About 40 years ago, George Corley Wallace rose up out of Alabama smoking White Owl cigars and attacking American “elites” (bureaucrats and professors, among others) as he helped create a new racially coded politics. One of the keys to Wallace’s appeal not only in the South but among working-class whites outside the old Confederacy was his overt contempt for the status quo of the two-party system that had dominated American politics since the middle of the 19th century. In Wallace’s view, there was not “a dime’s worth of difference” between the Democratic and Republican presidential nominees.
It’s tempting agree with Wallace, at least on this narrow ground. The two major parties tend to have more in common with one another than either side would like to recognize, much less admit.
To my mind, though, a key distinction—or difference, to use Wallace’s term—has emerged in this convention season. It’s subtle but important, and has to do with the most ancient of American tensions: the role of the state in the lives of individuals.
In his acceptance speech in Tampa last week, Mitt Romney made a strong case for his worldview—a vision where families, communities, and markets are the determinative forces in life. “And that’s how it is in America,” Romney said. “We look to our communities, our faiths, our families for our joy, our support, in good times and bad. It is both how we live our lives and why we live our lives. The strength and power and goodness of America has always been based on the strength and power and goodness of our communities, our families, our faiths. That is the bedrock of what makes America, America. In our best days, we can feel the vibrancy of America’s communities, large and small.”
He’s right, of course, and this passage is in some ways a lineal descendant of George H.W. Bush’s 1988 acceptance speech, an address in which the then-vice president emphasized the role of organic institutions and relationships—families, churches, and the like—in order to soften the antigovernment rhetoric of the Goldwater-Reagan wing of the GOP.
Yet before accepting a wholly communitarian vision of life—which is what I heard Romney presenting last week—we might profitably listen to what President Obama said on the same general subject four years ago in Denver: “What—what is that American promise? It’s a promise that says each of us has the freedom to make of our own lives what we will, but that we also have obligations to treat each other with dignity and respect. It’s a promise that says the market should reward drive and innovation and generate growth, but that businesses should live up to their responsibilities to create American jobs, to look out for American workers, and play by the rules of the road. Ours—ours is a promise that says government cannot solve all our problems, but what it should do is that which we cannot do for ourselves: protect us from harm and provide every child a decent education; keep our water clean and our toys safe; invest in new schools, and new roads, and science, and technology. Our government should work for us, not against us. It should help us, not hurt us. It should ensure opportunity not just for those with the most money and influence, but for every American who’s willing to work. That’s the promise of America, the idea that we are responsible for ourselves, but that we also rise or fall as one nation, the fundamental belief that I am my brother’s keeper, I am my sister’s keeper.”
There’s the difference: Obama believes in communal responsibility, and in the role of government to try to smooth out the rougher edges of life for those for whom the community cannot. This is not to say that Romney is a cold man, or that Republicans are cold-hearted; he isn’t, and they aren’t. But there is a difference between the two parties—Republicans in general would like to think that our keepers can be found in society rather than with the help of the state. Experience tells us the Democratic view addresses the problems of history more fully than the GOP one. And that’s a difference that’s worth a great deal more than a dime.
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