Engaging on Philosophy

As the Republican party has moved farther and farther to the right in recent years, I've often felt that practical discussions of the effects of policy have gotten less and less important. The true believers who now dominate the GOP—and the politicians who feel the need to pretend they're true believers—are much more comfortable talking about the role of government than they are talking about how you solve actual problems, so they make practical arguments almost half-heartedly. Listen to a Republican talk about how they'd solve the problem of over 50 million Americans without health insurance, for instance, and you'll hear something like, "Well, we need free market solutions that don't infringe on freedom, because Obamacare represents the most profound expansion of government since Joe Stalin, and big government kills freedom…" Ask them why the free market will work better than government when in this case the opposite has proven true again and again, and they'll quickly move back to the level of philosophy, because as on so many issues, it's much more about values than about the actual effects of policies. I'm sure Republicans aren't actively pleased about the fact that so many of our people have no coverage, but they don't care deeply enough about that practical problem to accept a solution that in any way violates their philosophical principles (or helps their political opponents, of course).

Liberals talk in philosophical terms far less often, in part because our philosophy tends to be less inclined toward rhetorically easy black-and-white constructions. That's why I was pleased to see this, from the Obama campaign:

I hope we hear more of this kind of thing, an articulation of not just what they want to do, but why, and what sort of society they want to create. I'm also pleased because the Obama campaign (in the voice of Elizabeth Warren in this case, but I've heard Obama himself say similar things as well) seems to be increasingly comfortable with a version of an idea I advocated in a book I wrote back in 2006 (now available for one cent on Amazon!). After a lot of conversations with fellow lefties in the search for a single summation of what progressivism is, what I came up with was this: We're all in it together. That's the fundamental thing that distinguishes liberals from conservatives. Liberals believe we're all in it together, and conservatives believe (for the most part, anyway) that we're all on our own and we're all out for ourselves.

Liberals have often complained that President Obama doesn't spend enough time making the affirmative case for progressivism as an ideology. He often adopts the language and metaphors of the right, like his maddening use of the spectacularly wrong analogy that the government's finances are like a family's finances. In his search for common ground, he sometimes leaves his own supporters behind. There's a good deal of truth to this complaint, even if it is often overstated (for instance, you'll often hear people complain that Obama "never says X," when in fact he has said X multiple times).

So it's worthwhile, at a time when Americans will be paying a heightened level of attention, for the Obama campaign to engage the fundamental philosophical argument. They need to offer their alternative to the Republicans' Ayn Randian vision of a war of all against all, where getting yours is the only thing that matters and any amount of suffering is tolerable so long as taxes on the noble and righteous wealthy continue to decline.

Not that I'm naïve enough to think that the fall campaign will be a high-minded discussion of fundamental philosophical differences. But this is a start.

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