Democrats: The Party of Palliation
A month before the presidential election, we know it will be close, and it will be a choice -- no mere referendum on the executive management skills of the current president. The electorate is choosing the balance between public and private sectors, between more and less government. But it is also choosing between the different ends to which government is directed, the different visions about what government is for, and in particular, the relationship politics has with suffering and sacrifice.
Paul Ryan offered the clearest expression of this choice, in forthrightly declaring his opposition to "the best this administration offers -- a dull, adventureless journey from one entitlement to the next, a government-planned life, a country where everything is free but us." With nods to Rand, Hayek, and Tocqueville, Ryan presents an exaggerated but effective reductio ad absurdum of the policy and endpoint of the progressive welfare state. The statement was also bold in its way, because all of us on our worst days, and too many of us every day, actually crave the security of a "system" that eases our cares and allays our fears, and we are moved at times to offer this peace to others worse off than ourselves. To highlight this shared anxiety -- the source of the eternal appeal of the Democratic Party -- is to take a risk. It becomes easy for one's opponents to say, as they will do in myriad ways, We care about you and for you; we will relieve your suffering, and all your ups and downs will be smoothed and gentled; and, if the state hanging on your sleeve means you cannot jump very high or run very fast, well, at least you will never falter, fall, and be crushed beneath the crowd. Here at last is a real choice for the electorate, but inevitably, many will select the less painful option.
This selection implies a dull and "adventureless" life, perhaps. But what good, after all, are adventures? As Bilbo Baggins said, they are nasty, disturbing, uncomfortable things that make one late for dinner. For Bilbo to change his mind and leave the drowsy comfort of the Shire required the intervention of a wizard, in short supply these days. Tolkein's ultimate answer, however, is that the chance for a fuller and nobler existence is worth the discomfort of the adventurous life, and something in that vein must also be the foundation of the Republican answer. Therapeutic competition with Democrats is obvious folly, so Ryan was right to offer something different; the open question is whether he and Governor Romney can persuade the voters to take up the offer.
The Democratic Party presents itself as the enemy of pain -- no bad thing, certainly, from an electoral perspective. On its leftist fringes is a political theodicy attributing the existence of suffering to the malign forces of some hidden power: the one-percenters, the fat-cat bankers, the rich, the greedy, the privileged, the vampire capitalists. You suffer and lack because They take too much; you hurt because They allow it through their cruelty and indifference. More broadly, though, the Democratic Party as a whole seems committed to the proposition that one's suffering is contingent and corrigible, that if only the nation got the policy right pain would disappear. At the least, it is deemed our collective duty as good utilitarians to redress pain wherever it is found.
Some voters choose Democrats to seek a palliative for their own problems, but many liberals are simply motivated by a strong emotional reaction to human suffering. To the exclusion of other goals -- honor, tradition, excellence -- research has shown the psychology of the left is singularly focused on an ethic of caring and on the consequent "sacralization of victims" and their suffering. Progressives have prioritized pain as the world's central evil and dedicated themselves to its alleviation. As a corollary, they prize in leaders the supposed Clintonian capacity to "feel the pain" of anonymous masses, and the anesthetic expertise to relieve it.
No mainstream parties are friends to pain, nor should they be, for needless suffering is a great wrong. Still, the Republican Party's view is more complex because achievement, liberty, responsibility, and many other qualities are within its calculus, to be weighed against discomfort. Nor does conservatism have the luxury of believing in government's power to wholly take away the pain of human existence -- its view of the limited malleability of human nature is not utopian, but instead richer, more tragic. When Republicans centered their first day's convention theme on the claim that individuals (rather than government) "built that," it was not solely as a rebuttal of an awkward quote from the president; rather, it went to the larger point that suffering is endured for a purpose -- that through it, through long hours, through anxiety and uncertainty, through the work of the hands and lives, something is created. The pride and joy of creation, ennobled by the suffering that made it possible, was certainly an undertone of the Republican message.
Conservative policy does not seek to make our existence free of pain, because if we are not stretching ourselves, we will never advance and innovate; few great things are achieved without discomfort and doubt. In this way the craftsman who builds a machine parts business or the person who imagines an alternative to the Post Office is not so different from the sculptor or the poet, suffering for an idea, for the painful art of making new. The goal is to liberate these people from regulations, to reduce the barriers for starting new businesses and investment, and if striving does achieve a reward, less is to be taken back in taxes under the pretense that the state has been a silent partner all along, entitled to take an equitable share in what has been won. Government under this model should not diminish the meaning of personal sacrifice, but should instead make more probable and more rewarding those experiences of wonder and pride unachievable without pain, which leave in their wake a tangible contribution to civilization.
This essentially aesthetic perception is at the heart of modern conservatism, but it has been inadequately expressed as part of an overarching ideal. To the extent that this message has been delivered, it has been in a largely economic context; all praise to the entrepreneur, but most people are not entrepreneurs. Some attention has also has been paid to the sacrifices of immigrants for a better life, and of veterans for protecting our freedom and our nation's influence in the world. But for most people, the adventures in which they take pride have names: a husband or wife of many years, children they've helped go to a good school, the people better off because of their service to their churches and neighborhoods.
Every type of "adventurer" voluntarily chose the harder path, and for every one there needs to be an emphatic conservative policy that supports the ideals he or she has set for him- or herself. We should continue to emphasize that the United States can and must have the most dynamic and innovative of the developed economies. But there also needs to be an explicit preference for marriage in taxes and social policy, and for having children in childcare support and dependent exemptions. We need to build up civic and faith-based organizations as preferred providers of services, and enhance, rather than reduce, charitable deductions. Legal immigrants who suffered through the long process of citizenship should not have their efforts rendered meaningless by blanket amnesty, and soldiers who bear the marks of our enemies on their bodies warrant a foreign policy that assures that their sacrifices are not in vain. On a larger scale, the necessary pursuit of government austerity policies has to be presented in the context of the better life we leave to our children by the fiscal pain that must be borne by today's generation.
The anesthetic case is much simpler to make than the aesthetic one. Pain is the thing we all share, and aversion to suffering the ultimate democracy. But because we are also thinking beings, we inevitably ask why we must suffer. Religion seeks to answer this question with theodicy. Yet it is also a question asked of government, with one political party claiming that, fundamentally, we suffer needlessly, and the other asserting that we bear a needed cost for a greater benefit. This latter more difficult explanation can be convincing only if those reasons of necessity are explicated and made meaningful in terms of people's own goals, which are many and variable. What victory requires is a series of arguments, appealing to every segment of society, and offering, but also rewarding sacrifice. The time grows short in which to make them.
Charles N.W. Keckler is a former deputy assistant secretary for policy in the Department of Health and Human Services.