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.
The underlying goals of the big entitlement programs are ones we can all agree on: Everyone should have access to affordable health care and to security in his old age. Ensuring access to basic necessities is a responsibility of any properly functioning society, and institutions are the only way to ensure that access. The question is, Institutions of what kind and at what level?
In his inaugural address on Monday, President Obama said, “Progress does not compel us to settle centuries-long debates about the role of government for all time, but it does require us to act in our time.” He’s right that progress requires collective action. In a democracy, progress requires the constant renewal of institutions. That requires collective action at every level of society, in and out of government.
But President Obama is flat wrong on the other point: Progress does require us to settle, “for all time,” long-standing debates about the role of government — just as, by 1860, we needed to settle “for all time” the age-old debate over slavery.
Many liberals could be brought around to understanding this, if conservatives spoke to them on their own terms, on the basis of common ground. And one vast, unexplored area of common ground is community values.
I wish that Paul Ryan had succeeded in making his Wisconsin background a more prominent theme of the 2012 campaign. I went to college at the University of Wisconsin in Madison. I remember once standing on the shore of Lake Mendota, in James Madison Park, where there is a great view of the state capitol atop a hill in one direction and of the university sprawled along the lake shore in another. I was looking back and forth from the capitol to the university, and taking in the lovely town of Madison collected snugly all about them, when it struck me that I was beholding something out of the Framers’ fondest dreams — the fruition of their dreams.
For me, the town of Madison captures the Framers’ vision of a good, prosperous, and peaceful society. And, as most Madisonians know instinctively, the protection and prosperity of one’s community requires the vigilance and dedication of its citizens. That is the true ethic of civic virtue and public service, and Wisconsinites of all political stripes possess it in abundance.
“We’re all in this together,” the president likes to say, nearly always in a partisan jab at those mean, selfish Republicans, as if conservatives believe it’s every man for himself. But in fact — and conservatives must insist on this point as a matter of first priority — conservatives believe in the principle of community even more strongly than liberals do.
This is not hard to demonstrate. Liberals trot out the community theme almost exclusively to justify programs at the federal level, but more often than not, the proponents of these programs aim to extract special benefits for themselves at the expense of everyone else. Conservatives, by contrast, believe in community at every level. In fact, much of the conservative program boils down to defending communities at all levels — with all their social safety nets — from the growing leviathan of federal power. This was the argument of Yuval Levin’s must-read cover story in the August 13, 2012, issue of National Review, “The Hollow Republic.” It is a theme we should elevate to the top of the conservative agenda.
Conservatives think they are fighting to preserve and revive the principles that made America great. Liberals think they are fighting for progress in our time. In fact the two goals are one and the same. As Charles de Gaulle once said, no institution can long survive unless it is constantly renewed.
Individual liberty can’t last without the flourishing of strong and close-knit communities. But neither can those communities succeed without liberty and personal responsibility. Let that be the common ground on which this generation forges a new consensus, and a worthy legacy.
— Mario Loyola is director of the Center for Tenth Amendment Studies at the Texas Public Policy Foundation.