Alan Wolfe on politics and the public mood
The hoopla over the millennium has come and—thankfully—gone. But as the odometer of our times has turned over to zero-zero, there is no denying that we have begun a new age: a new year, a new decade, a new century. The question is, what kind of age is it? The Vietnam War in the ’60s, Watergate in the ’70s, the Reagan Revolution in the ’80s—these were pivotal events that lived on as shorthand for the period in which they occurred. But what made them age-defining is not so much the magnitude of the events but their significance in the collective consciousness of the public. In Watergate, a two-bit burglary brought down a president and gave rise to a cynicism about politics that has yet to dissipate. But the 1990s equivalent—the Starr investigation of President Clinton—turned a full-scale Senate impeachment trial into an anti-climax, dooming not a president but the type of congressional inquisition that Watergate introduced.
What events may come to define the first decade of the new millennium we can’t even imagine. But the public mood that will give these events their meaning is all around us, even if it is as ineffable as a wisp of smoke, harder to capture now than ever. In the Commonwealth as in the country there is quiescence where there is often controversy. It’s not that there are no issues, no problems, no challenges, just that no one is getting excited about them. The simplest explanation is prosperity. The longest peacetime expansion in American history has taken the edge off people’s anxieties and therefore their demands. But if there is no public clamoring, how are we—and our political officials—to know what the public wants?
If anyone knows, it’s Alan Wolfe. Sociologist by trade, social critic by mission, public intellectual by acclamation, Wolfe has made a career out of exploring the dilemmas of our time and, most importantly, how we think about them. In nearly a dozen books and scores of book reviews and essays in magazines like The New Republic, for which he is a contributing editor, Wolfe has weighed in on social controversies ranging from race to immigration, from school vouchers to income inequality. But it was in his 1998 book One Nation, After All that Wolfe shed new light on that bellwether of American politics and public morality, the suburban middle class. And he did so by going beyond public-opinion surveys, which force respondents into snap judgments and sharp positions, to engage 200 Americans from all over the country in extended conversation, offering them the chance to give full voice to the subtlety, ambiguity, and equivocation in their views. What he discovered in middle-class America was a world of small virtues, quiet faith, and grave reluctance to pass judgment on the way others choose to navigate the roiling waters of a changing world.
“The subject is moral freedom,” says Wolfe. “But it really began as a book about virtue and vice. I was interested in finding out how Americans think about the William Bennett [former education secretary and author of The Book of Virtues] kind of argument that we have lost our sense of virtue. And as I talked to more and more people around the country, it became clear that the real issue on their mind was: How do you live? How do you try to lead a good life? And do you answer that question by turning to what we could call institutions of moral authority—churches, parents, schools, and so on—or, since this is a very individualistic culture, do you look inside yourself? I found a surprising number of people who say they’d like to rely on institutions of moral authority but they really don’t trust them that much anymore. Therefore, they are looking to themselves. So I am writing about that and whether this portends disaster. I don’t think it does.”
What follows is a transcript of our conversation about politics and the American public mood today, edited for length.
CommonWealth: The question before us today, as we start out the year 2000, is: what is the public mood and, perhaps in part, how do we know what it is? Politicians mostly rely on polling and fairly short, politically-minded surveys. What do they learn about the public that way? And what is it you think they miss?
Wolfe: Well, I guess I should first say I am not sure what we talk about when we talk about the public. I think there is more than one public. You mentioned the presidential election. Here we are, there is no incumbent, it’s an open slate and what is happening? Well, George W. Bush is talking about “compassionate conservatism.” And he is talking about, of all things, the fact that the congressional Republicans are out of touch with the sense of fairness that Americans strongly believe in. And here are Bill Bradley and Al Gore talking in language that is not at all dissimilar. So, the presidential candidates—let’s assume it is going to be Bush versus Gore but even if it is Bush versus Bradley—are both moving towards the center and sounding more and more like each other. Meanwhile in Congress, the Republicans take an unprecedented step of rejecting a [nuclear test ban] treaty that was negotiated by the president of the United States. They seem to be far more into partisan wrangling—both parties in Congress—far more into deep ideological division. So, how do you explain that presidential politics is about consensus and congressional politics is about division? Well, it is two different publics. There is the public that is concerned about the presidency that is not an active public but when called upon will express its views. That is the presidential public, so to speak. The congressional public is composed of activists who are much more intense in their political views and are much more ideologically extreme. So, I think the single biggest change in the American public mood is the dividing of America into these two publics which creates tremendous ideological polarization on the one hand and more moves toward consensus on the other.
