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The Would-Be Progressives

Critics of identity politics say it is un-American to treat citizens as members of groups or categories, rather than as individuals—as if an isolated legal individualism had ever been the case in our history. Various people have regularly had special exemptions or advantages just because they were members of a particular group. A 1944 bill called the Veterans’ Preference Act said that veterans applying for federal jobs were to be given five extra points (ten extra if they had been injured) over others, and were to be hired where—even with the additional points—others were tied with them. Modern defenders of affirmative action would never systematize the skewing of numbers in this way.

Some raise the objection that veterans were rewarded for what they did, not who they were. But courts have repeatedly upheld nepotism, the right of a boss to hire a relative over a “better qualified” person, just because of who the nephew was. What of the argument that new “identity” types want preference for what was done to them (e.g., women for centuries of exclusion)? That is our criterion when we support federal disaster relief to people for what hurricanes or floods have done to them.

One could go much farther. For most of our history, people were treated as a group when it came to filling all the important jobs in government, business, the professions, or the academy. The group was white males, and it did not think of itself as singled out for preferences because it was not a part of society, it considered itself the whole, so far as important tasks were concerned—like voting, governing, ruling, and judging for the rest of the culture. Other groups, ethnic or religious, were favored or disfavored in state or local government—WASPs favored here and Catholics rejected; Catholics favored there, Jews rejected. Irish machines ruled in some places. Southerners have favored southerners, and still do. Universities have favored alumni as a group. A politician gives special attention to constituents as a group—in fact, deals worked out for businesses in a politician’s district are defended against quid pro quo suspicions by invoking “constituent service.”

Though treatment by groups is condemned, now, as divisive, most such arrangements were thought of in the past as promoting social cohesion. Immigrants were integrated into American life by mobilizing them and defending their participation in ethnic clusters. Even today, attendance at feminist meetings will impress one with the way women previously sealed off from each other—blacks, Hispanics, working women, professionals, the very pious, the very secular, lesbians, nuns—have found new ties and channels of communication with one another. They build a community rather than tear it down.

Whatever one thinks of abortion as such, its advocates have created an overwhelming consensus in favor of tolerating it (at the least), and the former class divisions—elite women able to get subrosa abortions, the poor and working class deprived of choice—have been broken down, despite continuing Republican efforts to keep this class division by denying financial support to poor women seeking what is available to their rich sisters. Who is the divider here, and who the uniter?

When opposition to affirmative action was advanced in California, that fons et origo of the sappy, liberals feared that President Clinton, all antennae twitching, would give way to the opponents. But it was not an option really open to him. Even Republicans like William Bennett saw the trap this could become. The principal beneficiaries of affirmative action have been women, and nothing can increase the “gender gap” more than for Republicans to be seen as opposing their gains. And Clinton cannot support affirmative action for women, with all the electoral advantages tied to that, and repudiate it for blacks, who need it more and get it less than women do. As McGovern did not create the cultural changes that have affected the electoral environment for Democrats, so Clinton cannot wipe the slate clean and start over. There have been excesses and mistaken applications of the affirmative action principle. “Merit” is an indispensable condition of all hiring—something ignored in the most blatantly group-determined affirmative action hiring, President Bush’s appointment of Clarence Thomas. But abandoning the concept of affirmative action would not take us to some never-realized ideal of pure merit; it would simply return us to favors for the previously advantaged groups.

3. It’s the Economy and Culture

It is a sterile exercise to separate economics from “social” issues. As I have already remarked, abortion has reflected economic status in the past. The feminists who help create more jobs for women cause male anxiety over employment. Coping with the global economy depends, for Patrick Buchanan’s followers, on their sense that economic nationalism is a form of patriotism. Sexual freedoms like divorce, once confined mainly to the well-to-do, are feared when they spread to “the masses.”

One of President Clinton’s trickier recent moves demonstrates how culture and economy affect an issue like welfare reform. It offends the American ethos to see anyone get paid for not working. Oddly, we accept fairly easily the idea of paying farmers not to farm, or workers not to work—in the form of unemployment checks. But to have a permanently unemployed or unemployable class is unacceptable—and understandably so. To have such a class does subsidize dependency in a country where Jefferson made self-support a mark of citizenship. Dependency undermines self-respect.

