Every time an election rolls around, we are told by some high-minded pundit or another that it isn’t merely about choosing one party and its values, or about the issues at stake at any given time; it is about profound philosophical differences. I’m not sure why this observation is supposed to carry any weight; the idea that voting is, or at least is supposed to be, a public endorsement of one particular worldview over another should be obvious to anyone except that mass of favor-currying ‘undecideds’ who eat up everyone’s attention every four years.
But if it’s true, as I’ve often argued in this space, that the difference between the two parties allowed to operate the controls of the American state is growing ever narrower, exactly what worldview are we voting for when we select (D) or (R) on our ballots? That answer, oddly enough, is becoming more clear, not less, and it sheds some light not only on what we are becoming as a country, but on why we’ve evolved so contrarily to the direction of the rest of the civilized world.
Much gas is loosed every day in this country on the subject of elites, but for all their attempts to curry favor with the toiling classes during election years, the fundamental difference between Democrats and Republicans is that the former are egalitarian and the latter are elitist. This is beginning to shift as the Ds begin to embrace technocratic centrism and buy into the idea that only capital investment can change the world, but fundamentally, the point of view remains: those on the left believe that everyone is of equal value, and the government should play some role in providing opportunities for people at the bottom to improve themselves, while those on the right believe that there are successful people and there are nobodies, and if the government has a role at all, it is to protect the former from the latter.
This message can get muddled a bit when elections roll around, but it’s never really a secret. Republicans will always side with doing nothing rather than doing something where government is concerned; the free market is the eternal solution to everything, and the question “what if I don’t have enough money to pay for it?” is forever unanswered. The G.O.P.’s mindlessly hostile reaction to ‘Obamacare’ (or, going back, any kind of health care reform) is a perfect example. Anyone with any sense knows that our health care system is completely dysfunctional; our combination of high costs and low coverage is unprecedentedly bad in the roll call of nations. But Republicans, while opposing any kind of health care plan devised by their opposition, have had ample opportunities to come up with a counter-proposal, and have consistently failed to do so. It could not be more clear that they would rather their fellow Americans have nothing rather than something; it is their approach to jobs, social welfare, and almost every function of government other than defense and law enforcement.
If further examples are needed, someone is always willing to step up and make the position of the party of the rich explicit rather than implicit. Mitt Romney’s presidential campaign, predicated on the assumption that since he’s always had enough cash to pay his bills, he doesn’t see why the state and everyone it governs shouldn’t be able to do the same, has hit rocky terrain of late; it seems a few muckrakers have taken to wondering how someone who can’t keep track of how much money he has, how he got it, or where he put it should be placed in charge of a foundering economy. Romney’s bristly response to those who dare to question his bona fides has been an object lesson in the barely concealed contempt in which the nation’s owners look down on mere citizens. Charles Pierce nicely identifies it as the attitude of the privileged class towards the help, where “the help” is understood to mean “everybody”. Romney’s campaign increasingly resembles that of Parks and Recreation‘s Bobby Newport: showered in wealth, raised with every possibile advantage, he sees the presidency as something he’s simply entitled to, having little else to do with his time, and he resents the very idea that someone might try to stop him from getting it.
Of course, if you want something spelled out in big, easy-to-read letters, you need go no further than Rush Limbaugh, the dark id of the Republican Party. Responding to recent comments by President Barack Obama which implied, to the shock of people who do not seem to grasp the very concept of human society, that wealthy people depend on a robust working class and a well-maintained state for their continued success, Limbaugh laid out the right’s conception of humanity as clear as day: there are real Americans — businessmen, successful people, winners like himself — and then there is Obama’s constituency: “people who don’t count”, “people with miserable, meaningless lives” who are “trying to tell themselves that they matter”. There you have it, in a nutshell: forget about the idea that everyone has potential, that the goal of a decent society is to provide opportunities for a decent life for one’s fellow man, that every American has something of value to contribute to the nation. There are winners and there are losers, and the role of the government is to abandon the losers and get out of the way of the winners. Anyone who isn’t already on top may as well not even exist, and any attempt to tell them that their lives are important is just a lie. They are nothing more than capital, raw material (or, to put it in the words of the world’s most misguided Kickstarter campaign, “human bandwidth“). They are barely human beings, clustered on the spectrum of living creatures somewhere between a pack animal, a slave, and an infant.
Interestingly, the same statement by Obama — a statement that echoed the widely disseminated views of Elizabeth Warren and which, again, say nothing more controversial than that America is a society made up of actual living people, and not a giant video game — provoked an interesting reaction from one of the bloggers at the libertarian Cato Institute. One Marian L. Tupy thinks long and hard about the president’s comments, and thus thinking, skirts up against some fundamental economic truths, before her own ideological limitations force her to pull back from actually learning something. Tupy’s belief that what makes a good capitalist is the ability to spot money-making opportunities and take advantage of them before anyone else does is amusing (there is another class that’s very good at doing this; we call them ‘criminals’), but she misreads Obama’s observation that private success is made possible by state cooperation as meaning that it’s easy to be a businessperson. Of course, it isn’t; Tupy is perfectly correct when she says “not everyone has the aptitude to be a businessman”.
Exactly right! This is a universal truth, agreed upon by Adam Smith and Karl Marx alike. The very essence of capitalism, which we would understand if we were not so systemically allergic to red-tinted truths, is that it depends on there being a small elite class at the top and a large (and largely exploited) working class at the bottom. It is anti-egalitarian, and literally cannot function if everyone is wealthy. The astonishing thing abut Tupy’s post is that she sidles right up next to this elephant of a point, but mistakes it for a mouse. She claims that it’s Obama who’s undermining his own argument, when the exact opposite is true. It is libertarians who insist that all solutions be market solutions; it is libertarians who preach that if there is salvation for the poor, it must come from their own entrepreneurial abilities. By admitting that not everyone has the skill, drive, or interest to become a businessman, she is arguing against her own philosophy’s sole solution to the problem of inequality, while condemning as immoral the obvious fact that, since capitalism of necessity breeds inequity, the most practical way to address it is through state aid derived from taxation. If Tupy was just a little bit smarter, she’d find herself out of a job.
But really, one needn’t engage in any kind of sophisticated rhetorical rigor to figure these things out; when it comes to the philosophical differences between the two parties, Matthew 7:16 tells you all you need to know. Whatever game Mitt Romney talks, if he wins the election, the only runs in his playbook will be lower taxes for the wealthy and deregulation for industry. He will keep on campaigning to the cheers of his partisans by telling America’s most historically oppressed, impoverished, and abandoned demographic that they don’t need health care reform, by condemning the most chronically unemployed and underemployed generation since the Great Depression as freebie-hoarding moochers, by scolding those who question the origins of his incalculable wealth as fools who don’t understand big business and its attendant glories of “creative destruction” (the destruction, to him, being merely that of waste, excess, unneeded figures on a balance sheet, and not human lives thus rendered). The beauty of America is that you’re free to choose this notion of humanity as little more than stacks of wood with which to build the bosses new lakeside cabins; the tragedy of America is that you have to live with the consequences of that choice. As another dirty Red once reminded us, “There’s a game out there, and the stakes are high. And the guy who runs it figures the averages all day long and all night. Once in a while, he lets you steal a couple. But if you stay in the game long enough, you’ve got to lose. And once you’ve lost, there’s no way back.”