Now polls and so on are a little hard to fit into that picture in some ways. The congressional candidates really don’t care about polls. They care much more about pleasing the few, the small percentage of voters in their districts that are going to come out and provide the energy and so on. National polls about where Americans might be on a particular issue are totally irrelevant to them because they are not elected nationally. They are elected in the districts. For national politicians, the polls are enormously important. But one of the things I have been emphasizing is that the polls miss a lot of things, especially when it comes to the moral issues or the cultural issues. Since this is the year 2000 and we are all talking about change, I think one of the big changes in American politics is that the old economic issues, where the polls were pretty good at picking things up, aren’t the big issues in people’s minds. Issues that involve how we live, the polls just aren’t very good at that. They don’t tell us about things like gays in the military, which of course was something that Clinton stumbled badly on and that Bill Bradley will be facing because he has made a very strong appeal to gay voters. We just don’t know how those things are going to play out.
CommonWealth: When you began the project that led to your book, you went out to explore those issues that aren’t picked up very well. There was, in the mid-’90s, a lot of talk about culture wars. There was a sense of the middle class being angry and judgmental. What did you find about the way middle-class people really think about these divisive social issues?
Wolfe: Well, certainly I thought, like almost everybody else, that people would be angry. The New York Times had just run a whole series on downsizing, about the angry middle class. I didn’t find that very much. The divisiveness I didn’t find very much. Americans hate the idea of being divisive. They want to be nice. They want people to like them. They want to like each other. I’m always struck by the fact that you have books like Deborah Tannen’s The Argument Culture, where she says we argue too much. Well, that’s true in Washington. But out there in the country, people don’t like to argue at all. If someone raises a point in disagreement everyone wants to agree with him. So, the idea of a culture war really struck me as bizarre by the time I got done…. Then you had the Clinton impeachment, in which people like Henry Hyde and others were absolutely convinced that they were not only going to get Clinton but just ride in and become a majority party on the grounds that Americans would be so angry about any evidence of marital infidelity that the old-fashioned morality would just rise up. And they got it completely wrong. It’s just one of those odd ways religion plays itself out in American society. It’s been pointed out by sociologists that, even though we’re a very religious country, Americans don’t know all that much about religion. They don’t actually know the Bible. But one story in the Bible that everyone knows, one passage everyone will cite, is, “Judge not lest ye be judged.” So, when they talk in this [non-judgmental] way, they are actually citing the Christian tradition to do so. It’s not the way a Ralph Reed or other conservative Christians would talk, but it’s the way Americans talk.
Wolfe: One of the things I found that is both a nice thing but also a very disturbing thing is that Americans don’t like it when things are politicized at all. They like religion but they hate politics, so they don’t want to see those two blended. So, the paradox is that the minute you come to people and try to turn anything they are saying into a kind of political platform, they are going to turn off. I don’t know how to break through that. I was struck by, when the shootings occurred [at Columbine High School] in Littleton, Colorado, how every ideological interest group in the United States immediately wanted to jump in and say, this proves X, Y, or Z. This proves that we need gun control. This proves that we need prayer in the schools. This proves that we’ve got to have censorship of the Internet. I mean, you name it. And that is exactly what most people didn’t think. They didn’t think it proved anything. They just thought that it proved there were a couple of really crazy kids out there. I’m not sure who’s right. I think Littleton does raise issues that we need to talk about. But Americans don’t like being sermonized at and being lectured over it. Now, that’s not the way I feel. I’m an intensely political person. To me it’s somewhat mysterious, it’s terra incognita, when I hear people talk like that. But that is the way they talk.
CommonWealth: The other thing that the culture wars did for us in the media and for political people in general is that it gave us some sort of guideposts for figuring out what is going on out there. What is there that passes for conventional wisdom now? We don’t have the culture wars. We don’t have the angry middle class. The “soccer mom” seems to have come and gone as the key to electoral success. Is there a conventional wisdom informing the politics of this election year?
