A Government Of The Selfish, By The Selfish, And For The Selfish?|
by Barry Shain
As a political theorist, my professional interest in American politics centers on the moral visions that guide political actors and their constituencies. And this year, unlike 1992 when it was the `New Democratic' Presidential candidate Bill Clinton who was the source of fresh thinking, it is the Republican party that is the source of the newest and most controversial ideas.
But as the bitterly contested Republican primary demonstrated, this party might also be fairly described as one of disparate, if not incompatible, ideas. Hence, the Republican Convention in August is viewed either with apprehension or pleasure by those looking forward to a controversy-filled meeting. I think, however, that frequently raised concerns about divisiveness will prove exaggerated and the primary division within the Republican ranks -- between the economic libertarians and the cultural conservatives -- will be overcome by their joint commitment to shrinking the size of the national government. As well, both sides seek to return to the states and localities control over what used to be called police powers -- those governmental functions that are concerned with the most sensitive social, religious and moral matters, including those now connected to issues of privacy. Through such a compromise, the breadth, arrogance and cost of the national government will be reined in while the once-luxuriant undergrowth of intermediate institutions, such as family, church, communal organization and local government, will be asked and even required to meet the needs of Americans at the most viable local level.
Thus, we should not look to the convention for an assessment of the power possessed by the ideas advanced by the Republican party; instead, it is to the general election in the fall that we must turn. And if recent polls (as of mid-July) are correct, Congressional Republicans have been unsuccessful in convincing needed blocks of American voters of the necessity of accepting reductions in their unearned benefits, and this is particularly true of the elderly wealthy (and their middle-aged children) who are adamantly opposed to abandoning the generous transfer payments they now enjoy. Americans, although seemingly enthusiastic supporters of the ideal of fiscal austerity and personal and familial responsibility, have been unwilling to support Republican-sponsored reductions in programmatic entitlements when it is they, rather than a putative class of undeserving welfare recipients, who actually must bear the cost.
The fate of the 'new' ideas advanced by the Republican party in the election of 1996, therefore, should tell us a great deal about the character of contemporary American voters and their overall willingness to make sacrifices in service of the common good.