Big-picture assessments of where we've been, where we are and where we're going are harder to frame, spin and sell than whatever's going on in the current news cycle--whether it's something really significant (Iraq, the slowly unfolding US Attorney scandal, of which more below), or something basically goofy (e.g. whether it's an insult to use the adjective "Democrat" instead of "Democratic"). But when historians sit down later to figure out what happened, or even when astute people within the moment try to do the same, it's those big-picture assessments that they weigh and evaluate.
Harold Meyerson of the Washington Post and TAP has such an assessment, and it's a more powerful articulation of something I've been trying to say for months, maybe years: to take modern American conservatism seriously means to accept that it's fundamentally at war with itself, and must remain so.
In [the March 3] Washington Post, reporter Blaine Harden took a hard look at the erosion of what we have long taken to be the model American family -- married couples with children -- and discovered that while this decline hasn't really afflicted college-educated professionals, it is the curse of the working class. The percentage of households that are married couples with children has hit an all-time low (at least, the lowest since the Census Bureau started measuring such things): 23.7 percent. That's about half the level that marrieds-with-children constituted at the end of the Ozzie-and-Harriet '50s.
Now, I'm not a scholar of the sitcom, but I did watch "The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet" as a child, marveling that anything labeled "Adventures" could be so dull. And I don't recall a single episode in which the family had to do without because Ozzie had lost his job or missed taking David or Ricky to the doctor for fear he couldn't pay for it.
Over the past 35 years, the massive changes in the U.S. economy have largely condemned American workers to lives of economic insecurity. No longer can the worker count on a steady job for a single employer who provides a paycheck and health and retirement benefits, too. Over the past three decades, workers' individual annual income fluctuations have consistently increased, while their aggregate income has stagnated. In the brave new economy of outsourced jobs and short-term gigs and on-again, off-again health coverage, American workers cannot rationally plan their economic futures. And with each passing year, as their level of economic security declines, so does their entry into marriage.
Yet the very conservatives who marvel at the efficiency of our new, more mobile economy and extol the "flexibility" of our workforce decry the flexibility of the personal lives of American workers. The right-wing ideologues who have championed outsourcing, offshoring, and union-busting, who have celebrated the same changes that have condemned American workers to lives of financial instability, piously lament the decline of family stability that has followed these economic changes as the night the day.
American conservatism is a house divided against itself. It applauds the radicalism of the economic changes of the past four decades -- the dismantling, say, of the American steel industry (and the job and income security that it once provided) in the cause of greater efficiency. It decries the decline of social and familial stability over that time -- the traditional, married working-class families, say, that once filled all those churches in the hills and hollows in what is now the smaller, post-working-class Pittsburgh.
Problem is, disperse a vibrant working-class community in America and you disperse the vibrant working-class family.
It might not be too much to call this the great untold political story of our time. As the respective saliency of the two conservative appeals has waxed and waned, and external circumstances made one or the other compelling, the results have changed. In 1980, a decisive chunk of the white working class vote--the people who were leery of the "new, more mobile economy" but concerned about "the decline of family stability"--shifted right. They really stayed there for a quarter-century... and then last year a significant portion shifted back.
This isn't a condemnation of that new economy, by the way--just a realization that, as Meyerson suggests, it really only works for you if you have education and skills in demand. (In my job, our shorthand for this notion was "More Ed, More Bread.") In some sense, this is a much more meritocratic economy; my personal preference would just be to make the playing field as level as possible by ensuring that everyone had access to good education and other tools to build their own figurative ladders. But in the meantime, if you don't have those tools at hand now, and if you believe that financial stresses tend to destabilize families rather than support them, a world without unions, worker protections or even a decent system for people to add skills will have negative social consequences.
I'm not representing that 2006 was the year when millions of suburban, exurban and rural families suddenly realized what was the matter with Kansas. But I do think that in conjunction with the tragic mismanagement of the war, the nonstop congressional scandals and the general ugliness of politics, it figured in there somewhere to give Democrats an opening. How they'll fill it remains to be seen, but it also seems unlikely that this problem--the final consequence of the Republican merger between greed and cultural conservatism--can be made to go away anytime soon.