It will be interesting to see if President Obama and the likely Republican nominee Mitt Romney actually engage each other in a clear debate over the vision each has for America’s future. If so, this could be one of the most important elections in recent memory.
The core question is what sort of government do we want?
Both laid their respective visions out in speeches they gave to the American Society of Newspaper Editors.
The choice is between the collectivism described by Barack Obama and the individualism described by Mitt Romney.
The Democrats talk about the pain that others feel and our responsibility to build a society that is inclusive and leaves no one behind. That’s why Democrats see government as a necessary agent to mitigate the myriad of individual risks that cannot be reasonably controlled or predicted. The grand bargain of the FDR’s New Deal, for example, was crafted in the wake of the great depression which was caused by the unregulated economic expansion and speculation of the 1920’s. The bargain was that in return for workers continuing bear the risks inherent in even a regulated capitalist economy, the government would also create a social safety net to protect workers when businesses failed or workers could no longer work.
The Republicans only want to talk about success. Winners should not be encumbered by concern about others. They should be able reap the full reward for their success without any obligation or responsibility for the repercussions of their success. Losers, on the other hand, have only themselves (and presumably their dependence on others) to blame. That’s why Republicans want a much smaller government that doesn’t get involved in protecting individuals or families, doesn’t attempt to regulate business activities, and certainly doesn’t impose higher taxes on the rich than the poor.
This difference in view is consistent with a recent study about the values and language of liberals and conservatives. That study was described in Jonathan Haidt’s book “The Righteous Mind”.
Liberals value caring for the weak, fairness, and liberty. They feel that individual success can only occur in an environment where that success does not take advantage of the weak, is not the result of an unfair advantage, and accounts for all potential externalities (e.g. environmental pollution).
Conservatives share those concerns, but define fairness and liberty a little differently. They also care about loyalty, respect for authority, and sanctity. That’s why we have seen conservatives attempt to define themselves during the Vietnam era by their respect for institutions like the flag and the military.
Haidt found that these values can be traced to infancy. Children who were described by their nursery-school teachers as curious, verbally expressive, but sometimes messy and disobedient often grew into liberal Adults. Children who had a big startle reflex in response to loud noises or disgusting images (think eating worms) grew up to be conservative adults.
In fact a University of Toronto study found that people expressed more conservative views when asked a series of questions about drug use and pornography if they had first washed their hands. A similar study at Cornell found that subjects only had to be near enough to hand sanitizer to either smell it or see it in their plane of view to behave similarly.
Other studies have suggested that because conservatives share three of the values that motivate liberals, they are able to appreciate why liberals feel the way that they do, even though they may strongly disagree with them. Liberals on the other hand find it very difficult to understand why conservatives would pick church over the individual on issues like contraception or gay marriage.
If you think about it in the context of language, conservatives can speak the liberal’s language because it is part of their own language. Liberals, however, are unable to communicate with conservatives when it comes to things like loyalty, respect for authority, and sanctity. They simply don’t understand the language. That’s why it has been so hard for liberals to understand why Republicans would waste their time with the flurry of primary issues around loyalty, authority, and sanctity. From a Democratic perspective these are religious or moral issues and have little or nothing to do with government. It is why the Democratic Party has had a very difficult time engaging conservative voters in any sort of meaningful dialogue. It’s also likely why some conservatives characterize liberals as feckless, self-absorbed, solipsistic, and amoral.
This country has been living with New Deal and Great Society institutions for decades. Those institutions represented by Social Security and Medicare are clearly based on the collectivist liberal principles of empathy, shared risk management, and opportunity creation. Mr. Obama accurately describes the current Republican ideological position as “an attempt to impose a radical vision on our country”. He’s right to the extent that the Republican vision questions the fundamental assumptions on which the New Deal and Great Society were founded.
Romney, in articulating the Republican vision, is clearly saying that it IS time to re-examine the assumptions that led to the financial challenges we face in funding the Baby Boomer retirement. He talks about an earlier (some would say mythical) America where people pulled themselves up by their own bootstraps, didn’t look to others for help, and were successful because they didn’t have any other choice. That individual success became the foundation for generations of family success, and to hear Romney tell it, our success as a country is based on successful families. For Republicans, the New Deal was a perversion of the American character rather than an expression of it. The New Deal led, in the minds of Republicans, to a dangerous dependence on government that robs those at the bottom of the ladder of the incentive to start climbing, and obligates those at the top of the ladder to fund programs that successful people clearly don’t need. The implication is that if the Democrats hadn’t created this entitlement culture, a significantly larger number of us would be wealthy.
This is the salient question. Do we want a government whose priority is creating more wealthy people, or do we want a government whose priority is reducing the number of poor people?
Future posts will dig into the implications of both of these visions.