Old values in search of new policies

January 22, 1995|By Susan Baer | Susan Baer,Washington Bureau of The Sun

WASHINGTON -- Americans are fed up with welfare and prepared to let illegal immigrants fend for themselves. They're challenging affirmative action programs and may bring the curtain down on the nation's arts endowment.

The Republican electoral sweep, it seems, ushered in a new, hardened sensibility among Americans and a turn away from the caretaking mentality that has shaped U.S. social policy for the past half-century.

But neither liberals nor conservatives are ready to conclude that there has been a fundamental change in core American values, that we have become a less compassionate, less caring, less generous people.

"I don't think it has anything to do with the hardening of our collective heart," says White House domestic policy aide William A. Galston.

Instead, many political scientists and sociologists say, the shift to the right, and to a sort of "tough love" posture, reflects the public's ever-increasing doubts about government's ability to solve the nation's woes.

Some also argue that the shift signifies a feeling among voters that the Democratic Party no longer embodies, or protects, the cultural values of everyday Americans.

"There is a coarsening of our debate," says David Blankenhorn, president of the nonpartisan Institute for American Values. "But it is not because the 'angry white males' are suddenly waking up. It is because of a real sense of dissatisfaction based on the belief that we're going in the wrong direction and it's beyond the ability of anybody in government to do much about it.

"People are simply very frustrated with the mushrooming social problems and the astonishly anemic responses. They are prepared to discuss just about anything" that looks like a fresh, potentially workable approach, Mr. Blankenhorn said.

Michael Lerner, the proponent of the "politics of meaning," calls it "selfishness as despair," a move to self-interest born of the feeling that a sense of community and helping one another is not possible.

The public's distaste for welfare, for instance, one of the issues at the heart of the conservative agenda, is less about selfishness than it is about a lack of confidence in the system, many political thinkers say.

"What you see is people beginning to think maybe the system isn't so compassionate after all, maybe the very system designed as a backstop is creating the social maladies plaguing our society," says Thomas E. Mann, director of governmental studies at the Brookings Institution.

"You don't find most Americans punitive, but they are skeptical the government is doing a good job."

Public outcry

Mr. Mann adds that there would be a public outcry if suddenly all benefits to the poor were cut off -- as there was when House Speaker Newt Gingrich, a Georgia Republican, suggested placing the children of welfare mothers in orphanages.

"The public is much less radically conservative than some social theorists and politicians," he says.

In fact, in a 1994 survey by the University of Chicago's National Opinion Research Center, fewer than 30 percent of Americans polled thought government should spend more money on "welfare." But more than 60 percent favored an increase in government spending on "assistance to the poor."

"People don't want to stick it to the poor," says Tom W. Smith, director of the survey. "But they think welfare is a failed program that is not the way to assist the poor."

Similarly, affirmative action -- never a wildly popular concept, says Mr. Smith -- has fallen even further out of favor in recent years. A case now before the Supreme Court threatens to dismantle federal affirmative action programs, a move that, in the current climate, could be welcomed by much of the public.

While there is much opposition to affirmative action, the nation overwhelmingly embraces the concept of "equal opportunity," one of the cornerstones of American notions of work and success, says Mr. Smith.

Mr. Mann believes the discrepancy stems in part from a growing resentment of "group rights." While our traditional notions of compassion and assistance are based on helping individuals in need, a "group" definition has emerged in which some minorities become eligible for -- sometimes entitled to -- benefits and special treatment, he says.

He and others believe the resentment against those with a government-assisted leg up is also fueled by the economic pinch being felt by much of working-class America.

Shift in emphasis

Many see this move to a more conservative, hard-edged stance as a shift in emphasis rather than a radical change. For instance, while there may be a tilt against affirmative action, "the huge gains of the civil rights movement are accepted by everyone," says Alan Wolfe, a sociology professor at Boston University who is writing a book about middle-class morality. "The gains of the women's movement are accepted by everyone. Even the gains of the gay movement are accepted by many people."

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