Every four years as the presidential campaign ramps up I get this feeling I can’t seem to shake, and though it seems obvious to me, I can’t find all that many people who agree with it. As far as I can see our choices for president do not represent two starkly contrasting visions of what this country can be, but rather they represent highly nuanced, barely distinguishable views of what this country can be.
This year, in spite of the usual sturm und drang I have that feeling again. Yes Romney wants to repeal the Affordable Health Care Act, something he won’t be able to do without at least 60 Republican senators in tow, and wants to undo some of the regulations that arose in the wake of the economic melt-down of early 2008. There has also been a fair bit of ink spilled about the Republican desire to lower taxes further and the Democratic desire to raise them more.
All of this means there are some differences of approach, and they matter, but in all this I can’t find any fundamental differences in values. Both of our candidates are, as always, committed to an open democracy and the rule of law. Both believe deeply that capitalism is the best economic system humanity has ever created, the one best suited to create incentives both to production and co-operation. Those who would argue that Obama is secretly a socialist are, well, secretly mistaken. Both believe in private ownership of property. Both are committed to maintaining the United States as the world’s largest economy and the world’s greatest military power. Both agree that you don’t simply abandon the poorest and most vulnerable members of society; there needs to be some sort of social safety net for them. Both want to lower unemployment. Both are against discrimination on the basis of race, creed, color, sex and sexual orientation. Both agree that our social fabric is best held together by a partnership between the private and public sectors. What we have, once again, is not a clash of fundamental values, but rather a nuanced disagreement over how best to fulfill and maintain those values, and what mixture of private and public contribution to the commonweal is best.
At some level we all know this, and yet play along. A couple of examples will suffice. It was Senator Obama who spoke eloquently against the individual mandate to purchase insurance from private providers. Republicans had first raised the idea, and candidate Hilary Clinton was for it. Now President Obama is the insurance mandate hero, opposed equally heroically by the Republicans.The “Neo- Con” Bush, as we recall, sponsored the first TARP, and pushed through the largest increase in Medicare — the prescription drug entitlement — in the history of the program. In the early 1960s it was the Kennedy led liberal Democrats who argued for a tax cut in order to stimulate the economy; they were opposed by the fiscal hawks, conservative Republicans who argued that it makes no sense to try to balance the budget by cutting taxes. “Voodoo economics” anyone? Even the briefest look at the history of political parties in this country over the past 50 years illustrates just how fungible they are, and a longer look yields even more dramatic results.
We really are, in spite of the rhetoric, a single people with a single overarching culture, albeit one with numerous subcultures within it. The vast majority of us want the same things, believe in the same things, hope for the same things, and part of the reason we allow ourselves to scream so loudly is because, unlike certain other societies in this world — where sectarian and civil violence are never far away — the stakes are actually quite low. We aren’t all Christians anymore, but we are still very highly united spiritually as well as culturally. Whether Obama is re-elected or Romney unseats him that is not going to change. If “we the people” would notice that and stop rewarding candidates for divisive rhetoric the campaigns would become more honest, more informative, and more meaningful.