Five Minutes With...

Five Minutes with Melinda Cooper (Part 1)

In the first of a two-part interview, Melinda Cooper discusses her new book Family Values: Between Neoliberalism and the New Social Conservatism, an investigation of the roots of the alliance between free-market neoliberals and social conservatives.

Family Values shows how welfare policy in the US in the late 20th century doesn’t fall easily along the obvious party lines as we understand them today: i.e. Democrats in favor and Republicans against. For instance, why did Milton Friedman call Nixon “the most socialist of the Presidents of the US in the 20th century?”

It’s hilarious to think that Republicans and Tea Party-ers were calling Obama a “socialist.” Nixon—and even Milton Friedman in the 1960s—were much more “socialist” than Obama has ever been, in the sense that they supported the expansion of social welfare commenced by Johnson and were actively involved in designing a basic guaranteed income. These were social democratic rather than socialist policies but they appear extremely radical today. We forget how much consensus there was around the principle of social insurance and how powerful the extraparliamentary left was at this time, powerful enough to force both Democrats and Republicans to the left. Of course, a lot of this was pure pragmatism—Milton Friedman called Nixon the “most socialist president of the United States” because he was outraged that Nixon refused to adopt his monetarist policies of tightening the money supply. Instead, Nixon used loose monetary policy and tolerated inflation so that he could sustain social spending at a high level. Friedman was willing to compromise with the zeitgeist to a certain extent, but he thought that Nixon’s pragmatic concessions to the left went too far. Today, pragmatism pushes all politicians to the right. It is the extraparliamentary far right that is the real undertow shaping political tides.

How was Clinton’s 1996 welfare reform, working with the Congress under Newt Gingrich, a culmination of policies that had their start with Reagan in the 1970’s in California—and represented legislation that even Reagan could not get passed? As you put it “Thus, a Democratic President completed the experiment in radical welfare reform that had been initiated by a right-wing Republican as far back as the 1970s.” 

Clinton achieved at a federal level what Ronald Reagan achieved only partially at a state level. Reagan was on the fringe right of the Republican party in the 1960s, closer to people like Barry Goldwater. He was one of the few Republicans to openly campaign against Nixon’s basic guaranteed income. Instead he championed one of the first state-level backlashes against the gains of the welfare rights movement in California. The way he did this is fascinating and historically very important. He revived the old poor law rules relating to family responsibility in the provision of welfare and social services. These rules stipulated that the family, including extended family, were primarily responsible for paying for the care of the dependent. He was targeting all kinds of state welfare and care in state institutions, but was primarily interested in mothers on Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC). The idea was that wherever possible an “absent (biological) father” should be identified and made responsible for looking after the single mother and her children. This is precisely what Clinton achieved on a federal level with his welfare reform of 1996.

Can you briefly summarize your argument on the intellectual history of neoconservatives: while thought of today mainly in terms of their foreign policy beliefs, you note they began in the 1930s concerned with social welfare issues and even Irving Kristol was in favor of universal health insurance.  How did they eventually find common ground with neoliberals such as Friedman who were calling for cuts to the social wage?

The neoconservatives only really came together as a self-identified movement in the 1970s. They were New Deal leftists and former Trotskyists who were alarmed by what they saw as the explosion of anti-normative liberation movements arising out of the Great Society project. They thought the expansion of welfare was occurring without sufficient attention to the preservation of family and gender hierarchies. Yet they remained deeply attached to the New Deal idea of a family-based welfare state. At the beginning at least, they remained committed to social redistribution but only when this project was aligned with a deeply moralizing and normative vision of society.

So the neoconservatives were not at all interested in reducing welfare expenditures or shrinking the state. They were very critical of the neoliberals on this point. What outraged them was that welfare spending was subsidizing what they saw as immoral lifestyles such as single motherhood. They thought that the social and moral force of the original New Deal welfare state had been undermined by the gradual erosion of moral conditions on welfare. They are not against welfare spending on fiscal grounds at all, but want to mobilize the welfare state in the service of cultivating certain kinds of gender hierarchy and normative lifestyle. This is a very different position from the neoliberals, who in extremis would like to see all welfare needs downloaded to the private family unit. But they did find common ground in the notion that the promotion of family responsibility should be made central to welfare reform. What you get in practice is a hybrid—it is hard to argue that state and federal welfare budgets have been massively slashed, but increasingly money is being spent on enforcing legal obligations of care amongst the welfare poor and in a whole array of pedagogical and therapeutic programs designed to inculcate certain forms of family responsibility and morality among the poor.