September 26, 2012

Election 2012 is (a little) different

This is the first of two columns on Election 2012. Given my love of politics, you knew I couldn’t do just one. As I’ve written many times before, many elections are disheartening because candidates often seem insufficient.

Consequently, Americans often find themselves voting “against” one candidate rather than “for” another. Many have withdrawn from the electoral process altogether. Others are sincerely confused on what the real differences between most candidates and their political parties are. Despite their bluster, American politicians often converge because most are cut from the same philosophical cloth — liberalism.

Don’t be confused. Most people think of Democrats as liberal and Republicans as conservative. I’m not referring to that false bifurcation here. Politicians’ oft-encountered (though not total) uniformity is driven by their adherence to the philosophy of liberalism that initially emerged out of the Glorious Revolution of the 17th century and has enjoyed a near ideological monopoly in American political history. Bernard Susser comments in “Political Ideology in the Modern World” that liberalism initially “represented the revolt of a rising urban middle class of merchants and entrepreneurs against the pre-modern alliance of throne, sword, and altar — the absolute monarchy, the feudal aristocratic order, and the vast powers of the church.” This European political legacy set the course for American society by espousing three basic values that seem noble at first glance: individualism, freedom and equality.

Analysis of these core ideals, however, becomes a bit complex upon closer observation. For instance, some have argued equality in American society is not automatically bestowed upon citizens, but really has three parts: political (one person, one vote), social (individuals should not be treated unfairly because of their station in life), and legal (the law handles all citizens the same). They assert that these principles are so closely related that one cannot viably exist without the other. Therefore, if a person does not enjoy all of these equalities, he/she is not truly equal. Even a cursory look at our country affirms we have a ways to go (though we are better than we’ve been).

The philosophy of liberalism sets boundaries of acceptable and unacceptable American political behavior through the establishment of fundamental values and mores that are never deviated from too drastically. Even though there are certainly those who are right-wing and left-wing, in the context of American political ideology they are all adherents to the same philosophy. Susser comments:

To be sure, some American political activists prefer to be called conservatives. It is also true that the term liberal has come to be identified with the left branch of the liberal family tree. Nevertheless, for the sake of historical and terminological accuracy it is important to understand that political debate in the United States takes place within a single tradition of ideological discourse: liberalism. Strictly speaking, American conservatives and liberals are both liberals — estranged members of the same ideological family. Conservatives champion a position known as classical liberalism while liberals support a more recent variant often described as welfare liberalism. For all of their substantial differences, they remain bound to a set of commonly accepted moral and political axioms.

Within liberalism’s “set of commonly accepted moral and political axioms” are elements that are particularly concerning. Among these is the belief (particularly among right-wingers) that economic deprivation is a necessary stimulant for economic growth. The theory is that in an individual-driven, equal-opportunity environment, equal outcomes are achieved if equal effort is given. If individuals do not work hard enough, they suffer. If they suffer enough, they will subsequently perform at a more competitive, productive level. If one is not successful within the system, his/her failure is considered an individualistic flaw, not a systemic one. Thus, liberal philosophy can condone drastic income inequality but depict poverty and deprivation as the result of individual or small group failure. Sound familiar?

While acknowledging the ideological constraints of liberalism, there are real differences this time around. Even within the boundaries of liberalism, Mitt Romney and Barack Obama are from different phenomenological worlds. The question is, in which world do Americans want to live for the next four years? Come back next month for the conclusion of this analysis as well as my prediction for the election of 2012.