Barack Obama’s Roanoke speech is most famous for his “if you’ve got a business, you didn’t build that, somebody else made that happen” remark, but, as Yuval Levin astutely mentioned at the time, it was not the most interesting or sinister part of the president’s speech. What was worst was how President Obama described what “we do better together.” Everything President Obama mentioned as being done “together” was action by the government. Levin argued that Obama “sees the citizen and the state, and nothing in betweenand thus sees every political question as a choice between radical individualism and a federal program.”
There is much to be said for Levin’s analysis, but President Obama (who is famously a former community organizer) is willing to make use of organizations between the individual and the state. The catch is that those non-state organizations had better serve the goals and sensibilities of the Obama administrationor else watch out. The Obama administration’s conflict with the Little Sisters of the Poor indicate that President Obama sees those institutions between the individual and the state as either lackeys that provide his political coalition with money and volunteers or as targets who must either be suborned or destroyed. Labor unions that are allied to the president get waivers from Obamacare fees. Green energy companies get subsidies. The Little Sisters get to choose between either violating their consciences or closing down their services to the poor and the dying. This approach mixes hardball politics with corporatist policy. Non-state actors can either get on board with the priorities of “we do better together” as defined by the left and get favorable treatment, or hold on to their own principles and face harassment.
President Obama’s narrow and hyper-politicized understanding of human relationships would be a fatal weakness if his opponents did not so often seem to agree with Obama’s rhetoric and its false choice between radical individualism and statism. Too often Republicans have talked as though they believe our choices are between radical individualism and a comprehensively stultifying welfare state.
This impression is in some ways the creation of left-of-center rhetoric. President Obama likes to talk as if Social Security, Medicare, and unemployment insurance and a myriad of other transfer programs had ceased to exist prior to his inauguration. But it isn’t entirely a fantasy of left politics. Some of President Obama’s opponents make it seem like they are either the sneaking enemies or the grudging tolerators of the welfare state.
Sometimes this seeming hostility shows up as a purely ideological objection to the existence of the federal welfare state. Alaska Senate candidate Joe Miller likely torpedoed his chances of winning by questioning the constitutionality of unemployment insurance. Rick Perry injured his own presidential campaign not only by calling Social Security a Ponzi scheme, but by engaging in half-baked speculations about having Social Security taken over by state government.
What is worse than these shows of seeming hostility is a sense of indifference to the concerns that people under the median have about the structure and extent of the welfare state. After a campaign talking about the concerns, complaints and virtues of business owners, Mitt Romney complained about the “gifts” that President Obama gave to women, African-Americans, and Latinos. Implicit in Romney’s complaint was the idea that worrying about security of health insurance was the same as wanting a gift of “free health care.”
Romney was no enemy of the welfare state. Romney had signed a state-level law that was very similar to Obamacare. If Obama was into giving out free health care, then so was Romney. What was problematic for Romney was that he allowed himself to get sucked into a rhetoric where he seemed indifferent to the concerns of people around the earnings median. Romney allowed himself to get suckered into an argument where it sounded like people had to choose between Obama’s “we’re in this together” (even if it was a corrupt and incompetent together) and Romney’s “you’re on your own.”
The good news is that President Obama’s opponents don’t have to adopt very much new practice. They are already for expensive old age commitments and for expanding catastrophic health care coverage. Republican politicians have come out for an increased child tax credit and for wage subsidies for low-wage workers. On the welfare state, the president’s right-of-center opponents are better than they sound.
It is important to tie these individual welfare state policies into something like a coherent argument. Let the Democrats romanticize how Obamacare will reduce labor force participation among low-skill workers. Conservatives can point out that the already low labor force participation rate among low-skill workers is a social disaster, but they can do more. Conservatives can point to a health care plan that will extend health insurance coverage with fewer work disincentives than Obamacare and tax policies that will increase the take home pay and work incentives of parents below the earnings median.
Henry Olsen wrote that many swing working-class whites are ambivalent about the government. They don’t trust the government, but also think that many people live hard lives and need help occasionally. In practice, conservatives agree, but what those voters heard was a conservative celebration of their bosses and Romney’s contemptuous dismissal of the 47 percent. Many of those voters likely stayed home in 2012. Artur Davis argued that a similar dynamic was at work among many African-American (and I would add Latino) voters in 2012. Republicans seemed like the party of on your ownand if you weren’t a business owner or aspiring business owner, you were a loser.
Irving Kristol argued that our task was to create a “conservative welfare state.” He was right, but that sounds a little too ideological for the average person. Better to say a more relational and pro-work welfare state. The president’s opponents can extend health insurance while also protecting civil society. If the Little Sisters of the Poor want to comfort dying elderly women they should not be forced to provide contraception coverage as a condition of performing their acts of mercy. There is no need to force the Sisters unless one only understands “together” as simply the state and all institutions as either the state’s retainers or enemies.
For those working-class voters of all races (and those who affiliate with them) conservatives can be for a welfare state that respects those people who go to work every day and seek to make work pay better instead of making work an economically losing proposition and calling it “liberation.” Conservatives can be for extending catastrophic health care coverage without attacking those principled people who alleviate the suffering of the poor and vulnerable. Conservatives can be for a decent and reciprocal welfare state that doesn’t throw roadblocks up to people seeking to help themselves and their neighbor. We can be for a welfare state where the government is only one way in which we work together. Let the other party be for tearing down every human relationship they find inconvenient. And let us remind everyone that, in President Obama’s world, if you find yourself inconvenient to the party in power, you will truly find yourself on your own.