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Winter 2001
   
Solving President Bush’s Urban Problem
Myron Magnet
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Two years ago, City Journal predicted that the 2000 presidential election would be about culture not economics. Were we ever right. You can see part of the evidence in the exit polls, which show that regular churchgoers and married parents with children voted for Bush, while singles, the privileged rich, and those with advanced degrees crowded into the polling places for Gore. You can see it in the rancor that both parties displayed during the heart-stoppingly close election and the long count that followed. But you can see it even more clearly in the extraordinary geographical distribution of the vote: the urban elites and blacks went for Gore; the rest of the country, with the traditional values of the countryside, voted for Bush.

How should George W. Bush respond to this division, even polarization? Some Republican political analysts shrug their shoulders and observe that the exurban areas are growing faster than the urban ones, so who cares about the cities and their immediate suburbs? But given the excruciating closeness of this election, it makes more political sense—as well as policy sense—for Bush and the Republicans to try hard to pick up some urban votes. And the new president can do that by putting into effect the compassionate conservatism that he sounded as a keynote at the beginning of his campaign, muted during the race's final months, and reinvoked in his victory speech after Al Gore's concession.

Since Bush is a true believer in compassionate conservatism, he's likely to do just that. And it will benefit not just his party but, even more powerfully, the cities themselves.

Compassionate conservatism is above all an urban agenda. At its core is concern for the poor (who are concentrated in the cities) and an explicit belief that government has a responsibility for poor Americans. This is not a traditional Republican preoccupation. From Richard Nixon on down, the policy of Republican presidents toward the poor, especially the minority poor, has been, in Senator Moynihan's indelible phrase, benign neglect. Presidents Reagan and Bush similarly gave scant attention to poverty and urban issues. But in the 1990s, innovative big-city Republican mayors and urban-state governors have made solving these problems a top priority. Compassionate conservatism really is the effort to make these solutions central to national politics.

If compassionate conservatism breaks out of the traditional Republican mold, it utterly rejects the liberal conventional wisdom about uplifting the poor that has reigned for over a generation. Compassionate conservatism, waving away the claim that liberal nostrums are the only possible expression of "compassion" for the poor, charges that liberal prescriptions, good intentions notwithstanding, have not only failed but have in fact made the lot of the poor worse over the last 35 years. Why else, after decades of growing opportunity, are the worst-off more mired in dependency, illegitimacy, drug use, school failure, and crime than they were when the experiment began? How can this be, after decades of vigorous new job creation that has seamlessly integrated millions of low-skill immigrants into the mainstream economy, and after civil rights acts and a real cultural change have together opened the society to minorities as never before? A compassion whose main success is to make the self-styled compassionate feel good about their superior virtue is of limited value.

So compassionate conservatism derails what for a long time had been the Democratic Party's greatest rhetorical advantage, its claim of a monopoly on caring about the worst-off. It's a direct challenge to the Democrats, because it says, okay, you've made the poor the center of your politics for half a century at least, saying that the condition of the poor is a society's moral touchstone. And fine, we've adopted all your nostrums for how to fix the plight of the poor—lavish welfare benefits, lenient crime policies, massive government support for illegitimacy, self-esteem-centered educational policies—the lot. We did the experiment. And now the results are in. Here at the start of a new millennium, we can see that your solutions really didn't work, because we have an underclass, a group of people who are not only poor but who are mired in poverty for their whole lives, for generation after generation, no matter whether the economy goes up or goes down.

This appeal is likely to resonate with at least some urban and suburban white middle-class voters, whose sense of moral worth rests on their social conscience, their concern and compassion for the excluded and downtrodden. For years, only Democrats have addressed those feelings; Republicans have mentioned the poor chiefly to excoriate welfare queens. Compassionate conservatism makes the same appeal that Democrats have made so successfully, an appeal that, as compassionate conservatives formulate it, is the more powerful because it is true. And many Democrats, seeing the all-too-plain failure of liberal welfarism, can assent to that truth.

