On the Politics of Virtue


Stephen Teles

welfare state and the advocates of "virtue" have few friends
in common. Those on the right want to save virtue from the welfare state,
while those on the left want to protect the welfare state from the rhetoric
of virtue. An exemplar of the latter tendency is James Morone's "The
Corrosive Politics of Virtue" (May-June 1996).

Morone suggests two ways in which morality and politics can mix. The
first, the virtue approach, is directed toward groups and individuals,
and is characterized by a politics of blame. The virtue approach divides
citizens against one another, and thus undermines the social cohesion necessary
for universal social provision. The second form of moral politics, which
Morone advocates, is firmly universalist, oriented toward social conditions
rather than individual attributes. This form of moral politics, which we
might call social equity politics, "rouse[s] Americans to expand rights,
overcome biases, attack inequity." The moral core of social equity
politics is "an idea that people share a common experience, a common
fate, and common values. When liberals call for universal programs, they
are tapping into precisely such a political construct."

Virtue politics leads to witch-burning, lynching, and the stigmatization
of "the other." Social equity politics leads to the New Deal,
the abolition and civil rights movements, and equal rights for women. Not
a difficult choice.

Or is it? Morone's often overheated rhetoric and inaccurate historical
comparisons obscure the attractions that the idea of virtue holds for liberals.

Morone's genealogical approach to the politics of virtue is not uncommon
in fashionable academic discourse. Pick an argument you disagree with,
demonstrate its unseemly pedigree, and then dismiss it on the basis of
its tainted origins. In Morone's case, the argument looks like this. Conservatives
complain that America is becoming more secular, that it is losing its virtue,
and that divine retribution is coming. Guess what? Morone might say. The
same argument led to racist immigration rules. Gotcha! The conservative
argument is invalidated.

This is deconstruction on the cheap; it is repugnant because it avoids
a deep confrontation with the argument, because it ignores what might be
learned even from those one disagrees with, and because it is a rhetorical
form that can be used against liberals as easily as against conservatives.

The modern welfare state, for example, originated in nineteenth-century
Germany, largely as a mechanism for protecting the power of an autocratic
government. Is the welfare state illegitimate as a result? Many in the
early birth control movement wanted wider access to contraceptives to keep
down the birth rates of newly arrived immigrants, whom they considered
uncivilized. Should this stop liberals from advocating the widest possible
access to contraception? Obviously not.

Morone's overly sweeping indictment of all concern for individual character
leads him to ignore the possibility that there is another, less extreme
way to talk about virtue. This approach, far from serving as a bludgeon
against the welfare state, may be the best foundation for its political
and substantive renewal.

This approach assumes that, like all regimes, a liberal democratic,
welfare capitalist society requires citizens of a particular type. They
must have certain capacities, disciplines, and habits that allow them to
contribute to and benefit from the regime's institutions and way of life.
Together, these capacities, disciplines, and habits comprise a plausible
definition of "virtue."

Modern, liberal society requires citizens to go to work every day, even
when they don't want to; to nurture and discipline their children, even
when the children are loud, noisy, and annoying; to obey the law, even
when great wealth could result from breaking it; to exhibit tolerance,
even in the face of our dizzying and confusing diversity. The ability to
perform these basic obligations of citizenship, upon which all decent society
rests, is not automatic. It is developed by institutions that teach, foster,
and support human character.

One of those institutions can, and should be, the welfare state. What
liberals know, and what conservatives too often ignore, is the way that
economic conditions threaten the virtue of citizens. Maintaining the discipline
of work is extremely hard when employment is scarce, or where companies
treat employees like disposable goods. Holding together a family, difficult
in all times, is even harder where economic insecurity adds stress and
anxiety. The temptations of a life of crime are hard to resist when there
is little pulling in the other direction. In all these areas, and probably
more, the welfare state is a necessary support for virtue.

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is not, however, a substitute. The welfare state can help protect virtue,
but in only a few cases can it create that virtue in the first place. The
welfare state can help preserve the institutions that inculcate virtue,
such as the family, but it can't create the norms that cause people to
prefer a domestic way of life over one of immediate gratification. The
welfare state works best where it can draw upon a foundation of self-control,
discipline, and a willingness to respect rules that conflict with one's
immediate desires.

This foundation of virtue is what gave a strong moral cast to the programs
of the New Deal. Aid to Dependent Children was justified as a way to protect
a mother's virtue, which was then seen as imperiled by the need to go to
work after the death of a husband. The Works Progress Administration and
the economic reorganization programs of the New Deal were justified as
a way to keep honest, hard-working Americans from losing their self-reliance
and discipline in the face of economic hardship.