So President Clinton, like many a candidate before him, promised during the 1992 campaign to get people off the relief rolls and onto the employment rolls. But the Reagan deficit left government cruelly short of funds for new programs (or for old programs), and putting welfare recipients to work is a cruelly expensive proposition. They must be supported (the initial cost, already being paid) while training them for work (a second cost) and finding or creating the jobs to fit the prospective workers (a third, fourth, or possible fifth cost). If jobs are not available when the training is completed, jobs must be moved to the workers, or workers to the jobs. If all else fails, the government must become the employer of last resort, through public works or subsidized industries. All this involves higher taxes, more government bureaus and regulation (to find and qualify the job trainers, assure fair procedures for the businesses offering jobs, and so on).

The voters want workfare, but they do not want to pay for it. They deplore the dole (which is comparatively cheap) while opposing higher taxes and bigger government to change the dole into a federal employment service. What did the President do in this situation? He said he favors experiments in reform, and lent federal support to the one being conducted in Wisconsin by Republican governor Tommy Thompson. The governor has had moderate success in finding jobs for those on welfare—at immoderate cost. He raised his state’s annual welfare expenditures from $10 million in 1988, when he took office, to $58 million last year—and the plans he has for using federal help will add at least 13 percent per year for the program, and very likely more.7

People say they want to abolish welfare because it is not spiritually good for those on it. It is true that the recipients will be moral beneficiaries of such reform. But people have implicitly assumed that getting people off welfare will cut the taxes spent on them—which is definitely not true. No laboratory experiment could better illustrate that than the spotlight Clinton has turned on Wisconsin.

Another way in which the economy, rather than ideology, drives so-called social issues is the growth of “judging by the numbers” in affirmative action cases. In adjudication of discrimination cases, it is said, actual intent to discriminate should be established, not the mere presumption that an employer who has never hired blacks is therefore discriminating. There was one problem with this. To take each case in all its particulars would consume so much time, so many investigators and litigators for the government, that a huge and growing bureaucracy would be spawned—far beyond anything we have seen in agencies like the EEOC (the Equal Economic Opportunity Commission), Clarence Thomas’s former agency.

This was not the first time the government had faced such a problem. Workmen’s compensation laws were difficult to enforce for the same reason—each accident or injury had to be investigated in detail, along with touchy discussion of employer’s versus employee’s culpability. The solution was to appeal to general records rather than to rely on case-by-case scrutiny. An employer was culpable if accidents occurred at more than the average rate. This served the businesses’ purpose as well as the government’s, since neither side wanted prolonged litigation and the intrusive presence of government investigators in the workplace. There were few complaints that “quotas” were being established for workers’ claims in factories that had a bad record. This was, in short, an anti-bureaucratic solution to a problem.

The sociologist John David Skrentny shows that the same thing happened in the case of federal rulings on affirmative action. To judge each case to make sure the employment criteria had been “colorblind” was like trying to establish the exact degree of culpability that went into every harmful effect on a worker. So the government used overall patterns of hiring. This method was not “colorblind”—since it counted blacks hired or absent. But it, too, saved businesses from having to mount an endless defense of each hiring decision, which explains the general acquiescence in this procedure by employers: “Businesses, if left alone, do not seem to mind hiring by numbers.” 8 In fact, Michael Lind and others have attacked businesses’ preference for preferential hiring.9

4. Not Progressivism. Progress.

E.J. Dionne’s construct of a new Progressivism assumes that a series of moves in the past can be replicated today. But the parts being moved are not the same. He limits himself to a mechanical analogy when the chemistry of the bodies to be affected has completely changed. Dionne appeals to Herbert Croly as a guide; yet, as the historian Robert Wiebe pointed out, Croly wanted a permanent and professional bureaucracy to initiate and maintain his reforms. As Croly wrote in 1914:

Thus the experts charged with the administration of these laws would become the official custodians of a certain part of the accepted social program…. Their work in enforcing the law, in watching its operation and in advising its amendment or supplementation would be dignified by an element of independent authority. Representing, as they would, the knowledge gained by the attempt to realize an accepted social policy, they would be lifted out of the realm of partisan and factious political controversy and obtain the standing of authentic social experts.10

Of course, we now have a large bureaucracy—not so permanent or removed from electoral vagaries as Croly wanted, but resented just to the degree that it approaches his ideal.

