“It’s the culture, stupid!”

Presumably because the third GOP presidential primary debate aired on CNBC, it retained a narrow focus on economic issues (when the moderators paused from questions about the candidates’ personal issues, that is!). Tax reform starred, while the national debt, the budget deficit, entitlement reform, income inequality and immigration made cameos. The debate touched foreign policy issues and social issues not at all.

As a result, it left me frustrated. Our very deep and talented bench of candidates put forward a number of meaningful proposals to reform the tax code and to save our many entitlement programs, for example, but they failed to frame these proposals in the context of broader cultural reform.

Tax cuts will always be popular among taxpayers for both sound and selfish reasons, but many other conservative proposals will not resonate with the American people — such as “the American people” are today — until our leaders galvanize us to recover a sense of ourselves as human persons with innate dignity who flourish when we voluntarily live in accord with that dignity, which means, among other things, assuming responsibility for ourselves and our loved ones.

The idea that politicians and bureaucrats are somehow more responsible for the health, wealth and retirement of the rest of us than we are ourselves ought to strike us as an insult, but, for various reasons of cultural decay and desperation, we don’t take it that way. Instead, we welcome it with relief. In the process, we deny our own dignity and perpetuate our own misery.

Now, I’m not necessarily saying we need to resurrect the defensive pride of my grandfathers, who would rather have starved to death than ask for help from a neighbor or friend, but I am saying we need to recover a sense of ourselves as more than our material needs such that, even when we have to do without some material advantage (a college education, for example), we can still sing along with Aunt Eller: “I don’t say I’m no better than anybody else, but I’ll be darned if I ain’t just as good!”

University of Pennsylvania law professor Amy L. Wax articulated this better than I can in “Solving the Poor,” her review for First Things of Robert D. Putnam’s book Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis. She writes:

“The sociologist Isabel Sawhill, whom Putnam cites, has observed that a few simple choices — the so-called ‘success sequence’ — can minimize poverty even for people with modest education and skills. The prescription is to graduate from high school, work steadily at any job available, get married before having children and avoid crime. These basic prudential steps are within the reach of virtually everyone, regardless of means and background, and most people used to accept them as indispensable way stations to responsible adulthood. Yet these steps are no longer followed by most people without a college degree. Laying this at the feet of economic causes requires adopting a peculiar brand of causal materialism that now dominates social sciences.”

The logic of our post-1960s world, she continues, “offers the good life to the knowledge class, but lacks any approved or positive vision for others. On this view, careerism, ‘creativity,’ consumerism, lifestyle cultivation, expressive individualism and sexual adventure are fulfilling and prestigious, while civility, duty, ordinary work and fealty to conventional social roles are exploitative and oppressive.”

Realistically, though, “not everyone is able to join the knowledge class, nor does everyone want to. Our society will always need basic low-skilled labor, from serving meals to caring for dependents to cleaning toilets. The working class cannot be phased out or made to disappear. Economic improvement for workers is an important goal, although difficult to achieve. But it cannot be enough. What is needed is a viable and vibrant culture that maintains the meaning of working-class life and recognizes its dignity.”

Presidential candidates have an unparalleled platform to promote this culture and to offer “an approved (and) positive vision” for those outside the “knowledge class.” A pitch for the “success sequence” should be an unapologetic part of every conservative candidate’s stump speech — not to blame those who didn’t or won’t follow it, but to shed a little light into the darkest corners of our country in which “our kids” are struggling to build a stable life simply because they’ve never seen it done and no one has told them how to do it.

Given the current soundbite-driven media landscape and the aggravating time limitations of the debates, candidates have little incentive or opportunity to do this — promoting personal responsibility is decidedly less sexy than promising to cut taxes — but they ought to make a point to do so every chance they get. Then, at campaign’s end, regardless of election results, they’d know they at least did what they could to begin the cultural reform without which no policy reform will ever be enough to promote true human flourishing.

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