This article is from The Objective Standard, Vol. 4, No. 3.
Over the summer of 2009, Americans witnessed something quite extraordinary: Thousands of citizens not usually involved in politics gathered in public protest and energetically confronted government officials about the policies of an administration they had elected just a few months earlier.
Polls suggest that many Americans share the protesters’ views. Voters’ opinions about Obama’s performance as president generally have reversed since February. The Rasmussen poll indicates that as of August 23, 41 percent strongly disapproved of his performance, and only 27 percent strongly approved.1 Concerning health-care reform—a central goal of the administration—a large majority of voters opposed a “public option,” feared the government more than the insurance companies, and disagreed with Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi that the companies are “villains.” Just 19 percent of Americans rated American health care overall as poor; 48 percent rated it as good or excellent.2 Such figures indicate a trend of declining support for the agenda of the Obama administration and its congressional supporters. If this trend continues, there is a possibility of serious Democratic losses in the 2010 mid-term elections.
The growing opposition to the policies of Democratic leaders is not a partisan issue; registered Democratic voters are challenging Democratic officials at raucous public meetings. So-called “Blue Dogs”—Democratic representatives who are either fiscally conservative on some issues or were elected in conservative districts—are taking issue with the party leadership. Many of these representatives face a stark choice: to buck their leaders and vote as their constituents wish, or to follow their leaders and face the wrath of angry voters.
But the most startling phenomenon has been the tea parties, in which hundreds of thousands of Americans have assembled under their own impetus, wearing T-shirts that read “Don’t Tread On Me” and carrying signs advocating liberty and opposing dictatorship. Speakers at these events have denounced politicians of both parties who have supported increases in government power and spending. Many of the protesters have begun to recognize and advocate a principle—the principle of individual rights—and a corollary of that principle, that the proper purpose of government is to secure these rights, not to control its citizens’ lives.
The response of the Democratic leadership has been one of paternalistic desperation. On August 3, a White House operative asked Americans to inform the administration about the opinions of other citizens: “If you get an email or see something on the web about health insurance reform that seems fishy, send it to email@example.com.”3 Rather than accept that many Americans understand the essence of these plans and oppose them, the Democratic National Committee accused the opposition of “inciting angry mobs of a small number of rabid right wing extremists funded by K Street Lobbyists.”4 The president himself lashed out: “I don’t want the folks who created the mess to do a lot of talking. I want them to just get out of the way so we can clean up the mess!”5
The split between the politicians and the American citizens has seldom been so starkly displayed as when the Democrats accused senior citizens carrying hand-lettered signs of being a “mob” in the pay of organized groups. In contrast to these independent citizens, organized union members, loyal to the Democratic leadership, rode to public town meetings on buses, distributed manufactured signs, and shut the doors on opponents. Meanwhile, many elected officials canceled meetings with their constituents, unwilling to face protesters who have read and understood the legislation better than they have.
Despite such attempts to smear the protesters and shut them out of public meetings, the protests continue to enjoy strong popular support. The Obama administration’s plan for a radical overhaul of the U.S. economy is facing principled, grassroots opposition across the nation.
Why are these protests happening now?
The answer is not that President Obama has put America on a new course, away from capitalism and toward statism. America has been on that path for three generations, courtesy of both political parties. The administration of George W. Bush, for instance, greatly expanded government power. President Bush doubled the national budget, doubled the deficit, added a digit to the national debt, signed the largest entitlement bill since the 1960s, ordered his cabinet to cooperate in regulating carbon dioxide as a “pollutant,” signed Sarbanes-Oxley, distributed economic “stimulus” checks, asked for $700 billion as business handouts, and never vetoed a spending bill. Where were the protesters then? If Americans were agitated primarily by the trend toward statism, what stopped thousands of them from rising up and venting their anger at these actions? The truck toward statism is only part of the reason for the reaction against Obama. What is the rest of the explanation?
The answer begins with Bush’s party affiliation: He is a Republican. This title carries the appearance of long-standing, fundamental support for the free market and for capitalism. Although no Republican in three generations has defended capitalism in a principled way, Republican rhetoric continues to use pro-capitalist language, mainly to oppose Democrats. Ronald Reagan’s assertion that “government is the problem” continues to resonate among supporters of the free market. However, few Republicans have been willing to face the inescapable fact that the federal budget and debt grew exponentially under both Reagan and his Republican successor, George H.W. Bush. Republican lip service to the free market has muddied the waters and continues to make it difficult for people to see that Republicans were, in fact, throttling freedom under a maze of growing federal controls. Hence there was no uprising against Republicans or their policies.
Following eight years of Bill Clinton, George W. Bush appeared to offer the best hope to regain that alleged free-market, low-tax legacy. Once again, most people did not see that the free-market image of this Republican was a mirage that bore no relation to his actions. This image gained power when Bush was touted as an alternative to his leftist Democratic challengers. This contrast of images obscured the fundamental differences between Bush’s policies and a truly pro-capitalist position. This obfuscation—instigated by the Republicans—deeply confused many honest Americans about the nature of his policies, and caused enormous harm to their understanding of both capitalism and conservatism. This split between appearance and reality—between the image of a pro-freedom Republican and the reality of a welfare-state Republican—made it difficult for people to recognize that no candidate in either party was willing to defend capitalism. As a result, any real discussion of capitalism—properly understood as a truly free market, in which individual rights are protected by the government—was obliterated from public discourse.