Making the case to black voters is a tougher sell. Because a fifth of working blacks work for government, while a large proportion of the remainder work for government-supported social service providers, and many non-working black voters are welfare-dependent, many blacks, perhaps even a majority, have an economic interest in preserving big government, including the vast machinery of today's social service and welfare industries. What's more, the Gore campaign, in concert with black leaders, demonized Republicans in the eyes of many blacks—reanimating the extremist spirit that President Clinton tried to exorcise eight years ago, when he publicly rejected the black racism of rapper Sister Souljah. That's why blacks voted for Bush in half the proportion that they voted for Bob Dole four years ago.

Here again the power of compassionate conservatism's message is its truth, augmented by the deep sincerity of George W. Bush's concern for blacks and his belief that they can succeed in the American mainstream—without depending on destructive racial quotas—and rise to the heights to which he has elevated Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice. Certainly the resentful and paranoia-filled message that such black spokesmen as Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton have retailed can only lead blacks to a dead end, especially since not even the Democratic Party can embrace such extremism for long. Over time, compassionate conservatism's optimistic message will win some black adherents—though when New York City minority schoolchildren assure their teacher that George W. Bush is a card-carrying member of the Ku Klux Klan, that process will take time.

Compassionate conservatism rejects all the liberal nostrums and offers a new way of thinking about the poor. These nostrums don't work because they are based on a psychological error that shows no understanding of the human heart. Telling the poor that they are mere passive victims, whether of racism or of vast economic forces, not only is false but is also psychologically destructive, paralyzing the poor with thoughts of their own helplessness and inadequacy. To succeed in life, we all need to have a certain self-confidence and optimism that keep us going when we hit obstacles and disappointments, as everyone does. Think of how destructive of confidence it has to be to tell the poor that, no matter how much they try, the forces aligned against them are just too strong for them to overcome. And telling the poor that the state can relieve them of personal responsibility and promote their happiness while they remain just passive recipients has the same effect. It treats them as if they are not the protagonists of their own lives, not moral agents with the same capacity for self-direction as the rest of us. The poor need the larger society's moral support; they need to hear the message of personal responsibility and self-reliance, the optimistic assurance that if they try—as they must—they will make it. They need to know, too, that they can't blame "the system" for their own wrongdoing.

Guided by such an understanding, state and local conservatives have hammered out effective new ways of helping the poor. Workfare, which began as an experiment by Governors Thompson of Wisconsin and Engler of Michigan, long before Bill Clinton signed the 1996 welfare reform act after twice vetoing it, is the most visible of these. Thompson and Engler didn't see their main goal as saving money. The problem with welfare, they believed, is not that it costs so much but that, instead of helping needy mothers raise sturdy children who go on to succeed in life, it perpetuates weak families, stuck in dependency for generations. Instead of promoting the welfare of children, all too often it results in children who are neglected or, worse, who end up beaten or burned or killed by the welfare recipient's new boyfriend. As a way of life—which is what it became—welfare degraded rather than uplifted too many of its supposed beneficiaries, children and adults alike.

Work, by contrast, by making an individual responsible for herself and her family, provides a road to self-respect and equal citizenship. So far, now that the welfare rolls have been cut by almost 60 percent across the nation, former welfare recipients pushed out into the workforce, at however low a level, have told reporters that they are indeed finding it uplifting. To take just one example out of legions, former welfare recipients in New Haven spoke to City Journal's Kay S. Hymowitz of welfare reform's good effects not just on them but—more important, they felt—on their teenage daughters, who, facing the knowledge that they can't go on welfare and will have to work to support themselves, have started to want better than minimum-wage careers and have started to realize that they have every right to dream the same dreams for their future as mainstream American kids.

