Copyright 1996 by New Prospect, Inc.
Preferred Citation: Paul Starr, "Restoration Fever," The
American Prospect no. 25 (March-April 1996): 6-11
Most of us like to think that our views represent the innermost beliefs of the majority of our fellow citizens. Recent polls may show a ridiculous preference for a position we despise, our candidates may lose at election time, and the radio may broadcast music or talk that we abhor. But we know that all this is ephemeral: Deep in their hearts, the majority agree with us about what is right and good. And if they don't say so or act accordingly just now, the trend is moving in our direction. Let those who think differently tremble at the verdict of an awakened nation.
Cultural conservatives have waited for a national awakening for at least 30 years, even longer. Through most of this century, Americans have become steadily more tolerant of practices that once met general opprobrium. Unmarried couples now live together unashamedly, divorce is easier and more common, and contraception and abortion have become legal and accepted. As censorship has effectively disappeared, the explicit portrayal of sex has become routine in print and on screen. Women claim roles once exclusively reserved to men; gays are out of the closet. In the eyes of cultural conservatives, these developments count as moral decadence of Roman proportions. They are certain that if not for the malign influence of liberal elites, America would recognize its liberal errors and return to traditional values.
And now the restoration may be near: so conservatives have been saying in the wake of the 1994 election, the growing power of the Christian right, and the recent popularity of radio shows, books, and movies with conservative themes. Some conservative intellectuals have even begun to see signs of a return to traditionalism in private behavior as well as public life. Charles Murray makes this case in an interesting essay, "The Partial Restoration of Traditional Society," in last fall's issue of the Public Interest. Though he is pessimistic about the underclass, Murray thinks the rest of America is about to witness "the restoration of a culture in which family, parenthood, the life of the mind, morality, and the virtues are all perceived and valued in ways that our grandparents would find familiar." In agreement with Irving Kristol, he discerns the beginnings of a great religious revival that will sweep through all classes. The sales of William Bennett's Book of Virtues are "just a harbinger of wonderful things to come." Waxing rhapsodic, Murray even anticipates that the "concepts of 'gentleman' and 'lady'" will "once again become governing norms for behavior in parts of American society."
Since I am in favor of virtue, morality, family, and the life of the mind, not to mention good manners, I wouldn't mind a "partial restoration" as long as I could choose which part. I have even tried reading passages of The Book of Virtues to my four children and can report highly satisfactory results, though I cannot yet vouch that the concepts of "gentleman" and "lady" will govern their behavior, especially that of my eight-year-old boy, who nearly fled the dinner table while we read George Washington's 54 "Rules of Civility." Bennett's ten virtues are self-discipline, compassion, responsibility, friendship, work, courage, perseverance, honesty, loyalty, and faith. I approve of each one (though I miss wisdom and justice, which were on Aristotle's list). However much conservatives may suspect it, I do not know of liberals who endorse indiscipline, insensitivity, irresponsibility, hatred, sloth, cowardice, vacillation, lying, disloyalty, and despair. Bennett himself writes in the introduction, to my immense relief, that "good people can be liberals," so I am not sure what The Book of Virtue's ascent on the best-seller list signals about the Zeitgeist, although an increase in hypocrisy is never a bad bet. In any event, as I write, the number one best-seller is Rush Limbaugh is a Big Fat Idiot, by Al Franken, followed by It Takes a Village, by Hillary Clinton. There goes one trend.
Murray's other evidence for an incipient restoration turns out to be equally tenuous. He says that the trendlines have lately changed direction but he cites almost no data that show a trend. He is particularly struck, for example, by the findings published last year in The Social Organization of Sexuality, by Edward O. Laumann, John Gagnon, and their colleagues, that the average woman has just two sex partners in her lifetime, fewer than 3 percent of adults are homosexual, and fidelity is, in Murray's charming phrase, "rampant and rewarded." But the authors of this study do not say their findings demonstrate a trend; they contend that the earlier, higher estimates of infidelity and homosexuality in the Kinsey Report and elsewhere were the product of poor research methods. Indeed, the new findings could easily be read as showing that liberal policies and attitudes toward sex and marriage have not ruined America's morals even according to conservative precepts. (Is this why Jesse Helms cannily opposed funding the study?) Murray's comment on the new sex survey is that Americans' private behavior seems "oddly healthy." Well, yes: Right-wing claims of America's cultural decay seem to have been oddly wrong.
