On Political Books

September/October 2012 Identity Politics Revisited

By most accounts, economic issues are the real core of politics, and social issues are a distraction. A historian begs to differ.

By Mark Schmitt

Although the Affordable Care Act and additional low-end tax breaks in the Obama years have extended some of the gains for children, for the most part the bipartisan era of kids-as-politics crashed in about 2002, when the Wall Street Journal deemed the families that benefited from the Earned Income Tax Credit and the other tax benefits the “Lucky Duckies.” With this move, the right began a new stage in the culture war, in which economics itself would replace the divisive power of gender, race, and sexuality. We face a choice between an “entitlement societ” that supports only people who “want things from government,” Mitt Romney tells us, or “an opportunity society.” Nicholas Eberstadt, a scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, recently assembled data that supports the Romney worldview, warning that we are becoming “a nation of ‘takers,” and his boss, AEI President Arthur Brooks, has published two books that warn of an existential showdown between the believers in free enterprise and the forces of government. The language of irreconcilable moral viewpoints, such as characterized fights about abortion rights or gay marriage, has been ported over into the economic field, and people who believe government has a role in supporting the needy or economic growth are treated as alien — “foreign to the American experience,” as Romney said of Obama’s ideas. And so the fight is now fully back in the territory of economics, with the rising American electorate (unmarried women, millennials, professionals, and minorities) not only more socially tolerant but also more supportive of government’s role in the economy. Self’s book is a valuable reminder that the arguments about the family since the 1960s always had an economic dimension and were not a distraction. They also could form the basis of a richer liberalism that not only fully values the rights of individuals in their diverse identities, but also builds the kind of supportive economy and social contract that can enable everyone, in any kind of family, to make the most of his or her capacities.



Mark Schmitt is a senior fellow at the Roosevelt Institute.

Comments

  • DHFabian on August 29, 2012 1:04 AM:

    If we have a left, they forgot to plug in their microphone. The political left is defined by socio-economic issues, and this generation has completely dropped the ball. In more conventional terms, today's liberals are all about the bourgeoisie (while, on occasion, making a token mention of the working poor), essentially turning the middle class into a gated community by taking measures to keep the poor locked into poverty. We are so convinced of the fundamental inferiority of those pushed into poverty that we actually see cities posting "Don't feed the homeless signs," enforcing the message that the poor are no more human than pigeons. Today, we take children from parents suffering prolonged unemployment with no more moral hesitation than we take calves from cows at auction time. We have shipped out a massive number of working class of jobs, then increased the number of people desperate for jobs. Far fewer jobs for far more workers, and we demand that some of the least employable find jobs. Indeed, while people with college degrees are selling burgers and fries, we insist there is "no excuse" for the least advantaged to secure employment.As a result of Clinton's welfare reform, infant mortality rates among America's poor have been rising while the life expectancy of our poor has actually fallen below that of some Third World countries, and liberals remain disinterested. These policies kill, and we call them "successful."

  • Sean Scallon on September 12, 2012 11:51 AM:

    "Self’s book is a valuable reminder that the arguments about the family since the 1960s always had an economic dimension and were not a distraction."

    I completely agree. I was thought it was too simplistic to say "let's just focus on economic issues" as if cultural questions to our nation's politics: slavery, prohibition, suffrage, the Catholic question, had never taken place before.

    Such social issues may well have worked themselves out in the the 1970s had the economy not collapsed by 1980. The inflation which began to rise in the late Vietnam-era, going off gold, the OPEC oil embargo, the energy crisis, and then rising unemployment, all of these things contributed to discontents which existed at that time. If you feel threatened economically you're going to feel threatened everywhere else: your status at home, your neighborhood, the people you work with or the community you live. Thus, as Hammill put it, "working white-class paranoia" It's almost impossible to separate the two.

    It's amazing what a little economic prosperity can do to ease social tensions. The boom years from 1983-2008 (despite the little dips from 1990-92 and 2000-02) may well have done as much to help pass welfare reform and make homosexual marriage more acceptable in the broader society than any court decision or election or even Will and Grace did.

    Besides this book, some other media which might help you better understand the whole scene are the movie "North Country" and the book "Staying Alive - The 1970s and the Last Days of the Working Class" by Jefferson Cowie.

  • Just Sayinh on September 18, 2012 6:19 PM:

    This is an embarrassing review. Abortion is a winning culture war argument? Tell Todd Akin. Abortion is not economic? Because apparently raising children is free? Women's health care and ability to avoid forced childbirth is the economic foundation necessary for economic equality, full stop. ' “Free as in speech, or free as in beer”— free beer, unlike speech, comes at someone else’s expense.' Paying for health care, like birth control, saves everyone money. And not prohibiting women's health care saves everyone money as well as lives. If women can be beaten at home, we cannot continue school or excel at work. The book sounds interesting, but the review is so disconnected from anyone who has lived a female life it reads as if Mitt Romney were its author. "Culture war" issues are not economic issues ONLY FOR SWM.

  • Just Sayinh on September 18, 2012 6:24 PM:

    This is an embarrassing review. Abortion is a winning culture war argument? Tell Todd Akin. Abortion is not economic? Because apparently raising children is free? Women's health care and ability to avoid forced childbirth is the economic foundation necessary for economic equality, full stop. ' “Free as in speech, or free as in beer”— free beer, unlike speech, comes at someone else’s expense.' Paying for health care, like birth control, saves everyone money. And not prohibiting women's health care saves everyone money as well as lives. If women can be beaten at home, we cannot continue school or excel at work. The book sounds interesting, but the review is so disconnected from anyone who has lived a female life it reads as if Mitt Romney were its author. "Culture war" issues are not economic issues ONLY FOR SWM.