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Julia, from Cradle to Grave

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The president’s re-election campaign recently unveiled an Internet slideshow demonstrating to women some possible consequences of their votes this fall. The Life of Julia, a mini-biography in 11 episodes, has an imaginary toddler, Julia, enrolling in a Head Start program, a 27-year-old Web-designer Julia benefiting from mandated preventive health care coverage, and a retiree Julia living “comfortably” on Social Security. And it contrasts the fate of these programs under Obama and Romney policies. Visually engaging but hardly dramatic, well-pitched but far from edgy as campaign advertising, The Life of Julia, I am tempted to say, is not all that interesting in itself.

Not so the conservative response to Julia. Paul Ryan, the House Budget Committee chairman, pronounced the slideshow “creepy” and “demeaning.” Julia’s life is “banal and hackneyed,” wrote William Bennett, in a more literary frame of mind. Ross Douthat perceived liberal “condescension” at every turn of Julia’s fictional life. And almost without exception, conservative critics agreed on the key phrase for mocking the slideshow: “cradle to grave.”

Indeed, a Google search of the words “Julia,” “Obama” and “cradle to grave” yields 130,000 hits, beginning with a RedState.com blog about “cradle to grave socialism for America.” As a term of conservative denunciation, “cradle to grave” is meant to signify both a constantly prying, all-powerful bureaucracy and a weak, permanently prostrate people — a nightmare vision, in Bennett’s estimation, of “a state that takes care of its people from cradle to grave.” In 2012, this kind of rhetoric is so familiar that it hardly seems to require explanation.

But the term “cradle to grave” played a very different role in political discussions 70 years ago — when figures as different as Franklin Delano Roosevelt, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill and Gerard Swope, the president of General Electric, hailed the idea of comprehensive, lifelong social insurance.

It was an era in which the United States and Britain were founding modern welfare states in response to want and the Depression. It was also a time of total war, when a more all-encompassing understanding of citizenship was advanced: If the state could call on some citizens to die to protect others, it could also organize the mechanisms for mutual protection of all citizens from unemployment, poverty and sickness. The idea of a “cradle to grave” social welfare system evoked solidarity, a promise that soldiers’ and workers’ contributions would be reciprocated, that they would enjoy the full benefits of membership in society.

The term meant, in addition, that this promise was comprehensive in scope, embracing infants and young families as well as the elderly. These solidaristic promises were articulated in the Atlantic Charter, a statement of war aims by the U.S. and United Kingdom, in Britain’s Beveridge report on postwar social policy, and in Roosevelt’s speeches on a “second Bill of Rights.” And they resonated with the majority of people who had vividly experienced the reality of want.

So a phrase originally tied to solidarity and full citizenship has morphed into a term that apparently invokes “creepy” government overreach and dependency. What makes such an inversion of values possible?

A number of things, likely, but one stands out: the wide reach and notable success of the very programs that constitute our “cradle to grave” welfare state. Political arguments are often as much about what’s taken for granted as they are about what’s explicitly said. And phrases reverberate in some social circumstances quite differently than they would in others.

The U.S. welfare state is today so encompassing that even the audience that is most receptive to the idea that cradle-to-grave welfare is “demeaning”  is surely composed of people who have benefited from tax breaks that favor parents, free K-12 education, Social Security and Medicare. Romney “better hope that the Julias are not yet the majority of the voters,” writes the Washington Post’s conservative blogger, Jennifer Rubin. But of course those benefiting, with Julia, from “cradle to grave” welfare have been the majority for a long time.  They often think of themselves as deserving recipients, unlike others, beneficiaries as a matter of right. Less often do they frankly acknowledge their benefiting as an indication of mutual dependence. In such a context, the political debate about the welfare state can take a deceptive turn.

The potential success of the conservative critique of Julia depends, in actuality, on denial — on many people failing to recognize or acknowledge the popular and nearly ubiquitous programs that make up actual “cradle-to-grave” welfare. And the need to sustain that sort of denial explains why the onslaught against Julia has been, in the end, rather ritualistic. Of course, these scathing discussions include standard references to the need to shore up the finances of Social Security and Medicare. But in itself this is odd. If the cradle-to-grave system is so corrupting, why stabilize it?

Bennett writes that, in contrast to liberal Julia-pandering, conservatives must make the case for “individual liberty, virtue and earned success.” Yet he displays no appetite for following his argument to its concrete conclusion – i.e., showing how federal student loans, laws strengthening the right of women to sue for pay discrimination, Social Security and Medicare (the very programs touted in The Life of Julia) oppress people, promote vice, or enable unearned success. Similarly, Paul  Ryan and his colleagues have learned that even plans to end Medicare as we know it have to be presented as attempts to save it.

Seventy years after Roosevelt and Churchill’s meeting of the minds, conservatives have to hope that a portion of the public will embrace their rhetoric without thinking too much about where it leads. They have to present themselves as both the implacable foes of cradle-to-grave welfare, in the abstract, and the best financial friends of the largest welfare programs, in particular. No wonder they find Julia so irritating.

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