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The Feminization of the Democrats
by Irving Kristol

Social issues and the culture wars that rage around them are often relegated to a position of secondary importance behind economic matters in political campaigns. As the culture wars have gained in intensity and prominence, however, social and economic issues have become intertwined, signaling a major shift not only in American politics, but also in American society.

Though both the media and the public were bored by the Republican and Democratic conventions, these were nevertheless among the more significant conventions in our political history. They gave signs of major changes now under way in the parties, a kind of slide into what, for want of a better term, we may call postmodern politics. As would be expected, the change is less obvious in the case of the Republican Party--it is, after all, our conservative party. But it was there. In the case of the Democratic Party, the change has already achieved a visible momentum.

This change can be roughly summarized as follows: The traditional attitude of both parties toward the welfare state has now been infused with contrasting cultural agendas. The economics of the welfare state is no longer a simple matter of arguments about balancing receipts and expenditures--though many conservatives still see it that way. The economics is now being integrated into the culture wars we are living through, so the issue of what kind of welfare state we shall have is now but an aspect of a profound division over what kind of country we are, and what kind of people we are, and what we mean by the "American way of life."

Outside the Mainstream

Unsurprisingly, the Republican Party is not only resistant to such thoughts--it positively distrusts them. Republican eyes go blank at the very mention of "culture." The party's historic intimacy with the business community has led it to respect economists but to be suspicious of "intellectuals." The party's establishment has nothing against religion so long as it doesn't interfere with golf on Sundays, and it regards those who take religion seriously, who talk earnestly about "values" and "virtues," as "outside the mainstream." Nevertheless, 20 percent of the delegates to the Republican convention described themselves as Christian conservatives--that is to say, they see their religious beliefs as telling them something important about the way we should conduct our lives. They know that there is a "culture war" going on because of the frustrations--even the constant abuse--they experience. And they are the most dynamic force within the Republican Party.

At the 1992 Republican convention, Pat Buchanan asserted that there was a "culture war" going on in the United States, and for this he was excoriated, his speech being denounced as "inflammatory" and "extremist." The Republican establishment quickly distanced itself from such distracting belligerency, and worked to retain the traditional conservative focus on economics and foreign policy. In 1996, this establishment was well prepared to stay on track, and the proceedings slithered along smoothly as the convention happily focused on the familiar issue of taxes.

Democratic Culture Wars

In contrast, this last Democratic convention was in effect a "culture wars" rally, though the organizers were careful to spin out much empty rhetoric about "family values," without going into specifics. This irritated the media, which finds it almost impossible to think that "family values," whatever they are, have anything to do with politics. At the same time, most of the journalists and commentators did have preconceptions as to what American politics is really about. They knew that a "newly energized labor movement," represented at the convention, signaled a revival of the old liberal, now renamed "progressive," coalition, a topic they have been writing about for years. What they preferred not to know is that only about 12 percent of American workers belong to unions today, and that at least half of these are white-collar workers who are employees of government (at all levels). What kind of labor movement is this? The majority of union delegates to the Democratic convention would describe themselves as "professionals."

Nor was it mentioned even in passing that 50 percent of the Democratic delegates were women, had to be women, by virtue of an affirmative action, sexist quota. Why such a quota? No one asked, even though there seemed to be no evident political difference whatsoever between those women and their male counterparts. It is too bad the question was not raised because it might have alerted an inquiring mind to the deeper meaning of this self-imposed quota. It pointed to a major transformation of the Democratic Party. Specifically, it pointed to the feminization of the party--not only in the delegate count, which is of no great significance, but in the ethos that pervades the party, and in the policies that naturally flow from this ethos.

As Steven Stark recently wrote in the Atlantic Monthly: "Although many media accounts still give the impression that the [gender] gap [between the parties] is greatest on women's issues' such as abortion and an Equal Rights Amendment, men and women do not differ much on these issues. Rather, the gulf today tends to be on issues involving the existence and expansion of the welfare state."

The American welfare state has had a feminine coloration from the very beginning, Mr. Stark points out. In Europe, the welfare state was created by trade unionists and socialists for the benefit of working people. In the United States, our welfare state was shaped, in large part, by the child welfare establishment--an establishment that provided "suitable" careers for women at a time when such careers were few, and devised appropriate policies that were women-oriented. (Various left-wing historians have made the same point, approvingly.) The result was a welfare state for dependent women and children and for the burgeoning "helping professions" that attend them.