Of course, sexual behavior has clearly changed since the 1960s among one group--the young. As Jane Mauldon and Kristin Luker reported in these pages ("Does Liberalism Cause Sex?" Winter 1996), the percentage of unmarried women having sex by age 20 nearly doubled from just below 40 percent in 1963 to nearly 80 percent by 1987. But it may be mistaken to trace this shift primarily to changes in moral beliefs and therefore to expect that a moral restoration would alter it. After 1960, the average age of a first marriage rose by four years; as a result, sexually mature young adults are now single 50 percent longer. (Cohabiting couples, many of whom later marry, account for much of the increase in premarital sex and out-of-wedlock births.) If they continue to delay getting married in part because young men are not confident they can support a family, conservatives will continue to be asking for a lot more abstinence than Grandma practiced. In other words, if it's the rate of premarital sex and illegitimacy that bothers you, by all means exhort young adults to be chaste--but while you're at it, do something about their jobs and wages.
Evidence of a conservative restoration is hard to find in recent data. In 1993, the last year for which data are available, the marriage rate hit a 30-year low. According to a recent report from the National Center for Health Statistics, "The rate of women and men marrying for the first time is approximately 40 percent lower than in 1970." That doesn't look like even a partial restoration. After rising sharply between 1966 and 1979, divorce rates fell in the 1980s and have now leveled off at nearly twice the rate of 30 years ago. In 1993 teen pregnancies and births were down slightly from a peak in 1991 and the rate of out-of-wedlock births has stabilized (at about 30 percent of total births). The cause of the falling teen pregnancy rate, however, is most likely not a return to abstinence, but rather a continuation of the trend toward earlier, more reliable use of contraception that Mauldon and Luker identified.
In the decades after World War II, surveys of moral belief on such issues as abortion and homosexuality showed a significant rise in liberal sentiment through the mid-seventies, then a leveling off on what one analyst of these trends, Tom W. Smith, calls America's "liberal plateau." The biggest postwar liberal shifts, according to Smith's data, were on abortion, race, feminism, and family; the one notable exception, turning markedly more conservative, was opinion about crime. (On social welfare and taxing and spending, there was also a smaller conservative trend.) Recent surveys of moral beliefs don't show an incipient restoration; on abortion Americans have actually continued to become more liberal.
To be sure, many people have the experience of becoming more traditional as they grow older. About 70 percent of Americans 30 to 49 years old (roughly the baby boom generation) are married, and two-thirds of married boomers now have children under 18. After a "liberal" young adulthood in the 1960s and 1970s, many now live a more domestic, "conservative" life in middle age and some project this experience onto the canvas of the whole society. But this generational change might be thought of as a cultural correction, comparable to a stock-market correction after a big run-up in prices, and it seems to have been offset by other changes; the overall pattern of popular moral sentiment has been stable since the mid-seventies.
For example, if there is a religious awakening in the making, it has yet to show up in reports of church attendance or religious beliefs. Since 1939 Gallup has asked Americans whether they attended church or synagogue in the previous seven days; for more than half a century, with remarkable consistency, about 40 percent of Americans have said they had. In Gallup's last published poll, for December 1994, the figure happened to be 38 percent, somewhat below average. Gallup also asks people whether religion is very important in their lives. The proportion who say "very important" dropped from 70 percent in 1965 to 55 percent in the 1980s and has since risen back up to 60 percent. In his analysis of participation ("The Strange Disappearance of Civic America," TAP, Winter 1996), Robert Putnam finds a continuing decline in membership in religious as in other associations.
Nor does the evidence suggest a marked shift to religious conservatism. My Princeton colleague Robert Wuthnow directed three surveys of religious conservatism and liberalism conducted by Gallup in 1984, 1989, and 1992. In an article in Sociological Quarterly this spring, Wuthnow concludes there has been a basically stable pattern: 20 to 25 percent of Americans describe themselves as religious conservatives, 40 to 45 as religious moderates, and 20 to 25 percent as religious liberals (with fewer than 10 percent refusing to characterize themselves in these terms).
Commentators periodically rediscover that Americans are more religious than the people of most other advanced societies, but this does not mean we are verging on a great revival. Religious enthusiasm threatens the boundaries that enable people of different persuasions to live together, and Americans do not want quarrels of faith to wreck the community we have made together. The liberal determination to keep church and state separate does not interfere with religiosity; it protects it. Imagine if we had an official state church in America. People would have as much faith in it as they do the Congress.
