At the top, at least, the Obama campaign was premised on a clear vision of citizenship. As a matter of course, the President spoke words of good will toward his fellow Americans, promising that those who heard him were joining him in a great enterprise. He gestured toward our responsibility to our neighbors and our children, the duties of business to advance the common good through both their own creation of jobs, through their concern for their employees, and their contributions to those places and institutions we are supposed to hold in trust—schools, roads, hospitals, banks, the ozone layer, to name but a few. No one in our country would be abandoned, none left to bear the brunt of a literal or figurative hurricane all by himself. It was a beautiful picture. With what image of citizenship did Mitt Romney counter it?
Next to none. Romney promised that his policies would be friendly to small businesses, and that those businesses would drive job creation and growth. His administration would facilitate that growth, but in no way direct it; sound economics, he averred, showed his path was scientifically certain, as if government and Americans themselves simply needed to get out of the way and let the self-directed machine of the market get back to work.
He did, of course, speak of a robust American military and an assertive foreign policy, but, revealing how poorly the rhetoric of the last Bush administration has worn, he couched this platform solely in reference to the world as a “dangerous place,” and America in all its abstraction as the great hope of the earth. He never confessed what it was that actual Americans should hope for or what America’s empery would actually bequeath. Was it something other than the spilling of blood and guts for us, and the spread of radicalized Islamist parties across the Middle East? I am still at a loss.
Obama has consistently spoken the language of citizenship, and it is clear that young people and, indeed, most Americans hear him. Why should they not? It is a beautiful line and it costs its charmed listener nothing, for Obama’s great call to citizenship amounts to precisely the following: all I need is your vote and you can leave the rest to me.
To vote for Obama was to vote for the further sexual and amatory liberation of homosexuals and young women, and one could feel proud of extending that freedom, since it does not—the voter believes—have anything to do with me (save, perhaps, to justify my own peccadillos as expressions of free love). It was a vote for raising taxes on people one shall never meet, to ensure that welfare and healthcare programs balloon until they maintain the lives of people one intends never to see. It was a vote for the invisible absence of work in black ghettos we shall pass by, at nearest, on the train, and for the invisible labor of illegal aliens, who do the work we—for some bizarre reason—think it is okay to proclaim we are unwilling to do. It was a vote for the government to save the “environment” from “climate change,” so that one can buy the next scrap of technology with even less a sensation of decadence than one felt when purchasing the last. It was a vote for a foreign policy of drone attacks and special ops: all so distant and so expert that we will not even know we are at war—indeed, the President himself will instruct us that all wars have been “wound down.”
How attractive this vision of citizenship, in which we apparently are actually better—more enlightened, more virtuous, more patriotic—Americans for simply turning everything over to Obama the manager and getting on with our private pursuits and omnidirectional yearnings. Indeed, if none of the above warms the heart, we have at least the satisfaction of being proud that we voted for a black man. What an affordable way to expiate white guilt for the sins of our fathers, or, as the case may be, to feel as if we have avenged our grandfathers and are the harbingers of a new age!
Conservatives—and even Republicans—could speak the language of citizenship with far more integrity than does the President. They could legitimately propose that it is just those rich networks of institutions and relationships that arise from strong families, settled communities, and faithful churches that they wish to see flourish by getting the Leviathan state out of the way. They could reasonably suggest that free and decentralized political institutions provide more access to more people, making it possible for most of us to live out our political natures in an authentic form of citizenship. They can rightly propose that private property and free markets, when protected from both continuous state manipulation and the depredations of large—and ever larger—corporate monopolies, make it possible for us to be citizens of communities rather than clients of the state, and to be free actors cultivating good works, rather than mere contributors of votes and taxes to those “great national projects” directed from on high.
Indeed, conservatives do speak that language. Prior to his nomination for Vice President, Paul Ryan sometimes did. Even Glenn Beck—whom most liberals and conservatives alike deride for his hysterical bombast of paranoia—has held up this vision of citizenship with persuasive elegance. Above all, Pat Buchanan has spent his career pleading for Americans to take back their republic—not from immigrants, as his purblind and suicidal critics on the left love to prate, but—from a mammoth imperial state that has long since ceased to honor the interests of American citizens, and which promises them nothing but the thin gruel of welfare and the specter of patriotism as it barters away the prosperity of a once dynamic and independent national culture.
While it is true that Obama’s campaign benefited greatly from the advice of behavioral psychologists, appealing to a sense of grievance and a fear of being left alone that, with every year, cuts more deeply into the heart of the American people, at the top, he sublimated resentment and fear into a sensation of righteousness and generosity. Against this, Republicans rightly argued for a more restrained federal government and for the benefits of free enterprise. But they did so in a fashion that asked Americans to make a leap of faith that deregulated corporations would take better care of them than the nanny state, and which seemed to suggest it was possible for us all to be prosperous without our actually being anything more or other than consumers in an intimidatingly vast and volatile marketplace. They spoke of efficiency and individualism, when the test of their policies really lay in whether they would facilitate a renewal of the ties that bind one person to another, generations each to each, the soul to God; and in a clear vision of a common good, a shared sacrifice, and a society governed by citizens whose very freedom makes them more capable of assuming responsibility for one another in ways that do not involve career bureaucrats.
I suspect Romney did not speak the language of citizenship, because such words seem empty to him, and I suspect this to be the case with much of the Republican elite. No less do I suspect that Obama spoke so effectively of the duties of citizenship because he was really only asking for an increase in power. But what I have proposed is the language—or, better, the guiding instinct—of most Americans and of all authentic conservatism. The hard work ahead of us is not convincing Americans they want to be good citizens. They already do. But we must show them that this entails something other than a tick at the ballot box. We must make clear that the sense of righteousness citizenship offers may properly be enjoyed only if we earn it by taking on also the weight of self-government, mutual aid, and responsibility for the authentic moral life of ourselves, our families, and of our neighbors.