And certainly the prediction that welfare reform would produce millions of mothers and children starving on the streets seems ludicrous in light of the reality. Believe it or not, there were even more dire predictions than that. Senator Moynihan, who has proved the least reliable of welfare reform's prophets, spoke of how millions of kids "would be put to the sword" if welfare reform became law. (What does this say about the senator's opinion of the hearts of welfare's clientele? one wonders.) In fact, child abuse and neglect not only didn't rise; it fell over 12 percent between 1996, when welfare reform took effect, and 1998.

One can only speculate as to the cause, but one guess is that, as welfare recipients got jobs and adjusted to the requirements of work, the discipline of the work ethic—which really is an ethic—improved all aspects of their character. After all, the Victorian and Edwardian formulators of the work ethic understood that it is work that gives you a sense of your own powers and abilities; it is work that gives you self-esteem and self-confidence. So part of the problem of the underclass is that becoming merely the passive recipients of benefits gives them a kind of ghostly existence in their own eyes. Marx talked about alienated labor; there's nothing more alienating than welfare. City Journal's Theodore Dalrymple has written of the thoroughgoing nihilism of this class: their sense that life has no meaningful shape but is only one damn thing after another. And their policy-induced disengagement from life is surely one source of their nihilism—which unfortunately so often gets expressed in violence.

So work is key, and President Bush will need to resist inevitable attempts to derail welfare reform, particularly in the event of an economic downturn. But for compassionate conservatism, work is only part of the answer. Workfare doesn't solve welfare's biggest problem: that with one hand it enables the creation of families in which children fare poorly, while with the other it falsely pretends to secure the welfare of those children by dispensing money. Compassionate conservatism offers two solutions.

First: try to stop single women, often too young and unprepared for motherhood, from having babies in the first place by restigmatizing illegitimacy. The mountain of research conclusively showing how badly children without fathers fare—as measured by school failure, divorce, criminality, mental illness, even suicide—is ample reason to show disapproval of women who put their babies at such risk. Recognizing that illegitimacy is perhaps the nation's Number One social problem, George W. Bush has repeatedly preached abstinence from sex until marriage (though, regrettably, his campaign muddied this message by speaking of the heroism of single moms), and even in anything-goes New York, Rudy Giuliani has repeatedly warned against illegitimacy's dangers.

The findings of the psychologists and social scientists about single parenthood shouldn't surprise us. After all, the family is the building block of the commonwealth, the most basic of Burke's "little platoons" of civil society, and a strong society needs strong families to pass down the store of social capital we inherit from the past and to build citizens with the strong consciences needed for self-government. The left has tried to substitute the state for civil society in many departments of life, but nowhere more mistakenly than in thinking that the state can be a substitute for fathers—that it can literally, not just figuratively, be a father to its people.

Politically, this is the thorniest part of compassionate conservatism, since the non-poor rightly recognize such statements as a call for across-the-board sexual responsibility that will circumscribe their sexual behavior, too—which, as the ho-hum response to the Clinton sex scandal shows, as does the passion with which so many middle-class voters support abortion, they resist. After all, the reason we ended up with an epidemic of illegitimacy is not because welfare provided an incentive for poor unmarried women to have children out of wedlock, as Charles Murray argued almost two decades ago. Welfare for families with dependent children existed in America since the Depression, but the illegitimacy explosion only began in the mid-1960s. It happened because, as part and parcel of the sexual revolution, the American elites led the society in rejecting most of the existing sexual stigmas, which they saw as obstacles to the sexual liberation they sought.

As the elites began to swing, they could hardly turn to the poor and say, sorry, fellas, this is just for us; you have to cleave to the straight and narrow. What kept poor people from getting pregnant out of wedlock before then was fear of ostracism by the ladies on the front porch next door. But all that disappeared in the sixties; it was dead and buried by the time the Summer of Love was over. Add to a laid-back attitude about illegitimacy a belief that, for poor black Americans, welfare represents justified reparations for slavery and racism rather than something to be ashamed of, and you have a recipe for the explosion in the welfare rolls that took place.