The appeal of religious and cultural conservatism is limited, curiously enough, by the same distrust of government that checks social democracy in America. The "liberal revolution" in the post-World War II decades took the state out of private life, and there isn't much constituency for bringing that kind of state back in. As a practical matter, conservatives wouldn't know how to bring about a restoration of "family values" anyway. Consider recent conservative proposals to discourage divorce by restoring the conception of fault. Under legislation introduced in Michigan and endorsed by Republican Governor John Engler, divorce would again require proof of marital wrongdoing (adultery, desertion, physical or mental abuse, alcohol or drug problems) if one spouse objected. The sponsors hope this measure would keep more people married, but by making divorce more difficult, it might discourage marriage, particularly by cohabiting couples. No one knows what the net effect will be, although I suspect this is a plot to get those "angry white males" to vote Democratic again.
A more qualified case that Americans are ready for a moral restoration comes from Ben Wattenberg in his recent book, Values Matter Most. Clinton succeeded in 1992, Wattenberg argues, not because of "the economy, stupid," but because he talked about a return to traditional values summed up in the phrase, "No more something for nothing"; as president, however, he failed to follow through on his promises and in 1996 the winner will again be the candidate who responds most credibly to Americans' concerns about values.
Whether economic or moral issues "matter most" is a futile debate, like arguing whether white or black matters most in picking out a zebra. Candidates and parties have to address both economic and social anxieties, and as John Judis and Ruy Teixeira have separately argued, Americans' concerns are inextricably both material and moral: Our standard of living depends on the safety of our neighborhoods as well as our wages. Young men must be responsible fathers, but their wages and job prospects will affect their willingness and ability to support a family.
The more sensible part of Wattenberg's book revolves around his idiosyncratic division of values issues into two categories: cultural issues such as homosexuality and abortion about which, he says, there is no consensus; and social issues--notably crime, welfare, educational discipline, and affirmative action--about which, he says, there is a consensus. Wattenberg brushes the cultural issues aside (a bit too easily for those who legitimately care about them) but claims that, on the social issues, government caused the problem, and government can fix it. His answer is to return to no-more-something-for-nothing principles: punishment for crime; work requirements and benefit limits for welfare; standards and discipline for education; individual merit instead of group preferences.
I don't doubt that on these four social issues, Wattenberg is basically right about public opinion. (As Smith's work shows, there never was a liberal shift on crime or welfare.) These are the issues on which many liberals feel most conservative: I certainly agree that crime should be punished, reciprocity is an appropriate principle for social welfare, education is impossible without discipline, and individual merit ought to be the principal basis for making decisions about college admissions, jobs, and other positions.
But while upholding those values, most Americans--not just liberals--also believe in other principles, and that's where things get complicated. Crime should be punished, but we also want to prevent it. People ought to earn a living, but most of us are unwilling to abandon children and others in need who can't fend for themselves. While Americans generally disapprove of racial preferences, our views of affirmative action get murkier in specific cases, such as hiring police officers for inner-city neighborhoods.
Out of this complexity has emerged an approach to these issues that might be described as "both/and." Clinton's response fits that description. The Clinton 1994 crime legislation called for both more police and stiffer sentences and more funds for crime prevention. (The slogan on crime of British Labor leader Tony Blair, "Tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime," perfectly expresses both/and thinking.) Similarly, Clinton's approach to welfare calls for both time limits and more funds for child care and job training, as well as an expanded earned income tax credit, higher minimum wage, and health insurance. In education, Clinton supports national standards and stricter discipline--in his latest State of the Union address, he pointedly signaled his approval of school uniforms--and expanded student loans, apprenticeships, and other forms of assistance. He has agreed both to tailor affirmative action more carefully and to maintain it until discrimination has truly disappeared.
Duplicity and waffling, say the critics who want either/or. But while both/and can be a dodge and a self-contradiction, these policies are neither. Wisdom and justice, those virtues Bennett left for his sequel, often require composite solutions. The difficulty has been fiscal and political: Both/and would have been a lot easier to carry off at a time when the federal budget wasn't so tight and when the president himself hadn't accepted the aim of zeroing out the deficit. Even "carve and spend," the Clinton administration's early both/and budgetary strategy, has almost vanished because the carvings are to go mostly to deficit reduction, not to education and training, research, infrastructure, and universal health coverage as Clinton originally envisioned. Wattenberg says that in Democratic administrations, the center gets rolled by the left, but the progressive side of both/and policies has gotten no money--and with a Republican Congress, there will be none.
