It is an axiom of the conservative revolution sweeping Washington that the growth in size and power of the welfare state is a primary cause of the decline of society’s mediating institutions – voluntary associations, local government, church, and, above all, the family, the single most important instrument of social cohesion and values transmission. Whether by design or inadvertence, the nanny state has taken over the house.
Welfare policy, for example, creates social chaos by means of governmental incentives that are almost comically perverse. Every teenage girl in the country is told: Have a child, make sure it is out of wedlock, make sure you have no job or prospects, and Washington will then guarantee you a monthly check, free medical care, and years of job training and child care, also free. After 35 years of this, the illegitimacy rate goes from 5 percent to 30 percent. Surprise.
Liberals are confounded by the fact that the great expansion of their social programs coincides with the dramatic rise of most every index of social breakdown – divorce, illegitimacy, violence, crime, drug abuse, suicide, untreated mental illness (disguised as homelessness). Lacking any new theory to explain this unfortunate association, they prescribe the only therapy their worldview allows: more social programs.
President Clinton, in his 1995 State of the Union Address, for example, embraced a Charles Murray premise when he declared that “the epidemic of teen pregnancies and births where there is no marriage” is “our most serious social problem.” His conclusion, however, is distinctly un-Murray-like: yet another federal program. After drivers ed. and drug ed., we shall now have preg ed. – a few minutes of classroom time to urge young girls and boys not to do precisely what the entire welfare system allows, indeed encourages, them to do: indulge in irresponsible childbearing.
The Limits of Structural Reform
The conservative response is equally clear: not a new government intervention to mitigate the catastrophic consequences of the old intervention but withdrawal of government intervention in the first place. The contraction of the welfare state is the single most important theme of the current conservative revolution. It imbues practically every item on the Republicans’ political agenda. And it promises a rosy future: Pare back the welfare state and the mediating institutions will once again have the space to flower, reclaiming their rightful place at the center of a revitalized civil society.
It is a rosy scenario. It is unlikely to materialize. Social disintegration is not a reversible chemical reaction. It is far easier to reduce a complex, cohesive social structure to its barest elements of atomized individuals and fractured families than to reassemble these atoms and fractions into a new whole. Institutions so displaced and broken, particularly the family, may not be capable of spontaneous reintegration.
This is not to say that one should flinch from trying. But in, say, abolishing the current welfare entitlement, one should not assume that this in and of itself will solve the conundrum of intergenerational illegitimacy. Abolition is the first step, because without it there is no way back from where we are. But it is only a first step. And, if it is the only step, the current conservative revolution will surely fail.
That is the case because looking at the effect of government on society is too limited an analysis. The intrusions and expropriations of the welfare state have, generally speaking, created the sustaining conditions that allow the breakdown of families and other mediating institutions. They establish a structure that underwrites self-destructive and antisocial behavior. But they do not create the wants and the values that find their expression in such behavior. The epidemic of teen pregnancy, for example, is fueled by the desire of boys for predatory and casual sex, the acquiescence (often encouragement) of girls, and the contempt of both for the bourgeois norm of settled, married parenthood. Where do these attitudes come from? The AFDC check permits their realization. But it hardly creates them. What does?
Cultural Causes of Decay
The single greatest shaper of these wants and values is not government but culture. Mass culture is a very recent phenomenon. As an engine of social breakdown, it is vastly underappreciated by those who might be called structural conservatives. Those who believe, for example, that changing the tax structure of the inner city (through enterprise zones) will effect a radical transformation of its social dynamics are missing the larger reality. Never in history have the purveyors of a degraded, almost totally uncensored, culture had direct, unmediated access to the minds of a society’s young. An adolescent plugged into a Walkman playing “gangsta rap” represents a revolutionary social phenomenon: youthful consciousness almost literally hardwired to the most extreme and corrupting cultural influences.
