower-middle-class parents to vote for Republicans. In an insightful essay in these pages last year (“The Party of Sam’s Club,” Nov. 14, 2005), Ross Douthat and Reihan Salam cast their call for a refocused conservative agenda in exactly these political terms, asking, “Isn’t it time the Republicans did something for their voters?”

Second, conservatives should think about the anxiety of these parents because the tension such anxiety reflects is precisely the tension at the heart of the conservative movement. Addressing it would therefore also help to address a problem for conservatism. Among the most edifying consequences of the often uneasy partnership between social and fiscal conservatives has been the way in which the two sides have educated each other. A surprising number of conservatives who are not religious and not especially concerned about social issues have become persuaded in the past two decades to oppose abortion, for instance, because their interaction with social conservatives has caused them to consider the question more seriously. A surprising number of social conservatives have expressed strong concerns about government spending in recent years, because their interaction with fiscal conservatives has taught them why they should worry about it. But each group still tends not to see the way in which the other not only makes some valid points, but is also defending something vital to them both. Better understanding the pressure of health care costs as a barrier to the growth of larger families would help social conservatives understand why they should seek health care solutions. Better understanding how anxiety about caring for one’s children and one’s elderly parents keeps people from taking the risks that allow a dynamic economy to flourish would help fiscal conservatives see the value of public policy that offers support to child-bearing and family caregiving.

Third, conservatives should concentrate on the anxieties of the parenting class because if they are not addressed in ways that take heed of both the significance of traditional values and the importance of free-market, small-government principles, they will eventually be addressed in ways that undercut both. In a democracy, the greatest threat to freedom is not that the government will take it away but that the people will give it away, in return for a promise of security. The parenting class’s demands for security are not unreasonable, and the challenge for a conservative governing movement is to use public policy to help families obtain some of that security in ways that sustain freedom and strengthen traditional values.

Because key voters want it, because the conservative movement needs it, and because the cause of limited government requires it, conservatives need to see the parenting class as the crucial constituency of the future, critical to the well-being of both the American family and the American economy. This would make Republicans neither exactly the party of social conservatism nor quite the party of fiscal conservatism, but the party committed to balancing the two, and defending both by easing the tensions between them: the party that sees the moral imperatives of economic freedom and grasps the economic anxieties of the traditional family.

A revived conservative agenda

What might this mean in practice? Both fiscal and social conservatives should put themselves in the shoes of the parenting class and focus on advancing competition and choice while also encouraging the growth and strength of the two-parent family. In health care, for instance, conservatives have consistently failed to approach things from that point of view. Anxiety about health care coverage is, for the parenting class, fundamentally a fear of being unable to do enough in a crisis. This worry is largely distinct from the actual structural problems of the health care system, such as market distortions that exacerbate high costs, but it must be addressed if the parenting class is to buy in to any structural solution to reduce costs and assist the uninsured.

Insured families often feel the high costs of care only very indirectly, and their worries arise from the perceived complexity and instability of health care coverage. That complexity leaves many families anxious while they’re healthy about whether they will be adequately covered if something goes wrong. The rigid bond between employment and insurance, meanwhile, can make losing one’s job, or even just choosing to change jobs, a matter of life and death, and contributes to a paralysis that harms both the vitality of the economy and the stability of the family. By itself, the conservative solution of the moment–high deductible accounts that provide families with a new and bewildering profusion of options in health care–risks increasing the health care anxiety of the parenting class without addressing its source, particularly if it is sold (as it has been) as a spur to efficiency, rather than portability. By seeing the problem through the eyes of the parenting class, conservatives could see their way toward a more practical approach to health care–one that would begin with the modest goal of championing insurance portability and only then proceed to introduce more elements of consumer choice and price transparency into the health care sector. At least rhetorically, if not also practically, stability and security need to come before efficiency if the parenting class is to endorse a pro-market health care reform. The result would also make pro-market solutions to the problem of the uninsured more politically plausible.

Conservatives should also look beyond the horizon and see that long-term care for the aged is about to become the next major concern of the parenting class. The demographics of the baby boomers, and medical advances that will enable them to enjoy longer lives but also suffer longer periods of decline and debility, will soon present an unprecedented challenge for middle- and lower-middle-class families. This it not a crisis–longer lives are, after all, most welcome–as much as it is a challenge to these families’ aspiration to do right by their parents. Conservatives need to find ways to encourage long-term care insurance and to reward family caregiving for the elderly.

As it happens, the case for such policies overlaps with the case for entitlement reform. In both instances, conservatives need to construct a clear narrative of the significance and shape of the aging society–to bring into wide circulation basic demographic facts that could help families understand what more elderly and fewer young Americans will mean in their lives, and what might be done to prepare. No comprehensive entitlement reform seems likely to succeed in the immediate future, but that should cause conservatives to make a bolder case, not a meeker one, so that the groundwork is laid for a serious effort when the time is right. Conservatives should use the coming demographic shifts to advocate a combined reform of Social Security and Medicare that would tie both to demographic trends. The parenting class will need to be shown the facts, but over time could be open to persuasion that such preparation for the future is in its interest and especially in its children’s interest. Conservatives should also be unabashed in making the case that larger families are essential to addressing the problems of the aging society–both in general economic terms that relate to the prospects for old age entitlements, and in the lives of particular families–and therefore in pursuing policies across the board that reward and encourage parenthood.

In education, it is well past time to have another serious go at school choice, which can appeal to the parenting class both as a solution in their own children’s lives and as a call to conscience. By highlighting failing schools in underserved areas (a task made easier by the mountains of data now becoming available through the No Child Left Behind Act), while making clear to parents that their own children need not be thrown into a confusing new system of choices and options if their schools are working, conservatives can build a middle-class case for helping lower-class children escape failing schools.

These examples are of course barely a start. But they aim to suggest both that conservatives need to reinvigorate the effort to develop particulars, and that in doing so they must view the domestic policy landscape through the eyes of millions of parents who contend every day with the challenge of simultaneously advancing the values of family and fulfilling the aspirations to prosperity and freedom. By seeking to address their concerns, and by distinguishing between problems that cause them anxiety directly and problems for others that should be brought to call on their conscience, conservatives can begin to build a revived domestic agenda. Not all the ideas will be new, but the focus on articulating a pro-market, pro-family vision addressed to the parenting class will be.

The tension between family and market is a source of unease for American families, and has often been a source of friction in the conservative movement. But the present moment offers an opportunity to turn that tension into a font of energy for conservatives, and to turn the conservative movement into the long-term home of the parenting class.

In this effort, there is a role for government. The conservative insight that government power is inherently corrosive of the roots of self reliance must not be forgotten, and surely remains true. But it must also not be turned into a case against all uses of public policy for public ends. Some balance must be found, so that limited government can be turned to positive purposes, and there is no better way to seek that balance than keeping in mind the two competing but complementary goals of strong families and free markets, while also keeping in mind the interests of the parenting class. Looking toward the 2008 election and beyond, conservatives confront a tremendous opportunity, if we are ready to seize it.

— Yuval Levin is a fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center and senior editor of The New Atlantis magazine.


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