Wolfe: I think there will be. I don’t have any inroads to the George W. Bush camp at all. I don’t even know people that know him. But “compassionate conservatism” is a brilliant idea. It’s exactly where I think Americans are at. They are pretty conservative but they are very, very compassionate. If you can [espouse] that and be credible, I think it is a terrifically effective strategy. The problem is, of course, that [Bush] will have all these crazy Republicans in his own party that he won’t able to control, who are anything but compassionate and, I should say, anything but conservative. We are talking about very radical people in the congressional wing of the Republican party. So, I think the discovery of compassion may be the next issue, depending on how it plays out.
Even though the pundits all say that campaign finance reform or issues of CEO salaries and the influence of money in politics are dead issues, that no one’s interested, I don’t sense that. I sense that this is something that people are really concerned about. All my interviews point this out. But I can’t persuade politicians of this. There was a dinner at the Kennedy Library [last fall] … and I found myself sitting next to Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, lieutenant governor of Maryland. She asked me your question, What’s the next big issue? I said I just sense this enormous anger about the role that money is playing in politics. And she said, “Well, I speak three times a day, every day, all over my state, and no one has ever brought it up.” I’m not sure. It may be that people will not voice this. But in my interviews it comes up over and over and over again, the cynicism. It may never surface [as a dominant issue] but I do sense that it is lingering out there. Most Americans understand the way votes are bought now, through campaigns and the financing of campaigns. Both Democrats and Republicans do it. And it makes them so cynical that they don’t even want to express that it bothers them, so deep is the cynicism. I think it’s also related to the fact that this economic boom hasn’t redistributed income in any really significant way. Again, I don’t think it is a Republican or a Democratic thing. I just think there is a sense out there in the country, that, okay, we have done welfare reform and that was a good thing to do. Now, on the other hand, we shouldn’t allow the kind of tremendous income gap that has emerged in this country. It is just not fair.
CommonWealth: I’d like to separate out those two issues about money. One of the issues is money in politics. I wonder how much of the public concern about that is cause and how much of it is effect—that is, people understanding that money influences politics in a way that does not reflect their interests but the interests of somebody else with more money and more power as a result. But how much of that comes from a more general sense that government doesn’t really serve their interests and campaign contributions become the explanation they grab on to? Is it a sufficient explanation—sufficient to the extent that people would be willing to act on it and actually vote for candidates who will really make a change in campaign financing laws?
Wolfe: It is just a paradoxical issue. I just don’t know how to say it otherwise. If people care about it, they care about it to the extent that they become totally cynical about it and then the cynicism puts them in the position where they don’t even want to acknowledge that they care about it. While that is an incredible paradox, cutting through it essentially defines what political leadership is about. Political leadership is about articulating in a way that is effective what is on people’s minds but they don’t even want to acknowledge. So when politicians say to me, “Suppose you are right, how do you reach them?” I can only respond, “Well, that’s your job.” That is what political leaders have to do. If I knew how to do it I would be a political leader but I don’t.
CommonWealth: The other issue about money is money in society. Ours is a money-driven society—those who don’t have it would certainly like to have it—but there is also the sense, coming back to the moral structure that people live by, that there is such a thing as too much money. You argued, in an op-ed article in The New York Times in September, that there is a general resentment of what people see as ill-gotten gains, whether those gains are ill-gotten by welfare recipients who are in some sense seen as undeserving or by stock-option billionaires whose financial windfalls seem out of all proportion to what they deserve. And that moral judgment, you say, could have political resonance.
Wolfe: Yes, well, I have now done 400 interviews—200 for One Nation, After All and 200 for my next book. These interviews have been done all over the country. Everyone in Massachusetts, of course, knows the story of Aaron Feuerstein [of Malden Mills] and the way he kept his workers [on the payroll] after the mill burned down. I can also tell you that that story is known everywhere in every corner of this country. I can’t believe how many people bring it up. Now, they don’t remember his name. They will say things like, “There was that guy…,” over and over and over again. Also, there was a case of a downsizing at AT&T when the CEO then immediately exercised stock options that made him $14 million richer. People know the exact amount. These things stick in people’s minds. Most of the time, when you ask people for anecdotes about a moral issue, they respond by talking about Dennis Rodman or Madonna or something like that. But on this issue, they know these things. It is amazing how deep this goes.
