The recently concluded—mostly concluded—election of 2012 is over. What was it about? As I look at the results and the arguments that led to them, it seems to me there are really only two questions involved. The first is a classic version of the reformer v. the radical.
Reformers and Radicals
It’s a frame of reference question. Since this is football season as well as presidential politics season, perhaps I can offer this illustration. The owner of a losing team needs to look at just how far the team can go with what it has. At that point a “start over” decision is made or a “continual improvement” decision. It casts no aspersions on the owners to say that those who want to start over can fairly be called radicals. This very useful word comes to us from the Latin radix = root and, in the NFL context, it gives us the picture of the team being torn out by the roots so that something else can be planted in its place.
What the moderates, the “continual improvement” owners are called depends entirely on who is doing the calling. Moderates are sometimes said, by radicals, to be “rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic.” Sometimes they are said to be “putting bandages on a cancer.” In a darker mood, they accuse the moderates of being merely tinkerers and hold that they are only obscuring the choice that will eventually need to be made.
It is true, of course, that among the costs of a commitment to gradual improvement is an obscuring of the need for fundamental (at the roots) change. Conversely, among the costs of a commitment to radical change is passing up the chance to improve an essentially sound structure. Here’s an easy example. The conservatives in this election proposed to save on our entitlement costs by reducing medical care for poor people. The liberals want to stop wasting money on medical treatments that turn out not to do anyone any good.
The liberals say the system can be improved and that radical surgery will only make everything worse. The conservatives say that the system is fundamentally flawed and all these attempts at “improvement” simply put off the inevitable day of reckoning.
Liberals and Conservatives
The second question offers competing notions of what a really good society looks like. The radical surgery v. incremental improvement dilemma described above looks like an irreconcilable conflict, but it is irreconcilable only if the liberals and the conservatives are using the same measure of what it would look like when we get it right—and, of course, they are not.
Let’s imagine that conservatives would really genuinely prefer a United States where only legal immigration was tolerated; where federal regulation was substantially scaled back; where abortions were illegal; where only heterosexual marriages were tolerated; where saving for old age and for health care were decisions private persons made; where state-sponsored religion (Christian, Protestant, conservative) was allowed, and where labor unions were forbidden? Yes. They would. For a while, at least.
Let’s imagine that liberals would genuinely prefer a United States where immigration was considered a human right, where federal regulations were not only extended but the agencies doing the regulating were adequately funded as well; where abortions were entirely a matter for the woman and her doctor to decide upon; where gay and lesbian marriages were equal in every way to heterosexual marriages; where social security and medical care were available to everyone; and where people were protected from state-sponsored religious observances. Yes. They would. For a while, at least.
So both sides are right in the very limited sense that they would initially prefer the policy effects they are championing. This gives us two kinds of difference. The first (liberal version) presupposes the society first put in place by the New Deal and wants to make the kinds of changes that will make those provisions effective and affordable. Or (conservative version) rejects that kind of society in favor of decisions made by private persons and families, and economy dominated by giant corporations, and a small government for those few policies the states can’t handle. That sets radical change against incremental change.
The kind of society that would be produced, if each side could put its pipe dream into place, would have the list of outcomes described above. According to the framework I proposed, the first set would be satisfactory to conservatives; the second satisfactory to liberals.
Where does that leave us? As I see it, it leaves us with the liberal agenda largely intact. We as a nation are not willing—possibly not even able—to choose the pre-New Deal society the conservatives think they would prefer. You simply cannot allow people access to the ballot box and then treat them as if they had no recourse. They do have recourse. They can place measures on the ballot and then pass them into law. They can mount immobilizing demonstrations the likes of which we have not seen since we drafted middle class boys to fight in Vietnam. They can vote for your competition, assuring themselves first that “the competition” has the right goals and the will to pursue them.
We don’t have the families we used to have and never will again. We don’t have the jobs that sustained those families. We have more expansive appetites for consumer goods. We don’t have the clear judgments of right and wrong that sustained small monolithic societies. We are past that and we aren’t going back.
What does that mean for the conservative vision of society? It means that they will continue to say no to these changes as long as they can. Then they will lose and move on to saying no to the next round of changes. There is really nothing left for them to say yes to.
They used to say that the majority party was like the sun and the minority party like the moon. The moon shines with reflected light, but it doesn’t produce any light itself. The minority party thus has the choice of proposing an agenda of its own which will be rejected or saying that they can accomplish the majority party’s agenda better than the majority party can. Ordinarily, that doesn’t work.
I’m not sure we have sun and moon parties anymore. I’m not even sure how important the parties are anymore given that a candidate’s program and funding can both be outsourced. But it does seem to me that we have sun positions on society—not the liberal pipe dream, but incremental steps in that direction—and moon positions. The position of reflected light will enable the conservatives to identify this or that feature of the post-New Deal society and say no to it. But its light is reflected light and they will not be able to produce a coherent agenda of their own.
I like President Obama. Like a lot of liberals, I think he earned some good marks and some bad marks during his first term. But I think the best part of the Obama campaign was his claim that the election was really about two visions of society and the opportunity of the voters to choose between them. He himself is a very small part of that movement but the direction he has chosen to move is the direction we will be going in any case.
I was raised in a very small town in a rural part of southern Ohio. I know the social parts of the conservative pipe dream. I grew up there. We are past that, for good or ill, and we will need to find another way. I would really welcome a competing vision of “yes.” That would help us all. Even “yes but” would help us. I didn’t see either of those in 2012.