Liberals should pursue the reconstruction of the welfare state with
an eye toward connecting virtue and social provision. They should attempt
to reshape social programs so that, at the least, they do not imperil the
predispositions necessary for civic life, and where possible (as in the
case of substituting work for welfare in AFDC reform) they serve to inculcate
civic discipline where it has frayed.

Liberals, in fact, have little to fear and much to gain by entering
the discussion of virtue. Citizens who exercise their fundamental civic
obligations can claim social protections on the basis of justice, while
those who fail to do so (by not seeking work or shirking their obligations
to their family) fail on the basis of "compassion." The language
of virtue necessarily spills over into the language of justice, the claims
that equal citizens make on each other. Compassion, on the other hand,
is always characterized by the inequality between the helped and the helper,
and thus smacks of noblesse oblige. Bounded self-reliance is a distinctively
American form of virtue. It forms the strongest foundation for welfare-state
claims in our regime. Strengthening the legitimacy and effectiveness of
welfare-state programs requires fostering this self-reliant virtue.

To paraphrase Morone, the real threat is not virtue, but what liberals
do to themselves trying to argue against it.


David Blankenhorn

case can be made against today's politics of virtue, but James Morone fails
to make it. For example, as his only evidence to show that worrying about
our current divorce rate is misguided-and to dispute my assertion that
we live in a "divorce culture"-Morone reminds us that 79 percent
of American households included a married couple in 1990, down only slightly
from 82.5 percent in 1980.

What a joke. First, Morone conflates family and nonfamily households,
thus disguising the sharp decline of marriage that has occurred among households
containing children. Second, he conflates marriage and remarriage, thus
absurdly suggesting that millions of second and third marriages in our
generation somehow demonstrate the continuing stability of marriage. Third,
he picks the short, arbitrary time frame of 1980 to 1990, thus conveniently
ignoring the fact that marriage has been steadily decomposing for at least
three decades now, with the most rapid period of decline occurring during
the 1970s. Finally, Morone refuses to consider or even mention any of the
widely known facts-that the United States has by far the world's highest
divorce rate; that never-married mothers now account for about one-third
of all childbirths; or that about 40 percent of all American children currently
live apart from their fathers-that would undermine his thesis.

This lack of intellectual seriousness is also evident when Morone urges
us to stop "moralizing" about divorce and unwed childbearing
and to focus instead on "real solutions" that are "likely
to create strong two-parent families." And what are these "real"
(i.e., nonmoral) solutions? They are a better tax code, social services
that "help" parents, job training, higher wages and better education,
housing, health care, and child care. I am not sure I know anyone who opposes
this list of good things. But if Morone has any evidence that lots more
of any or all of these good things would reverse or even slow down the
current trend of family fragmentation, he does not reveal it.

Morone points out that concern over moral decline is nothing new in
our society. True enough. He might also have pointed out that attacking
people who are concerned about moral decline is nothing new. Indeed, Morone's
basic thesis-that what most people erroneously and dangerously view as
moral issues are in fact economic issues in disguise-has been around for
quite some time, especially on university campuses. Today, notwithstanding
the large and growing body of evidence to the contrary, this economistic
thesis remains an unquestioned article of faith among scholars and journalists,
as readers of this magazine will doubtless realize.

Let me end on a political note. According to Morone, as long as our
society remains sidetracked by false moral debates, progressives can "forget
about" social and economic justice. Maybe so. But what if moral debates
are more than the results of false consciousness? What if real moral problems
actually exist? If they do, then it might be wiser to argue that, as long
as progressives seek only to dismiss or wish away moral problems, rather
that confronting them directly, they can "forget about" making
progress on-or even gaining much of a hearing for-the issues of economic
justice that matter most to them.


James A. Morone

Teles and David Blankenhorn each engage morality in serious ways, but each,
I think, illustrates the perils of the genre.

Liberal regimes, argues Steven Teles, require virtuous citizens. Society
must foster basic decency: good parenting, respect for law, tolerance.
So far, so good. But now comes the hard part. Exactly who gets to sort
out vice from virtue? Look around at the current applicants for the job:
Ralph Reed and the Christian Coalition, Randall Terry and Operation Rescue,
Phyllis Schlafly and the Eagle Forum, Trent Lott and the Republican Congress,
local school boards touting creationism. As James Madison put it, "Enlightened
statesmen will not always be at the helm."

I don't imagine Steven Teles means to embrace that whole crowd. So he
now faces the tough part of his job: articulating the moral standards that
distinguish his high-flying moral vision from theirs. No good being vague
about it. After all, each group mentioned in the preceding paragraph could
easily endorse Teles's commentary-they would differ on what we might call
the implementation details.

