The Republicans seem to have lost the values voters in the midterm elections. William Saletan, author of Bearing Right: How Conservatives Won the Abortion War and frequent contributor on the subject of abortion for Slate.com, sees this loss as a chance for the Democrats to capture these voters, if they take the advice he gave them in 2004 , namely, “Go back to being the party of responsibility.” “Go back”? you may ask. After the 2004 election, Saletan admonished the Democrats : "Be the party that rewards ordinary people who do what they’re supposed to do¯and protects them from those who don’t.”
Just so you know where his heart is, back in 2004 Saletan was a big supporter of John Edwards and was talking about pocketbook issues. In 2006, his theme is abortion. Though Republicans have branded the Democrats as “amoral” on this issue, he believes polls show Democrats can win these voters over. Sounding as if he is channeling George Lakoff, he advocates “a new, more responsible definition of responsibility”:
Conservatives have often joked, astutely, that for many liberals, social responsibility is a euphemism for personal irresponsibility. But the reverse [converse?] is also true: For many conservatives, personal responsibility is a euphemism for social irresponsibility. The solution is to require [my emphasis] responsibility on all sides. Birth control is a perfect example. Its effectiveness depends on technology, access, and use. Better technology is industry’s responsibility. Better access is society’s responsibility. Better use is the individual’s responsibility. If everybody does his or her job, the abortion rate goes down. Way down.
He thus supports Planned Parenthood’s recent call for an increase in Medicaid coverage of contraception, since such coverage would, in the words of the organization’s new president, “result in the prevention of nearly 500,000 unintended pregnancies and 200,000 abortions annually.” Gee, why didn’t we think of that before? Like most liberal ideas, this one sounds good, but what is the evidence for such figures, and what will be the unintended bureaucratic consequences? Millions (billions?) of dollars have been poured into sex education, and young people still have unprotected sex, so why would they or anyone else be more responsible if the government (fulfilling its “social responsibility”) paid for their contraception? There are tons of scholarly evidence that demonstrate many people don’t even take medicines paid for by Medicaid that have been prescribed for serious health conditions.
“Responsibility” is an attempt to update an old playbook, for the one thing the Dems and Saletan will never advocate is actually restricting abortion. Thus, not long ago, we had the spectacle of men and women past childbearing or child-producing age¯senior citizens, really, gray-haired, their skin baggy around the jaw line¯continuing to battle for your right not to be saddled with children. I’m referring here to U.S. senators, to Charles Schumer, Diane Feinstein, and their cohort, who were hell bent on keeping Samuel Alito off the Supreme Court. Abortion is not simply about abortion, however; it is the foundation stone of the risk-free society¯from bedroom to boardroom¯that these once-youthful liberals believe America owes them and the world.
The fact is, responsible people will be responsible, and the socially responsible thing is to allow the rest to take responsibility for their own messes. Adolescents were once trained in that way to become successful adults. As bright, liberal Boomers came of age in the seventies, however, they threw overboard all the habits by which they themselves became successful and, indeed, by which our forefathers passed on social capital to the next generation. Moving through the media, the law, and the courts, they institutionalized the practices of their youth, namely, “do your own thing,” starting with abortion. Every single liberal program that has been instituted is predicated on a basic adolescent fantasy: You shouldn’t have to suffer, much less pay, for your mistakes. In the process, self-reliance, self-control, indeed responsibility, have been rechristened as repressive if not racist. As American society has become increasingly affluent, avoidance has infected a large portion of the population, Republicans included. It was hardly to be expected that they would lead us from the wilderness of fiscal irresponsibility and personal insolvency. In the meantime, abortion continues to be the ultimate safety net for avoiding responsibility while having fun, even, or especially, among the most educated , so that adolescence now extends to late middle age.
The Boomer generation inherited a thriving economic system created by the labor of our fathers, but it has grown to adulthood and beyond while overlooking the most basic obligation of adults: to train the next generation in the habits and standards that will renew the nation’s material and intellectual resources. Republicans have made their case badly, but the insouciance of liberals and Democrats concerning generational continuity is evident in the amount of energy they continue to devote to abortion, which is also the major reason why contemporary liberalism is doomed to extinction: Liberal Boomers and the Democrats among them are simply aging out and have not produced enough children to replicate their values. It will be a while, however, and, in the meantime, watch what the Democrats do, not what they say. “Responsibility society,” with its implication of deprivation, as the Democratic party platform in 2008? Don’t hold your breath.
Elizabeth Powers is currently completing a memoir of American life since the 1950s.