Two hundred years ago these influences might reach a thin layer of the upper classes, classes well insulated by education, social code, and sheer wealth from the more baleful consequences of cultural decay. Today these influences reach every one. Particularly vulnerable are those in communities where the authority structure has disintegrated because of absent or incompetent parents and where there is no power or money or codes to mediate the culture’s influence or cushion its effects. In such a milieu in particular – everywhere to some extent – mass culture rules. The results are plain to see.
We have, for example, a quarter century of psychological research on the relationship between exposure to television violence and aggressive behavior. The findings are summarized by the 1972 Surgeon General’s Commission report, the 1982 National Institute of Health Ten Year Follow-Up, and the 1992 report of the American Psychological Association’s Committee on Media in Society. To quote Leonard Eron, a longtime student of media and its psychological effects, on the question of the relation between television and increased violence, “the scientific debate is over.” One could, of course, have done without the social science and simply reasoned, as Irving Kristol did in 1971, that if the unquestioningly held view that good art can elevate is true, then it must be equally true that bad art can degrade.
The defenders of the culture argue that their art merely reflects already existing social changes. One could, for the sake of argument, concede that point and still note that, by constantly validating and confirming disintegratory social trends, these cultural purveyors are legitimizing them and establishing a feedback system that only serves to reinforce, amplify, and accelerate the chaos.
Mainstream films aimed at young people, for example, specialize not just in glorifying violence but in trivializing it. Cruelty as camp is a staple of the PG-13 movie. MTV is a festival of misogyny, a sourcebook on the degradation and objectification of women. And ordinary prime-time television is a laboratory of “alternative lifestyles.” It has been pointed out, for example, that the typical sitcom family (with one or two notable exceptions) is what in the 1950s was called a broken home. And these homes – Murphy Brown’s, most famously – are not generally depicted as unfortunate accommodations to the sadder consequences of social disintegration but as self-affirming choices worthy of not just admiration but celebration. What is forgotten about the Murphy Brown episode is that real, live television anchors from NBC, CBS, ABC, and CNN went on the show to toast Murphy’s motherhood.
Dan Quayle’s attack on the breezy, brazen amorality at play here restarted the current national debate about the cultural causes of social decay. Even the most established liberal voices had been coming to grudging acknowledgment of the fact that much of the rampant deviancy in society is learned, and learned mostly from the mass media. Take, for example, the National Commission on Children, chaired by Senator Jay Rockefeller, liberal Democrat from West Virginia, and generally given to the standard establishment analyses and recommendations. It acknowledged that “pervasive images of crime, violence, and sexuality expose children and youth to situations and problems that often conflict with the common values of our society,” and even ceded that “the media, especially television” might actually be “a cause” of “our society’s serious problems.”
The Medicalization of Vice
Liberals have a serious difficulty dealing with this reality, however. It is hard for them-note the commission’s pinched, bureaucratic formulation – to say the obvious: the culture’s art is bad, its messages morally wrong. Why? Because having promoted “value-free” education and a self-validating moral relativism, they have forfeited the language of morality.
Accordingly, they have had to resort to a substitute language: medicine. Medicalized morality has the twin advantages of appearing authoritative and value-free. Liberalism can now address the problem of cultural decay thus: We cannot say what’s right or wrong, good or bad, but we can say what is harmful. Hence, sexual promiscuity is to be eschewed not because it is wrong but because it is “risky,” a risk to limb and life, as is drug abuse and the like. The right sex is safe sex. Teen violence is a “public health emergency.” And the man to lead the fight against teen pregnancy is a doctor, the Surgeon General. He did such a good job with smoking. Why not with sex?
To be sure, some liberals have so rejected the connection between morality and social breakdown that they are reluctant to apply even the smoking model to allegedly immoral behavior. President Clinton’s first Surgeon General, Jocelyn Elders, was so sanguine about teen sex that she wanted it taught. (“We’ve taught children in driver’s ed. what to do in the front seat of a car but not what to do in the back seat of the car.”) She was so reconciled to drug use that she spoke favorably of legalization. But she was, at the same time, a ferocious enemy of tobacco. She was quite reconciled to kids having sex in the back seat of a car, it seems, so long as they did not light up afterwards.
