In the early aughts Republicans were laser focused on the fiscal deficit and the inevitable financial shock that would spring from it. That threat has not abated. But a new deficit has perhaps become more important: The dignity deficit. It’s a plague that is increasingly impacting the middle- and working-classes in the United States, leading to enormous swaths of America that feel alienated, isolated and not worthy of respect.
Arthur Brooks, president of the American Enterprise Institute, explains the dignity deficit by looking at Tom Fletcher, an unemployed father of eight, that served as one of the compelling stories that pushed President Lyndon Johnson to launch the War on Poverty.
The War on Poverty did not fail because it did not raise the daily caloric consumption of Tom Fletcher (it did). It failed because it did nothing significant to make him and Americans like him needed and thus help them gain a sense of dignity. It also got the U.S. government into the business of treating people left behind by economic change as liabilities to manage rather than as human assets to develop.
The dignity deficit that has resulted is particularly acute among working-class men, most of whom are white and live in rural and exurban parts of the United States. In his recent book Men Without Work, the political economist (and American Enterprise Institute scholar) Nicholas Eberstadt shows that the percentage of working-age men outside the labor force—that is, neither working nor seeking work—has more than tripled since 1965, rising from 3.3 percent to 11.6 percent. And men without a high school degree are more than twice as likely to be part of this “un-working” class.
These men are withdrawing not only from the labor force but from other social institutions as well. Two-thirds of them are unmarried. And Eberstadt found that despite their lack of work obligations, these men are no more likely to spend time volunteering, participating in religious activities, or caring for family members than men with full-time employment.
It’s a grim picture. Disaffection and embarrassment leads to the withdrawal from social institutions which leads to other pathologies such as drug abuse and suicide. Unsurprisingly, these Americans were disillusioned with labels like conservative and liberal, Democrat and Republican. Instead, they simply wanted someone to speak directly to them.
President Trump did that. Whereas the political parties had become bogged down in intricate policy prescriptions, unable to see through the eyes of their voters or articulate how their solutions would address the realities the disaffected were confronting, President Trump powerfully diagnosed their problems and spoke in language that resonated.
That doesn’t mean that conservatives, or Republicans for that matter, are off the hook. Words have grabbed the working class’ attention, but they cannot, in and of themselves, lift them out of their plight. Without action, Republican and conservative are just additional labels on a policy product that failed. Nevertheless, they are still labels that will endure well beyond the Trump presidency, and thus they must not only work to harness the strength’s of Trump’s diagnosis, they must also also deliver viable cures to the problems that plague too many in our nation.
As conservative thinker Yuval Levin writes in an essay for Ethics & Public Policy, that begins with understanding and honoring the needs of modern citizens, which is vastly different than just categorizing them as a recipient of benefits (as the left likes to do), as interchangeable units of labor (like the right has a tendency to do), or as radically isolated pursuers of pleasure (as is libertarians belief).
Where it does take on specific policy goals, its aim should be not to impose a smarter technocracy but to better enable Americans to help one another. One cause of today’s widespread alienation from politics is a failure of public policy to respond to changing realities in American life. A more conservative approach to public policy would not seek its own version of the Great Society but rather ways to help government be responsive to society instead of displacing it—by decentralizing power and allowing solutions to rise from the bottom up. It would seek answers that look like twenty-first-century life and so would leave behind the tired dogmas of social democracy and take our policy debates at last beyond the welfare state.
Unfortunately, as Levin says, we often fall into the trap of “running through what’s left of the to-do list of Reaganism,” rather than engage in the much harder work of diagnosing today’s challenges. And that means we never get to actual solutions, which should take the form of strengthening the institutions that exist between an individual and the state, i.e. family, community, church, school, businesses, civic groups, etc. Those are the true laboratories of democracy that develop the type of solutions that work by focusing on valuing the individuals in front of them. There’s a lot Republicans can learn from those interactions, all the while ensuring solutions that begin with dignity.