A GOP talk­ing point lib­er­als should skip

Yascha Mounk says the Democrats need their own al­ter­na­tive to the pol­i­tics of ‘per­sonal re­spon­si­bil­ity’

The Washington Post Sunday - - OUTLOOK - Twit­ter: @Yascha_Mounk Yascha Mounk, a colum­nist at Slate and the host of “The Good Fight” podcast, is the au­thor of “The Age of Re­spon­si­bil­ity: Luck, Choice and the Wel­fare State.”

Pres­i­dent Trump’s pro­posed bud­get is a bait-and-switch. On the cam­paign trail, Trump styled him­self as an ad­vo­cate of work­ing peo­ple who be­lieved that the state has an obli­ga­tion to help strug­gling Amer­i­cans, ir­re­spec­tive of why they are in need. Whereas his main ri­vals for the Repub­li­can nom­i­na­tion in­sisted that Amer­i­cans have a re­spon­si­bil­ity to pro­cure their own health care, for ex­am­ple, Trump pro­claimed that we “need health care for all peo­ple.” There was, he said in one in­ter­view, “a phi­los­o­phy in some cir­cles that if you can’t pay for it, you don’t get it. That’s not go­ing to hap­pen with us.”

Since tak­ing of­fice, Trump has re­verted to a more tra­di­tional Repub­li­can play­book: His eco­nomic pol­icy of­fers huge hand­outs to the rich­est Amer­i­cans, and it jus­ti­fies this re­dis­tri­bu­tion from bot­tom to top with the clas­sic rhetoric of “per­sonal re­spon­si­bil­ity” — a trope that has dom­i­nated Amer­i­can pol­i­tics for the bet­ter part of three decades. As Trump says in his of­fi­cial state­ment on the bud­get, he “will cham­pion the hard­work­ing tax­pay­ers who have been ig­nored for too long” while re­form­ing the wel­fare state so that it no longer “dis­cour­age[s] able-bod­ied adults from work­ing.”

“Per­sonal re­spon­si­bil­ity” is a pe­cu­liar phrase, at once an­o­dyne and fore­bod­ing. It is both an ex­pres­sion of breezy com­mon sense and a barely con­cealed threat to those un­for­tu­nate souls who might be so fool­ish as to act ir­re­spon­si­bly. With its pop­u­lar­ity in cam­paign slo­gans, com­mence­ment speeches and self­help books, it would be tempt­ing to dis­miss per­sonal re­spon­si­bil­ity as an empty in­can­ta­tion — a way to name-check virtues ev­ery de­cent ci­ti­zen can rally around: love and le­mon­ade, pa­tri­o­tism and pan­cakes, per­sonal re­spon­si­bil­ity and ap­ple pie. It’s such a rou­tine part of Amer­i­can dis­course that the lit­eral mean­ings of the words barely reg­is­ter.

Don’t be fooled. This lan­guage has had a pro­found im­pact on Amer­i­can pol­i­tics. Weaponized by con­ser­va­tives such as Ron­ald Rea­gan, then slowly adopted by lib­er­als such as Bill Clin­ton, “re­spon­si­bil­ity” has shaped pub­lic poli­cies from health care to hous­ing. It is no co­in­ci­dence, for ex­am­ple, that the great­est over­haul of the U.S. wel­fare state, which Clin­ton signed into law with bi­par­ti­san sup­port in 1996, was called the Per­sonal Re­spon­si­bil­ity and Work Op­por­tu­nity Rec­on­cil­i­a­tion Act.

The pe­cu­liar power of “per­sonal re­spon­si­bil­ity” (which I write about in my new book, “The Age of Re­spon­si­bil­ity”) stems from the fact that it seems to an­swer the ques­tion of what the state owes to whom. Con­ser­va­tives of­ten ar­gue that some peo­ple lead ir­re­spon­si­ble lives, char­ac­ter­ized by lazi­ness and bad choices. So, since a large share of the poor and the sick have but them­selves to blame for their suf­fer­ing, the state does not owe them any­thing. And to tax peo­ple who work hard and make good choices in or­der to look af­ter peo­ple who are ir­re­spon­si­ble is not just bad for eco­nomic growth; it is im­moral. “Amer­i­cans have choices,” as Rep. Ja­son Chaf­fetz (R-Utah) put it on CNN re­cently, tak­ing this logic to its ugly ex­treme. “. . . Maybe, rather than get­ting that new iPhone that they just love and they want to go spend hun­dreds of dol­lars on, maybe they should in­vest in their own health care.”

