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