Perhaps the most important takeaway from President Obama’s second inaugural address was highlighted in a recent column by Jonah Goldberg: In the liberal worldview, if one rejects “the loving embrace of federal government in Washington,” one must be a selfish individualist.
During the 2012 campaign, The New Republic’s Leon Wieseltier wrote a hilariously overwrought hit piece on Paul Ryan that painted him as a heartless capitalist who laughs at the suffering of the poor, the elderly, the downtrodden, children, etc. Wieseltier apparently believes that a conservative, even one from Wisconsin, can be a radical individualist who scorns community values.
If you’ve ever been to Wisconsin, you know that’s impossible. Virtually everyone
in the state believes in community. In fact, in most of the state, if you fail to behave like a model citizen, people will assume that you’re from Illinois — and probably from Chicago.
Americans of all political stripes believe in community. We all believe that we’re in this together. The communication breakdown arises because liberals don’t understand the conservative vision of “community,” mostly because conservatives have failed to explain it. That’s a big part of the reason that conservatives and liberals seem to be speaking different languages even when they’re both saying, “We’re in this together.”
People always think that partisan bickering is worse in their own generation than it has ever been before. I take a dim view of that notion. The failure to understand the other side’s point of view is an inherent part of democratic politics. The first step in overcoming that failure, and in saving the promise of America for future generations, is recognizing the essential premises that we hold in common.
I’m not talking about any sort of lovey-dovey kumbaya moment. Polarizing issues remain polarized even after the consensus shifts direction. Margaret Thatcher, for example, was able to find common ground with Britons of other political persuasions when it came to the need to shatter labor unions’ stranglehold. People in the labor movement continued to hate her, fervently, but she forged a new consensus that broke their power.
In Wisconsin, Scott Walker has accomplished something similar, on a smaller but no less remarkable scale: He has convinced enough Obama voters in Wisconsin that public-sector unions should not be allowed to extort special privileges at the expense of everyone else, including lots of poor people, that he has been able to prevail. By forging a statewide consensus, he broke the coercive powers of public-sector unions.
He didn’t do it by appealing to individualism. He did it by arguing convincingly that it was the public-sector unions whose motives were selfish, and that it was their undeserved special privileges that offended the principle that “we’re all in this together.” His opposition continues to loathe him, but Walker found enough common ground to shatter the old consensus and create a new one.
One principle that all Americans can agree on is the importance of community values, the vital importance of shared responsibility and civic virtue. Charity for the needy, opportunities for the young, security for the elderly — these “commitments we make to each other,” as Obama put it in his inaugural speech, make us stronger as a society.
But it is vitally important not to conflate these lasting civic commitments with particular government programs, such as Medicaid, Medicare, and Social Security, as the president did throughout his speech. Any particular program may be fatally flawed, however noble its purpose. It might be unconstitutional. It might be fiscally unsustainable. It might impose a one-size-fits-all approach that most people dislike. Medicaid, for example, is all of those things; Medicare and Social Security, for their part, will bankrupt the nation if left unreformed.