Romney, Obama and the New Culture War over Fairness

Romney and Obama extol profoundly different conceptions of what is just. No wonder they both think they're right

  • Share
  • Read Later
Christopher Morris / VII for TIME

Mitt Romney, left, and Barack Obama during their first debate at the University of Denver on Oct. 3, 2012. Taken from CNN

Remember when the culture war was about obscenity in rap music, protecting the flag from match-wielding protesters and spanking in schools? Not all so-called cultural issues have faded away — gay marriage and abortion are still quite divisive — but after the 2008 financial collapse and the rise of the libertarian-influenced Tea Party, both armies in the American culture war shifted their crack brigades over to the so-called economic issues of taxes and entitlement spending. The front line in this new culture war is fairness. Both sides claim to own the territory, yet they draw the map of American morality differently.

The two major gaffes of the presidential campaign were failed attempts to rally the troops with arguments about the outrageous unfairness of the other side. President Obama’s “You didn’t build that” speech in Roanoke, Va., last July and Mitt Romney’s comments about the 47% of Americans who pay no income taxes were political Freudian slips — careless words that resonated because they seemed to reveal deeper motives and values. The kinder, gentler Romney that we saw in the first presidential debate finally disavowed the 47% comments, but people disavow Freudian slips all the time.

(VIDEO: TIME Explains Swing States: Could Obama and Romney Tie?)

So let’s take a closer look at the two speeches. They began in uncannily similar ways. Both men started off by describing their grandfathers, whose hard work, persistence and devotion to family gave their children a shot at a better life. Both men then described their wives’ fathers or grandfathers, who worked blue collar jobs but sent their children to college. So guess which man said, “At the heart of this country, its central idea is the idea that in this country, if you’re willing to work hard, if you’re willing to take responsibility, you can make it if you try”?

The answer is Obama, but it could just as well have been Romney. Both men try to establish their credibility by showing that their family embodies the American Dream. Both men extol the virtues of hard work, self-sacrifice and devoted parenting. The only difference is that for Obama, the government was a crucial partner at every step, giving his grandfather the GI Bill to pay for college and a Federal Housing Administration loan to buy a house and giving his mother a variety of grants and scholarships to pay for her education. For Obama, the government offers a helping hand, making the American Dream accessible to anyone willing to work for it. For Romney, a good government hangs back and lets people succeed or fail on their own merits.

(MORE: What History Tells Us About Obama’s Chances)

But as in most grand political narratives, a villain comes along to ruin everything. For Romney, America’s vitality was sapped by the social programs Obama extols. By shoveling money and new rights around indiscriminately, the Democrats created an entitlement society in which 47% of the people “are dependent upon government, who believe that they are victims, who believe that government has a responsibility to care for them, who believe that they are entitled to health care, to food, to housing, to you name it.” If you accept Romney’s history, the good ol’ days ended with Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society programs. America’s urgent priority is therefore to undo those programs, roll back the welfare state and restore the vigorous virtues of hard work and self-reliance.

Arguing in a parallel way, Obama said it was the Republicans who shattered the American Dream: “Now, the reason that I think so many of us came together in 2008 was because we saw that for a decade that dream was fraying, that it was slipping away, that there were too many people who were working hard but not seeing their incomes or wages go up, that we had taken a surplus and turned it into a deficit … There was a sense that those who were in charge didn’t feel responsible.” If you accept Obama’s history, the good ol’ days ended when George W. Bush tilted tax and regulatory policies to favor businesses and the wealthy. America’s urgent priority is therefore to undo the Bush tax cuts for the wealthy, roll back the rising inequality and expand federal programs that might help people succeed.

(MORE: The Real Difference Between Romney and Obama)

Both candidates are essentially saying, Vote for me because the other side destroyed a fair America in which hard work paid off. Vote for me because I’ll restore fairness and the American Dream. But if we dig a little deeper into what the two sides mean by fairness, the similarities melt away.

I’m a social psychologist. I study the moral foundations of politics. With my colleagues at, I’ve collected data from 300,000 people who participated in dozens of studies and experiments, and their responses tell a consistent story. There are three major kinds of fairness, and we find that liberals and conservatives value them to different degrees.

(MORE: Who Is the Better Communicator: Romney or Obama?)

1. When Fairness Means Proportionality
The most general form of fairness is proportionality, which means that people are getting benefits in proportion to their contributions. Nobody is cheating or getting cheated. If you’ve ever shared a kitchen with roommates, you know how sensitive people can be about who’s doing their fair share and who’s the slacker who uses the kitchen a lot but doesn’t do a proportional amount of cleaning and shopping. Everyone — right, left and center — values proportionality, but conservatives value it more.

You can see that in the accompanying graph, which shows responses from 5,200 American visitors to The red line shows how strongly people agreed with the statement “Employees who work the hardest should be paid the most.” If you look at the left edge of the graph, you see that people who described themselves as “very liberal” when they registered at the site slightly agreed with that statement. But as you move to the right — as people get more conservative — they agree with it more strongly. The line slopes upward.

  1. Previous
  2. 1
  3. 2