March 18, 2012
The modern Republican Party has long associated itself with minimizing government participation in economic matters. After all, America was founded by those who had the self confidence to make something of themselves. Economic prosperity, if not actual survival, went to those who were best able to look after their own interests. America was no place for the meek nor lazy.
To many Republicans, today’s government safety nets serve as a disincentive to honest work – a crutch to those who lacked the will to put forward their best effort. It has created a self-perpetuating class of ‘takers’, they argue, who believe they have a right to expect continuing government assistance should they forego the effort to pull themselves up by their own bootstraps. This same assistance, moreover, comes at the expense of those who are willing to work hard and take risks to make the best use of their abilities. The New Deal and Great Society programs, to the view of many on the Right, were but euphemisms for a democratic socialism which they view as an anathema to the American way of life.
This view resonates with many independents, who question the efficacy of many government programs, and who seek limits to government spending and, ultimately, lower tax rates. The inability of the national government to effectively manage its programs or even pass workable laws has given increased traction to the Republican view.
There is, however, another side to the Republican coin, one which may cost the Party substantial support. Republicans do not extend the concept of ‘small government’ across the board. The Right – while trumpeting the economic opportunism and independence of the founding fathers – seems to have forgotten the other reasons leading strong willed individuals to risk everything in coming to America’s shores. Economic opportunity was certainly a factor. Perhaps equally important, was the opportunity to follow one’s personal conscience in making life choices. Americans were able to worship as they wished and to otherwise live their lives without government interference. Individual rights –the key word here is individual- were cherished and protected. Bills of rights were integral to all state constitutions: the Constitution was approved only after its drafters promised to incorporate a ‘bill of rights’ at the first opportunity.
Despite the emphasis of early colonists on ensuring individual liberties, many on the Right believe that America must adhere to a moral code if it is to maintain its core values. Critically, these same individuals believe they have the inside track in defining the ‘American ethic’ that must be protected. These individuals decry Supreme Court decisions that go against their precepts, and challenge the spirit of these rulings by enacting laws that impinge on the personal choices of those who do not share the Right’s view of the “American way”. The spate of laws, both enacted and proposed, to limit choices available to American women are a clear manifestation of the role government is expected to play in protecting (enforcing) the American way.
Europeans fled the paternalism of European princes in order to walk their own path in the new world. They enshrined their personal freedoms in the founding documents of their respective states and the United States. The unifying ethic of the late 1700s was individual liberty. Today’s Americans are not expected to appreciate, respect, nor even condone the life choices made by their fellow citizens. They are expected to respect-and not constrict- the rights of their fellow citizens to make these choices. Failing to do so may result in the irony of people leaving America for Europe in order to gain greater liberty in the conduct of their own lives.