Douthat: America can't be Sweden because blacks and Hispanics, that's why
by David Atkins
There's been an interesting conversation in the last few days between Ross Douthat and Paul Krugman. Douthat's original piece laid the blame for the need for a welfare state on social decay. Krugman responded that economic insecurity leads to both that decay of private institutions and more importantly the need for a welfare state to take care of what the private sector increasingly cannot or will not. My personal response is that there public intervention can help people achieve their potential in the face of oppressive private institutions, there's nothing wrong with that.
Well, Douthat responsds today with a piece that betrays so many distasteful and hypocritical parts of the conservative ID it could take a long-form essay to deconstruct. Because Douthat just isn't worth that effort, a few highlights will do:
Let's start with Douthat's "admission" that social conservatism alone can't answer the economic needs of the people (yes, that's actually something reasonable people are arguing over:
As Noah Millman of the American Conservative put it recently, “a marriage culture requires a material basis” that seems out of reach for too many Americans.The argument for "marriage = prosperity" is standard conservative sleight of hand that ignores the the devastating economic trend of the last fifty years that few people liberal or conservative want to talk about, each for their own reasons.
It now takes two and a half incomes to produce the same standard living that one income did in the 1950s. True, we now as a society take for granted the purchase of more goods, mostly electronic gadgets, for a middle-class household than we did back then. But it remains that reality that the American people essentially doubled the number of people in the workforce and forced them to work longer, harder hours--with little in the way of standard-of-living improvement. That in turn has created obvious stresses on marriage. Poverty and financial stress can cause breakups, obviously, which combined with later marriage age partly explains the lower divorce rates in wealthier blue states. But more importantly, the old social system relied on an economic codependency: men typically went out and earned the money, while women stayed home to take care of the kids and manage the household. This, of course, was deeply unfair to women and the end of that implied system is a good thing. But a consequence of women's liberation is that married partners should and do in theory need one another less, being each economically independent and able to earn their own living. That in turn means that relationship problems that might have been unhappily papered over in the old days through codependency can now lead to happier separations.
This freedom of economic self-determination is a good thing, and wouldn't be problematic at all if wages had kept pace with inflation, and if women were getting paid an equal amount for comparable work. Marriage, in theory, shouldn't be a prerequisite for financial success. The fact that a single income can no longer provide economic security to a family isn't the fault of social liberals but rather of economic conservatives who have helped to tamp down wages, forcing two people to have to provide what one person could do in the past.
But the core of Douthat's argument is what exposes the conservative program for what it really is: thinly veiled racism. Here's Douthat:
The Swedish experience does demonstrate that it’s possible for a welfare-state society to survive the waning of religion and the decline of traditional marriage without sacrificing middle class prosperity. But this success is founded on a level of cultural homogeneity and an inheritance of social capital that simply isn’t available in a polyglot republic-cum-empire like our own. Sweden has the population of North Carolina, no real linguistic or religious diversity, no experience of chattel slavery or mass immigration (and the children of recent immigrants in Sweden, incidentally, tend to have much higher poverty rates than the native-born), and a culture of Lutheran thrift and prudence that endures even though Lutheranism itself is on life support. America is and always has been a country of much greater diversity and wider cultural extremes, which is why we’ve always had to lean more heavily than smaller and more homogeneous societies on a wide array of mediating institutions — churches, families and private associations of all sorts — to foster assimilation, encourage upward mobility, and make the pursuit of happiness a possibility for people from wildly different walks of life. Even if the Scandinavian counter-example — in which a strong government compensates for a weakened social fabric — has some applicability here, it offers fewer lessons than many liberals like to think. Douthat's much-cherished private institutions did less than nothing to hold together America's multicultural fabric. Indeed, they have tended to do more to damage it than anything else. American churches have a history of deep segregation, with white churches a hotbed of racial, religious, misogynistic and homophobic intolerance. At every step when the country has attempted to move forward in the area of economic justice, it has pitted a combination of secular authority and sometimes segregated minority religious institutions against powerful oppressive interests using religion as a battering ram to maintain their privileges. Church groups are the biggest opponents of LGBT rights, church groups are the biggest opponents of women's rights, and white churches were the biggest hotbeds of KKK "activism."
The claim that "families" have held together a melting pot society doesn't even make sense. "Family values" cultures tend to do the most to bully and oppress those who step outside of majority social norms.
As for the rest of "private institutions", it's not exactly clear how that works, either. Private clubs like the Elks have long had issues of racial discrimination; some private golf clubs have just now gotten around to admitting female members. At each and every step, it has been public institutions that have stepped forward to enable our multicultural to function and coexist in a prosperous and healthy way, even as America's private institutions have typically been dragged kicking and screaming into a brighter, more equitable world.
What Douthat is really saying here (and he's far from the first) is that Sweden has racial and cultural homogeneity, and a "culture of Lutheran thrift and prudence." By contrast he means to imply that America has too much history of racism, and that American minorities are too lazy to make the Swedish system work.
Broken down to its core, that's the essence of the conservative argument against the welfare state: women, young people and minorities just don't have the same "work ethic" that white men do, so they can't be trusted with the privileges of a welfare state. That's the meat of the entire conservative argument once stripped of it garnish and sauce.
It's an argument women, youth and minorities hear loud and clear. That's why no matter how much conservative activists like Douthat think themselves to be enlightened reformers of the conservative movement, it won't help their demographic problem. The Douthats of the world have an unshakeable cultural disrespect for women and minorities without which their entire worldview falls apart.