For a long time I supposed that social issues — abortion, same-sex marriage, and the rest — were the great dividing line in American politics, with the collapse of natural law thinking at the root of the problem. While I still see the culture war resulting from this as a large part of what ails us, I’ve come belatedly to understand that something else also is at work: conflict between two fundamentally different visions of government’s role in bringing about a good and just society — and perhaps even what that society should look like.
Wishing to be fair to them both (a nicety their partisans generally ignore), I’m hesitant even to give them names. But since to speak of them it’s necessary to call them something, I suggest “social democracy” and “democratic capitalism.”
At bottom, social democracy sees government as a provider and democratic capitalism sees it as an enabler. As we are now being reminded, many large conflicts in contemporary America find their origin in that difference. It needs exploring.
Many years ago, George Santayana, the erstwhile Harvard philosopher who lived in this country for most of four decades, concluded that individualism and good will coexist at the heart of the American character. How can that be? As he explained it, the instinct of an American was “to think well of everybody, and to wish everybody well, but in a spirit of rough comradeship.”
“When he has given his neighbor a chance,” Santayana said, “he thinks he has done enough….It will take some hammering to drive a coddling socialism into America.”
Not long after, the hammering began via the Great Depression and the New Deal. Much that’s happened since then has served to continue it. Government in America has moved beyond simply providing a safety net, to meeting a vast range of people’s needs and wants, from day care and prescription drugs to arts subsidies and public broadcasting. Call it coddling, as Santayana did, or call it enlightened social policy, that’s where we are now.
But now, too, we have a lagging economy in combination with a soaring deficit, with threats of national bankruptcy looming in the background. Hence the debate that will dominate the run-up to next year’s election, essentially driven by the clashing visions here called democratic capitalism and social democracy.
Does Catholic social doctrine have anything to contribute to the debate? Certainly it does. But it remains to be seen whether those officially responsible for articulating that body of teaching will rise to the occasion.
A recent statement on federal budget policy from the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops highlighted concern for the poor as a criterion of budgetary decisions. Quite so. But the official representatives of Catholic social doctrine ought also to be taking the further step of pointing out that for many of America’s poor, poverty has not only economic causes but also cultural — in other words, moral — ones that entitlements alone can’t solve.
To pass over the roles that family breakdown, illegitimacy, no-fault divorce, single parenthood, toxic schooling, drugs, and early dropping out have in creating the culture of poverty vastly oversimplifies the problem. And to say that isn’t blaming the poor for poverty but simply recognizing inconvenient facts.
Facing up to social issues is no substitute for economic policy, but ignoring the link between the two spheres is also a mistake. Helping people see the link and respond appropriately could be Catholic social doctrine’s biggest contribution to bridging the gap between social democracy and democratic capitalism in today’s America.