City Journal

Tucker Carlson
The Politics of Virtue
Republicans have won the national debate over economics. Now two leading mainstream presidential contenders are turning to the culture, determined to roll back the excesses of the 1960s.
Summer 1998

After the pants-down presidency of Bill Clinton, the presidential election of 2000 may well become a referendum on the entire cultural legacy of the 1960s, of which Clinton is such an emphatically corporeal embodiment. Two of the highest-polling contenders for the Republican nomination—Governor George W. Bush of Texas and Senator John Ashcroft of Missouri—are likely to stage campaigns based on resurrecting the traditional morality that the sixties rejected. Both men believe that the key issues in the race will be cultural ones, and they are almost certainly right. Republicans, after all, have already won the other big ideological dispute—the battle over economic fundamentals—even if the irresolute congressional GOP has for now run out of tax-cutting steam. Americans have come to the generally conservative conclusion that capitalism brings prosperity and socialism doesn't, that higher taxes and increased regulation harm rather than promote the common good, and there is no longer much debate on the subject. True, congressional Democrats haven't given up their piecemeal efforts to expand the reach of government and its regulating, tax-gathering hand, but no one makes the theoretical case for bigger, more expensive government nowadays. Even among most Democrats, left-wing economic assumptions are moribund.

Cultural matters remain contentious, however, often hotly so. But up till now, even though conservative intellectuals have been preoccupied with cultural issues for years, mainstream Republican politicians have tended to shy away from them. During the 1996 presidential race, the only Republican candidates who discussed values and ethics—notably, Pat Buchanan and Alan Keyes—were those who had no hope of winning their party's nomination. Nominee Bob Dole limited his comments on moral questions to a few cryptic and much-mocked asides about "character," which pundits dismissed as an awkward attempt to appease the religious elements in the Republican party. For the most part, mainstream Republican lawmakers have been content to leave such questions to their colleagues on the religious right, and the mainstream press has in consequence felt emboldened to dismiss any discussion of this kind as "extremism."

That is about to change. America is on the verge of a re-moralized politics, articulated not by anyone remotely dismissible as extremist but by impeccably establishment politicians.

Bush and Ashcroft, 51 and 55, respectively, belong to the generation associated with the 1960s, like 51-year-old Bill Clinton, and their politics, like his, have been shaped by that era. They too are Yale-educated centrists who came of age during the Vietnam War and went on to become popular governors of border states. (In Bush's case, extremely popular: this fall he is expected to become the only Texas governor in more than 25 years to be reelected.)

The similarities, however, end there. Where Clinton remains the poster boy of the self-indulgent ethos of the sixties, Bush and Ashcroft give speech after speech filled with references to responsibility, self-control, and restoring the culture to greatness. For both men, the sixties offered no "rich fulfillment" of American ideals of liberty and creativity, as the now infamous 1994 New York Times editorial "In Praise of the Counterculture" had it, but cultural breakdown. In Ashcroft's words: "As we are examining the pathologies of American culture today, we should look back to see . . . the seeds sewn in the sixties. . . . We set a tone of license—of freedom without responsibility. We thought it would be freedom without consequence, but the consequences are upon us." Or as Bush puts it: "The new culture questioned everything—our faith, our values, our moral standards of behavior. The sharp contrast between right and wrong became blurred, and a new standard of conduct emerged: 'if it feels good, do it.' Individuals are not responsible for their actions, went the thinking, we are all victims of forces beyond our control. . . . We went from accepting responsibility to assigning blame."

What's so important about Ashcroft and Bush (or, on the local level, Mayor Rudy Giuliani), is that they are willing to say: enough. The sixties legacy—the legacy of the sexual revolution that said any kind of sexual arrangement was OK, the legacy of the idea that society rather than the individual was to blame for crime and poverty, the legacy of the counterculture's blanket denunciation of traditional social values—is family breakdown, skyrocketing crime, and an underclass mired in social pathology and unable to climb the ladder to economic success. The culture that the sixties created—the beliefs that shaped individual action as well as government policy for over three decades—caused the most pressing social problems we face today, these politicians are saying, and it's time America challenged the reigning assumptions of that culture head on.

