Philosophical Division

President Barack Obama began his second term in office with a series of proposals designed to encourage his own party to action. Of course, with the very same proposals he challenged the Republican leadership to either compromise or get out of the way. The GOP indicated they were not going to do either. Once again we have been treated to a clear demonstration of the unbridgeable philosophical chasm separating left and right in our country.

The rift was on full display from the beginning, in the Republican response to the president’s inaugural address (see my previous blog entry, The Second Term Begins). It became even more obvious during the first State of the Union address, in which the president mentioned (briefly, fortunately) 26 specific policy points, all of which elicited standing applause from Democratic members of Congress. Admittedly, standing applause for every key point in the State of the Union is a long-held tradition. However, the intractable opposition got significantly less exercise than the president’s party. The Republican membership applauded for only six of those items: defeat Al-Qaeda, prevent nuclear proliferation, support Israel, maintain military strength, support veterans and their families, and pass comprehensive immigration reform.

While they were expressing their approval of our security establishment and their sudden new appreciation of the electoral importance of the hispanic vote, virtually all of the GOP representatives bypassed the opportunity to support universal preschool, meaningful high school education, and affordable college. Their sit-down protest also indicated their disdain for the Violence Against Women Act and the Paycheck Fairness Act, as well as proposals to increase the minimum wage, improve access to voting, and reduce gun violence. Those items evidently were part of, in Mitch McConnell’s words, President Obama’s “far-left agenda”.

If the spectacle of House Speaker John Boehner’s sour countenance and the GOP’s chair-bound immobility weren’t enough, the president’s speech was followed by the verbal opposition provided by rising star Senator Marco Rubio, the current Republican answer to both their dearth of attractive candidates and their alienation of the Hispanic vote. Unfortunately, the content of his speech has been virtually ignored in favor of comments about his “water bottle” moment, because his statements plainly delineated why his party has been so resistant to the president’s agenda.

Senator Rubio began with the standard Reaganesque anti-government dogma. In defiance of reality, he claimed that government policies were the cause of the economic collapse of 2007. In the world of the Tea Party, after all, the government forced banks to make risky loans. Never mind the fact that the financial giants commonly used fraud to expand lending, then multiplied the risk by packaging those loans into unstable securities and financing those securities using extreme levels of leveraging. Those dangerous activities were never encouraged by any level of government. And, of course, Rubio warned us that Obama insisted that “every problem can be solved by the government.” Never mind that the president said nothing of the kind. In fact, what Obama actually said was, “It is not a bigger government that we need, but a smarter government.”

Senator Rubio’s solutions to economic problems? First, lower taxes to spur investment. Pay for those tax cuts, and simultaneously reduce the deficit, by significantly slashing government spending, except, of course, defense spending, which the GOP wants to maintain at the current level. And, of course, Medicare spending should be cut, but any cuts in Medicare should not affect current recipients (who are, after all, mostly devoted Republican voters who love their Medicare coverage). Republicans also know that future Medicare recipients are too busy working (including paying Medicare taxes) to really pay attention, and by the time they discover how their benefits have been slashed it will be too late. Rubio did note that his grandmother really needed Medicare assistance. Evidently his younger family members won’t need any such help. Then, changing the subject, he went on to say that most of our our national problems have been caused by the “moral breakdown in society”. That probably means he thinks we can improve most everything by somehow promoting a national moral regeneration. He had no specific proposals regarding that solution.

The big difference between the Obama theme and the Rubio theme was the underlying philosophy. President Obama repeatedly stressed, in both his inaugural and State of the Union speeches, that the United States can solve its current problems, and build “the next great chapter”, by working together. He asked for a broadly shared commitment and shared sacrifice, specifically rejecting a strategy that rewards the most wealthy among us while taking more from the working classes. It was an address that asked us all to make investments toward our future as a nation, together, by recognizing our membership in a society that provides us with significant benefits, but also asks us to live up to some responsibilities.

The Rubio message virtually ignored the group nature of society. It was, in that sense, based on the extreme free-market model, in which individuals act for their own benefit and the sum of their actions constitutes the “invisible hand” that informs and directs progress. The United States will be made great again by individuals who have “embraced economic liberty”. We have a “shared hope for a better life”—but not, apparently, a shared commitment to help each other or to use our common institutions (government) to create or rebuild the infrastructure we all need. If someone is underemployed or underpaid, they can take vocational classes. People can clean up their act morally, pay their debts, save money, avoid fraud, invest wisely. If people don’t succeed, it’s their fault and they don’t deserve assistance. And if people do succeed, they have minimal responsibility to repay society. After all, what did society do for them? The GOP message is that successful people can feel justified in constantly pushing for reduced wages and taxes and government cuts to more and more of the social services that, after all, only help the losers, the undeserving. Government, who needs it?

Republicans continue to promote the agenda of the wealthiest and greediest among us, the Alpha dogs in the game of social Darwinism. Democrats, although they are not so monolithic about it as the GOP, are more likely to support social services and the rights and needs of ordinary working people. This is the continuing centuries-old battle between the plutocrats and the plebeians; true class warfare. Is it any wonder that the sequestration budget cuts went through even though everyone said they were a bad idea? The GOP has been telling us that there is so much unnecessary spending in the non-defense federal budget that we can slash trillions without any problem. Perhaps now, as the deep, wide-ranging sequester cuts begin to be felt across the country, people will realize that the GOP has lied about that for years.

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