A few weeks ago, The Weekly Standard expounded on the the real debate that has been argued throughout our nation's history continuing into this year's great existential election testing whether that nation or any nation so conceived and so dedicated can long endure.
The Real Debate
The 2012 election is about far more than our pocketbooks.
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. Simply put, to see our fundamental political divisions as a tug of war between the government and the individual is to accept the progressive premise that individuals and the state are all there is to society. The premise of conservatism has always been, on the contrary, that what matters most about society happens in the space between those two, and that creating, sustaining, and protecting that space is a prime purpose of government. The real debate forced upon us by the Obama years—the underlying disagreement to which the two parties are drawn despite themselves—is in fact about the nature of that intermediate space, and of the mediating institutions that occupy it: the family, civil society, and the private economy.
In effect, both parties are trying to preserve something of the postwar era, but they disagree about just what -merits preserving. The Democrats think the design of key government programs was the essence of that era’s success, while Republicans think it was a function of a particular relationship between society and government.
That suggests a very great deal is at stake in this election. It is no surprise that neither party seems quite satisfied with a debate about the narrow set of metrics we have come to call “the economy.” But in the debate they are drawn to instead, conservatives must take a broader and deeper view of what they are defending and why. They stand not so much for the individual against the state, but for a vision of American life that consists of more than individuals and the state. They stand for American society—citizens, families, communities, civil society, a free-market economy, and a constitutional government. They stand for a way of life now increasingly endangered, and well worth preserving and modernizing—a way of life that is decidedly not better off than it was four years ago.
Read Yuval Levin's entire essay.