Tropes of Wrath

Tropes of Wrath

Virtue, Markets, and the Family

The left lost the culture war on a sunny winter day in 1994-at least that’s as good a day as any to mark the defeat. Donna Shalala, the secretary of Health and Human Services, met the press to explain the Clinton administration’s progressive centerpiece, an ambitious universal health insurance plan. First question: “I have good health insurance, why should I pay more for someone else?” Oh, explained Shalala with the Democrats’ cheerful B-School logic, thanks to our new efficiencies there is already (almost) enough money in the system to cover everyone. The administration offered the nation economic self-interest, technical wonkery, and a smidgen from the pork barrel. They did not serve the free lunch with moral arguments or family values.

Meanwhile, conservatives were screaming about the meltdown of the American family: broken homes, unwed mothers, a divorce pandemic, abortions, homosexuality, teenage predators, welfare queens, an underclass-the list went on. The right proffered a simple explanation for all the social troubles. The hedonistic culture of the 1960s had eroded the nation’s morals. Conservatives managed to seize and reframe two great American canons: Virtue (which they called “family values”) and Capitalism (celebrated as “the free market”).

The great conservative narrative of American decline-a formidable Puritan jeremiad with all the trimmings-routed the Democrats, who promised only more efficient government and more expansive benefits. Conservatives smeared national health insurance as another big-government, something-for-nothing program aimed at the wrong people-the poor, the failed, and the lazy. Republicans soon converted the backlash into a “Contract with America” and seized control of government by winning the House, the Senate, both legislative chambers in eleven new states, and-over three years-fifteen new governors’ offices. Conservatives have been tightening their grip on power ever since.

The left brims with helpful programs (such as national health insurance) and liberating values (like equality) but offers no overarching narrative for our times. It seeks to help working families but does not contest the conservative construction of either virtue or markets. On the contrary, mainstream Democrats acquiesce (well, yes of course, family values are important), compromise (“mend it don’t end it”), and wanly mimic conservative ideas (our new health plan relies on market competition).

Now the left faces an entrenched conservative establishment hell-bent on rewriting all our social policies. Recapturing the national debate will be an enormous job. We must persuade a nation to rethink the fundamentals-its visions of vice and virtue, its images of success and failure.

Where to begin? The same place all rebellions begin-with a clarion call and a compelling story. The left needs to reclaim its own f...

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