Party Shifts and America's Political Future

Obama and America’s Political Future
Theda Skocpol
Harvard University Press, $26.95, 195 pp.

All in the Family
The Realignment of American Democracy since the 1960s
Robert O. Self
Hill and Wang, $30, 495 pp.


How do we assess Barack Obama’s presidency, or as Democrats optimistically say in these final weeks before the election, “his first term”?

From a historical point of view the question is surely premature. Nevertheless, Harvard’s Theda Skocpol is not deterred. Skocpol is best known for her analysis of the origins of the American welfare state, whose first initiatives actually began not with the New Deal but in the late nineteenth century with pensions for widowed mothers and Union Civil War veterans. She has also dived into contemporary history with a study of President Bill Clinton’s failed effort to pass a national health-care law, published in 1996, even before the Democrats had finished licking their wounds.

Obama and America’s Political Future is equally of the moment. It tracks the political upheaval of the past four years, from Obama’s decisive electoral triumph in 2008 and the strengthening of Democratic majorities in the House and Senate to the emergence of the Tea Party and the equally decisive Republican triumph in the 2010 midterm elections. The focus is strictly on the United States, a pity given that Skocpol’s own knowledge of the history of social policy would allow her to compare the American experience with Japan and the European industrial democracies.

The result, though, is still satisfying: a crisp, intelligent report card on Obama’s domestic-policy record. And Obama merits high grades. His achievements include a stimulus bill widely credited with creating over 3 million jobs, tax cuts for almost 90 percent of American taxpayers, the rescue of the auto industry, new regulatory oversight of the financial industry, easing predatory banks out of the student-loan business and in turn reducing student debt, and of course the Affordable Care Act, the culmination of over sixty years of efforts to bring health insurance within the reach of almost every American citizen.

Skocpol is enamored of comparisons between Obama and Franklin Roosevelt, the last president to take office in the midst of an economic crisis. Much like Roosevelt, Obama had to stop an economy in free fall and then attempt to use fiscal policy to turn it around. Like Roosevelt, too, he has been unable to lower the jobless rate significantly, and Obama’s current political vulnerability, like Roosevelt’s in 1935, stems from voter frustration at the halting pace of recovery.

There the parallels cease. One of the puzzles of the Obama presidency, when compared to his 2008 campaign, is his failure to defend his record adequately. Skocpol blames some of Obama’s difficulties on a “rightward-skewed media landscape” ranging from Fox News to talk radio. She contrasts this conservative dominance in certain media fields with Roosevelt’s easy access to and singular mastery of radio. But she also acknowledges Obama’s inability to craft a more positive narrative outlining his accomplishments—a problem I would highlight even more than she does. The rhetorical stakes were especially high since many of Obama’s accomplishments—notably an Affordable Care Act that doesn’t really kick in for two years—were invisible to their beneficiaries. To watch Bill Clinton tout these accomplishments at the Democratic convention in Charlotte last month is to wonder why, as Skocpol puts it, Obama “botched” this “central function of the presidency.”

Another of Obama’s challenges is more daunting. Skocpol is again blunt: “It has become unmistakably clear that the Republican Party in Congress is determined to obstruct effective governance in pursuit of a strategy of removing Obama in 2012.” Roosevelt faced opposition, especially from white southerners nervous about the destabilizing effect of an expanding federal government on racial segregation. But white southerners were, like Roosevelt, also Democrats, and a populist vein that welcomed governmental initiatives on behalf of the (white) masses touched everyone from Huey Long to the young Strom Thurmond.

What Roosevelt never had to confront was the ferocious hostility to tax increases and any new governmental initiative animating current Tea Party activists. Skocpol and her colleagues interviewed dozens of Tea Party organizers over the past two years and she found them unwilling, interestingly, to support cuts in Social Security, Medicare, or veterans’ benefits. But they drew a bright line on health care (beyond Medicare), new social-welfare or insurance programs (such as the Affordable Care Act), and putative aid to illegal immigrants.

Explaining the hold of this antigovernment ideology on a large portion—admittedly a primarily white and middle-class portion—of the population at the exact moment when economic inequality is reaching heights not seen since the 1920s is an important task. A recent World Values Survey found Americans less likely than citizens of almost every other industrial country to see redistributive taxation as an essential characteristic of democratic government. Skocpol only gestures toward an explanation because her focus is on the day-to-day of policymaking and opinion polls. Neither does she try to explain, rather than lament, the ascendancy of a fervent antitax, antigovernment rhetoric within a broad arc of the Republican Party leadership. Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan complained about taxes, too, but neither would have dreamed of bringing the government to a halt rather than negotiate an extension of the federal budget ceiling. Nixon imposed wage and price controls and established the Environmental Protection Agency. Reagan cheerfully accepted tax increases in exchange for budget cuts.

Historian Robert Self offers an explanation for this shift in the character of the Republican Party in his All in the Family. Self, who teaches at Brown, sees debates about the family as the pivot point of American politics in the past four decades, a counterpart to the emergence of a “neoliberal ideology of privatization and deregulation.”

In one sense the book is a significant achievement. Self’s lucid histories of the left wing of the women’s movement and the early gay-rights movement are well informed and based on extensive research. But there is a problem of empathy. Self strains to be objective, but his left-liberal sympathies are so obvious, his convictions so patent—the book concludes with a hymn to the social vision of, among others, Gloria Steinem and Shirley Chisholm—that he has difficulty explaining the motivations of the social conservatives crowding their way into his narrative.