As you'd expect with more than two years to go till the presidential election, neither Bush nor Ashcroft has yet articulated a very detailed platform—indeed, strictly speaking, neither one has announced presidential aspirations. Still, the outlines of the themes both men would run on are visible.

Bush's central message is this: the main cause of poverty in late twentieth-century America is not a bad economy but bad choices. As governor, he is waging a "right choices campaign" that is a key to his thinking: it is a public relations effort designed to change the personal behavior of Texans. His list of wrong choices reads like a witch's potion to ensure failure: "dropping out of school, not finding and/or maintaining steady work, abusing alcohol and drugs, and having a baby out of wedlock." All these social pathologies, Bush understands, derive not from any lack of government funding or from poverty—not from the "system" or from a bad environment—but from low standards and bad personal choices.

The worst choice of all, as Bush sees it, is illegitimacy, which he considers the root of many of the other ills. When a woman ends up on welfare, he believes, the most likely cause is not that she can't find work but that she is raising an illegitimate child. It is a point that contradicts more than 30 years of received opinion among liberal policymakers, but Bush delivers it as if it were obvious. In a way it is, of course, since even for liberal social scientists it's a cliché that female-headed families are significantly poorer than traditional two-parent ones; but liberals have shied away from the inescapable conclusion that policymakers should strongly discourage single motherhood.

Not Bush. About 30 percent of children in Texas are born to single mothers, compared with 32.4 percent nationwide, and Bush has worked hard to bring down that number. His solution to illegitimacy is straightforward and boldly unfashionable. "Abstain from sex until you find the partner you want to marry," he frequently tells high school students in speeches around the state. For kids raised in a society that derides self-control and promotes condoms, birth control pills, and abortion as the solutions to pregnancy before marriage, these are extraordinary words to hear from a governor. But Bush pronounces them without a trace of harshness or malevolence—and without sounding in the least reactionary. Indeed, he has the ability to espouse pre-sexual-revolution social values while coming off as positively cutting-edge, even revolutionary—which, of course, he is. For teenagers, Bush says, "abstaining from sex will lead not only to a higher-quality life, but to a more decent and compassionate life for all of us. It's part of a larger vision of a better America."

In Waco, a city that records a higher incidence of out-of-wedlock births than any place in Texas, Bush has enlisted local churches, synagogues, and schools in a pro-abstinence public relations campaign that emphasizes the consequences of illegitimacy. "We will love the babies," Bush says, "and in some cases we will help the moms, on a temporary basis. But we've got to say to our children: Abstain from sex." Abstinence, he says, "speaks to economics. We are in a time of plenty in America. Yet there are some who are struggling economically. A lot of that has to do with people having babies out of wedlock." Here, of course, is a glimpse into Bush's thinking about the future direction of welfare reform: policymakers must provide for the welfare of the illegitimate babies who will still be born (though in smaller numbers) despite all efforts to discourage unwed motherhood, but that doesn't mean that single mothers themselves will necessarily be entitled to support—and certainly not long—term support.

When Bush talks about reforming the culture, he invariably mentions the extensive role that religious groups must play. "In the past it used to be that we called upon government to provide compassion," he says. "But government can't make people love one another. It's an impossibility." In particular, he believes, the welfare reform effort needs the participation of religious groups, because welfare recipients need the value-laden moral exhortation to get control of their lives that religious groups can deliver far more effectively than any government functionary. "The role of government," Bush explains, "is to be a participant in—a funding mechanism for—encouraging people of faith to become an integral part of the delivery of welfare. As we move away from centralized welfare programs, it gives us an opportunity to encourage faith-based organizations to become a part of the delivery of social services." As an example, Bush cites his recent efforts to allow Chuck Colson's Prison Fellowship ministries to take over certain parts of Texas prisons. "We're not only helping people on a temporary basis with the most compassionate care there is," he says, but, through moral teaching, "we're also helping to change lives." When Bush says he wants a greater role for religion in our public life, though, it's important to add that he's not being sectarian. Instead, he's talking about a clearly articulated set of values most of us can agree on: "love your neighbor, give an honest day's work for an honest day's wages, don't lie or cheat or steal, respect others—and always remember you are responsible for what you say and what you do."

