Divided States of Americans
Many Americans have seen in recent years the culture and politics growing more mean and coarse, contentious and uncivil, malicious and malevolent.
We’re bombarded by coast-to-coast bellyaching on 24-hour cable news channels where we’re likely to encounter shout-fests. Talk radio has its screamers as well—Michael Savage, Mark Levine. On websites like the Daily Kos and Huffington Post, we run into vicious personal attacks, and on almost any online discussion thread we’ll probably be burned by flame wars.
Entertainers and celebrities wear their mostly nutty left-wing politics on their sleeves, while many members of their audiences want them to shut up and stick to their acting and singing. Other individuals, depending on their perspective, patronize or boycott companies—Starbucks, Ben and Jerry’s—that are as well known for their politics as their products.
Will this nastiness never end?
United in One Obama
And then there’s politics. Political campaigns are usually cutthroat and divisive affairs. And they’re usually followed by calls for unity and “let’s-work-together” bipartisanship.
With Barack Obama elected the first black president, we’re getting an especially strong dose of “dawn-of-a-new-era” and “let’s-hold-hands-and-sing-Kumbaya” rhetoric.
Obama ran as a candidate who transcended race. He did not focus on the “black” issues that limited the appeal of Jessie Jackson and Al Sharpton when they campaigned for the White House. Rather, Obama ran as a guy who wanted to address issues affecting all Americans.
In light of this country’s sad history of slavery and racism, it was truly a sign of social progress that a black man was elected president with 43 percent of the white vote. Even more encouraging, from this perspective, is the fact that 54 percent of whites under the age of 29 supported Obama. This suggests that in the future, race as such will not be the contentious issue it was in the past—at least not for whites.
Obama continued the unity theme after the election. He identified Doris Kearns Goodwin’s book Team of Rivals as an influence on his thinking about politics. That book recounts how Abraham Lincoln, another Obama favorite, took into his government many of his rivals in order to meet the emergency of the Civil War.
And that’s the sort of unity Obama seemed to favor by inviting his Democratic primary rival Hillary Clinton to be his secretary of state and his Republican presidential election rival John McCain to work with him on various issues. So will he bring us all together?
During the campaign, Obama also argued, “We don't have the luxury of relying on the same political games and the same political tactics that are used every election to divide us…by who we are or what policies we support.”
Not divided by the policies we support? Isn’t that what elections are all about? To decide on policies?
Obama ran as a candidate to transcend ideology and partisanship and to promote unity. Many Americans who supported him no doubt understood “ideology” to mean a set of inflexible, arbitrary dogmas that stand in the way of solving the country’s problem—according to Obamaites, beliefs held principally by Republicans.
And they understood “partisan” to mean a divisive and uncritical adherence to policies of one’s political party—again, for Obama et al., always the GOP—because those policies are the party’s rather than because they make sense. Thus the economy melts down as politicians argue. Obama would rise above ideology and partisanship to solve our problems.
Drop that Ideology!
Party identity does often get in the way of sound policy. But parties do stand, very imperfectly to be sure, for certain beliefs and ideologies. And it is neither possible nor desirable to transcend ideology.
Ideologies are not merely narrow perspectives that put us at odds with our fellows. Rather, they consist of ideas about how the world works, what human nature is like, what is reasonable or unreasonable, and what is just or unjust in the political and social realm. Everybody has an ideology—whether it’s coherent or can be justified is the important question. To the extent that political parties adhere to certain ideologies, partisanship is not a bad thing. Obama’s calls to “transcend ideology” really mean, “abandon yours and accept mine.”
The reaction to Obama suggests something about his ideology. Many approached him with a combination of reverence for a prophet and the adrenaline-charged adulation for a rock star. Throw the palm fronds at his feet! In the mass Obama campaign rallies, there seemed to be an urge among the worshippers to follow the candidate’s advice when he told them to "hitch your wagon to something larger than yourself." Many seemed to want to subsume their own identities into a celebratory unity with others. They were one with The One!
In Obama’s ideology, individualism is out, both in public policy and epistemology. The Obama phenomenon seems to rest on individuals’ addle-minded rather than active and critical approach to those policies. Just have faith! Obama knows best, and somehow will figure out how to save us.
Us vs. Them
To understand the paths to social conflict and harmony respectively, we must understand that all ideologies—and the governments on which they rest—are not created equal.
The government devised by America’s Founders sought to protect the lives, liberties, and property of the citizens—that is, to ban the initiation of force, the essence of conflict, by individuals against one another. All relations between people should be based on mutual consent. In the economic realm, this means that individuals must produce and trade goods and services voluntarily with one another. The situation is not a zero-sum game. The only way I can prosper is to convince you to part with your money by offering you something you want.
But when government is allowed to manage and manipulate the economy and to redistribute wealth from one individual or group to another—the essence of Obama’s policies—we have a system that is by its nature contentious. You win only because I lose.
You want to see conflict created? Look at the attitudes fostered by such policies that arise in many who must pay the bill for those policies:
Food stamps? The Women, Infants, and Children program? “Why should I foot the bill for these damned poor people who keep having kids they can’t support? Let ‘em learn to act responsibly.”
Farm programs? “Why should I pay these farmers not to grow food even as my food bill rises? Let ‘em go out and get a productive job working in McDonalds.”
Subsidies to promote new technologies? “Why should I pay the R&D costs of some business just because it promises ‘Green’ technologies for a cost no one can afford when I’m just about to close the doors of my business because of high taxes? Let ‘em raise the money themselves, not steal it from me.”