To reduce illegitimacy requires a cultural change. It requires a certain sexual responsibility for all. Compassionate conservatism recognizes that the intact, two-parent family is far and away best for bringing up children to be sturdy citizens, and that therefore it is not right even when rich men abandon their children in search of adventure in middle age. Not all middle-class urban voters will be impervious to this appeal, even though for many of them attachment to the idea of sexual liberation is a key ingredient of their affiliation to the Democratic Party, and even though many of them view Republican calls for "family values" as killjoy as William Blake's vision of the ruined garden of love, "Where priests in black gowns/ Were walking their rounds/ And binding with briars/ My joys and desires."

Compassionate conservatism will have to speak to such voters, not in the voice of punishing parental superego, but in positive terms, appropriating the language of concern for children that left-wing advocates such as the Children's Defense Fund have successfully monopolized for years. Just as you want the best for your own children, compassionate conservatism can ask quite truthfully, don't you want the best for all children? Don't you think as many children as possible should have two loving, or at least responsible, parents—and should be raised in strong families that are as concerned as you are, and work as hard as you do, to do the best for their children? It's hard to imagine that all metropolitan and suburban moms (or dads) will be impervious to this appeal. They might even assent to the idea that more and more women want marriage and children, not the bogus liberation that the sexual revolution purveyed.

From a policy standpoint, government should stop doing all the things it currently does to normalize illegitimacy. For example, it should stop setting up nurseries in high schools, which give the message that having babies is a perfectly normal and acceptable part of life for unmarried teens. It should give married couples preference in allocating scarce public housing units, and it shouldn't penalize them by taxing them more heavily than if they remained cohabiting singles. We should stop kidding ourselves that, again from the point of view of social policy, all families are equal in value. So compassionate conservatism has chosen sides in the culture wars and is willing to use the Bully Pulpit for this cause.

Since some women will still have illegitimate babies despite renewed stigma, George W. Bush, as governor of Texas, has set up four pilot residential hostels for welfare mothers and their babies, suggesting a second way of assuring the welfare of children. These are model compassionate conservative institutions—tough-love establishments, not handouts, that will focus on making sure the babies get the nurture they need to be able to learn and to succeed, something that young welfare mothers often don't know how to provide. Private groups run the hostels—including, thanks to the "charitable choice" provision in the 1996 welfare reform act, two church-related groups, able to provide the clearly enunciated moral values that their clients, like the clients of most social service institutions, need to embrace.

Central to compassionate conservatism is the belief that government bureaucrats do a poor job of providing social services, because they have to be—and are by temperament, anyway—value-neutral, even value-free. And what so many recipients of social services need most is value-laden help. They are people who have lost their bearings in life, or never found them, and now find themselves in need of help because they've pursued self-destructive courses. So they need someone to tell them that they must get their lives in order, and here's how to do it. Compassionate conservatism puts a lot of stock in "charitable choice" for that reason: it allows government funds to go to the kind of effective private helping agencies that have no trouble about lacing their help with a message of self-help and personal responsibility.

Compassionate conservatives know that having safer neighborhoods is the one thing that most improves the lives of the poor. For years, the nation's inner-city neighborhoods were anarchies. The public housing projects would crackle with gunfire every night. Residents would eat their dinner sitting on the floor, because they were afraid of stray bullets coming in the window. They'd be afraid, and justly, to send their kids out for a loaf of bread, for fear of violence, and they'd often not take night courses to get ahead or not take a night-shift job for fear of crime.

A friend of mine who lives in Harlem was very excited that she'd bought a new sofa. At last, the delivery day came, and the truck bearing the sofa arrived. But the toughs who hung out on her doorstep required her to pay them a tribute of $20 to allow the deliverymen to come past them. Now, this is tyranny. It is the primitive tyranny that Tom Paine describes, the tyranny of "a banditti of ruffians." And all the people I am describing did not enjoy the first of all civil rights, the right to be safe in your home and in the streets.

