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."
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.