To Self, for example, the claim that children might best be raised by two parents is based on a “narrow, obsolete, and uncommon” model of the family. Daniel Patrick Moynihan incurs Self’s ire for his famous 1965 prediction that the growth in single-parent African-American families would have negative consequences for social mobility. Moynihan’s language—including fretting about the perils of “matriarchy”—was inelegant. But he was right, and social scientists more concerned than Self with empirical data are even now tracing the deleterious effects of single-parent families well beyond the African-American community.

Similarly one might look at the early 1970s—when Roe v. Wade overthrew fifty sets of state regulations to establish the most unregulated abortion economy among the Western democracies—as a halcyon moment for supporters of abortion rights. Not for Self. Instead, the abstract right to terminate a pregnancy seems to him a fragile achievement because prolife activists quickly persuaded Congress to eliminate most federal funding for abortions.

That many early prolife activists, not just their prochoice counterparts, saw theirs as an idealistic effort to build a more just society does not mesh with Self’s classification of both prolife activism and Republican attacks on “big” government as the triumph of individualism. He neglects, for example, the links drawn by Catholic prolife activists, and scholars such as Mary Ann Glendon, between no-fault divorce, abortion, and a nation willing to abandon single women before the forces of the market. When the Michigan Catholic Conference played the crucial role in preventing Michigan’s voters from liberalizing state abortion regulations in 1972, just weeks before Roe v. Wade, staffers immediately began lobbying for increased welfare payments as part of a “planned integrated attack on those socio-economic inequities” leading to abortion. Commonweal readers will be surprised to learn from Self that the “U.S. church had emerged from the Second Vatican Council in 1965 divided into a liberalizing laity and a hidebound leadership.”

Self also underestimates the successes of both the women’s- and the gay-rights movements. Imagine Sarah Palin, mother of five, including a special-needs child, serving as governor and running for vice president on either party’s ticket forty years ago without an avalanche of criticism for abandoning her family. Imagine today’s support for gay rights, with major corporations routinely offering partner benefits, in 1980. The enthusiasm now evident for gay marriage among younger voters, and even among younger Republicans, was unimaginable a decade ago.

Despite these caveats, Self is correct when he insists that debates over the family should not be artificially separated from debates about the economy. And he shrewdly demonstrates that certain societal changes—including the explosion in employment opportunities for well-educated women—did not come, as in Europe, with government assistance for childcare to make these opportunities more manageable. Fourteen years ago political theorist Mark Lilla published an important essay in the New York Review of Books wondering why the United States had not produced a true libertarian party, uneasy with government regulation and yet supportive of the individualist cultural ethos emanating from the 1960s. The primary legacy of the 1960s, Lilla concluded, had been to divide economic libertarianism (Republicans) from social libertarianism (Democrats). He worried that this ideological incoherence muddied our ability to make real political choices.

Lilla’s essay hit a Commonweal nerve, I think, and I’ve lost count of how many times readers of and contributors to the magazine have urged me to read it. After all, the project of Catholic social thought since the mid-nineteenth century, if nothing else, has been antilibertarian, concerned about unchecked individualism in both social and economic spheres. (Fr. John A. Ryan, the leading Catholic social theorist of the early twentieth century, favored a guaranteed “family wage” and government health care, but he was also a determined opponent of legal access to birth control, even for non-Catholic married couples.) This orientation of Catholic social thought explains the frequent lament of Catholic activists in the 1980s and ’90s that they had no political home in either a Republican Party insensitive to the poor and the growing scandal of income inequality or a Democratic Party fundamentalist in its protection of abortion rights.

Lilla could reprint the essay today without amendment. The biggest difference this election season is that the most self-conscious engagement with Catholic social thought has come from another Ryan, vice-presidential nominee Paul Ryan, a Catholic congressman who used to hand out Ayn Rand novels as Christmas gifts. The admiration for Ryan among Republicans of all types illuminates the current moment: he is bright, prolife, and apparently determined to dismantle large chunks of the contemporary welfare state (see “Dear Prudence,” by Daniel K. Finn). In contrast to the early 1970s, when prolife and prochoice activists identified with both major parties, Skocpol found in her interviews tremendous overlap between Tea Party activists and social conservatives. “The preferential option for the poor,” Ryan told a Georgetown University audience earlier this year, “is not a preferential option for big government.” Traces of this more libertarian ethos are evident in some bishops backing away from an almost century-old Catholic commitment to national health insurance because of anxiety about an expanding state or episcopal silence on the once familiar topic of church support for unions.

This integration of a more libertarian, antistatist vision into Catholic social thought is a peculiarly American project, unlikely to gain much traction in the Catholic world outside the United States. Even in the United States its appeal to the rapidly coming Latino Catholic majority is uncertain. But it is yet another marker of the extraordinary fragmentation sketched by both Skocpol and Self, a fragmentation posing significant obstacles to the efforts of President Obama, or for that matter any national political leader, to promote a more common vision.

Published in the 2012-10-26 issue: 

John T. McGreevy is the Charles and Jill Fischer Provost at the University of Notre Dame.

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