It is not really surprising that this welfare state should breed a politics, not of "justice" or "fairness" but of "compassion," which contemporary liberalism has elevated into the most important civic virtue. Women tend to be more sentimental, more risk-averse, and less competitive than men--yes, it's Mars vs. Venus--and therefore are less inclined to be appreciative of free-market economics, where there are losers as well as winners. College-educated women--the kind who attend Democratic conventions--are also more "permissive" and less "judgmental" on such issues as homosexuality, capital punishment, even pornography.

PC Redefined

This helps explain the amazing degree to which the Democratic convention was bathed in a pre-political pathos involving what journalists would once have called "sob stories" or "heartbreakers"--terms that contemporary liberalism has made politically incorrect. Some political commentators, even some liberal commentators, were vexed at such made-for-TV soap opera, and wanted to know where the political agenda was. Well, they were looking at it, but didn't realize it. The message was: If terrible things happen to innocent people, government--and only the federal government, at that--is morally obliged to come to their rescue. Forget prayer, forget stoicism; hope is incarnated in the welfare state.

So powerful is this theme in our culture today, that even the Republican convention had to make some gestures in this direction. But everyone understood that this was little more than copycat opportunism, while politicized compassion constitutes the very heart and soul of the Democratic Party.

This passion for compassion was so strong that it moved the Democratic delegates to ignore resolutely the issue of illegitimacy. The issue simply wasn't mentioned, even though illegitimacy--especially among teenage girls--and its sociopathic consequences are at the center of public insistence on the need for welfare reform. Both President Clinton and the convention refused to recognize this fact, even though Mr. Clinton had just signed a welfare reform bill. On welfare, the Democrats are, and will remain, in a state of denial. We should take seriously the hints from the White House to the effect that the president will gut the very welfare reform he just signed by manipulating the regulatory requirements. He will most certainly do it, after the election.

What Kind of Family?

It goes beyond this, however. We know that married women, and especially married women with children, tend to be much more conservative than single women. So when Democrats talk about the family, they never--but never--say anything that might suggest a household consisting of a mother, a father, and children. Assertions to the effect that "we are all one family" are a rather transparent rhetorical effort to delegitimize the traditional family as being the family, from which all other households are deviants, to a mild or radical degree.

The current breakup experienced by the American family is having a profound effect on American politics, as well as on American society. One can go further and say that the social problems we are confronting, problems either created or exacerbated by our welfare state, are making the welfare state a cultural issue as well as an economic one. The Christian right understands this, as does the secularist left. The "culture wars" are no political sideshow. Today, and in the years ahead, they will be energizing and defining all the controversies that revolve around the welfare state.

This article appeared in the Wall Street Journal on September 9, 1996

The Two Welfare States

By Irving Kristol

The tension between the original version of the welfare state, which is stern and dedicated to fostering self-reliance, and a later, gentler version, which values protection above all, continues to dominate our politics.

The most notable aspect of the current presidential election has been the division that has emerged between the two versions of the welfare state envisaged by the two parties.

An older, masculine, paternalistic version of the welfare state is fighting a guerrilla war against a newer and firmly established feminine-maternalistic conception of the welfare state. Nor is this a peculiarly American phenomenon. Something like it is visible in all the Western democracies. Though some intellectuals, especially in Europe, still chatter about conflict between a welfare state and a "free market" state, that polarity ceased to exist almost a century ago.


The Maternal Welfare State

Fathers want their children to grow up to be self-reliant, self-supporting, and able to cope with a recalcitrant world. Mothers want their children to be as completely protected as possible from such a world and to be gratefully attached to them as long as they live; the avoidance of risk gets a very high priority. The original welfare state, from 1900 to 1945, was largely paternalistic in conception, since the trade unions (overwhelmingly male) played such a crucial role in bringing it into being.

After World War II, however, as women entered the labor force as well as educational institutions in large numbers, and as feminist ideas became popular, the welfare state came gradually to be seen less as a helping hand for those in need—a "safety net"—and more as a communal exercise in "compassion" toward an ever-expanding proportion of the population. That was the point of the complaint lodged by many feminists against Margaret Thatcher—she had a "manly" rather than "womanly" conception of social policy.