The most fundamental duty of government, as all political philosophers agree, is to ensure this right, and compassionate conservatives share this view. They support the kind of activist policing that slashed New York City's overall murder rate by 60 percent and has reduced murder even more in crime-ridden poor minority neighborhoods—by almost 90 percent in one. That means, contrary to the liberals' complaint that tougher policing oppresses poor minorities, that the law-abiding majority of inner-city communities can now go out into the street without putting their lives on the line. In fact, the liberal belief that it is somehow friendly to blacks to police lightly seems to assume that many blacks are criminals, when, of course, most are law-abiding citizens who end up disproportionately being the victims of crime. For this reason, President Bush should call an instant halt to the Justice Department investigations that seek to delegitimize the success of the NYPD and of other urban police forces.

The war on drugs that Mayor Giuliani is now waging in New York promises another liberation for inner-city communities. After one intensive law-enforcement effort drove the drug dealers off a certain block, one top cop saw a kid learning how to ride a bicycle on the street. He realized that the boy was older than most neophytes. Why? Until then, his mother hadn't thought the street safe enough to allow him out to practice. And the point is, that when formerly crime-ridden inner-city neighborhoods are policed in this way and order returns, civil society can begin to put forth shoots. Neighbors can watch the streets together—can begin to know one another—and so people can have a sense of being in control of their own lives.

It's astonishing, too, what a powerful economic consequence for cities as a whole, not just for poor neighborhoods, the restoration of public order has. When people aren't afraid to go out at night, restaurants and movie theaters flourish, and tourists aren't afraid to come. So crime turns out to be a huge tax on urban economies, big enough to kill businesses, as we've learned from experience.

Compassionate conservatism accordingly has no patience with the liberal orthodoxy that, in order to cut crime, government has to remove crime's supposed "root causes," poverty and racism. It was a central neoconservative insight 30 years ago that criminals are not to be thought of as victims—of social injustice or a bad environment or what have you. The victims are the people criminals assault and rob and rape. Irving Kristol famously described the birth of neoconservatism (which is the progenitor of compassionate conservatism) by saying that neocons were "liberals who'd been mugged by reality." Within the large metaphorical meanings of this statement lurks a quite specific literal meaning, too: that neocons were urban liberals who—like so many urban dwellers in the 1970s—had been victims of crime, or held hostage by fear of crime in their triple-locked apartments, and so had learned by sad first-hand experience how quickly the social order can unravel when the authorities tolerate wrongdoing. To cut crime, you just have to police actively. And you have to have judges and sentencing guidelines and other criminal-justice policies that understand that criminals are malefactors rather than victims.

If public education has long been a bailiwick of the Democrats, with their close teachers' union ties, compassionate conservatives believe that without schools that work, poor children lack the traditional route into the American mainstream. And inner-city public schools today are a notorious national scandal, despite huge per-pupil expenditures. Black and Hispanic students at 17 perform on a par with 13-year-old white students in every subject, and over half of inner-city kids don’t graduate from high school. In the words of City Journal’s Sol Stern, education reform is the last civil rights battle.

The blame lies at several doors. First, the teachers' unions, which put the employment of their members far above the education of children; second, the state education authorities, which, with few exceptions, don't set high standards for teacher qualification or student achievement. After all, poor inner-city children are educable; inner-city Catholic schools prove it every day. And finally, the school district bureaucracies, which function like leftovers from the Soviet Union and impose a one-size-fits-all education upon infinitely various children with infinitely various needs.

