By Tim Wadman
This is the first column in a series of many that will analyze and comment on the ongoing campaigns for the upcoming presidential election. Though the topics may vary, its sole purpose is to cover the political conversation and events on a national scale and to sometimes transpose it into the context of the University. It will attempt to refrain from prescribing to a partisan tilt, but at times such an alignment will be inevitable. Here we go.
As with any election season, everyone from supposedly well-informed media pundits to your Fox News-addicted grandparents to your self-proclaimed expert roommate has something new to say about the candidates with each passing day. Print media, TV and the Internet all take on the role of the public square and host the contemporary political conversation. Buzzwords are adopted and policy points become flavors of the week as they bounce around columns, talk shows and tweets.
Lost in this digital maelstrom of verbiage is the true meaning of many popular terms. To put it simply, the present political discourse is impoverished. Fundamental characterizations like “liberal” and “conservative” are misguided. Specifics like entitlement and welfare must be qualified. Even Barack Obama’s campaign slogan, “Forward,” must be scrutinized with a close eye. These terms, among other pieces of campaign vernacular, must be elucidated in order to establish the conditions for sound political discussion.
For instance, the terms liberal and conservative are thrown around with apparent certainty as accurate descriptions of the candidates’ views. Historically speaking, however, Obama and Mitt Romney are, in fact, both liberals.
Liberalism, a social and political theory that developed in the 16th and 17th centuries, professes that government is a socially-constructed institution whose purpose is the protection and preservation of individual rights and property. Thomas Jefferson claimed, “A government big enough to give you everything you want is strong enough to take everything you have.” Sound like the laissez-faire warning cries of Romney and the GOP against the encroachment of big government? It sure does.
Liberalism then underwent a bifurcation at the hands of Woodrow Wilson and Franklin Roosevelt, creating a schism between classical and modern conceptions. Modern liberalism, as evidenced by FDR’s New Deal and the Great Society, is progressive and increases the role and size of government to facilitate individual acquisition. This is the camp into which Obama and most other recent liberals fall. This transformation of liberalism over time indicates another one of its features: that it is dynamic, progressive and essentially unstable.
Conservatism, by definition, is the reliance upon and adherence to stable and continuous tradition. Modern Republicans, therefore, are not true conservatives because of the variability of the liberal tradition. Newt Gingrich, Michelle Bachmann, Rick Santorum and many others are actually classical liberals.
After setting the ideological boundaries among the parties, specific policies can be examined more clearly. In the infamous hidden-camera video of Romney’s remarks at a fundraiser’s dinner party, which leaked last week, he speaks at length on his feelings toward dependence and entitlement. These common gripes of the Republican Party, again, can be traced back to liberal foundations. In a liberal, capitalist society, property is what sets one apart from his fellow individuals. One earns wages based on the work he puts in and thus deserves to keep his earnings for himself as the sole cause of acquisition. Romney indicated that 47 percent of Americans are freeloaders, who pay no taxes and are out to siphon off as much of the hard-earned dollars of the other 53 percent as they can with the help of Obama’s policies.
While this may be the case for some Americans, it is largely a gross overstatement. The Obama campaign quickly responded with some data to illustrate the alleged 47 percent. Some of those who Romney harshly criticized were members of the United States Armed Forces, whose combat pay is tax-free, students from low-income families, who depend on federal loans to pay for their higher education, and firefighters, policemen and members of the clergy whose incomes are below the national household median. The picture of entitlement painted by Romney and the GOP is one of complacence and connivance. The truth of the matter, however, is far more complicated.
That’s enough about Romney’s misfortune. Obama and the Democratic Party contribute their fair share to the deception in political discourse. In 2008, Obama’s campaign boasted slogans of “Hope” and “Change,” and, upon his inauguration, these seemed like realistic goals. He was a democratic president with a democratic majority in Congress, poised to enact substantial changes. His policies, however, created very little significant change.
Obama entered office preaching an end to partisanship in Washington and has spent the last four years seeking compromise with the uncompromising GOP. His congressional majority fell by the wayside, as the Republicans overtook the House majority and gained several Senate seats in the 2010 midterm elections. Such a missed opportunity has led Obama to shift his focus from “Hope” and “Change” to “Forward,” yet this, too, will be a Herculean task to accomplish. Whether attributed to a lack of congressional power or a lack of courage, Obama’s promises have the potential to go unfulfilled a second time.
Hopefully this explanation will provide some clarity and guidance in the labyrinth that is contemporary politics. We are spoon-fed buzzwords on a daily basis from outlets with particular political inclinations and alignments, and these terms can assume entirely new meanings based on context. Political discussion is best approached with an initial footing free of partisan bias and this commentary seeks to provide a basis for such a footing.