This is a politicized economy. Decisions about our economic lives and affairs are taken out of our hands and decided by raw political power, pitting us against one another, creating winners at the expense of losers.
Individuals look more often to government—that is, to their fellow citizens—to help them meet the economic challenges in life that should be their responsibility as individuals: education, career, financing a house, saving for retirement. We become burdens on our neighbors or they foist burdens on us.
Your Business is My Business
The politicized economy not only encourages us to pick our neighbors’ pockets through political power. It also breaks down the general moral inhibition against interfering with the lives of our fellows.
This breakdown might start where our wallets are concerned. Because your tax dollars might pay for my medical bills through Medicare, Medicaid, and other programs, you have an incentive to ask the government to prevent me from smoking. (I don’t smoke, by the way.) But soon you think, “Hey, there are a lot of other things I don’t like about Hudgins, and most of my other neighbors. Maybe I can get the government to do something about those things as well.”
Thus the entire culture is politicized.
Today, we see a long list of issues that are subject to heated and angry public discussions and calls for government action—issues in which your actions do not limit the freedom or lift the wallet of others: what you eat, drink, and smoke; how you dispose of your garbage; what kind of vehicle you drive or whether you should drive one at all; how big your house is; how you heat or air-condition that house; where you shop; what books you read, websites you visit, movies and TV you watch, and music you listen to; with whom and how you have sex.
Conservatives want to ban contracts between individuals of the same gender that concern privileges and responsibilities if those contracts are labeled “marriage,” even though such contracts do not limit the equal liberty of others to marry members of different genders.
So-called “liberals” want to ban or place high taxes on foods with fat and other ingredients that they consider unhealthy, even though the availability of such tasty treats does not limit the liberty of others to eat healthy and exercise.
In other words, essentially every aspect of your life is a matter for public concern or controversy. As the old Marxist tenet tells us, the personal is the political.
It’s one thing for family members or friends to advise us on what they believe is in our best interest. In a free society, we’re free to accept or reject one another’s advice on diet, love, religion, shopping, or anything else. It’s pure arrogance and a disregard for the dignity of the individual to try to manage each other’s lives through government force. Yet that’s exactly the nature of a politicized culture.
In both the economic and cultural realm, all we can expect from an Obama administration, which seeks increased government controls in more areas of the economy and our lives, is not unity but more social discord and dissonance.
Tendency to Tolerate
A government limited to protecting the lives, liberties, and property of citizens, not planning the economy and redistributing wealth, is a necessary condition for social harmony. Such a political regime in fact creates economic incentives for a culture of tolerance.
This has especially been the case here in America, with our immigrant history. Most of us have backgrounds, traditions, religions, and other practices that differed from one another. Sometimes those differences—religious, racial, and ethnic most of all—have been matters of political contention and social intolerance.
But when individuals don’t have access to the sword of government, the best way to prosper is by overcoming prejudices and working with others based on mutual consent. Further, to the extent that individuals value honesty, integrity, productivity, and initiative, they will have opportunities to see those virtues in the character of those with whom they work, including those of different races and ethnic groups. This situation can facilitate tolerance and mutual respect.
A Rational Consensus
But even with our many differences, social harmony and tolerance in fact require a minimal rational consensus on certain fundamentals: There must be a respect for the individual, for our right to our own lives, our own thoughts, and our own actions. By the way, Mr. Obama, that’s an ideology.
There has never been a society in which most people have held consistently to these fundamentals. That would require, for example, that most individuals be committed to living their lives in accordance with the dictates of reason and critical thinking.
It would require that most individuals be committed to their own happiness and to asking whether their desires are rational and whether their fulfillment will really further their lives and happiness: Is whiskey really good for an alcoholic or crack cocaine for a drug addict? Do welfare handouts forced by governments from unwilling donors really allow the recipients to look in the mirror and take pride in themselves?
It would require that individuals take responsibility not only for their own thinking but for their own lives, and not expect others to think, live, and provide the material means of survival for them.
We can understand how people who fail to live for their own rational self-interest would be frustrated, miserable, and empty, and will likely blame their condition not on their own failings but on others. They will often demand that others make up for their poverty and for their missing self-esteem. Witness how many welfare recipients take a morally warped pride in their victim status and are indignant when others fail to celebrate as a virtue their inability to run their own lives.
Two things are certain: First, such folks certainly won’t respect the rights and dignity of others since they don’t respect themselves; and second, Obama’s statist programs and rejection of moral individualism will result not in unity and harmony but, rather, in an even more intense war of all against all.
The Selfish Path to Harmony
Social harmony is not an end in itself and can never result from a collectivist morality. Philosopher Ayn Rand
understood that the interests of individuals don’t conflict as long as individuals don’t desire the irrational, the unjust, or the unearned.
Thus we can understand how social harmony is the result or “emergent phenomenon” of a true, individualist morality. We each pursue the rational, productive values that we love. We call upon our rationality, independence, and integrity to achieve our goals. And we take responsibility for and pride in achieving our values through our own efforts, dealing with others based on mutual consent. The result will be a society in which we are all enriched, entertained, educated, enlightened, and inspired by the achievements of our fellows.
The illusion of a harmonious Obama era will soon fade. But in the meantime, hold to a happy and fulfilling vision of your own life. Look to the personal. Furthering your own self-interest is not only an end in itself; it will also set the example and prepare the ground for a more harmonious culture and political regime when our fellow citizens finally come to their senses.