The Magazine

Putting Parents First

A new approach to domestic policy for conservatives.

Dec 4, 2006, Vol. 12, No. 12 • By YUVAL LEVIN
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But the "present crisis" Reagan addressed is long past. Because of welfare reform and conservative pro-family policies, it is no longer fair to say that government is the greatest threat to American families. In the wake of Reagan's and Bush's tax cuts, the federal government is not the drain on Americans' pocketbooks or the deadweight on economic dynamism that it was in 1981. The federal government remains too big and overbearing. But opposition to government can no longer do as the primary means of advancing the interests of families and markets--which has been and should remain the twofold aim of American conservatives.

The genuinely statist left, which opposed both the family and the market, has not exactly disappeared, but it is beleaguered and badly bruised. American "progressives"--triangulated out of bounds by Clinton and then driven out of their minds by Bush--are in sorry shape, notwithstanding their good cheer at the recent election results. They are cynical "realists" in foreign policy, badly confused in domestic policy, with no clear purpose but power, no clear adversary but Bush, no clear ideals but clinging desperately to every tattered remnant of a failed vision even they no longer take seriously. When their electoral fortunes wax, as they surely have this year, it is not because voters think highly of them but because of the country's low opinion of Republicans.

The left, for now at least, offers little to oppose, and does little but oppose the right. American conservatives, in turn, are no longer primarily an opposition movement but a governing movement. That does not mean conservatives will win every election; but it means they will set the tone. And they will have to think hard about what advancing the interests of families and free markets now entails.

This means thinking afresh about the tension at the heart of the conservative worldview: between the interests of the family and traditional values on the one hand and the interests of the market and economic freedom on the other. Government was never the source of that tension, it was merely a common foe. Limited government is inherent to any conservative governing vision, but if those who run the government no longer explicitly seek to undermine capitalism and traditionalism--if government is no longer the greatest danger to both--then what is that greatest danger? And what is the best way to serve the causes of family and freedom?

The parenting class

What may be an ideological problem for conservatives is also, for Americans in general, a very practical problem. The greatest threat to the interests of families and free markets today is in fact the tension between them. This tension is not just an abstract theoretical challenge, but also a force in the everyday lives of American families, most especially as a source of anxiety.

Unease is perhaps the best way to describe the mood of American voters today. The terrorist threat and the war are of course primary sources of worry. But in survey after survey, there emerges a clear sense of disquiet about all manner of issues besides national security. More than half of Americans with health insurance expressed concern about losing their coverage in a USA Today poll in September. Exit polling in this fall's election found that less than a third of all voters believe children born today will grow up to be better off than their parents. Similar signs of under lying anxiety emerge from countless other surveys.

Some on the left mistake this unease for a sign of failure or coming collapse, and seek to appeal to voters in the language of crisis and doom. But as liberal labor economist Stephen Rose has argued, the actual condition of the middle and lower middle class does not support these worries. Over the long term, middle class wages have not stagnated but steadily risen. The middle class is "shrinking" largely because the upper class is growing. And a Pew poll earlier this year found that while American families express concern about debt, only 9 percent of all Americans actually reported owing significantly more than they could afford. As Rose put it: "What progressives generally say about the economy is unrelentingly pessimistic--stagnant wages, rising costs, overwhelming burdens of debt. It's a message that doesn't resonate with the middle class--not only because it's overly negative (by itself political poison), but because it's simply flat out wrong."