In all this, Bush knows whereof he speaks, since he had his own conversion experience, renouncing the cultural values of the sixties and finding a new importance in religion. Before his marriage, Bush had a reputation (from all accounts, deserved) as something of a wild man. When he speaks, it is as a grizzled veteran of the sexual revolution. But he is a changed man. He gave up drinking entirely on his 40th birthday, and with teenage twin daughters, he is the consummate family man. Friends say that the influence of his wife, Laura, a former librarian and teacher, caused him to think deeply about the limitations that government faces when it attempts to change human behavior by its usual value-free means.

"The thing we've got to figure out is how to expedite a cultural change," says Bush, who refers unselfconsciously to the task as a calling. "Baby boomers can now empirically say, 'We've seen a culture change in our lifetime, so I know it can change again.' The hope for my generation is to usher in the Responsibility Era. Responsible behavior means making right choices and having the courage to say that there are right and wrong choices. The Responsibility Era—those aren't hollow words." Bush—who, like a leader utterly confident of his own vision, claims never to have taken a poll while governor—is aware that he is beginning to sound more like a prophet than a politician, and he doesn't mind. "In my judgment," he says, "the people of Texas appreciate a leader who talks this way."

Bush has been successful in his effort to enlist the help of religious groups to deliver welfare services, thanks in part to the "charitable choice" provision of the welfare legislation that Congress passed in 1996. The provision, added by Senator John Ashcroft, made it legal for religious organizations to use tax dollars to deliver relief to the poor. This spring, Ashcroft sponsored a more extensive charitable choice bill, currently in committee, which would allow churches to provide many more services traditionally handled by government agencies, including drug treatment and low-income housing. Predictably, the bill has met with strong opposition, but Ashcroft remains convinced that partnerships with faith-based private-sector organizations are key to cultural renewal. "It's not enough as a conservative just to disengage the government from what it does poorly," he says. "We've got to activate the culture in what it does well."

After more than 20 years in politics, Ashcroft understands what government does well, as well as what it cannot do. The son and grandson of ministers, Ashcroft was elected attorney general of Missouri twice, served two terms as the state's governor, and came to the Senate in 1994. For someone associated with no-nonsense moral crusades, he is relaxed and cheery in person—his hobbies include gospel singing and motorcycling—but his voice assumes a preacher's cadence as he explains his vision for the country. Like Bush, he is certain that sweeping changes are possible—and he wants to make them. "We have it within our power to make the world over again," he says. "It's theological: God created us to make consequential choices. That's the essence of personal responsibility."

The polls may not always reflect it, Ashcroft says, but Americans care deeply about what has happened to their culture. "I don't think the people have ever said, 'All we care about is the stock market,'" he says. Americans also care about living in a country that is well governed and morally righteous. Things began to fall apart, he says, when the "doctrine of moral parity," widely embraced in the 1960s, destroyed the culture's ability to defend itself from poisonous ideas and behavior. All kinds of families became equally good, all kinds of sexual behavior became equally acceptable, and responsible behavior—like staying married or working for what some once called "chump change"—became no better than irresponsibility. "Once everything is equal, you're not allowed to stigmatize anything," Ashcroft explains. "Everybody gets the gold star. Since everybody gets the gold star, you devalue affirmation. What's a gold star worth if everybody's got one? It's worth nothing."