CommonWealth: At the same time, you note the absence of any sort of class resentment around the issue of downsizing. In general, you found that people who had even gone through that experience themselves and lost their jobs seem to not only be willing to bear that burden without complaint, but even believe there’s a certain virtue in it. American society and the American economy are better off that we weather these sorts of storms. There’s a certain pioneering character to surviving economic change that they don’t remember in their own 1950s-era parents, who expected to get the gold watch from a company they worked for all their life. So, there is an interesting split between the idea that people are not unwilling to make a sacrifice—or to be sacrificed, for that matter—in the interest of progress and of future economic gain but that doesn’t mean they can’t be mad as hell at people who seem to get more than their fair share.
Wolfe: It’s not even a split really. I think it is perfectly consistent. They are saying, I understand that I have to sacrifice, so why can’t the guy [at the top] sacrifice his stock options? It is the idea of unearned income that really bothers them. I recognize that corporations and their boards of directors need to recruit the best talent and to do that they often offer them these stock option plans. But boy, it sticks in people’s craws that companies that don’t make money and the executive that hasn’t earned it can still exercise the options and collect. That’s what really bothers people. And so the feeling [of most people] is, all right, this is capitalism. We like capitalism. Capitalism means that sometimes you win and sometimes you lose. But here are these people who never lose. And that is what gets them angry.
CommonWealth: Are there other issues that are kind of sleepers in that way, problems that pundits and politicians assume don’t resonate but that, from your interviews and conversations, you think may strike a deeper chord than perhaps the political world is prepared for?
Wolfe: Well, there was another one, but it is now resonating, and that is education. If you had asked me this four years ago I would have said I think that education is going to become a big issue. That’s because there are a lot of kids out there and parents really get very involved. So, I am one who believes that the deterioration of the public schools, which is significant, is a huge issue. It has led to the interest in vouchers, which is unstoppable. I think it could have been stopped if the schools had reformed themselves, but they never did. So there was a kind of inevitability around this. I think we will find ourselves with a good old-fashioned American compromise, in which vouchers will in fact stimulate the public schools to do better and they will do better. We will both have vouchers and, if the courts eventually rule on the constitutional issues involving their use in religious schools, we will find that they won’t in fact lead to the complete deterioration of the public schools. On the contrary, they will force the public schools to improve themselves. In the meantime though, it puts politicians in a very interesting position, especially Democrats who have strong loyalties to educators, who are very cautious on this issue to say the least. I recently was invited by a very, very prominent state in the United States, the state of Florida, where the governor, whose name is [Jeb] Bush, has introduced school vouchers. I was invited by the school of education at the University of Florida in Gainesville to give a talk there. And I said to myself before I left, I bet I am going to go down into the heart of schoolteacher country and I am going to find a surprising amount of support for vouchers. And I did, I did. Obviously, I found people who just were hostile, but among people who teach the teachers, there is a recognition that something has got to change.
CommonWealth: I wonder, though, whether the voucher issue, if it is going to proceed, isn’t going to have to move, as so many things in American politics do, from the level of ideology to the level of pragmatism. I sense there is a growing interest in vouchers as yet another way of getting at the issue of failing schools, particularly in urban areas. I see it having less appeal as a substitute for supporting locally-based public schools in the suburbs.
Wolfe: No, I think you’re right. To me it is completely linked to this economic justice question. If poor people in America had the kind of choices that middle class people in America have for schools, we wouldn’t have vouchers as an issue. It is because they don’t that we do. I think it is only in the context of talking about vouchers restricted to inner-city environments that anything makes sense here. Look, there’s just no doubt that if you are middle class in this area and you can choose where you want to live and you are going to move to Newton or Brookline or Wayland or Wellesley or whatever because of the schools, then that is something that parents will die for, will fight for. Now, how can you say that because you are a middle-class professional you have that right and then deny it to an inner-city African-American mother? To me, the fact that the left does not recognize that this is an issue of social justice is a serious issue. It will have to be posed as an issue of social justice, I think, to succeed.
