Everybody knows that this election is supposed to be all about the economy. Employment, income, growth, and America’s credit rating are too low, while spending, borrowing, deficits, poverty, and gas prices are too high, and voters must decide whether President Obama is responsible for all of that or whether Mitt Romney could do better. Polls certainly suggest that these questions are highest on voters’ minds.
And yet, even as both parties acknowledge the centrality of the economy, both seem also to be powerfully drawn toward another, deeper kind of debate. That debate has mostly been evident when each party’s politicians have assumed they are talking to their supporters and friends—in the non-televised early hours of their conventions this summer, in off-the-cuff remarks after a long day of campaigning, or at a fundraiser they did not know was being recorded. In those kinds of moments, both Democrats and Republicans seem to want to have a debate about the individual, society, and government in American life.
Each party is pulled into this debate by what it sees as the deeply misguided views of the other. Democrats listen to Republicans and hear a simpleminded and selfish radical individualism—or, as President Obama has put it, “nothing but thinly veiled Social Darwinism.” They hear people who think that being successful and rich means you’re smarter than everyone else or work harder than everyone else, and who therefore have no regard for those in our society who are in no position to start a business or get a loan. They hear people who have benefited from the privileges of being lucky in America and imagine they did it all by themselves. And they seek to teach these people that there is no such thing as a self-made success. This was what President Obama was getting at when he went off his script in Roanoke, Virginia, in July and made “you didn’t build that” an instant classic. He was accusing his opponents of idolizing individual achievement while ignoring the preconditions for success made possible by the larger society—which he identified more or less exclusively with the government. Numerous speakers at this summer’s Democratic convention similarly equated society and government, arguing, for instance, that (in the words of the convention’s opening video) “government is the one thing we all belong to,” and that (in the words of Rep. Barney Frank) “there are things that a civilized society needs that we can only do when we do them together, and when we do them together that’s called government.” Republicans, they suggested, don’t believe in government because they don’t believe in doing things together.
Republicans listen to Democrats, meanwhile, and hear a simpleminded and dangerous radical collectivism—or, as Mitt Romney has put it, a vision of America as “a government-centered society.” They hear people who think that no success is earned and no accomplishment can be attributed to those who took the risks to make it happen. They hear people who think there is no value in personal drive and initiative, and who would like to extend the web of federal benefits as far and wide as possible to shield Americans from the private economy and make them dependent on government beneficence and on the liberal politicians who bestow it. And they seek to teach these people that private initiative is how prosperity happens, how dignity develops, and how America was built, and that dependence is pernicious and enervating. That was what speaker after speaker at the Republican convention had to say, often drawing on personal experience of entrepreneurship and social mobility. And, in a more confused and hapless way, it was what Mitt Romney was getting at in the now-infamous remarks he made at a fundraiser in May about the growing numbers of Americans receiving federal benefits.
Republicans accuse Democrats of ignoring individual achievement and overvaluing government achievements; Democrats accuse Republicans of ignoring government achievements and overvaluing individual achievement. It is not a coincidence that this unusual debate should be happening as the public is asked to render its verdict on the Obama years, but because that is the context in which it is happening, the debate often misses a crucial point.