Another presidential election is underway. As I write this, the nominating conventions have just ended. As you read it, the debates are probably about to start. It has been a long political season, and most of us are tired of it already. This general election campaign promises to be among the loudest and nastiest in recent years. Many Republican voters are energized, but by dislike of the president rather than by enthusiasm for their own nominee, and the Romney campaign will do everything it can to feed this negative energy. President Obama’s campaign, not to be outdone, appears to have decided that, rather than running on the president’s record, it will focus on attacking the Republican candidate. There seems to be little hope of the campaign becoming the thoughtful national debate we need to have about many pressing issues, such as federal spending priorities and taxation policy.
The nominating conventions, however, surprised me. Both, of course, had the typical convention fare. There were candidate biography videos, shot in soft light, full of production values but empty of content. Both featured over-the-top partisan attacks on the other party’s candidates. And there were balloons and confetti and bands and delegates in funny hats dancing awkwardly in the aisles. But there also were the two nominees’ acceptance speeches, and it was the contrast between these two speeches that I found surprising. While neither was received as particularly strong by the media talking heads or by the general public, the two convention’s culminating orations struck me as offering a surprisingly clear choice between two visions of our country and its future.
Governor Romney’s speech, in truth, seemed a bit rough around the edges, and one recent media report (Politico, “How Mitt Romney Stumbled,” September 16, 2012) indicated that it was cobbled together at the last minute. But the speech still succeeded at one level; it offered a clear and forceful version of classic American individualism, although one colored by Romney’s career in the business world. America, the governor told us, was built by a certain kind of people, by “…the ones who wanted a better life.” The freedoms guaranteed by our constitution make it possible for individuals who possess unique drive and energy to build better lives for themselves and for their families. By making better lives for themselves, these entrepreneurial leaders create jobs and opportunities that give others a chance to make their lives better, too.
This vision of America, though highly individualistic, is not entirely devoid of a sense of community. In his speech, Governor Romney also stressed the importance of communities like families and churches, at one point even saying that “the strength and power and goodness of America has always been based on the strength and power and goodness of our communities.” But the importance of these communities is in a secondary, supporting role. Americans look to their faith and families for “joy and support.” They create a safety net that gets them through hard times, but, more importantly, they provide the stable foundation upon which the entrepreneur builds.
When the nation faces a crisis, Governor Romney believes that the solution will be found not in the reassertion of communal values, but in the achievements of individual endeavor. Now, in this time of economic hardship, is the moment when “we can stand up and say, ‘I am an American, I make my destiny.’” America’s problems will not be solved by social cooperation but by entrepreneurs who set their own courses and embrace competition, by men and women of vision and creativity who confidently take the risks necessary to make their own dreams become reality. “It is the genius of the American free enterprise system to harness the extraordinary creativity, and talent and industry of the American people with a system that is dedicated to creating prosperity, not trying to redistribute today’s.”
President Obama’s speech to the Democratic National Convention a week later initially was received coolly. Media pundits used words like “solid” and “workmanlike” to describe a speech that suffered from the inevitable comparison to then-Senator Obama’s 2008 acceptance speech in front of some 80,000 supporters in Denver’s Invesco Field. But the president’s 2012 speech was better crafted than Governor Romney’s speech, and with its emphasis on community it struck a clear contrast between the two candidates. To be sure, President Obama’s communalism is blended with classic American individualism, just as Governor Romney’s individualism rests on communalism. Early in his speech, the president spoke of America as a nation that was built by people who understood the value of hard work and with an economy driven by “innovative businessmen.” Later in the speech, he added, “We insist on personal responsibility, and we celebrate individual initiative. We’re not entitled to success. We have to earn it.”
But for President Obama, free-market competition functions within a context of shared values, values that limit the market’s scope and that ensure an equal starting line for everyone in the race. For President Obama, the grand American bargain is not just a promise that hard work will be rewarded; it also entails a commitment to ensuring that “everyone gets a fair shot and everyone does their fair share.” America is a society that gives everyone a chance to be an entrepreneur, and the task of creating a society of opportunity for all will require an effort in which every American must take part. The president also suggests that ensuring opportunity for all might not be enough, that free-market competition creates inequalities we cannot tolerate. Those who have succeeded the most must be asked to pay higher taxes so that we as a society can help those who have succeeded less obtain a good education, quality health care and home ownership.
All of this will be accomplished, the president insists, through cooperation rather than through competition. “We… believe in something called 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.”
In political campaigns today, every event is carefully stage managed. Speeches are crafted by professional wordsmiths, and every line is vetted in front of focus groups. The campaign often is less concerned with the message of the speech in its entirety than with the potential effect of each sound bite the media might extract from it and replay the next day. Yet somehow both of these speeches managed to communicate something genuine and significant to us about the two men giving them and their basic differences. For Governor Romney, America is a land that offers opportunity to anyone who wants to work for it and is willing to take a chance. For President Obama, America is a people who must work together to provide opportunity to all.
I may be thinking too much like a political philosopher who reads too many books about the debate between liberal and republican notions of liberty. This election will not advance any grand, philosophic debates any more than it will determine the future of American democracy, but this tension between two ways of thinking about freedom is itself an essential part of the American political tradition. Since the debate over the Constitution, through the Civil War, the Gilded Age, and ever since, Americans have argued with one another about what liberty really means and about what collective responsibility we as a people have to ensure equality in both the enjoyment of that liberty and the fruits that it bears. That debate continues, even if our present approach to conducting it is not always particularly constructive. As voters we wanted more specifics, more details about where spending can be cut or exactly whose taxes might be raised. What we got was mostly noisy stagecraft, but behind it all the great American debate continues, and we are—after all—left with a clear choice to make.