CommonWealth: One thing struck me in reading your book. You have some wonderful characterizations of the kinds of moral stances that middle-class people take, things like quiet faith and small virtues. There is a modesty that infuses even people’s strongest desires to be able to distinguish between right and wrong and act on that difference. I wonder how that translates into an agenda for politics, though, and for government. Are we doomed to the sort of small-bore ideas that characterized the 1996 election—the school uniforms and other things that don’t cost any money, the symbolic stances? Is that all the American people can take?
Wolfe: Well, he’s not one of the most admirable people in the world, but Dick Morris probably got it right when he advised Bill Clinton to focus on the school uniforms and things like that. I think that’s the way successful politicians are going to be talking. I think that the American people aren’t going to be receptive to the big ideas. At the same time, it is the big ideas that define where we are in this society. I think there is a general recognition that one big idea, pure, laissez-faire market capitalism is not an appropriate idea—even Reagan didn’t really pursue that. I think the one person who genuinely pursued that agenda was Margaret Thatcher and that led to a kind of reaction against it, when people saw what it really meant. So, that is one big idea. The other big idea is some kind of government regulation of the economy, some form of New Deal politics, or in Europe what they call social democracy, and that is thoroughly discredited. The third way, as [Britain’s] Tony Blair and [Germany’s] Gerhard Schroeder and others call it, is crying out for ideas but no one has them. So, it is going to be small-bore politics in the election. But I hope that the intellectuals, the policy people, are thinking pretty hard about what the big ideas might be, because eventually they will have to be tested out in the marketplace of politics.
CommonWealth: In the Democratic rethinking of liberalism there has been a call for new ideas but very few produced. You can trace it back to Walter Mondale calling Gary Hart’s bluff with, “Where’s the beef?” It’s easy to want to break out of the constraints of old ways of thinking but that doesn’t actually happen very often, does it?
Wolfe: No, it doesn’t. But on the conservative end of the spectrum ideas are “in” because the conservative ideas that have been going for the last 20 or 30 years have reached a dead end and are in many ways contradictory. How can you be a libertarian and say you should get government off the backs of industry and not recognize that you will then have a flourishing pornography industry, a flourishing gambling industry, and so on? The gambling industry is huge, and of course it finances candidates. Now a lot of really conservative people are deeply appalled—[They say] this is not what conservatism is. At the same time, these gambling resorts are so very popular. People are going to them. So, how is that going to play out? Imagine being in some meeting of a conservative think tank and you have the libertarians coming in and they are saying freedom, freedom, freedom and then you have the Christian conservatives and the—
CommonWealth: And the moral-virtue camp.
Wolfe: That’s right. So that’s one. They are going to have to work out that big idea.
CommonWealth: How do you see [the issue of gambling] playing out? It is obviously a contradictory position for conservatives but where do you think the middle class, the middle-of-the-road person, stands on gambling? People go down to Foxwoods; they like playing the lottery. At the same time, I think there is a sense that it is a robbing-Peter-to-pay-Paul kind of business.
Wolfe: Yes, well, the same issues also influence the left. The left believes that you should regulate the economy, but abortion and gay bathhouses, those are services. Those are commercial services on the market. Try to regulate them and before you know it some gay activist will be saying, “No, you can’t touch that.” So, you get the same contradiction on the left. But on the gambling thing specifically I think you have hit it exactly right. It is both morally unpopular but economically attractive. It raises to me a fascinating question which is a question at the heart of all theological and all political thought. That is, how do we know what people really want? I am very reluctant to say this, but there are issues where people will do something but also want to see it prohibited so they won’t do it.
Now, we say to that, you can never tell Americans that they can’t do what they want. In fact, we can. This country has stopped smoking in public places. No one could have predicted that. You can’t legislate morality, right? Well, you can. We legislated morality quite well. It is astonishing how we legislated morality. In Europe, where you have the welfare states, and the welfare states tell you everything you have to do, but you can’t regulate smoking there. People smoke like crazy. Same with seat belts. Everyone said, Americans will never take [mandatory use of] seat belts. Even Gov. Weld used to think that it was a libertarian issue. Well, you see enough teenagers die without seat belts and before you know it people are putting on their seat belts. So, gambling might be just one of those things where people are going to yell and scream, “We want to gamble,” but if you take it away from them and say you absolutely can’t do this except in Nevada or whatever, they’ll say, “Well, maybe that’s not so bad.” I don’t know.
