Election 2012 Offers An Unusually Clear Policy Choice: Nationalism through commerce versus egalitarianism through redistribution
Bigger government? Smaller government? Laissez-faire or price and market supports? Do the rich have a responsibility beyond paying their taxes when it comes to helping out those less fortunate? Do the poor have a responsibility to contribute in exchange for entitlements? What does those things really mean, anyway?
What does it mean to be rich? What does it mean to be middle class? What does it mean to be poor?
The wealthy demand the poor embrace the mirage like notion that every man can compete against well entrenched and protected corporate interests, while the poor realize the promise of equal opportunity pales in comparison to the promise of the equal distribution of wealth.
Times change. Do the definitions of accountability and responsibility change with these changing times?
The presidential election of 2012 is shaping up to be an epic contest. It is uncommon for an incumbent president to be considered an underdog, yet as of this writing President Barack Obama’s odds of winning reelection, according to the Intrade prediction market, stand at less than 50 percent. An endangered incumbent always makes for a fascinating political dynamic, one that will be compounded by the enormously high stakes of the upcoming battle. With the unemployment rate stuck at near nine percent and the Democrats’ new health entitlement set to go into effect relatively soon, the winner of 2012 will have unusual power to set American domestic policy for the rest of the decade.
But 2012 is shaping up to represent much more than even all this. It is a very rare event in American electoral politics that the country is faced with such a stark choice between two competing visions for the government’s role in the society. Using a strict standard, there have really been only two such elections, those in 1832 and 1896. In other cycles, nonideological issues or national concerns ultimately kept the country from focusing on the ideological contrasts between the two parties. For instance, the election of 1800 was fought in part over large differences in economic policies, but much of it had to do with foreign affairs and extreme ad hominem attacks. The election of1936 was certainly consequential for the long-term political economy, but the substantial rebound from the depths of the Great Depression gave Franklin Roosevelt an easy “valence” issue to campaign on. Even the Election of 1860— unquestionably the most important in the nation’s history — was confused by the presence of four candidates, each offering different approaches to the slavery issue and ensuring that Lincoln could not claim a popular mandate.
So, it is an extremely unusual event in the nation’s public life that the people are posed with such a straightforward question of ideology — 1832, 1896, and now perhaps 2012. Interestingly, the broad ideological contours of the2012 contest resemble those prior contests. On the one side is a nationalist coalition dedicated to advancing the public interest by sponsoring American commerce. On the other side is an egalitarian faction that believes that those pro-business policies undermined the republican character of the government, and instead offers proposals to redistribute political power, economic resources, or both.
THE DIVISION’S ROOTS
The idea of a strong national government to facilitate American commerce and industry is as old as the nation itself. Frustrated by the experiences of the American Revolution, where runaway inflation, lack of pay for soldiers, and poor infrastructure to move men and materiel hampered the war effort, American nationalists were downright appalled by the crackup in society during the 1780s under the measly Articles of Confederation. Leading nationalists like Alexander Hamilton, John Jay, James Madison, and George Washington were prime movers in organizing the Constitutional Convention, where they pushed for a robust national government capable of solving big problems.