January 2001 -- With both presidential candidates advocating education plans, health-care plans, and tax-cut plans, and parading their religiosity, voters might be excused for believing that Election 2000 presented an arbitrary choice between Tweedledum and Tweedledee. In the following two articles, however, David Kelley and Patrick Stephens argue that an important difference did exist between the philosophies of the two main candidates, while Roger Donway contends that a country seeking ordered liberty should not want transcendent leaps in its politics.
The Next Four Years
And we are here as on a darkling plain
Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,
Where ignorant armies clash by night.
In these lines from "Dover Beach," Matthew Arnold was describing the cross-currents of cultural debate in nineteenth-century Britain. He might have been describing the past year's presidential election. The contest between Al Gore and George W. Bush stumbled from issue to issue and incident to incident. The media focused relentlessly on trivialities like Gore's facial expressions during the debates and the last-minute revelation of an ancient drunk-driving charge against Bush, which probably had as much effect on the outcome as anything the candidates said about religion, tax cuts, prescription-drug benefits, Social Security, or other issues.
During the ugly endgame in Florida, the issues were completely forgotten in a savage struggle for victory, and every pathology of American politics was on display. Citizens who entered the voting booth to discharge the highest responsibility of democracy, choosing the country's leader and the policies that will govern the nation, proved unable to read the ballot properly, follow instructions, or punch a hole all the way through a piece of paper - and then blamed the system for their own irresponsibility, loudly demanding another try. Protesters on both sides took to the streets to chant and mug for the TV cameras. The ubiquitous Jesse Jackson showed up to agitate in his rhyming banalities. In the end, as with almost everything else these days, the matter was decided by the courts.
The candidates themselves were undistinguished pragmatists, advancing issues and positions like pawns in the effort to capture the political center. George W. Bush spoke of freedom and individual responsibility but proposed new government spending on education, health care, the disabled, and other special interests. Al Gore, for his part, disappointed the hopes of his supporters on the left by ignoring their demands for wealth redistribution, while consorting with wealthy entrepreneurs in Silicon Valley and soft-pedaling the extreme environmentalism of his own book, Earth in the Balance. Many leftists cast protest votes for Ralph Nader.
But one can't really expect any candidate today to run on a consistent ideology or set of principles. The American political system embodies a mixture of classical liberal, conservative, and socialist principles. The many freedoms we still enjoy are the heritage of the classical liberals who wrote the Constitution. But conservatives have added measures such as drug laws intended to regulate morals and enforce virtue. We also have extensive regulation of the economy and huge entitlement programs inspired by socialism. No candidate who actually wants to win can afford to propose a sweeping reform of government that would eliminate all laws and programs incompatible with his own principles; and it would be an idle proposition in any case since it would never be enacted by the legislature.
The various ideologies, however, rest on underlying core values - conceptions of what makes for a good society. At this level, a candidate can give prominence to his own values in recommending that the system be reformed in one direction or another. Gore and Bush offered voters a clear choice.
In terms of explicit morality, Bush ran as a conservative, with religion, abstinence education, opposition to abortion, and compassion as focal points. Gore traipsed along as a me-too moralist, proclaiming his own religious convictions and choosing a professionally pious running mate. But no one was fooled. Bush won large majorities not only from the religious Right but from regular church-goers. Gore won support from people of more secular, cosmopolitan values, including wealthy professionals and new-economy entrepreneurs who would otherwise have opposed his plans to expand government.
With the exception of abortion, however, government has few activities that directly affect the lifestyle choices people make, by contrast with the extensive control it has over their economic choices. The government's regulation of business, and its provision of education, health care, and entitlement benefits, are still where the action is in a political campaign. In this realm, the value premises were less explicit but equally clear.
Collectivism vs. Self-Reliance
Gore is an instinctive collectivist. He sees government as responsible for managing society, and individual freedom as a value only when it serves a collective purpose. To rally support for increasing the scope of government, he appealed to every imaginable fear: poverty in old age, environmental catastrophe, heating oil shortages, and on and on. Casting himself as the candidate of the working classes, he appealed to envy and the wish for security at someone else's expense.
Bush appealed to hope, opportunity, the spirit of self-reliance, and mutual respect among classes. He ran as an individualist who views government as an instrument that helps individuals run their own lives. He recognized, as he said in one speech, that "Governments don't create wealth. Wealth is created by Americans - by creativity and enterprise and risk-taking. The great engine of wealth has become the human mind - creating value out of genius." Unlike Ronald Reagan in 1980, he did not make a case for reducing the size of government as such, nor sound the theme of "getting government off our backs." In a booming economy, there was little popular support for this global theme. But his proposals for a tax cut, for partially privatizing Social Security, for vouchers in education, and other reforms added up to that result.