CommonWealth: Let’s see if we can switch away from national politics and the big picture and get a little closer to home. What happens in state and local government touches people much more directly than what goes on in Washington. We are a couple of years away from a gubernatorial election, yet the political reading of the public mood and public expectations very much informs what happens in government. How do you see the middle-class mood playing itself out in Massachusetts politics?
Wolfe: When I was doing One Nation, After All, I would get this question from reporters, “What politician in America comes closest to where people are at?” And I would say, Bill Weld does, that his combination of libertarian on social issues and conservative [on economic issues] was really where people were at. He also had links with that tradition, like the Bush family, of that old-fashioned, New England, aristocratic Republicanism that I think has been one of our most successful political traditions, that [Theodore] Roosevelt kind of tradition. So when he was governor my sense is that—his skills as a politician are another matter—he did capture where people are at. And to the degree that [Gov.] Cellucci inherits that, even though he comes from a different ethnic background obviously, he prevents the kind of polarization that you get in the country. It’s just, when you break it down by region, you don’t find liberal Republicans in Arizona—although John McCain is in that tradition and he is from Arizona. So, I think the Republicans [here] have come up with two governors that have kind of understood that. As long as they do, it creates a very, very difficult situation for Democrats because they don’t know where to maneuver. Democrats are, of course, most happy when they can run against the most conservative Republicans. Massachusetts doesn’t offer them that opportunity.
CommonWealth: Is there a Democratic governor elsewhere that fills the same sort of bill? Is there a Democratic politician that “gets it” in the same way?
Wolfe: Well, there are plenty of Republican governors who seem to get it. Tommy Thompson in Wisconsin and George Pataki in New York are all sort of in that tradition. The interesting thing is that in past years governors like them would have been natural presidential candidates. But the fact that there are two Bush sons that are governors kind of forecloses that [possibility] for the moment. Among Democrats, people tell me that the new governor of California has been pretty effective, Gray Davis. He could emerge as a fairly popular governor in a state that used to be conceded, in gubernatorial elections, to Republicans like Ronald Reagan and [Pete] Wilson. So, he is one possibility. A lot of people are talking about the governor of Washington state [Democrat Gary Locke]. He’s a Boston University [Law School] graduate and spoke recently at a BU commencement, but I don’t know [much about him].
CommonWealth: One issue that we haven’t touched on is race and opportunity. In Massachusetts we haven’t had the kind of mandated retreat from affirmative action policies that they had in California, with Proposition 209, and elsewhere. But school desegregation policies have been under consistent legal attack here, to the point where Boston has virtually given up the struggle for race-based student assignment. Are we getting to a point that there is no way to ration opportunity in a way that compensates for past and present barriers that doesn’t offend middle-class notions of individual merit?
Wolfe: Well, those are tough questions, and Boston and Massachusetts in general are tough places to talk about these things, given the history of opposition to busing and so on. I think it is kind of remarkable the way the busing controversy petered out in the state, given the passions that it inflamed. One of the things I implicitly argue in the book and I have argued explicitly in magazine articles is, the more we talk about race in America, the more divided we become. But the more we don’t talk about it, bit allow it to happen, so to speak, the more united we become. What that means is the kind of things that have happened to some degree in this state, that when some of the white parents in Boston just simply learned that there were African-American parents that were just as concerned about their kids’ education as they were, and so on, it had a tremendous effect on reducing some of the inflammatory tensions around the busing issue. And when they also learned that a lot of the African-American parents weren’t at all interested in busing but simply in good education for their kids, it had a big impact.
You never know whether to be an optimist or pessimist with respect to race. You see the rise of the black middle class and you say that is tremendously optimistic. And then you go to Fenway Park and you see everyone in the stands is white. And then you realize that a lot of the papers have been writing that baseball is becoming a white sport. And you say, Oh, my God, even in sports, where you thought there was a tremendous amount of racial integration, it is actually segregated there. There are white sports and black sports. Even within a sport like football there are white positions and black positions and you just wonder.