This way of look­ing at the world was, as the con­ser­va­tive writer David Frum has pointed out, par­tic­u­larly se­duc­tive when eco­nomic op­por­tu­nity for most Amer­i­cans was plen­ti­ful. The rhetoric of per­sonal re­spon­si­bil­ity seemed to be in keep­ing with the ex­pe­ri­ences of peo­ple who knew that a high school diploma and a good work ethic were enough to earn a mid­dle­class salary. And it of­fered an ex­pla­na­tion for why many mem­bers of mi­nor­ity com­mu­ni­ties, who suf­fered from the ef­fects of dis­crim­i­na­tion, were not far­ing as well: By in­vok­ing per­sonal re­spon­si­bil­ity, Amer­i­cans could tell them­selves that racial dis­par­i­ties did not stem from his­tor­i­cal injustice but rather from fac­tors for which the poor were them­selves to blame.

But as eco­nomic op­por­tu­nity be­gan to dry up for many white Amer­i­cans, the in­vo­ca­tions of re­spon­si­bil­ity came to feel jar­ring. Whereas the Repub­li­can base once saw per­sonal re­spon­si­bil­ity as a way to claim credit for its suc­cesses while cast­ing blame for oth­ers’ fail­ures, the same lan­guage now feels like a way of adding in­sult to in­jury. As Peter Beinart has ar­gued, in the eyes of many tra­di­tional Repub­li­can vot­ers, their party’s elites, not con­tent with plac­ing the agen­das of big busi­nesses and special in­ter­ests over those of com­mon peo­ple, in­sisted on also blam­ing them for their own strug­gles. Trump, in Beinart’s words, was so ap­peal­ing in good part be­cause “in­stead of de­mand­ing per­sonal re­spon­si­bil­ity,” he pledged “state pro­tec­tion.”

That is one of the main rea­sons Trump paid such a small price for jet­ti­son­ing GOP eco­nomic or­tho­doxy on the cam­paign trail: Long be­fore his re­fusal to dis­tin­guish be­tween the vir­tu­ous and the ir­re­spon­si­ble, the old lan­guage of per­sonal re­spon­si­bil­ity had started to lose its hold.

The vast gulf be­tween can­di­date Trump’s prom­ise not to judge or­di­nary Amer­i­cans for their prob­lems and Pres­i­dent Trump’s pol­icy of mak­ing life more dif­fi­cult for Amer­i­cans who fail to be self-suf­fi­cient cre­ates a new open­ing for lib­er­als. Af­ter decades when talk about per­sonal re­spon­si­bil­ity gave con­ser­va­tives ide­o­log­i­cal hege­mony over most dis­cus­sions of the wel­fare state, lib­er­als could now go on the rhetor­i­cal of­fen­sive. In­stead, they are stuck in de­fense mode, in­tent on re­fight­ing yes­ter­day’s bat­tles.

Stunned by the rhetor­i­cal power of “per­sonal re­spon­si­bil­ity,” the left long ago came to ac­cept the as­sump­tions of its po­lit­i­cal ad­ver­saries. As G.A. Co­hen put the point in a highly in­flu­en­tial 1989 pa­per, egal­i­tar­ian po­lit­i­cal philoso­phers be­gan to in­cor­po­rate “the most pow­er­ful idea in the arse­nal of the anti-egal­i­tar­ian right: the idea of choice and re­spon­si­bil­ity.” The same trans­for­ma­tion soon be­came ev­i­dent in ev­ery­day po­lit­i­cal rhetoric: Demo­cratic Pres­i­dents Bill Clin­ton and Barack Obama spoke as though they wanted to help only those Amer­i­cans who were in need for rea­sons be­yond their con­trol, in­ces­santly em­pha­siz­ing the plight of those who “work hard and play by the rules.” But since they sought to pre­serve key so­cial pro­vi­sions, they high­lighted an em­pir­i­cal dis­agree­ment in­stead: Most peo­ple are not at fault for be­ing in need. Rather, they are vic­tims of larger so­cial and eco­nomic struc­tures. As Obama likes to point out, the poor are strug­gling be­cause the eco­nomic “sys­tem is rigged against the mid­dle class.”

