Preaching to the Working Class

December 16, 2014
Posted by Jay Livingston

Can’t these conservatives agree on what’s wrong with liberals?

It was only a couple of years ago that Charles Murray was berating successful, upper-middle class liberals for not preaching to the White working class. They had gotten good educations, worked steadily at their jobs, and stayed married. But they didn’t try to inculcate these virtues in others. They didn’t even know those others or their culture.  The well-off liberals were keeping poorer Whites in the dark about how to be successful.

Now comes Ross Douthat saying that liberals are in fact preaching to the working class to follow their ways. The trouble, as Douthat sees it, is that those ways are not good.

In his Sunday column, Douthat considers “arguments about how policy might improve the fortunes of the unemployed and the working class.” He refers specifically to the idea of working class people imitating the lifestyles of the educated and prosperous.

Many optimistic liberals believe not only that such imitation is possible, but that what needs to be imitated most are the most socially progressive elements of the new upper class’s way of life: delayed marriage preceded by romantic experimentation, more-interchangeable roles for men and women in breadwinning and child rearing, a more emotionally open and egalitarian approach to marriage and parenting.

Have “many liberals” really made this argument? Back in July, I myself was Douthat’s designated “many liberals” (see Douthat’s blog here ), yet I have never said anything like this. Some liberals have argued that working class marriages would be less brittle if husbands and wives were less rigid about gender roles.* But as far as I know, liberals do not see this as the roadmap to prosperity. If you know of any (or many) liberals who make this claim, please let me know.

Douthat and fellow conservatives like Brad Wilcox, who Douthat cites favorably, do see a link between marriage patterns and income.  And these intellectuals have no problem preaching to the working class about how to get richer, and the sermon is fairly short: marriage and religion. “Oh my working class brethren, they say,  imitate us upper-middle class conservatives. Get married, stay married, and go to church. If you do that, prosperity is just around the corner.”  As Robert Rector, the Heritage Foundation’s chief poverty guy put it, “Being raised in a married family reduced child’s probability of living in poverty by about 82 percent.” (An earlier post about this deliberate scrambling of cause and effect is here.)

Basically, what these conservatives (Douthat, Wilcox, Regnerus,** et. al.) don’t like is sex, or rather sexuality. When Douthat refers to “romantic experimentation” in the quote above, you can almost see him biting his tongue, restraining the impulse to use some more vivid and morally loaded term. Since sexuality is bad, it must have all sorts of bad consequences. That’s the assumption underneath the preaching by the columnists and politicians; the same evil-causes-evil assumption motivates the research by conservative social scientists. Their sound-bite for the news or their abstract for the journal is this: Unless sexuality is tightly wrapped in marriage, it’s bad for society and bad for individuals.

Maybe, but I have serious doubts as to its connection with economic success. As I said (and graphed) in that earlier post, for the last 40 years, marriage rates have been falling and out-of-wedlock childbirth has been rising. But these changes in the family show little connection to changes in the rate of poverty.

So if it’s not the decline of marriage that’s eroding the incomes of the working class, what is it? As one of our more successful working-class-to-upper class exemplars put it (perhaps also an exemplar in “romantic experimentation”): it’s the economy, stupid.

* Stephanie Coontz, I think, makes this argument (HT: Philip Cohen, who knows the literature on marriage far better than I do.)

** Regnerus, you may recall, was the principal researcher in the study that purported to show that children of gay parents have far more problems than do the children of straight parents.


Lindno said...

It's not just that liberals aren't making that claim about how to pursue upward mobility, it's also that liberals just aren't giving out advice of any sort. Because of the relative emphasis liberals put on structure over agency, giving out individual advice just doesn't get us far. We're all about policy and administration. We don't go around telling people to delay marriage. We try to raise the minimum wage.

By contrast, conservatives, with their belief in unlimited agency, see good advice as the key to prosperity and salvation. That's why they love business self-help books so much. The only thing necessary to amass your fortune is a bit of good advice.

Your post got me thinking about what advice I, as a Lefty, would give out to people and it turns out to be surprisingly conservative: get a college degree, don't take on too much debt, treat people decently, learn a lot, and try hard.

Jay Livingston said...

I completely agree. That was the point of my quoting Bill Clinton on the economy. Individual solutions work for individuals but don't do much for the overall economy. (I once blogged on the fallacy of the "I fight poverty -- I work" bumper sticker.) OTOH, changes in the economy do affect the fortunes of individuals, lots of them, as even Ronald Reagan argued with is "rising tide" metaphor.