Wrapping Opportunity in the Flag

The conventions are behind us; the campaigns are under way. A relatively trouble-free Democratic campaign contrasts with the series of self-inflicted wounds endured by the Republicans, the latest especially damaging. Romney’s characterization of half the population as government dependents who could never be moved by the Republican message seems to have damaged his credibility, not only as a candidate, but also, and more seriously, as a future president.

Ironically in a 24/7 news cycle awash with information, both conventions made it a top priority to re-introduce the candidates to the American people. Mrs. Romney and the First Lady sought to reassert the human qualities of their respective spouses.

But did these efforts convince us? A muffled soundtrack from a hidden camera at a Republican fundraiser, seized on across the dial as providing access to the “real” Romney, testifies to another product of universal media coverage—an anxiety that the truth still eludes us because public relations operations are so controlled. The zero-sum nature of political competition in the polarized two party system fuels that anxiety, turning every such revelation into a golden opportunity to dislodge or discredit the opponent.

Much of the polarization of American politics is artificial. Redistricting, for example, has fashioned redder and bluer districts, whose incumbent members of Congress please their constituents by refusing to reach across the aisle, thereby discouraging compromise solutions to public policy challenges.

But there is one dimension to polarization so deep-rooted that it cannot be dismissed as merely contrived. I refer to the phenomenon, widely displayed at both conventions, of wrapping each party’s platform in the flag.

On the face of it, the patriotic appeal to common values seems harmless enough, even benignly positive. Affection for the American homeland is deep-rooted. It finds expression in many a parade and solemn remembrance, no less than in the balloons and bunting that adorn political conventions. And it reflects the real American consensus around the values of freedom and opportunity.

Such appeals can sow mischief, however. The rhetoric of loyalty is necessarily also the rhetoric of treachery.

Thus at their convention Republicans voiced concern that if government is enlisted to help support liberty, choice, and opportunity, the result will be its opposite—dependence and diminished incentive to acquire the elementary virtues needed to make a good life. This they fear is the un-American program Democrats will inflict on the country if they win.

On the Democratic side, speakers equally committed to opportunity took the position that the helping hand of government need not lead to either dependency or socialism. Democrats painted the Republicans’ rugged individualism as the law of the jungle and their economic plans a recipe for social Darwinism. Each party treats its opponent’s vision as alien to the America we know and love.

The missing ingredient in these patriotically inspired but divergent visions is a healthy civil society. As Michael Gerson has observed, the Obama administration appears to view government alone as the authentic representative of community—all else being an anti-social individualism. On the Republican side, markets alone are championed for their capacity to realize opportunity—all else is government interference. Romney’s moment of candor suggests how deeply these views of society operate to shape campaigns.

In the Christian traditions in which the Center stands, however, civil society shares responsibility with government and with markets for encouraging human flourishing. Human flourishing is not realized solely by political or economic agencies. As the Center’s Guideline on Political Community states, “A sound and healthy republic is one in which government recognizes and protects by law the independent, non-political responsibilities that belong to the people – rather than trying to direct the exercise of all responsibilities and to satisfy all needs.”

—Timothy Sherratt is Professor of Political Science at Gordon College in Wenham, Massachusetts.
Photo courtesy of WEBN-TV