Thursday, August 2, 2012

Ideology in the U.S. Presidential Campaign.

What makes gaffes interesting in politics is that that they usually happen in those too rare moments of unscripted and uncontrolled communication by a politician. As such, they are refreshing but they also reveal plenty, not only about the teller of the gaffe but also about his opponent, and more importantly about what they perceive their voters want to hear.

Let's take President Obama's "you didn't build that" gaffe. Obama wanted to make the point that no one succeeds in modern society without the help of other people, or infrastructures, but he put it very poorly:
If you were successful, somebody along the line gave you some help. There was a great teacher somewhere in your life. Somebody helped to create this unbelievable American system that we have that allowed you to thrive. Somebody invested in roads and bridges. If you’ve got a business -- you didn’t build that. Somebody else made that happen. The Internet didn’t get invented on its own. Government research created the Internet so that all the companies could make money off the Internet.

Here of course, the problem is first and foremost grammatical: "THAT" instead of "THOSE" which stand for "roads and bridges" but it can have dire consequences in a presidential campaign, and sure enough, the other side took advantage of it.

Jon Stewart had a good take on it:

Clearly, deep down, Romney agrees with what Obama meant to say. As Jon Stewart pointed out: he pretty much said the same thing about athletes at the Olympic Games.

Beyond the hypocrisy of using a sentence out of context, the whole controversy reveals plenty about American values, and American politics.

As Michael Foley has shown in his excellent book American Credo: The Place of Ideas in American Politics, Americans tend to see failure or success in highly personalized terms. Just like American heroes, (the self-reliant pioneer, the lonesome cowboy, the outlaw, the super-hero, the crusading lawyer, etc), American entrepreneurs are seen as heroic individuals engaged in individualized projects. As a result, in the United States succes or failure is  assigned to the person rather than to the structure or conditions, contrary to Europe. Hence the importance of personal virtue for political leaders, especially for the commander-in-chief.
This is also why there is greater tolerance for extreme poverty and extrem wealth, and for economic 'inequality' in the U.S. than in Europe. In France in particular, the word "individualism" tends to carry negative connotations akin to selfishness.

That being said, the pendulum swings even more towards individualism for conservatives than for liberals. In this respect, president Obama has a typical liberal view that stresses the importance of the community, (and this is not surprising, after all Obama used to be a community organizer) whereas Republicans give primacy to the individual and the protection of personal liberties.

Associated with individualism is of core the core notion of 'freedom' which lies at the heart of American identity, but here too, the meaning attributed to the concept in policies and politics varies in Democratic or Republican circles.

Generally speaking the word 'government' and 'Washington' are viewed negatively.

But it gets even more complicated when you realize that the same voters respond differently to the ideological appeal of 'freedom' and to the policy consequences of less government. The same people may want smaller government but better government services, less taxation but better infrastructures (roads, bridges, water pipes, power grid, etc...), or they may be set against healthcare may but praise Medicare and Medicaid.
This is akin to a schizoid split between abstract ideology and concrete operational use.

And sometimes when a presidential candidate is trying so hard to embody ideology that he changes reality to fit his ideology.
The irony of Mitt Romney praising free enterprise for the economic success of Poland Vs. the "false promise of a government-dominated economy" has not escaped the Europeans who know - apparently better than he does - how E.U. subsidies have helped the Polish economy grow substantially:
In the EU’s 2007-2013 budget, the subsidies for Poland amounted to nearly EUR 68 bln, the highest sum among the EU funding beneficiaries. (source here)
And we're not even talking about the fact that total government expenditure as a percentage of GDP was about 44 percent last year — compared to 41 percent in the United States. (CBS)

Then, when during his stop in Israel, Romney also praised the Israeli economy while people there set themselves on fire in a desperate action of protest against their harsh economic situation. (CNN, ENews).
And it gets teven better when, he lauded the Israeli health care system, which is managed care, universal coverage, and has even more government control than the Obama health law Romney so strenuously faults. (Boston Globe). In effect, he's endorsed President Obama.

Well, Mitt Romney is probably smart enough to know all that, and this all tactical politics.
After all, what do most (conservative) Americans know about Poland, Israel or the Olympic Games for that matter. This message is for them and nobody cares as long as the message reinforces pre-conceived ideas about values and principles. And who cares if the conservative ideology has no applicability, the only thing that matters is to get to the highest office, then you'll deal with issues when they get there. 
This may be why Romney has be so evasive about his program and concrete ideas.

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