I read two articles yesterday about how little the Left and Right listen to each other. One is thoughtful, by Yuval Levin in The Weekly Standard, “The Real Debate“,
Each party is pulled into this debate by what it sees as the deeply misguided views of the other. Democrats listen to Republicans and hear a simpleminded and selfish radical individualism—or, as President Obama has put it, “nothing but thinly veiled Social Darwinism.” They hear people who think that being successful and rich means you’re smarter than everyone else or work harder than everyone else, and who therefore have no regard for those in our society who are in no position to start a business or get a loan. They hear people who have benefited from the privileges of being lucky in America and imagine they did it all by themselves. And they seek to teach these people that there is no such thing as a self-made success…. Republicans listen to Democrats, meanwhile, and hear a simpleminded and dangerous radical collectivism—or, as Mitt Romney has put it, a vision of America as “a government-centered society.” They hear people who think that no success is earned and no accomplishment can be attributed to those who took the risks to make it happen. They hear people who think there is no value in personal drive and initiative, and who would like to extend the web of federal benefits as far and wide as possible to shield Americans from the private economy and make them dependent on government beneficence and on the liberal politicians who bestow it. And they seek to teach these people that private initiative is how prosperity happens, how dignity develops, and how America was built, and that dependence is pernicious and enervating.
Read the whole thing because it is good.
The other article I read is “The Great Debate” by Mark Lilla, a review of Charles Kesler’s book, I am the Change, Barack Obama and the Crisis of Liberalism. Lilla’s complaint is the Republicans are not listening to Democrats. The Kesler book is just an excuse to gnash at conservatives in general. Get this, his exordium is a praise of Richard Nixon in liberal terms,
Once upon a time there was a radical president who tried to remake American society through government action. In his first term he created a vast network of federal grants to state and local governments for social programs that cost billions. He set up an imposing agency to regulate air and water emissions, and another to regulate workers’ health and safety. Had Congress not stood in his way he would have gone much further. He tried to establish a guaranteed minimum income for all working families and, to top it off, proposed a national health plan that would have provided government insurance for low-income families, required employers to cover all their workers and set standards for private insurance. Thankfully for the country, his second term was cut short and his collectivist dreams were never realized.
Does this mean that liberals will now embrace the radical Nixon for his foresight and honesty? Lilla likes Nixon was news for my day. But that’s not his point. His point is that Obama and Nixon are moderates, as he himself is moderate.
Whenever conservatives talk to me about Barack Obama, I always feel quite certain that they mean something else. But what exactly? The anger, the suspicion, the freestyle fantasizing have no perceptible object in the space-time continuum that centrist Democrats like me inhabit. What are we missing? Seen from our perspective, the country elected a moderate and cautious straight shooter committed to getting things right and giving the United States its self-respect back after the Bush-Cheney years…. We liked him for his political liberalism and instinctual conservatism. And we still like him.
He finds Republican dislike and distrust of Obama improbable and even deranged. Obama is so evidently moderate that he even likes Ronald Reagan. “By delegitimizing Great Society liberalism and emphasizing growth, he forced the Democratic Party back toward the center, making the more moderate presidencies of Bill Clinton and Barack Obama possible. Reagan won the war of ideas, as everyone knows.”
That’s how moderates, like himself, see history. Kesler and other conservatives don’t see our national politics that way, Lilla says. They aren’t looking to the future and worry too much about history; they need to get a grip. When they do they will see the inevitability of what is a great moderate continuum from Nixon to Reagan to Obama. They must understand, “the more prosaic reasons that entitlements, deficits and regulations continue to grow in Republican and Democratic administrations alike.” which is that they are necessary if government will not treat ordinary Americans as road-kill. Seriously. When government gets big enough it creates its own road-kill. How do you miss that? The piece is absurd from a conservative point of view. I’ll let Levin give an answer,
Simply put, to see our fundamental political divisions as a tug of war between the government and the individual is to accept the progressive premise that individuals and the state are all there is to society. The premise of conservatism has always been, on the contrary, that what matters most about society happens in the space between those two, and that creating, sustaining, and protecting that space is a prime purpose of government. The real debate forced upon us by the Obama years—the underlying disagreement to which the two parties are drawn despite themselves—is in fact about the nature of that intermediate space, and of the mediating institutions that occupy it: the family, civil society, and the private economy.
Progressives in America have always viewed those institutions with suspicion, seeing them as instruments of division, prejudice, and selfishness and seeking to empower the government to rationalize the life of our society by clearing away those vestiges of backwardness and putting in their place public programs and policies motivated by a single, cohesive understanding of the public interest.
Would Lilla argue? Not really, but that is what we need, he thinks, not just right, but inevitable and dealing with our problems pragmatically. Who has time for all of that idealism? Government expansion might go too far sometimes and need a Reagan to curb it, but Obama is moderate, moderate, moderate and no LBJ. No. He’s Nixon.
The Left seems on a great crusade to persuade the vast independent vote that they are moderate, moderate, moderate. Any deviation from that requires a fierce adjustment in tone and message. Their convention was a great example of the success of that corrective turning and hence a great success. What is most worrying is that they might be right, that the majority of people no longer care to have distance between individual and government. Not just, “You didn’t build that,” but “No one wants or expects you to build anything on your own” because government is community and community is what counts, so government is what counts.
The Great Debate and the Real Debate is no debate at all. Liberals and conservatives in America talk past each other, but they hope the uncommitted in America are listening. Sometimes they do, as this is great entertainment. When president meets contender in national debate, we see the clash of philosophies, or some of us hope we will.