We the People…Conservatism for the Common Good

Published January 31, 2012


In his State of the Union address last week, President Obama declined to discuss any of the major policy initiatives from his first term. (That’s understandable, given that ObamaCare and the Stimulus remain widely unpopular.) Nor did he discuss any bold plans to address the country’s twin crises of unemployment and crushing public debt. (Partly because that would be a tacit admission that he has, after three years in office, severely aggravated the debt problem while failing to curb unemployment.) So rather than talk about the disappointing business of governing, he decided to do something he’s much better at: the president made a moving case for America as a shared good and common endeavor.

Each time I look at that flag, I’m reminded that our destiny is stitched together like those 50 stars and those 13 stripes. No one built this country on their own. This nation is great because we built it together. This nation is great because we worked as a team. This nation is great because we get each other’s backs. And if we hold fast to that truth, in this moment of trial, there is no challenge too great; no mission too hard. As long as we are joined in common purpose, as long as we maintain our common resolve, our journey moves forward, and our future is hopeful, and the state of our Union will always be strong.

While the president is going to need much more than soaring oratory to win reelection this November–and while some have rightly pointed out the problem with comparing society to a military unit, as Obama was–I think it would be a fatal mistake for Republicans to dismiss this as so much empty rhetoric, repeating one of the mistakes of 2008. If there is one important truth which the Democratic Party has not forgotten, and which remains its greatest moral and political strength, it is this: America is strongest when we act together.

President Obama is politically strongest when he appeals to the belief–deeply held by the American public–that beyond my individual good, there is the good of the whole, the common good, for which we all share some responsibility. That’s a message that has the advantage of being both true (pace Ayn Rand) and politically potent. But unless the topic is the American military, Republicans seem incapable of talking about shared responsibility and common endeavor. And that’s a problem.

One partial exception has been Rick Santorum, whose blue collar economic populism remains the closest anyone in this GOP field has come to making the case that government policy must serve more than a mere aggregate of individual interests. “We need a party that just doesn’t talk about high finance and-and cutting corporate taxes or cutting the top tax rates. We need to talk about how we’re going to put men and women in this country who built this country back to work.” Santorum isn’t against high finance or cutting corporate taxes, he simply realizes that economic policy, like all government action, must benefit the People, not just certain favored interests. That’s an important first step–but only one step–in articulating what one might call “conservatism for the common good.”

As Santorum often points out, this message plays very well especially in crucial swing states. Most middle-class Americans (including the all-important swing voters) aren’t terribly concerned with high finance–at least until their mortgage goes into foreclosure or their 401 (k) melts down. Nor are they interested in a class war. All they want is a fair shot and a level playing field–something they’re denied so long as Washington colludes with special interests (like Big Business and Big Labor) to pick winners and losers.

But nor do these voters believe that government’s job is simply to leave them alone. Voters want to know that they are part of something larger than themselves. Americans instinctively know that their individual interests are inextricably bound to the good of this great nation, and they take immense pride in being part of it. They want leaders who understand that our government was founded, as the Constitution says, “to form a more perfect Union [and] promote the general Welfare” but also to “secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity.”

Which is why, given the President’s record, many Americans will understand the fatuousness of his assertion that he, like Abraham Lincoln, believes that “Government should do for people only what they cannot do better by themselves, and no more.” As my colleague Yuval Levin pointed out:

If [President Obama] thinks that all the tasks he laid out for government are things that people “cannot do better by themselves” then he must have a very high opinion of how well government can do things, or a very low opinion of how well people can do things by themselves, or (most plausibly) both.

Or, as Gov. Mitch Daniels put it in his response to the President’s address:

In word and deed, the President and his allies tell us that we just cannot handle ourselves in this complex, perilous world without their benevolent protection. Left to ourselves, we might pick the wrong health insurance, the wrong mortgage, the wrong school for our kids; why, unless they stop us, we might pick the wrong light bulb!

What Lincoln and the Founders understood, even if this president does not, is that the bedrock principle of the American polity, liberty, is not reducible to that which government allows citizens do for themselves. Liberty is not what’s left over after government “does its thing.” Government exists to protect the liberty of citizens, not because citizens always do right on their own (they don’t), but because liberty is a precondition for virtue, including those virtues necessary to good citizenship.

Without liberty, there can be no virtue; without virtue, there are no good citizens; without good citizens, the entire republic suffers. In Catholic terms, a government that fails to defend and respect the liberty of its citizens becomes an obstacle to the common good. The great American experiment in self-government can only be a shared endeavor–can only serve the common good–if the rights and liberties of citizens are first protected.

Republican candidates (at least these days) are good at proposing more liberty and less government, but from the libertarian Ron Paul to the more moderate Mitt Romney, they have failed to make any such appeal beyond the limited grounds of self-interest.

This isn’t a question of reviving Bush-era Compassionate Conservatism or Big Government Conservatism. It is a matter of candidates persuading their fellow citizens of something Americans have always know to be true: that limited government in the service of liberty does far more than serve individual self-interest; liberty serves the good of the nation as a whole. It’s what made America great.

That’s something the GOP field would do well to remember. And say.

Stephen P. White is a fellow in the Catholic Studies Program at the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C. and coordinator of the Tertio Millennio Seminar on the Free Society.

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