Now begins the final phase of this cognitive dissonance campaign. America’s 57th presidential election is the first devoted to calling the nation’s bluff. When Mitt Romney selected Paul Ryan, Republicans undertook the perilous but commendable project of forcing voters to face the fact that they fervently hold flatly incompatible beliefs.
Twice as many Americans identify themselves as conservative as opposed to liberal. Nov. 6 we will know if they mean it. If they are ideologically conservative but operationally liberal. If they talk like Jeffersonians but want to be governed by Hamiltonians. If their commitment to limited government is rhetorical or actual. If it is, as Daniel Patrick Moynihan suspected, a “civic religion, avowed but not constraining.”
This is the problem for uneasy Republicans. The Democrats’ problem is worse because they are not uneasy about their dissonance, being blissfully unaware of it.
In “Spoiled Rotten: How the Politics of Patronage Corrupted the Once Noble Democratic Party and Now Threatens the American Republic” — a book more measured and scholarly than its overwrought title — Jay Cost of The Weekly Standard says the party has succumbed to “clientelism,” the process of purchasing cohorts of voters with federal favors. This has turned the party into the servant of the strong.
Before Franklin Roosevelt, “liberal” described policies emphasizing liberty and individual rights. He, however, pioneered the politics of collective rights — of group entitlements. And his liberalism systematically developed policies not just to buy the allegiance of existing groups but to create groups that henceforth would be dependent on government. Under FDR, liberalism became the politics of creating an electoral majority from a mosaic of client groups. Labor unions got special legal standing, farmers got crop supports, businesspeople got tariff protection and other subsidies, the elderly got pensions, and so on and on.
Government no longer existed to protect natural rights but to confer special rights on favored cohorts. As Irving Kristol said, the New Deal preached not equal rights for all but equal privileges for all — for all, that is, who banded together to become wards of the government.
In the 1960s, public-employee unions were expanded to feast from quantitative liberalism (favors measured in quantities of money). And qualitative liberalism was born as environmentalists, feminists and others got government to regulate behavior in the service of social “diversity,” “meaningful” work, etc. Cost notes that with the 1982 amendments to the Voting Rights Act, a few government-approved minorities were given an entitlement to public offices: About 40 “majority-minority” congressional districts would henceforth be guaranteed to elect minority members.
Walter Mondale, conceding to Ronald Reagan after the 1984 election, listed the groups he thought government should assist: “the poor, the unemployed, the elderly, the handicapped, the helpless and the sad.” Yes, the sad.
Republicans also practice clientelism, but with a (sometimes) uneasy conscience. Both parties have narrowed their appeals as they have broadened their search for clients to cosset. Today’s Democratic Party does not understand what one of its saints understood — that big government is generally a patron of the privileged, a partner of rent-seekers.
When vetoing the 1832 bill to recharter the Second Bank of the United States, Andrew Jackson said, “It is to be regretted that the rich and powerful too often bend the acts of government to their selfish purposes.” When government goes beyond equal protection by law and undertakes to allocate wealth and opportunity, “the humble members of society — the farmers, mechanics and laborers — who have neither the time nor the means of securing like favors to themselves, have a right to complain of the injustice of their government.” As Cost rightly says, “With the exception of the tea party, there is no real faction out there making the Jacksonian case for an end to special privilege.”
Human beings, said one of the wisest of them — Aristotle — are political animals and language-using animals. Americans, as you do not need to be Aristotle to know, are complaining animals. They use language to complain about politics. Mitt Romney should remind them that one function of elections is to force most voters — the winning majorities — to forfeit the fun of complaining. For example, if the swing state of Nevada, which has the nation’s highest unemployment rate (12 percent), votes for four more years of current policies, it must henceforth suffer in silence. Actually, all those who vote to continue Barack Obama’s distinctive brand of clientelism — crony capitalism — must, if he wins, become political Trappists, taking a vow to keep quiet.
George Will is a columnist for The Washington Post Writers Group. He may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org