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Government, Politics & Issues

Commentary: World views clash in campaign

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Oct. 8, 2012 - In spite of the mainstream media’s best efforts to trivialize the 2012 presidential campaign, the election does present a choice between candidates with clashing worldviews. Rather than focusing on superficial differences such as “who I’d rather have a beer with,” we should be examining and analyzing the very real differences that define Obama and Romney politically. 

A useful framework for doing this is provided by E.J. Dionne, whose recent book, “Our Divided Political Heart: The Battle for the American Idea in an Age of Discontent,” describes American politics as historically a battleground between two overarching ideals: individualism and communitarianism. Mr. Dionne is certainly not the first pundit to articulate this idea but his is an entertaining and enlightening look at how these two American values have faced-off throughout our political history. 

So, for example, the individualist approach is exemplified by Ronald Reagan while a more communitarian approach can be found in the presidencies of Woodrow Wilson, Franklin Roosevelt and John F. Kennedy. 

The candidate’s core political values are revealed both in carefully scripted speeches and off-the-cuff remarks delivered out of earshot of the press. Where Mitt Romney and Barack Obama stand on the question of individualism versus government help was clearly revealed in the first debate.

Although curiously absent from the debate, Romney’s recent reference to 47 percent of the American people who “believe they are victims” and will not “take personal responsibility and care for their lives,” is a clear indication of his personal values regarding the role of government.

The comments made by Romney point to a stark difference between the president and his challenger regarding worldviews. All anyone needs to do to clearly see the difference was to pay close attention to the first debate, particularly Obama’s and Romney’s responses to the moderator’s question on the need for government action.

As befits a man who made his fortune as a venture capitalist and who picked an Ayn Rand devotee as his running mate, Mitt Romney is a staunch individualist. He has taken a very strong public stand against what he views as Obama’s policies that, according to Romney, sap Americans’ work ethic and independence. He asserts that Obama is the chief architect overseeing the construction of a vast welfare state, which will ultimately bring about the day when a majority of Americans will refuse to perform an honest day’s work, preferring, instead, to live off government checks.

On the other hand, Obama’s speeches indicate that he is a communitarian. Communitarianism, which is not to be confused with socialism, believes that there is a bond or social contract between the individual and the community. Thus, the role of government is to pursue the common interest, which in some cases, requires that it takes a more interventionist posture, particularly in economic matters.

Romney, however, believes that the role of government is to step back and let the free market unleash the creative energies of individuals. It is safe to say that he equates the public interest with the aggregation of private interests. Romney, has over time, adhered to these beliefs, particularly with respect to government’s role in the economy and the primacy of business in job creation.

Obama’s beliefs have been fairly consistent over his career. An excellent book, “Reading Obama,” by James T. Kloppenberg, presents a convincing case that Obama was exposed to communitarian ideals as an undergraduate and in law school, and it has formed the dominant strand of his political beliefs since that time.

Beliefs into Actions

There have been some times when Obama has shifted positions. He had been opposed to same sex marriage but then earlier in the year he switched to supporting it. No candidate or party has a monopoly on ideological consistency. Nor should they. Most Americans believe politicians should be flexible and learn from events rather than adopt a rigid position. 

A politician’s core values, however, should serve as a good predictor for future actions. In Obama’s case, we have a clear sense of what he stands for and a track record. I would assert that his record and philosophy show a great deal of congruence. 

Romney has also expressed a clear set of values on the campaign trail this year. Although his record as governor of Massachusetts shows some deviation from his stated beliefs, particularly on social issues, in fairness to Romney, he has been consistent in his pro-small government position. 

It will be interesting to see how the next two debates between Obama and Romney play out with regard to these positions. In some ways the format of the first debate, because it focused exclusively on domestic issues, allowed the differences in the two men’s attitudes toward government to be more apparent. In the next two debates, the focus will be on foreign matters or a mix of foreign and domestic issues.

Robert A. Cropf chairs the Department of Public Policy Studies at Saint Louis University.

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