That is the key term in the feminization of social policy, "compassion." Adam Smith talked easily about the importance of "sympathy," but that term lacks the erotic warmth of "compassion." Sympathy is most easily directed toward those who want to help themselves and need a helping hand. Compassion, as we now understand it, is an indiscriminate response to suffering and is always therapeutic. Men can (and do) sympathize with those who are down on their luck, but it needs a woman to feel a deep compassion, shot through with free-floating indignation, for the human suffering of those who have been victimized by the ravages of ill fortune—or even by their own misdeeds. (There is no doubt that George W. Bush’s use of the phrase "compassionate conservatism" is an attempt to swim with the maternalistic current.)

Once upon a time, popular journalism knew how to exploit this deep well of compassion with the formulaic "sob story"—an account of human suffering that would bring tears to a woman’s eyes. This was regarded as an inferior form of hack journalism, written by hardened cynics who saw profit where others saw misery. Gradually, however, as more and more women were educated to read and were provided with time to read, it became a quite respectable genre of journalism. And with the advent of the mass media, and especially of television, it became a dominant form of journalism. That photograph of four American soldiers raising the flag at Iwo Jima was the last "masculine" spectacle enshrined by television. Since then, it is scenes of war’s brutality, and of human suffering, that win the awards.

The feminine, maternal version of the welfare state now has the support not only of public opinion, but of institutions and professions that have been nourished by this state, so that there are large numbers of working women loyal to this state—and men, too, who are loyal to these women. These are now designated collectively as the "helping professions" and include social work, nursing, psychology, public health, librarianship, teaching, and branches of television journalism.

These professions are—most of them anyhow—politically active. It has been noted that the largest single contingent at the Democratic conventions were members of the teachers unions, and while these included men, one can be certain that none of them ever dared breathe an antifeminist thought. It has hardly been noticed, though it is an interesting fact, that a whole new profession has been recognized in the media. It consists of people who designate themselves, and are then designated by others, as "activists." To be an activist has become a recognized occupational specialty with at least quasi-professional status. Needless to say, this activism goes in only one prescribed direction.

Creating this extensive, in some cases massive, maternal welfare state, has been an extraordinary achievement, in view of the fact that it was created, as it were, ex nihilo. It was not a response to any visible popular demand, but was propelled by the thinking and writing of social scientists and journalists—an instance of what Daniel Patrick Moynihan, back in the late 1960s, foresaw as the "professionalization of reform." This version of the welfare state was officially recognized, and inaugurated and financed, by Lyndon Johnson. There is considerable evidence in the memoirs of his White House staff that LBJ had no clear idea of what he was doing. That did not, of course, matter.


The Paternal Welfare State

Meanwhile, the masculine version of the welfare state is still a living political idea. In order to survive, it has made concessions, inevitably. "Leave no child behind" is not a traditional, conservative educational slogan. And queuing up to be kissed and blessed by Oprah Winfrey is not a traditional electoral activity. But the original idea still exists and has its victories, most notably in the case of welfare reform. And in the longer run it has two things going for it. One is economics, and the other is foreign policy.

The feminine version of the welfare state is inherently expansive—compassion has no limits—and sooner or later it runs into economic counterpressures. This has already happened in the European democracies, where economic growth is impeded by high taxation and overly generous welfare expenditures. It can be predicted with some confidence that those European governments will move, however reluctantly, toward a more paternalistic (that is, limited) version of the welfare state. The Left—a coalition of trade unionists, environmentalists, feminists, and surviving socialists—is already in revolt against "globalization" and "Americanization." It may win the occasional election, but it cannot govern without abandoning its agenda.

The United States is in a much better position, mainly because we now enjoy strong economic growth together with a nice budgetary surplus. But the pressures to spend are there (and quite a few conservative politicians are as easily tempted as liberals are by envisaged electoral rewards). This is especially true for a nation that is a superpower, whose foreign policies require increasing military expenditures.

The maternal welfare state positively hates such expenditures, is cutting back on them in Europe, and is doing its best to emasculate the spirit of nationalist patriotism in all nations of Europe. The United States, however, cannot opt out of world affairs. Nor is there any serious evidence that the majority of Americans wish to disburden themselves of our superpower responsibilities. Even a casual television viewer can see that our military is still highly popular, which is not at all the case in Europe.

So the maternal-paternal conflict will continue, in a seesaw fashion, until a point arises—and it will, however unimaginable now—when other urgent issues intervene and the welfare state is no longer the focal point of democratic politics.

A version of this article appeared in the Wall Street Journal on October 19, 2000

Irving Kristol is the John M. Olin Distinguished Fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.