Of Bread, Circuses and Ovaries

The 99 percent. The 47 percent. Sandra Fluke. Cardinal Dolan versus Secretary Sebelius. Single women giving 68 percent of their vote to Barack Obama. Each of these talking points waltzes around a thorny problem for American governance: The challenge of entitlement reform in a culture with far too many fallen soldiers in its “little platoons.”

The GOP consultant class, diving into the post-election crosstabs, are trying to make rain for themselves by noting “unexpected” electoral trends, like the rate of single women going for the Democrats. Although I certainly applaud their zeal to keep themselves employed, their potential future employers ought to ask, How did you clowns not see coming a trend as old as the Roman Empire and as evergreen as Tocqueville?

It’s a commonplace for economists to claim that people are fundamentally rational. In the aggregate, people tend to make prudent short- and long-term choices that redound to their own advantage. That’s why economics works fairly well as a predictive theory.

Concurrently, sociologists have lamented since the Moynihan Report the fracturing of the American family. The two-parent family, with a working father and a homemaking mother and a typical family size above the population-replenishment rate, is transitioning. Single parenthood, divorce, the sociocultural legitimization of same-sex attraction — these pressures have modified the political and economic calculus that the average citizen must factor. Cultural conservatives have done much to decry these shifts but precious little to change them apart from sitting on the sidelines offering boos and hisses.

Thus, the question: If it’s culturally and economically viable for a single female to thrive on her own terms — as promiscuous or as chaste as she wishes; married or unmarried; barren or fecund; straight or gay; obligated to her family or not — then what’s her Plan B when family and network support aren’t up to the task?

I’m not talking about the morning-after pill. Human society has always emphasized intergenerational support as a mechanism for protecting against illness, injury or old age. Within kin networks, in your youth you relied on your parents and grandparents, and in your old age you relied on your children. Extended family helped, too, and in many places affinity groups — churches, benevolent associations, labor unions — pitched in to cover gaps. Once upon a time we called these institutions “civil society.”

The atomization of the family and the turn toward more robust and unhindered individualism turned this model on its head. For many, many people — and most especially, single females — Plan B isn’t family or a social network, but the promise of baseline support from the government.

Yes, many Republicans mouth their outrage at this turn of events. Yet whether the sound bite is Romney’s 47 percent remark or Rush Limbaugh’s idea of a “nation of takers,” the reality is that a sizeable proportion of the population has no other reliable catastrophic fallback. No savings, no spouse, too small of a family. Only Big Government is positioned to fill the gap, and without that backstop, a person’s just one step away from the abyss with no safety net at the bottom.

And you know what? This trust in providential government is rational. Trusting the government to care for you, when you have no one else who will, provides psychological comfort. It’s also economically rational. Thus, voters will support politicians who protect their Plan B.

The conservative talking-points on Big Government ring hollow with folks who trust Uncle Sam to catch them if they fall. Part of this disconnect might be simple cognitive dissonance: People support “caring government” for others as a sign of enlightened social compassion without acknowledging that their support is partially selfish. Sometimes — look, for example, at the Occupy nonsense — a trust in government is a convenient outlet for envy.

In any case, a message of “smaller government” that “gets out of your life” appeals to people who follow the older life plan of larger families, connected local networks and wealth-building thrift. If you don’t have that infrastructure behind you, all you’re hearing is “we’re taking away your safety net, you leeches.” Appeals to fiscal restraint become too academic, too coldly calculating to resonate — especially when the “other side” argues that that the cost savings will simply revert to the wealthy.

The Republicans have a real rhetorical deficit on this point. I worry, though, that the Democrats have an even worse problem: Eventually, someone’s going to have to pay the bill. When you offer bread and circuses on the public dime, the public is going to demand that you get the dimes from somewhere. When the sources dry up, so also does the public benefit. When that happens ….

Democrats have been disingenuous about entitlement reform. It’s as if they believe they can find ways to fund a generous welfare state indefinitely, contrary to the experience of social democracies across Europe. Raising taxes on the wealthy won’t cut it, and they know it, but just like the Republican refuse to concede that that they’ve lost the culture war, the Democrats refuse to concede … math.

We’re therefore facing the odd problem of two major political parties cum ideologies that could be positioned to take up a reform mantle within their scope of interest, but instead pick incoherent fights with straw men.Republicans should probably lay off the moralizing about the shift away from the Eisenhower-style family. Democrats should probably stop lying about entitlement spending.

Either way, the next few decades will prove fascinating. The premise of American government rests on intermediary institutions and federalism to check the popular excesses that appear at the federal level. The more we take knock down those barriers, the more likely it is that our worst impulses will be unimpeded by our best instincts.