Few elections have centered so much on the government’s role in our lives
By Barry Gordon 08/16/2012
I never thought I’d say this, but I’m grateful to Mitt Romney.
With Romney’s selection of Congressman Paul Ryan of Wisconsin as his vice presidential running mate, the race for the White House has suddenly and definitively changed. It’s not just that Ryan is what the media has called a “bold” or even “risky” pick — my thinking goes beyond its mere effect on the horse race. The Romney/Ryan ticket represents one of the clearest contrasts to Obama/Biden we could possibly wish for. For those in the pundit world who have been wondering whether this election would be simply a referendum on Obama or an opportunity to actually choose between two very different worldviews, we now have our answer. The American people, like it or not, are going to have to make a choice.
Since the primary season began in January, I’ve been hoping for a “big” election. We, as Americans, are not terribly comfortable with big elections because they force us to take a position. Instead, we are more comfortable with the mushy middle. We make vague claims about the values of compromise and bipartisanship and often assume there is a magical “middle way” that will address everyone’s concerns without ruffling too many feathers. Sometimes that’s true, but most of the time it’s not. Our attempt to find middle ground on the issue of slavery did no more than paper over obvious injustices until they had piled up enough to propel the nation into a bloody civil war that, in some ways, is still being fought today.
I believe that the American people must decide exactly who they are and what their relationship is to the government their forebears created out of whole cloth more than 200 years ago. When an election is about whom you’d rather share a beer with or about policy differences that exist only on the margins, the country loses the opportunity to have that critical debate. We lose the chance to define ourselves as a society. And we lose the understanding that politics can have a direct and lasting effect on our lives and is not just another distraction. When people say politics holds no interest or relevance for them, I cringe. God forbid if Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, John Adams or Thomas Jefferson had ever thought that way.
It may surprise some to learn that 100 years ago, the American people had a far greater involvement in and passion for politics, despite the fact that, in our time, it is much faster and easier to reach more voters directly. I think our indifference reflects the fact that our politics have become small and that we no longer ask voters to think about important questions.
But not this year.
One of the most significant debates we have continued to have throughout our two centuries of existence is over the role and size of government. As E. J. Dionne points out in his latest book, “Our Divided Political Heart,” this argument goes back as far as Hamilton and Jefferson, who were on opposite sides of the issue. Divisions as powerful as these gave birth to our two-party system. Very early in our history, we attempted to come to grips with what the federal government could and could not do — and should or should not do — under our Constitution. This fight will again be center stage in this year’s election, or at least it should be.
The battle will not be between two wholly opposite views of governmental power, as much as the Republicans might paint it as such. After all, the opposite of limited government is unlimited government, and I haven’t heard even the most progressive Democrat support that.
No, the fight will be between those who believe in a more limited government than we’ve ever known and a limited but active government of the sort we have experienced throughout most of our history, often under Republican administrations.
This election will also be fought over issues of fundamental fairness. Is it right to cut food stamp programs for the poor while expanding tax cuts for the wealthy? Do we want a society that provides tax breaks to those who ship jobs overseas? Do we define a successful economy by looking only at the prosperity of those at the very top of the economic ladder, or do we need to consider whether any of this prosperity is being passed down to those in the middle class, who work long, hard hours for a paycheck that has hardly grown over the past three decades? None of this is about getting something or nothing, or class envy, or a socialistic redistribution of wealth. It’s about whether everyone should have the opportunity to provide a decent living for his or her family.
It’s not easy to grapple with big issues. But I still believe it’s necessary. We need to look in the mirror every once in a while and decide who we are and what we stand for.
Barry Gordon is the co-host of “City Beat” and is an adjunct professor at Cal State LA.