I’ll bet you $10,000 that this term doesn’t get a round of applause from focus groups of voters struggling in these hard economic times: “self-reliance.”
Throughout this campaign, Barack Obama cleverly set himself up as the alternative to a straw man who thought everyone in America could make it on his own, with no help from anyone.
“We’re told by our opponents that since government can’t do everything, it should do almost nothing,” Obama said at a Miami campaign event in October. “It’s sort of a ‘You’re on your own’ philosophy. If you don’t have health insurance, hope you don’t get sick. If you can’t afford to start a business or go to college, borrow money from your parents.” (Ignore the fact that Mitt Romney, who helped countless neighbors and friends over the years, certainly understood that no human being can survive without others.)
Unfortunately, for plenty of Americans, including those who are or would like to be self-reliant, Obama’s message seemed to resonate. Too many Americans are personally familiar with skyrocketing health-care costs and were too hard hit by the recession to support their kids’ business or college dreams, and they saw their own reality — or fears of what their lives could become — acknowledged in Obama’s statements. And for too many, who had either spent months searching for a job or knew someone else who had, it was hardly reassuring — or true to their experience — to be told they could make it on their own if they wanted to.
So why didn’t the GOP fight back and say that they weren’t the party of “You’re on your own”?
Currently, the Democratic vision of government is so big and all-encroaching that it’s naïve of the GOP to think it can fight back by only talking politics. Republicans will never sell the message of smaller government unless they can sell a community-driven society, unless they can make a compelling case for the voluntary institutions that will thrive under a smaller government and take care of the needs that government currently attempts to meet.
Consider the now-infamous Life of Julia slideshow, in which the Obama campaign depicted how big government helped Julia from preschool (Head Start) to college (American Opportunity Tax Credit) to career (Lilly Ledbetter Act) to motherhood (Obamacare) to retirement (Social Security and Medicare). In many ways, this is an extremely unattractive portrayal. Julia’s life seems devoid of human relationships, except with her son (her son’s father never makes an appearance, nor do any friends or neighbors even have cameos). She seems content to rely on government as the cornerstone of her life.
But to those struggling in these tough economic times (and to those who were struggling even before the fall of 2008), there is a genuine appeal to Julia’s life. She never faces dire financial straits. She goes to college, gets an interesting job, and has a child. She never declares bankruptcy. Nor does she risk going hungry, or having to sell all she owns to pay her medical bills. Her lifestyle may be tedious, but it’s also secure.
It’s true that Republicans don’t want to give Julia all the same government benefits that Obama does. But it’s also absolutely false that Julia’s only options are big government or a small, cramped life ridden with poverty.
Let’s look at Julia’s life in a world with smaller government and robust community organizations and voluntary associations. Julia attends her church’s preschool, which is offered at no cost to those lacking financial resources. When it’s time for college, she works part-time (at a low-profit business that is able to exist because of fewer regulations), takes out loans, and wins a scholarship donated by a rich business owner who funds a program oriented toward helping smart low-income people go to college. After college, she finds her first job, thanks to a tip from a friend that a certain business is hiring. The first few years are rough, but thanks to frugal living, Julia hangs on and makes her loan payments. She makes as much as her male colleagues because she majored in a field known for good salaries, and because she’s not afraid to ask for a raise. Furthermore, the strong moral foundations of this society make her boss consider it wrong to pay differently based on sex.
She and her partner together pay for the medical costs when she has her first child. Neighbors help the young couple out with supplies and babysitting assistance. As she gets older, and her little family becomes more prosperous, Julia is able to help others. Not only can she put her children through college, she helps other people achieve their dream and launch a small business by lending them money. When her best friend unexpectedly gets sick without health insurance, Julia pays for a large chunk of the bills.
In this scenario, Julia’s life is hardly self-reliant; others have come through and supported her in crucial moments throughout her life. But she has been fortunate enough to be able to give back in her later years, and hers was not a life dominated by big government.
And that is the vision the Republican party needs to present. It’s not a political vision. It’s not about legislation. It’s about showing skeptical Americans that there is an alternative to big government that does not mean you always survive on your own with no help from anyone.
But it’s not enough just to talk up that vision: Republicans need to take seriously the civic problem of how to restore our culture. Social institutions have been decimated in America in recent decades. As Charles Murray documented in Coming Apart, there’s also a class gap at work here: Wealthier Americans are more likely to be in stable marriages and attending church (a crucial voluntary association) than lower-income Americans. Furthermore, as Robert Putman’s Bowling Alone chronicled more than a decade ago, Americans spend less time these days in voluntary associations — such as sports leagues, churches, and neighborhood organizations — than they did in prior years.
It’s far too simplistic (not to mention unnecessarily insulting) to reduce this election to being between “takers and makers.” We are all takers sometimes. (And we try to be makers to the best of our abilities.) The question is whom we are taking from: from the government, which forces our fellow citizens to give up their money, or from our fellow citizens directly, when they give to us of their own volition?
Paul Ryan, to his credit, did directly bring up this idea in a speech on poverty in October. “Most times,” he said, “the real debate is about whether [people’s needs] are best met by private groups, or by the government; by voluntary action, or by more taxes and coercive mandates from Washington. The short of it is that there has to be a balance — allowing government to act for the common good, while leaving private groups free to do the work that only they can do. There’s a vast middle ground between the government and the individual.”
The GOP vision isn’t about ruthless individuals, striking out on their own and thriving or failing as their luck and innate abilities permit. Instead, it’s about a society where merit and hard work are rewarded, where neighbors help each other in tough times, and where everyone works together to build a thriving nation. It’s about a country where religious organizations are allowed to follow their spiritual convictions, where capital flows from the rich to the start-up businesses, and where no one is as alone and friendless as faceless Julia unless she chooses to be.