On the Politics of Virtue


Stephen Teles

The 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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It 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

Aserious 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

Steven 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 scapegoats.

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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