This past Tuesday over at Patheos, Mark Shea, noted gadfly of Catholics and other Christians who come down on the small government side of the aisle, authored a post that started out with the provocative assertion “If we oppose abortion and social safety nets, we don’t really oppose abortion.”
Balderdash, I say!
Now, that’s a qualified balderdash, as I explain below. Mark Shea is a complicated thinker who is usually worth giving a second look (halfway through the piece he denounces the idolatry of the individual and the state in the same breath, demonstrating the difficulty one has at putting him neatly into this or that political box). Nonetheless, in this piece Shea falls victim to the temptation to cast aspersions on fellow pro-lifers who at the same time harbor serious concerns about the scope of our modern welfare state.
It’s a cheap trick that is all too common in political discourse to attempt to strong-arm a fellow traveler into lockstep with one’s own preferred platform by questioning their commitment to the cause if they disagree over tactics or emphases. If you oppose military intervention in this or that country, or funding this or that federal aid program, or making corporations pay for women’s birth control, or carrying out mass deportations of illegal immigrants, then you’re not a fellow citizen acting in good faith towards a shared goal, who simply has a different vision of how to get there. At best you’re a dupe who needs to shut up and fall in line behind your betters. At worst you’re an infiltrator who needs to be denounced as the Other and cast into the outer darkness.
However, Shea’s piece is still worth considering, because despite the fact that it relies heavily on anecdotal evidence and the cheap rhetorical trick elucidated above, his polemic points to a potent weakness that exists at the heart of the conservative reform agenda.
Conservatives have become vulnerable in recent years to the false dichotomy of the Left that presents the federal welfare state as the only viable option for any kind of organized civil society that protects its vulnerable members from destitution.
Let’s be honest: conservatives care about the poor and want everyone to share in the benefits of a free and prosperous society, but we are remarkably bad about communicating that fact or translating it into practical, obvious policy solutions. Given the United States’ current condition of long-term, high employment, sluggish economic growth, eroding family and community structures, and gloomy, uncertain future, this is a potentially fatal flaw. If uncorrected, our movement remains highly vulnerable to being swept from all meaningful influence, should the Democratic party tack back towards the center and start running things with any measurable degree of competence.
For conservatism to succeed in the future, we need to make our positive vision of a healthy civil society that promotes strong families and provides a safety net for the poor and vulnerable while protecting liberty and not giving way to Leviathan a centerpiece of our message to the American people.
Firstly, conservatives need to articulate, fully, clearly, and in simple terms, the principle which Catholics such as myself and Mr. Shea would term subsidiarity. In the United States, we more typically call this federalism. In essence, subsidiarity is the principle that says that political authority and social responsibility should not be aggregated in an upward direction except under necessity. If your neighbor is hungry and you have an extra bowl of rice on hand, you shouldn’t be phoning the UN and demanding that they come feed him.
Contrary to liberal mythology, conservatives do not actually yearn for a Dickensian world of factories and workhouses in which the only assistance the poor receive are the few occasional coppers scattered in the street by passing robber barons. A large bulk of our objections towards government programs simply rests on the fact that it is the federal government that is administering them. Scaled down to the state or local level, much of the current social safety net would be rendered unobjectionable to conservatives, or at least become less a matter of principle, and more a matter of wonky efficiency and budgetary wrangling.
Far too often this gets lost in translation. Going forward, conservatives need to pound away at the fact that we are not advocating for dismantling the social safety net, simply for shifting it downward to the state and local level, where it will be closer and more responsive to the citizens whom it is designed to help. Here, also, there will be greater opportunity for creative innovation, partnership with private charities, and the direct involvement of more affluent citizens with the welfare of their less fortunate neighbors.
This may rub our more libertarian colleagues the wrong way, but that cannot be helped. Our highly mobile society and weakened culture of marriage and family means that the State must now take on a more active role as an instrument of civil society’s obligation to promote the common good and the welfare of the disadvantaged. It is up to conservatives to ensure that this role is kept as close and accountable to the body public as possible.
Secondly, conservatives would be well-served to take to heart the Catholic other core Catholic social principle of solidarity. As was famously shown by the 2012 exit polls, Mitt Romney beat Barack Obama on every single economic policy stance, but in terms of whom voters felt cared for them and their concerns, Obama trounced Romney, and that was the metric that reflected the election results. All the eye-rolling and sneering at “low-info” voters in the world won’t change this hard truth about human nature: people want to feel that their leaders stand with them in their struggles.
Consider President Bush’s famous bullhorn speech on the rubble of Ground Zero:
In the hard calculus of number and results, George Bush’s presence at the ruins of the World Trade Center was pointless. It didn’t save a single life or bring a single terrorist to justice. But is there anyone who thinks that he shouldn’t have gone? Heaven forbid! That speech made a huge difference, in an intangible yet still powerful way, because it communicated, in the most visual and literal of ways, that the President of the United States stood with the people of NYC in their time of trial and loss.
Conservative politicians and activists every day need to make an equivalent stand with those Americans who are suffering, not because of a terrorist attack, but because the depressed, shifting economy and disintegrating social structures have left them behind. This will take time. It will require hard work and genuine empathy. It’ll require actively building trust, and talking to and understanding people who distrust their bosses a hell of a lot more than they distrust the IRS. It’ll require engaging in good faith with liberals and seriously considering if there are reforms we can enact that don’t necessarily do anything to roll back government, but still serve to better the lives of those in need. It’ll mean making those whom our economy and society is leaving behind the central figures of our speeches and the clear and primary beneficiaries of our policy proposals.
The greater solidarity we show, and the more trust we build out of it, the more undecided and swing voters will believe that we genuinely care about their lives and their problems, and that our small government platform isn’t just a smokescreen for enriching their bosses and leaving them to twist in the wind.
Being pro-life does in fact mean more than simple opposition to abortion. It means respecting, upholding, and supporting the life, dignity, and God-given liberty of our fellow human beings, both by our individual efforts and through our cooperation with the legitimate operations of a healthy, free civil society. As conservatives, we ought to trumpet that belief from the rooftops and demonstrate it in the policies for which we advocate.