Ashcroft's disgust with false equality leads him to hold up Theodore Roosevelt as a model of leadership for our time. Roosevelt's serious respiratory illness, Ashcroft points out, didn't stop him from joining what the 26th president called "the fellowship of doers." Instead of yielding to victimhood, Roosevelt fiercely built up his body and mind in pursuit of "the strenuous life"—a life of striving and accomplishment, not of seething in resentment. It's a bracing, and politically incorrect, message in an era of unearned self-esteem. For Ashcroft, individuals are responsible for creating their own fate.

Ashcroft's belief in making choices mean something shows up in his tough stance on crime. For him, crime is the responsibility of the criminal, not of the criminal's "oppressive" environment. As governor, Ashcroft increased Missouri's prison space 60 percent and reinstituted the death penalty after a 24-year hiatus. In the Senate, he's the chief sponsor of an innovative juvenile crime bill—the Senate Judiciary Committee approved it last fall, though it's still kicking around Congress—that would treat teen thugs as adults and make it easier for courts and schools to find out about kids' criminal pasts. Ashcroft also wants to extend charitable choice to juvenile crime prevention: he thinks faith-based institutions, with their stress on personal responsibility and inner transformation, will help troubled teens far more than do government-run programs that attack the "root causes" of crime with midnight basketball. Bush, too, has received national attention for his tough, no-nonsense approach to crime, as when he refused to commute the death sentence of Karla Faye Tucker last February.

America's culture since the sixties, Ashcroft believes, has undermined liberty and led to the exponential growth of government—and the two are related. "As you demolish or diminish the cultural restraints necessary for civility and community," observes Ashcroft, "a proliferation of laws fills the void." But how can we increase personal responsibility? Here, the senator says, political leadership becomes crucial: public officials can help shape the culture (statecraft is always soulcraft) through the moral rhetoric they use and the moral signals their policies send about what is, and what isn't, acceptable. Real leadership "calls people to their highest and best," Ashcroft notes, and doesn't surrender to what is "lowest and least" in human nature.

So far, this kind of rhetoric has gone over well with the Republican voting base. In a straw poll held this May in South Carolina, likely primary voters were asked to choose among 22 potential Republican presidential candidates. Ashcroft and Bush led the herd, ranking first and second, respectively. A recent CNN poll had Bush well out in front of other Republicans and beating Al Gore by 4 percent in the presidential race. The question, however, remains: are ordinary Americans ready to vote for candidates whose platforms consist of attacking the core cultural assumptions of the 1960s—which is to say, the core cultural assumptions of the 1990s?

They appear to be. Even in New York, for example, the holy city of American liberalism, Mayor Rudolph Giuliani has been doing battle with the consequences of the 1960s since he took office. Giuliani's crime initiative and civility campaign have been spectacularly successful because they have straightforwardly identified and challenged long-held liberal assumptions about human behavior (for instance, that criminals would be less apt to commit crimes if local government would simply provide more "compassionate" social services). Giuliani has held New Yorkers to higher standards of personal conduct, and New Yorkers have, for the most part, appreciated the results.

This spring, Governor Bush gave a speech at the Beverly Hills Hotel to a group of actors and movie industry executives. Though the conservative Wednesday Morning Club, headed by former leftist David Horowitz, arranged Bush's appearance, few of those in the audience—which included director Oliver Stone—qualified as conservative true believers. Yet Bush, with confidence in his own vision as a leader, did little to temper his message, forcefully explaining both the perils of illegitimacy and the effectiveness of abstinence. No one booed or snickered. On the contrary, the audience applauded.

Bush and Ashcroft will face a lot of audiences before the election of 2000, not all of whom will applaud. But it's likely that most people will listen carefully to what the two men say. They can hardly be written off as products of the feverish fringe. For the first time in a long while, the left—whose moral message lately has been limited to relatively trivial topics like teen smoking—may be forced to defend the culture it created. Sneering at conservatives or demonizing them will no longer pass as an argument.

For the voting public, it ought be quite an instructive debate.

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