The compassionate conservative solution: much tougher tests for both teachers and students (as Governor Bush's Texas imposed), charter schools free of district regulations and union work rules (such as Arizona hopes to make virtually universal), and publicly funded vouchers to attend private schools, targeted to precisely the poor children whom the public schools are failing so grievously. In what may be an early indicator of the shape of compassionate conservative politics to come, an alliance of Republican governors Tommy Thompson and George Voinovich with minority parents has produced publicly funded voucher systems in Milwaukee and Cleveland, and parents with kids in the voucher-supported schools are thrilled. (The sixth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals has just ruled the Cleveland program, which allows voucher recipients to attend parochial schools, unconstitutional; the U.S. Supreme Court is likely to review the decision.) George W. Bush has embraced the idea of federal vouchers to liberate poor kids trapped in failing schools, and he should support the voucher program for the Washington, D.C. schools that congress has repeatedly passed and President Clinton has repeatedly vetoed. The point of these programs is not only to rescue minority kids from public schools right now, before another generation misses its chance, but also to provide the outside competition that will force the public schools to change their hidebound ways in order to survive—as is already happening in Milwaukee. And the voucher idea allows Republicans to make a powerful case to poor urban blacks that they are much more concerned about the fate of their children than are the Democrats, who have become creatures of the teachers' unions, putting their interests always above the interests of children.

The reply from the teachers' unions and their Democratic supporters has been that we need a common school system to induct our kids into a common civic culture. But this claim no longer holds water. What is the common experience that urban public school children share? It is the celebration of difference, of everything that separates us from one another rather than a common civic culture that unites us. When I went to public school, we used to get marked in something called "Citizenship": were we polite, helpful, self-controlled, orderly, cleanly, punctual, hardworking? We learned about what a splendid nation America was, how admirable its democratic, meritocratic, inclusive values were. No more. Now urban schoolchildren learn of America's history of oppressiveness and genocide. They learn of the country's unjust and ever-inflamed victimization of their own ethnic groups and its victimization of people around the world. Instead of manners and civility, they learn only condom etiquette. They read, in the name of inclusiveness, such divisive texts as Heather Has Two Mommies and Daddy's Roommate. So this is a center that will not hold.

Unlike traditional Republicans, compassionate conservatives like immigrants. They admire their energy and enterprise, which have revitalized vast swathes of New York and Los Angeles and have done the nation the favor of proving that there is no scarcity of economic opportunity in America. All you have to do is go out and make it, rather than waiting around for the government to bring it to you. The only danger is that this enthusiasm for immigrants has sometimes led compassionate conservatives to back policies, especially welfare benefits for immigrants, that promote dependency and separatism. What made the urban immigration of yesteryear so successful is that immigrants universally came seeking opportunity to work, and they dreamed of becoming part of the American community. Compassionate conservatives need to hold fast to this optimistic message.

What happens when all these policies take hold and the poor ascend into the economic mainstream? The last important compassionate conservative policy is to make sure the government doesn't tax them back into poverty. The Bush administration will need to rejigger the tax code and the Social Security tax to make sure that working people get to enjoy the fruits of their labor and don't see their increased earnings confiscated to pay benefits to their non-working neighbors. It will need to make sure that the reward for work is significantly more than for non-work. And that's why the new administration will also need to make sure that government doesn't subsidize the unruly non-working poor to move in to neighborhoods that the near-poor are, sometimes precariously and always at great effort, trying to keep decent and orderly.

One of the remarkable features of the recent presidential campaign was the unwillingness of Vice President Gore to engage compassionate conservatism. It was as if that theme was so potent a piece of political jiu-jitsu that Democrats didn't even want to raise the subject of race and poverty, emphasizing instead only middle-class entitlements until the very last, desperate days before the election—and the even more desperate ones of the recount. Compassionate conservatives should take heart from this Democratic avoidance. It is most likely an indication that the liberals have no worthwhile arguments against an idea whose time has come.

 

 

 
The new president’s compassionate conservatism can help cities—and woo urban voters.
City Journal Winter 2001.
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Modern Sex: Liberation and Its Discontents
Edited with an Introduction by Myron Magnet
Modern Sex: Liberation and Its Discontents.


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