It is mischievous to conduct a vague seminar on virtue as if the culture
battle did not exist. As if it had never been fought before. The morals
gang ought to get damn clear on how they differ from the neo-nativists.
Because in popular American culture, the great drumbeat about bad morals
mixes with anxiety and produces a politics of resentment and a search for

Teles sidesteps the tough issue of just how to articulate "our"
values by organizing his argument around a loaded distinction: On the one
side lies virtue, on the other the welfare state. But wait a minute. A
more accurate analytic distinction is between moral politics (which makes
private morals the public business) and liberalism (which, avowedly, does
not). Moral crusaders enter American politics to both expand and contract
basic rights. Those are the two sides of morality politics that I described
in my article, the two great traditions in American reform movements. The
expansive side includes fights for citizenship rights, suffrage, fair labor
standards, and-yes-welfare benefits. (Teles quotes me as a fan of the New
Deal, abolition, civil rights, and women's rights; only the first could
be construed as a welfare state issue, the rest were about basic American
rights.) On the constrictive side of moral politics, I don't know how to
say it more clearly than I did in the original article: "It goes deeper
than defeating new social programs. Moral panics erode liberalism itself."

Why is an intelligent observer getting basic categories in American
political development bollixed up? Because the distinction he slips into-virtue
versus welfare-is a powerful rhetorical strategy of the contemporary right.
Contempt, racial animosity, and xenophobia have been smuggled into images
of welfare and the underclass. Today's iniquitous American other-40 million
strong, says Senator Phil Gramm-is on the dole. Alas, the stereotype has
proved a political blockbuster. Images of black welfare mothers and their
criminal sons get the neo-nativist juices flowing with a vengeance.

All of which brings us back to the big job in front of thoughtful virtue
advocates like Teles: distinguish yourselves in a forceful and systematic
way from the corrosive politics of virtue. If you can.

I have a good deal of sympathy for David Blankenhorn. After all, he
was off minding his own business when along comes my article with its gratuitous
swipe at his work. Without putting aside our substantial differences, let
me say that Fatherless America is an honest and intelligent book.

But we do disagree, both in our diagnoses and our cures. For my money,
Blankenhorn fails to see any context for the problem of fatherlessness.
In fact, he seems to see little else whatsoever. His model runs like this:
the culture shifted (and traditional marriage becomes uncool); families
break up; social problems follow. That's it. Not a word about anything
else in the morals debate; for that matter, not a word about anything in
my original article outside of the two paragraphs on divorce.

If social scientists have learned anything in the past decades, it is
to distrust single-factor explanations. There are, I tried to suggest,
powerful forces surrounding debates about the traditional family. Most
important, we've had a revolution in the social and economic role of women.
We've had a major immigration that is again changing the face of America
and again stirring anxiety among the older natives. And, yes, there's no
getting around it: We are living through a great economic transformation.
(Both responses incidentally illustrate a standard conservative riposte
to the analysis of economic forces: Tsk about economic determinism, then
ignore the subject.) Look back at the similar forces operating on the United
States at the end of the last century and you'll find a remarkably similar,
simple, diagnosis: outcry about declining family values.

From Blankenhorn's perspective, tightly focused on fatherhood, it is
a "joke" that I lump together married couples (good people) with
divorced people who remarry (not good people). But in the real world of
politics, divorce does not stop men and women from thinking themselves
moral and hounding immoral others who threaten American values. When I
first made notes for this article, three divorced men-Phil Gramm, Bob Dole,
and Newt Gingrich-were all over the news. Being divorcees, they all flunk
Blankenhorn's test of virtue. But that did not stop them from pumping up
the volume over family values as they courted the Christian right.

In a hot moralizing environment, calling shame down on broken families-or
on anyone else, for that matter-ought to be done with a chary eye for the
political consequences. The raw number of unwed fathers in the African
American community is huge. I tried to suggest in detail why an overly
simple (and out of context) focus on fatherhood was likely, among other
things, to trigger a devil of a racial backlash.

But not a word on race in either commentary. So, let me say it again:
The search for unvirtuous people keeps feeding racial tensions and stereotypes.
Intelligent observers mongering virtue ought to think long and hard about
the consequences of their solutions for America's recurring bouts of racial
injustice. And, again, they ought to be loud and clear about how they differ
from the hard-right neonativism stirring again in the United States.

Still, there is at least one matter on which all three of us can agree.
Both of my interlocutors suggest that the left has nothing to fear from
moral politics. Amen. The advocates of social and economic justice could
certainly use an infusion of the moral fervor and conviction that once
characterized their efforts.

By the same token, conservatives should not fear putting limits on their
own moralism. Firmly rejecting images that foster nativism, prejudice,
and division would be the virtuous thing for them to do.

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