Our whole world has been changed, not least by the impact of the Progressives themselves. Huge geological shifts have occurred in our society—underground changes whose extent is only hinted at by the high points thrust up to view: the graduated income tax, child labor laws, women’s suffrage, licensing of vehicle operators, regulation of foods and pharmaceuticals, standardization of criminal procedures, environmental codes, state and federal welfare programs, civil rights legislation. All this long process has fed into the things that George McGovern’s critics think he confected and sprang on the nation in 1972. To believe that one can impose an economic solution free from the past by ignoring all intervening “social” or “cultural” changes is an exercise in fantasy.11 It should be said that the most ardent new Crolyites, Messrs. Dionne and Weisberg, do not go quite that far; Michael Tomasky does.

President Clinton has been accused, with reason, of unpredictability, of unexplained shifts or yieldings. Elizabeth Drew said he let himself be “rolled” by the demands of women. It is said that he wavered on a commitment in reconsidering affirmative action for blacks. But surely midcourse correction is necessary in a climate that could lead to an affirmative action aberration like the appointment of Justice Thomas or of Leonard Jeffries to a department chairmanship in a university. It is said that Dick Morris has seduced Clinton into preempting the Republican program on welfare, crime, and censorship. But support for Governor Thompson’s welfare effort is a didactic exercise that may at last bring home to people the truth about “workfare.” The Brady Bill and the assault weapon ban would not have passed through Congress except as part of an anti-crime program. Through his vice president, Clinton has supported maximum openness to the information superhighway. The V-chip for parental control of television in the new era is a defensible and perhaps necessary concomitant to such openness.

Michael Tomasky says the President should dump affirmative action and concentrate on economic realities—e.g., by pushing for a single-payer health system, though he admits it has little or no chance of passage. Such exercises in purity are useful only for things like Republican attacks on a culture they cannot change with political tools, and which they do not change even in their own lives.

It is easy to be consistent, and irrelevant, by calling year after year for “workfare” and proposing no funds to bring it about. It is a touchy matter to maneuver through a period of unprecedentedly rapid and unsettling change. Those pronouncers of a death sentence on Clinton’s presidency after the 1994 election should reflect on how sudden has been the turnabout in many different parts of society. In a time of high winds, one must tack. Merely tactical use of certain positions—even of the new fad for Progressivism—is probably necessary if one is to make progress. > You don’t abandon where you want to go, but you have to tack to get there. You have to one minute go right for the objective, and then at some point when you find the boat is about to tip over, you steer in another direction until the boat regains stability, then once more head toward the objective. You approach it in a series of triangular moves, instead of head-on.

  1. 7

    Paul Offner, “Wisconsin Shuffle,” The New York Times, May 28, 1996, p. A17. Further hidden costs in workfare include child care for welfare mothers who find jobs, and health insurance for those who forfeit Medicaid because of employment. See Jacob Weisberg, “Cheese Whiz,” New York, June 3, 1996, pp. 18-19.

  2. 8

    John David Skrentny, The Ironies of Affirmative Action: Politics, Culture, and Justice in America (University of Chicago Press, 1996), p. 141.

  3. 9

    Lind, The Next American Nation, p. 179. Richard D. Kahlenberg claims that Dole supports affirmative action in the private sector because of pressure from businessmen: “Bob Dole’s Colorblind Injustice,” The Washington Post, June 2, 1996, pp. C1, C4.

  4. 10

    Herbert Croly, Progressive Democracy (Macmillan, 1914), pp. 360-361. See Robert H. Wiebe, The Search for Order, 1877-1920 (Hill and Wang, 1967), pp. 159, 208.

  5. 11

    Abigail and Stephan Thernstrom point out, in their paper at the Hudson Institute symposium, that Croly paid no attention to blacks—something no political progressive can do now.

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