The federal budget is the single best measure of Washington's control over our lives. Both candidates offered a raft of new policies, each with its own price tag, but the bottom lines are illustrative. According to a tally by the National Taxpayers Union, Gore proposed $3.2 trillion in new spending over ten years, well in excess of the projected surplus of $2.2 trillion. The Bush plan came to a "mere" $840 billion in new spending,. "Budget surpluses," said the Republican platform, "are the result of over-taxation of the American people."
Both candidates also proposed tax cuts. Gore's were "targeted" - available only as tax credits for those who spend their money in stipulated ways-and thus were intended to increase government control of individual behavior. Bush's main proposal, on the other hand, was an across-the-board cut in tax rates, leaving taxpayers free to spend their money as they choose.
Gore's attack on this plan for favoring the rich was an obvious appeal to envy and class warfare, but also a mark of his instinctive collectivism. If one sees the entire economy as a pool of resources for the government to manage, it stands to reason that some people can get more than others only if the government deliberately favors them. For Bush as an individualist, however, the goal was to treat all taxpayers even-handedly. A uniform reduction in tax rates returns more money to the wealthy not because they are being favored but because they pay the lion's share of taxes in the first place, a point that Bush was finally able to articulate in the presidential debates.
The same fundamental difference came into play on the issue of Social Security. Bush is the first candidate in the entire history of the program to recommend privatizing it, even to the limited extent of allowing individuals to opt out with 2percent of their payroll taxes. Gore described this as a plan to shift billions of dollars of Social Security funds into the stock market, as if it were a decision about investing public money. He could not seem to grasp Bush's point that the money belongs to those who earned it, and that his plan was intended to give them more freedom in choosing how to invest it for their own retirement.
In the end, therefore, the candidates were fairly clear about their underlying values and the direction in which they sought to move. One writer in the left-wing Nationdefended a vote for Gore on just those grounds: "The problem is not just how much money Bush wants to give to the extremely wealthy at the expense of the rest of us. Rather, it is that the Republican Party, at this moment in history, is politically and ideologically dedicated to the destruction of the very foundations of social solidarity in this country. Bush and company threaten to work toward the ultimate privatization not only of Social Security, Medicare and public education but nearly all of the sustained, generous and democratically grounded social programs the U.S. political system has enacted since the dawn of the New Deal."
That is probably too optimistic an assessment. Bush faces an electorate that is divided and confused. Exit polls and other surveys indicate that people generally mistrust government, disdain politicians, think government regulates business too much, and believe private charities are better at providing help. The same surveys show, however, that people have favorable views of specific programs like Medicare, public education, and Social Security, and that they want more regulation to protect the environment, control health care costs, reduce poverty, and promote values. Bush also faces an even split between Democrats and Republicans in Congress, which will certainly slow and may prevent the enactment of his reforms.
Lack of Support
As he takes office this January, therefore, Bush does not have strong political support for his agenda. Yet there is still much that he can do on his own. The president and his appointees in the executive branch have considerable discretion in defining and enforcing environmental regulations, in choosing civil-rights policies (such as affirmative action), and in prosecuting antitrust cases, among other areas. But other reforms require new laws, including any change in the vast entitlement programs, which will otherwise keep growing automatically. Opposition to change by Democrats (and by the spineless Republicans who gave Clinton most of what he wanted) will be intense.
If great policy victories are off the table, Bush must search elsewhere for his presidential legacy. Clinton left his on a young woman's dress. Bush has the opportunity to leave a more lasting and more positive mark on American political culture. For he occupies the greatest public stage in the world. He can build a foundation for long-term movement toward a freer society by working to educate America about the values of individual freedom and responsibility.
Bush is not a great communicator, as Reagan was, but he surprised both friend and foe during the debates with his ability to articulate his message. And despite the narrowness of his victory, he has great credibility with his constituents. Among voters who said that character and leadership were the most important traits in a candidate, he won overwhelming support. As partial as his commitment to individualism may be, he made the case more clearly and effectively than any of the other Republican hopefuls in the primaries, and better than any Republican leader since Reagan.
If he continues to explain and educate, taking his case to the people, the clash of the political armies may be less ignorant next time around.
An Echo, Not a Choice!
Why Two Parties?
The Need for Stability
This article was originally published in the January 2001 issue of Navigator magazine, The Atlas Society precursor to The New Individualist.