But such views are no longer politically sustainable, even in a Democratic administration. Accordingly, in making Dr. Henry Foster his subsequent choice for Surgeon General, Clinton played the neo-liberal, promoting Foster as just the man to fight teen pregnancy.
This is an advance, a recognition that teen pregnancy and illegitimacy are social pathologies in need of a campaign to change behavior and attitudes. But, by assigning the job to doctors, by framing the issue in terms of public health, by confusing morality with hygiene, the point is missed.
Yes, the victims of teen violence, promiscuity, drug abuse, and suicide end up in the emergency room. But so do the victims of hurricanes and war. Hurricanes and war are many things, but they are not medical problems. Neither are teen violence, promiscuity, drug abuse, suicide, and the other indices of social decay. Moreover, when you appeal to the vulnerable young to avoid these behaviors on the purely self-regarding health grounds that they are risking damage to them selves, you are preaching to a constituency that is not apt to buy your cost-benefit calculations.
The medicalization of vice – the campaigns for safe this and safe that – has gone as far as it can go, and that is not very far. The result is that we are seeing a “remoralization,” if not of society, at least of language. Encouraged by such books as William Bennett’s The Book of Virtues, Gertrude Himmelfarb’s The De-Moralization of Society, and James Q. Wilson’s The Moral Sense, the frank use of the old-fashioned language of virtue is making a comeback.
Establishment discourse has been forced to readmit moral categories into the debate about social decay and deviancy. The change is visible and rapid. One can almost chart it by comparing the reception accorded Dan Quayle’s 1992 assault on Murphy Brown and that given Bob Dole’s on Time Warner and Hollywood just three years later. Quayle was pummeled by establishment media. The response to Dole was: Why aren’t the Democrats saying this too?
This represents a significant advance in two respects. First, it legitimizes the use of frankly moral language in public dis course. Second, it legitimizes the deployment of that language against the purveyors of culture and the holding of them to certain standards of decency.
This engagement in the cultural war is a necessary complement to the “structural” conservative attempts to rein in the welfare state. Reining in the state creates civil space open to new influences. But the cultural agenda – and particularly the attempt to force the mass media to clean up their act and alter their message – will crucially determine what gets to fill that space.
In the Absence of Religion
But even that will not be enough. Culture wars, however satisfying and necessary, are not sufficient. If there is to be a remoralization of society, it will have to occur at the level not just of supply but of demand. Getting the culture producers to limit the toxicity of their products will not be that difficult. Even without overt government censorship, political and popular pressure are quite capable of inducing the culture creators to self-censorship.
In a free-market society, however, such supply-side changes are not enough. The failure of the war on drugs should have taught us that. The producers of culture may accede temporarily to political demands for self-censorship out of fear or regard for public relations. But a more enduring change in the cultural market, as in any other, awaits a fundamental change in demand. The customer has to stop buying the stuff.
And where does that come from? We now leave the realm of governmental reform and media self-censorship and enter entirely new territory, religious territory. Irving Kristol has written about the current and coming religious revival as an echo of earlier Great Awakenings. There certainly is a religious revival under way, and it does establish a basis for a most fundamental reversal of social decay. But I have my doubts about the firmness and permanence of this fin de siecle awakening.
This is an age of advanced science and material abundance. Science and abundance offer invitations to skepticism and plea sure that are hard to refuse. It is difficult for me to believe that in such an era, a self-abnegating religious revival will prevail.
I hope I am wrong. If I am, the conservative revolution will unfold in and of itself, with near-Marxist historic inevitability. It is the task of the political strategist, however, to prepare for the possibility that the Great Awakening is not at hand. In which case the arrest of social decay, the revitalization of civil society, is a far more difficult and chancy proposition. It must then depend upon the more coercive and less reliable agency of politics – a politics crucially capable of articulating cultural with structural reform. Neither alone will suffice.