There is a disconnect between political elites’ stark rhetorical excesses and extremism and the practical, common sense civility with which most Americans go about their every-day lives. Only absolutist positions seem possible in today’s shrill war of words on the campaign trail. And these seem far removed from the sensible practicality of the majority of Americans.
Yes, Americans are notoriously politically polarized at present, with folk splitting into “blue” and “red” points of view and states. But these acknowledged deep partisan divides are not apparent in their daily engagement with each other. People’s typical every-day behaviour suggests civility, decency, and moderation—despite political differences and the profound economic strains under which too many are living.
Every utterance from politicians is, of course, fair game in democracies, particularly at election time and for those topping the tickets. So it should be. But the rhetoric in this year’s election season is especially vitriolic and nasty in tone, particularly this far from actual voting.
Take the current debate on whether individualism or communalism is more determining of success in America. The initial fodder for the present outburst in this longstanding dualism in Americans was President Barack Obama’s July 13 remarks in Roanoke, Virginia, in which he implied that entrepreneurial success was due, in part, to government’s role, rather than individual initiative.
Republican operatives have seized on two sentences from this speech and are milking them as much as possible in negative “attack” advertisements. Obama said: “If you’ve got a business—you didn’t build that. Somebody else made that happen.” On their own, these two sentences are certainly provocative, but the context of these statements is necessary to understand what Obama meant:
“They know they didn’t—look, if you’ve been successful, you didn’t get there on your own. You didn’t get there on your own. I’m always struck by people who think, well, it must be because I was just so smart. There are a lot of smart people out there. It must be because I worked harder than everybody else. Let me tell you something—there are a whole bunch of hardworking people out there.
“If you were successful, somebody along the line gave you some help. There was a great teacher somewhere in your life. Somebody helped to create this unbelievable American system that we have that allowed you to thrive. Somebody invested in roads and bridges. If you’ve got a business—you didn’t build that. Somebody else made that happen. The Internet didn’t get invented on its own. Government research created the Internet so that all the companies could make money off the Internet.
“The point is, is that when we succeed, we succeed because of our individual initiative, but also because we do things together.“
In context, the comments are less incendiary and not disagreeable. No one is an island, no one lives or succeeds in a vacuum, and no one who has succeeded achieved this alone. Behind any person or company’s success lie the contributions of others, including the government. Of course individual drive, ambition, determination, and luck are needed for particular success, but this is true in any field of endeavour, not only in creating a successful business. It seems ridiculous to even expand on these truisms. But such is the absurdity and absolutism of present U.S. political discourse that even the obvious needs to be said.
This past week, again in Roanoke, Congressman Paul Ryan, Mitt Romney’s selected vice presidential running mate, declared, “The president makes these comments that reveal his mindset…He believes in a government-centered society and a government-driven economy. And that doesn’t work. It never has worked…Look at what it’s doing to Europe.” He continued, “We have a person in Mitt Romney who knows through experience the challenge that businesses face, how job creation works, that the engine of opportunity, the nucleus of our economy is not government, but the successful small business, the entrepreneurs, the people of this country.”
An enormous sign stating, “We Did Build It!” was displayed behind Ryan as he spoke. The local small-business owner who introduced him at the rally had earlier refused a visit from and photo opportunity with Vice President Joe Biden due to differences with the Obama campaign.
There are profound philosophical differences between the two campaigns. And these two speeches underscore longstanding, competing solutions to today’s challenges. Obama sees the public and private sectors working together as offering solutions, whereas Romney/Ryan stress the individual and the market as the sources for solutions. In Obama’s communitarian vision, the government helps “level the playing field” and helps support the vulnerable and less successful. Romney and Ryan see a diminished role for government, with greater individual responsibility and greater reliance on market mechanisms. And tax policy is the battleground. Obama recommends raising taxes on the wealthiest Americans to raise government revenue, whereas Romney/Ryan want to extend the Bush tax cuts and indeed slash taxes further to reduce the size and scope of government.
This is an old fissure in American politics and society, and it represents a profound choice for Americans at this sensitive economic juncture. Economic recovery is tentative, while socio-economic inequality is growing. Both campaigns offer vastly different platforms on how to deal with well-recognized problems. We’ll learn on November 6 which vision appeals to most Americans.