My house and my family emerged from Hurricane Sandy unscathed, but it was a huge distraction, to say the very least–and now all of a sudden the election is upon us. Living in a blue state, city, and community as I do, I hadn’t seen many of Romney’s TV commercials until these last few days, when his PACs started dumping all their money into national buys. When we were watching Saturday Night Live this weekend, my younger son pointed out to me how many of their protagonists are women, rueing the economic pain that Obama’s reckless spending has wrought on their families. Then the music changes to a major key and a ray of sunlight and Romney break through. It’s not about war, or abortion, or immigrants, the ads whisper–it’s about security. Who’s your Daddy really? A skinny black Kenyan or a tall, chisel-chinned white man in a suit and tie?
Like everybody else who shares my socio-political profile, I have been drawing whatever comfort I can from Nate Silver’s number crunching. From a strictly actuarial standpoint, I shouldn’t be as worried as I am–Romney’s odds have been shrinking every day. But I am.
If Romney wins–and between voter suppression, margin of error, racism acknowledged and unacknowledged, and on-going economic frustration I see no reason to dismiss the possibility that he will–the country is going to take a catastrophically wrong turn, econmically, socially, and culturally. The abolishment of Obamacare, the voucherization of Medicare, the restoration of the neo-conservative foreign policy establishment, the Scaliazation of the Supreme Court, the triumph and vindication of the most wealthy and the least educated among us, are terrifying prospects all. If Obama wins, on the other hand, things aren’t likely to get much better in the short term. The House will almost certainly remain Republican, and I suspect they will try to impeach him for his supposed crimes and misdemeanors in Benghazi, or at the very least ensure that we continue to fall off one fiscal cliff after another.
If the financial crisis and this interminable election season have taught us anything (and I’m not at all sure that they have), it’s that we’re not at all the country that we like to think we are. When our great grandchildren look back at us, I suspect we will look no less hypocritical to them than our slave-owning Founders, who talked such a good line about natural rights, do to us. The hot button issues of our day will seem as obscure and unfathomable to them as the Missouri Compromise and Silverism do to us today. And there’s an irony in that, because we’re still fighting those same battles–we just call them by different names. The big questions–the nature and purpose of government, the scope of natural rights, the definition of private property–are still up in the air.
When I defined Capitalism in Isms & Ologies, I made the point that it is not so much a system as “the absence of a centrally organized economic system.” But classic Liberalism still reserved a threefold role for the state, as Adam Smith insisted:
First, the duty of protecting the society from the violence and invasion of other independent societies; secondly, the duty of protecting, so far as possible, every member of the society from the injustice or oppression of every other member of it, or the duty of establishing an exact administration of justice, and thirdly, the duty of erecting and maintaining certain public works and certain public institutions, which it can never be for the interest of any individual, or small number of individuals, to erect and maintain.
This, I believe, is the true crux of our era–the fact that Capitalism has captured the state; that it wields political and military power to its own exclusive advantage. The protection “so far as possible, [of] every member of the society from the injustice or oppression of every other member of it” has taken on a Randian cast. If we are going to change for the better, if we are going to maintain our status as a world power, we need to recognize that government doesn’t exist solely to protect the rights of property–it exists to protect human rights from property.
When our grandchildren look back at this election, I suspect they will see it as a turning point. Romney’s wealthiest supporters understand that very well–and they are staking their chances on the hope that his less-wealthy supporters don’t.