They had a point, of course. Though Amer­i­cans like to think of them­selves as a class­less so­ci­ety, eco­nomic mo­bil­ity in the United States has fallen be­low the lev­els recorded in most Euro­pean coun­tries. And a big rea­son is the very racial injustice that con­stant talk of per­sonal re­spon­si­bil­ity only serves to deepen. As study af­ter study has demon­strated, the odds are still stacked against blacks and Lati­nos: They are likely to be born to less-ed­u­cated par­ents, to at­tend worse schools and to have more trou­ble find­ing jobs than sim­i­larly qual­i­fied whites.

Yet, the left’s ap­proach has not led to a more pos­i­tive vi­sion of the econ­omy. All too of­ten, the fo­cus on ob­sta­cles has painted poor peo­ple as pas­sive crea­tures who could never as­pire to real agency. In­stead of think­ing of them as equals, just as ca­pa­ble of tak­ing their fates into their own hands, the left has, as po­lit­i­cal philoso­phers El­iz­a­beth An­der­son and Jonathan Wolff have ar­gued, adopted a stance of pity for those poor dolts who could never amount to any­thing be­cause of all the struc­tural forces aligned against them.

In at­tack­ing Trump’s pro­posed bud­get, and slowly build­ing a for­ward-look­ing plat­form for 2020, lib­er­als should break with the puni­tive pol­i­tics of re­spon­si­bil­ity in a much more rad­i­cal way. Over the past decades, they have al­lowed the wel­fare state to turn into a vast — and all too of­ten dis­crim­i­na­tory — ma­chine for de­ter­min­ing who is sup­pos­edly act­ing re­spon­si­bly and who is sup­pos­edly fail­ing to do so. (While work­ers who were laid off be­cause their com­pa­nies went bank­rupt are el­i­gi­ble for wel­fare ben­e­fits in most states, for ex­am­ple, those who were fired be­cause they came to work late are of­ten in­el­i­gi­ble.) In­stead, lib­er­als now need to en­vis­age an eco­nomic pol­icy that would em­power cit­i­zens of all classes and races to lead mean­ing­ful, eco­nom­i­cally pro­duc­tive lives — whether or not they have used drugs or served time or failed to fin­ish high school.

To build such a plat­form, lib­er­als should, coun­ter­in­tu­itively, rec­og­nize that per­sonal re­spon­si­bil­ity can be a pos­i­tive force. Stripped of its puni­tive con­no­ta­tions, re­spon­si­bil­ity is a virtue most peo­ple are ea­ger to prac­tice: It’s not just that they want to do more than live off gov­ern­ment hand­outs. Most peo­ple also place huge im­por­tance on the re­spon­si­bil­i­ties they have taken on for peo­ple be­yond them­selves — their chil­dren and par­ents, neigh­bors and fel­low parish­ioners — as well as for their so­cial and po­lit­i­cal causes.

Much of the eco­nomic pol­icy of the past decades has been driven by the as­sump­tion that per­sonal re­spon­si­bil­ity is a nar­row, neg­a­tive obli­ga­tion and that the state has to in­cen­tivize peo­ple to live up to it. In­stead, we should rec­og­nize that most peo­ple al­ready as­pire to a broader, com­mu­nity-minded no­tion of re­spon­si­bil­ity, and that the state should help en­sure that peo­ple have ac­cess to the ba­sic ed­u­ca­tional re­sources they need to re­al­ize this goal.

A pos­i­tive vi­sion of re­spon­si­bil­ity would not be a po­lit­i­cal cud­gel against or­di­nary cit­i­zens, a way to pun­ish peo­ple for their pasts or to de­prive them of state as­sis­tance. In­stead, it would start with the recog­ni­tion that, with a lit­tle help, most peo­ple are per­fectly able and will­ing to take con­trol of their own lives.


Sup­port­ers of Don­ald Trump in John­stown, Pa., last sum­mer. As a can­di­date, Trump avoided the usual talk of “per­sonal re­spon­si­bil­ity,” in­stead pledg­ing gov­ern­ment help for those in need.

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