07 September 2012

Obama's American Values

Accepting the Democratic nomination for a second term last night, the President said, "Ours is a fight to restore the values that built the largest middle class and the strongest economy the world has ever known." Of course, his opponent can claim to be fighting for the same thing. There's a common presumption of strength, but a disagreement over the "values that built" that strength. Using his maternal grandparents -- the American side of his family -- as examples, Barack Obama elaborated on his vision.

My grandparents were given the chance to go to college and buy their home — their own home and fulfill the basic bargain at the heart of America's story, the promise that hard work will pay off, that responsibility will be rewarded, that everyone gets a fair shot and everyone does their fair share and everyone plays by the same rules, from Main Street to Wall Street to Washington, D.C.

Whether he meant that grandpa went to college on the G.I. Bill is unclear, though that can be inferred from the passive "given the chance" rhetoric. That Americans are "given a chance" beyond their mere accident of American birth seems crucial, as does the promise Obama mentions. Later, however, he appears to contradict himself by admitting, "We're not entitled to success." Such an admission allows that hard work may not pay off, that responsibility may not be rewarded, even if the other variables remain fair by the Democratic party's standards. But Obama may believe that work itself, not "success," is what society should reward.

We honor the strivers, the dreamers, the risk- takers, the entrepreneurs who have always been the driving force behind our free enterprise system, the greatest engine of growth and prosperity that the world's ever known.
But we also believe in something called citizenship — citizenship, a word at the very heart of our founding, a word at the very essence of our democracy, the idea that this country only works when we accept certain obligations to one another and to future generations.

Literally speaking, I don't believe that the word "citizenship" appears in either the Declaration of Independence or in the original text of the Constitution, but Obama presumably meant that it was an idea at the heart of the Founding. For him, citizenship is a state of obligation, of "responsibilities as well as rights," based on an understanding that "our destinies are bound together." That's a metaphysical point his opponents might dispute, but to disagree, the President says, is to espouse "a freedom which asks only, what's in it for me, a freedom without a commitment to others, a freedom without love or charity or duty or patriotism, is unworthy of our founding ideals, and those who died in their defense."  Yet his opponents could accuse Obama's own party, or his constituents, of just such a selfish patriotism, on the presumption that those people are only interested in what the government gives them personally. Where is that theoretical person's own charity or duty or patriotism? The theoretical full-time dependent may not live up to Obama's standard -- and neither, obviously, does the "I built that myself!" Republican -- but Obama shouldn't be judged by anyone else's behavior. The canard of his enemies is that Obama, like all Democrats, wants to keep a large number of Americans dependent on government aid and therefore dependably loyal to his party. Obama himself draws a line -- "We don't want handouts for people who refuse to help themselves" -- but does he, as opposed to Republicans, believe in such people? He probably doesn't believe them to be as common as Republicans believe, but the real question is what he believes their obligations to be. He attempts to draw a Kennedyesque distinction: "America is not about what can be done for us. It's about what can be done by us, together." The degree of togetherness envisioned is an implicit subject of the national debate. A Republican could agree with the words but mean something closer to the libertarian ideal of spontaneous order, with each person doing his own thing and the whole harmonized by Adam Smith's "invisible hand." The Republican would not accept that the whole works together as a team coordinated by government, and that's not necessarily what Obama envisions, either. But Democrats, at least for rhetorical purposes, seem committed to enabling everyone to contribute to "what can be done by us," including those unable to find or figure out a way themselves. Their own idea of citizenship probably falls short of a team ideal, and we could be left wondering, after reading or listening to Obama's talk, just what our "obligations to one another and to future generations" are. To define them more precisely, after all, might lead people to ask whether our socioeconomic order actually enables us to fulfill our obligations or responsibilities to each other. The Republicans have it easier; for them our main obligation is to leave each other alone -- except when we commit certain "sins." But since Republicans take such a minimal position on mutual obligation, Democrats can get away, their rhetoric notwithstanding, with not much more than the minimum, compared to what might be possible. They can always say they're better than nothing -- but is that good enough in the long run?

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