Left with get-tough policies alone, liberals balk and rightfully so. These policies carry tremendous uncertainties and risks. Much of the concern about welfare originates from the rise in out-of- wedlock births, but as Gregory Acs of the Urban Institute has concluded in a recent review of the evidence, welfare isn't the cause: Welfare benefits and out-of-wedlock births aren't strongly correlated over time or among states. Suppose Aid to Families with Dependent Children is cut off entirely and we have a 25 percent drop in births among unmarried women who would otherwise receive welfare (roughly three-fifths of all unmarried mothers). The overall out-of-wedlock rate might fall from 30 percent to 26 percent, but then thousands of women and children would be on the streets. It would be nice to think that time limits on benefits will finally oblige women on welfare to work, as if incentives were the whole problem. But if in the best times we continue to run 5 or 6 percent unemployment, who realistically will be the last to be hired? The welfare debate proceeds as if the Federal Reserve didn't raise interest rates the moment joblessness fell near the point where the least employable would be hired.
The same questions about effectiveness plague get-tough policies on crime. Three-strikes laws may be overwhelmingly popular, but when broadly drawn, like California's, they will likely clog future prisons with aging inmates, without much reducing violence, which is chiefly committed by young men. How high a rate of imprisonment would be enough? The economist Richard Freeman points out that we lock up 2 percent of the adult male workforce (7 percent of black men over age 18), which is already many times larger than in Europe; Britain, for example, incarcerates only 0.3 percent of its workforce. A new study from California reports that on any given day, 40 percent of black men in their twenties in the state are in prison or on probation or parole, thanks in part to arrests for crack cocaine. No doubt, as Wattenberg says, "A thug in prison can't mug your sister." But if thugs they are and will always be, we should never let them out. In the meantime, money spent on prisons isn't spent on schools; prisoners can't support their families; and afterward they will have difficulty overcoming the stigma of prison to get legitimate employment. There are, in other words, direct and indirect costs that ought to give us pause about relying exclusively on imprisonment to control crime. Thus both/and.
In any event, the effectiveness of policy isn't Wattenberg's concern, nor is it chiefly what preoccupies a lot of other conservatives. They want moral reaffirmation. They want what the conservative historian Gertrude Himmelfarb calls the "remoralization" of society, by which she means the restoration of Victorian standards of virtue and shame. Himmelfarb is unhappy even with the contemporary moral language, with its shift from "virtues" to "values," because "values" implies diverse orientations and thereby, in her mind, makes morality a matter of merely subjective choice. But contemporary pedagogy and culture, except in some of their silliest forms, are not neutral about moral conduct--not about lying, laziness, irresponsibility, or hatred. What they do recognize is the legitimate demand of different people for equal respect in a society where diversity is not a slogan but a fact. The old homilies can't just be handed down, certainly not in the didactic style that conservatives favor, without critical reflection and debate.
The liberal objection to Himmelfarb is not, as she seems to think, that our culture should be "value-free," but that she and other conservatives apply their moral strictures so selectively. Why never a murmur of disapproval about the values of the corporate and financial worlds? We could stand some remoralization at the top--a renewed sense of responsibility and even of shame in a financial world that reveres one purpose above all, maximizing return to shareholders. ("Please leave your values at the front desk," allegedly a sign for English-speaking guests at a Japanese hotel, is more or less the message of the financial world to business.) Wall Street's hero today is the CEO who courageously downsizes and transplants operations abroad, oblivious to the consequences for other stakeholders, such as workers and communities. Albert J. Dunlap, for example, has recently been lionized for his quick, massive downsizing and liquidation of Scott Paper, which especially struck older employees. According to Business Week, while Dunlap toured a plant, one worker proudly told him he had worked for Scott for 30 years. "Why would you stay with a company for 30 years?" Dunlap responded, apparently not having read the chapter on loyalty in The Book of Virtues. (Note to Bill Bennett: send loyalty chapter to owner of Cleveland Browns.)
If conservative mobilization leads, via Patrick Buchanan, to a new moral discussion of corporate conduct, it will not be the first time Victorian values served progressive ends. A big progressive revival, like a conservative religious awakening, is unlikely. But a debate about remoralization could at least open up discussion about the values represented in the economy, particularly whether we should have a "shareholder" capitalism or a "stakeholder" capitalism. And with that prospect, I feel partially restored already.
Copyright 1996 by New Prospect, Inc. Readers may redistribute this article to other individuals for noncommercial use, provided that the text, all HTML codes, and this notice remain intact and unaltered in any way. This article may not be resold, reprinted, or redistributed for compensation of any kind without prior written permission from the author. If you have any questions about permissions, please contact The Electronic Policy Network (firstname.lastname@example.org), P.O. 383080, Cambridge, MA 02238, or by phone at (617) 547-2950 (voice) or (617) 547-3896 (fax).