In terms of shaping the outcome of this election or changing the dynamics of the horserace, I suspect that the effects of Mitt Romney’s recently publicized comments from a fundraiser in May will be negligible. But they do reveal some interesting things about the state of our politics.
I basically agree with the two lines of criticism made about Romney’s remarks here and elsewhere today. First, the remarks represented a misunderstanding of the three subjects to which they seemed to refer: the nearly even division of the electorate and relative dearth of persuadable voters, the relationship between government transfers and dependency, and the nature of dependency. The 47 percent of voters that Obama can basically count on are not all recipients of government benefits; recipients of government benefits are not all dependent on public support; and people who are dependent on public support are not all uninterested in taking control of their lives. Some are, in each case, but generally not all that many, and the sum of those portions does not add up to Obama’s electoral floor, just as the sum of their opposites does not add up to Romney’s (roughly equivalent) political floor.
Second, it is a mistake (not just rhetorically but substantively) for anyone running for president to direct himself to part of the country at the expense of another part—especially if the parts involved are very large. This is of course a mistake that both candidates are making, and it has to do with why neither of them is winning this election, though one of them will eventually have to lose it. The Obama campaign has been far more guilty of this particular offense against good sense and civic comity than the Romney campaign. Obama is running an entirely segmented campaign—because he cannot speak about the things that touch everyone (especially the economy) he is forced to speak about different things to different groups and hope that the unionized Catholic auto workers don’t notice his intense enthusiasm for abortion while the single women in their 20s don’t notice that he is mortgaging their future and that neither group notices that he is basically running on fumes and offering no second-term agenda whatsoever. By comparison, Romney is running on a much broader and more nearly universal message of prosperity, though his remarks from May suggest that he thinks only some and not all voters will be interested in that message.
These two sets of mistakes are serious and troubling, and suggest that Romney is (or at least was four months ago) rather adrift with regard to what he’s trying to achieve in this election and how he is trying to achieve it. It is, however, also worth noting the elements of truth in what he had to say—elements that have mostly to do with his analysis of Obama and the Left, rather than the country at large. There is no doubt that a significant part of President Obama’s direct appeal to voters has to do with the provision of government benefits. What else is The Life of Julia all about? What else is the Democrats’ case against reforming Medicare? Nothing much. And there is also no doubt that this appeal often works reasonably well—that people who receive benefits are generally inclined to support candidates who will retain them, and that people who don’t pay income taxes are often inclined to be deaf to tax-cut appeals. That doesn’t explain what’s going on in American politics, but it’s still true.
But the fact that this is the nature of much of Obama’s appeal to voters doesn’t mean that it is the essence of the problem with Obama and the contemporary Left. I think Romney’s remarks (or at least the portion of them that Mother Jones thought we should hear) suggest a misdiagnosis—part of an epidemic of misdiagnoses afflicting our politics this year. This election has brought to the surface remarkably explicit versions of each party’s critique of the other, and each party’s critique strikes me as largely wrong about the opposite party, but as deeply revealing about the party lodging the criticism.
Democrats argue that Republicans are radical individualists who see no value in institutions of common action, who overvalue individual initiative and accomplishment, and who have no regard for people who for whatever reason are unable to make it on their own. They see themselves as the party of mutuality and common effort, but in describing themselves that way they inadvertently reveal their belief that all common action is government action. This was evident in President Obama’s Roanoke remarks, it could be heard in the opening video of the Democratic convention when one of the speakers asserted that “government is the one thing we all belong to,” and Representative Barney Frank even did us the favor of stating it utterly explicitly on the convention’s final day, arguing that “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 argue that Democrats are radical collectivists who see no value in individual achievement, drive, and independence, and who are striving to transform America into a society of pathetic and dependent rent-seekers demanding goodies, with liberal politicians at its center handing out those goodies. They see themselves as the party of aspiration, drive, and personal responsibility. This is evident in the argument that Americans who don’t pay income taxes have no stake in American life, it’s evident in the tendency of conservative scholarship to understand Americans as increasingly “a nation of takers” (to borrow the provocative title of Nicholas Eberstadt’s fascinating forthcoming book), and it was basically the substance of Romney’s remarks at that May fundraiser.
These two sets of arguments are basically mutually reinforcing responses to one another. Liberals are responding to conservative criticism of the Obama era, and conservatives are responding to liberal criticisms of the Tea Party.
But I think the argument we’re actually having—or rather the disagreement that actually underlies our politics just now—is really about the deeper question of the structure of American life. The Left’s description of its own worldview (that when we do things together, that’s called government) reveals an astonishingly thin notion of American society, which understands that society as consisting of only individuals and the government, and which neither discerns nor desires much of consequence in the space between the two. But most of life, and especially American life, is lived precisely in the space between those two—that space where the family, civil society, and the private economy thrive, and in turn allow us to thrive.
While the progressive view of government has long involved the effort to shrink and clear that space between the individual and the state, the conservative view of government has long seen the purpose of the state as the creation, protection, and reinforcement of just that space—as creating the conditions for people to live thriving private lives. Most of what we do together is not done through government but through the institutions that exist between the individual and the state, and government exists to sustain the space in which those institutions, and with them our society, may flourish. This means that government is crucially important, but it also means that limits on government are crucially important—and for the very same reason. Without those limits, the state can gravely threaten the space for private life that it is charged with protecting. It can threaten that space by invading it and attempting to fill it, and by collapsing it under the weight of the government’s sheer size, scope, and cost. Both are clearly happening in our time, and the Left is in essence making a positive case for allowing both to proceed.
We cannot be a self-governing people if the space where our non-political institutions function—and where they shape citizens by forming their character—is permitted to collapse. We are therefore indeed in the midst of a great debate about the kind of country we want to be, and about whether it will be possible for the preconditions of American life as we have known it to persist. But that is not fundamentally an argument about dependency, or even exactly about government benefits. There are ways to provide the kinds of benefits that most Americans truly do want our government to provide—basic income and health benefits for the oldest and poorest Americans—without the kind of ballooning of government’s size and role that we have experienced. If we understand the purpose of such benefits as enabling access to the private economy (rather than shielding beneficiaries from it), and if we allow the means by which such benefits are provided to be shaped by modern markets rather than by the old social-democratic ideal of the provider state, we can provide essential protections for the needy and the vulnerable through government while also making room to provide the needy and the vulnerable with far more—with the kind of loving support that actually brings people out of poverty—through the institutions of civil society, which can do what government never could.
In other words, we are in practice engaged in a battle about the proper role of government and the proper shape and character of society. The Left is implicitly advancing a profoundly misguided and harmful set of views in that debate, and the Right is implicitly defending the preconditions for what we have known as the American way of life, at least in the postwar years. But neither side explicitly understands the debate in quite these terms, and so each is criticizing the other and defending itself in rather peculiar and inapt ways.
The arguments put forward by the Obama and Romney campaigns—emphatically including these recently revealed remarks of Romney’s—are great examples of this confusion. They are not simply wrong, they are about the wrong subject. But that confusion does not give us the right to look away: If we can make more explicit the debate we are implicitly engaged in, we would stand a chance of helping our fellow citizens see why this election matters, and why we need a new president. But we can only do that if we speak to those fellow citizens—all of them—in terms of what it is we truly do together, which is much more than government.