Bush fostered his undeserved free-market image with tax cuts that accompanied huge increases in spending and led to enormous deficits. He also appeared to oppose business regulations, even as he approved thousands of pages of new controls (e.g., Sarbanes-Oxley and the steel tariffs). His selective repeal of some rules (such as parts of the Glass-Steagall Act) contributed to the image of a free-market administration that had “deregulated” the economy. He promoted the expansion of huge federally-sponsored entities such as the Federal National Mortgage Association (Fannie Mae), the Government National Mortgage Association (Ginny Mae), and the Federal Home Loan Mortgage Corporation (Freddie Mac) because he wanted to appear compassionate to people who “needed” loans. When the market imploded, Bush proposed hundreds of billions in federal aid, saying “I’ve abandoned free-market principles to save the free market system.”6
The visible result was an exploding welfare state in which capitalism was blamed for massive deficits, for rising health-care prices, for the collapse of Wall Street, for the cost of the Iraq war, and for every other bad consequence of Bush’s policies. The more fundamental, unseen result was a confused American public—a public confused about the very meaning of the free market, liberty, and individual rights, and about what a proper defense of those values would mean. “Capitalism has failed” became the mantra of the left: “We tried it under Bush, and look what happened.”
In his systematic treatment of the philosophy of Objectivism, Leonard Peikoff wrote that “[p]recisely because of their pretense,” conservatives “are the main source of political confusion in the public mind; they give people the illusion of an electoral alternative without the fact. Thus the statist drift proceeds unchecked and unchallenged.”7 George W. Bush is the quintessential example of this point.
Enter Barack Obama, whom no one confuses with a friend of industry, capitalism, or national self-defense, but who stood as an alternative to four more years of Bush-like policies under John McCain.
As the leader of the Democrats—the party that carries an historical reputation for expanding government power, higher taxes, and limitless spending—Obama reasserted and rejuvenated his party’s traditional commitment to the statist course. This commitment permeates his speeches. He regards businessmen not as valuable producers, but as conniving parasites who must be placed under comprehensive government controls, including a “czar” to approve executive pay. He expressed this desire in an angry rant against financial managers who received contracted bonuses.8 Obama regards doctors not as lifesavers, but as predators willing to sacrifice their patients to needless operations in order to get money.9 He regards the police who respond to reports of a burglary as cops who act “stupidly,” before the relevant facts are clear. He regards overseas regimes that have pledged to continue to attack the United States as deserving of apology. Meanwhile, he wants to prosecute American intelligence officers who used “harsh” interrogation techniques against enemies who have killed Americans. Obama and his administration are overtly and publicly committed to an ideologically radical leftist agenda.
Obama’s choice of advisors has helped to define his antibusiness agenda. He hired, for instance, John Holdren as his director of the Office of Science and Technology Policy. Holdren has expressed his views of industry in print since the 1970s: “A massive campaign must be launched to restore a high-quality environment in North America and to de-develop the United States.”10 Such views are consistent with a range of policies planned by the administration, from stringent business regulations being drafted by the Congress and Obama’s economic czars, to cap-and-trade legislation intended to strangle industry, to unremitting attempts to place the medical industry under comprehensive government control.
Such views permeate Obama’s rhetoric, which connects him in many people’s minds to the most radical (i.e., consistent) advocates of democratic socialism. Despite his attempts to appear moderate, the basic nature of his administration—its essential identity, purpose, and worldview—is becoming crystal clear. He is a leftist and a socialist on principle, who vilifies the free market, apologizes for his country before murderous foreign dictators, and finds salvation in ever-growing government power. Not all Americans see him this way, but the number is growing with his every word and deed.11
Obama, of course, does not intend to be clear about his socialist identity. He is trying to come across as a “reasonable,” moderate “centrist.” But his attempts to appeal to moderate voters are angering the hard left and alienating the independents. Meanwhile, an increasing number of astute American voters on the right are largely unmoved.12 Many people are seeing him as a skilled orator who is trying to save his agenda.
The same charge could have been leveled against Bush, but there is a big difference between the two men. Whereas Bush’s image as a free-market capitalist was a mirage, Obama’s image as a radical leftist is accurate. Obama’s great vulnerability is that a silent majority of American voters will see this, and will recognize that he does not share either their values or their vision of what America was and should be. Although only a minority of Americans has joined in the vocal protests, many more are silently stewing over Obama’s agenda. As one writer put it, “It is not, in the end, the demonstrators in those town hall meetings or the agitation of his political enemies that Mr. Obama should fear. It is the judgment of those Americans who have been sitting quietly in their homes, listening to him.”13
This is the clarity that Obama has brought to the American political scene. To see a president’s clear and principled commitment to an ideology—any ideology—is precisely what America has needed for decades. This sight has helped many people understand the issues at a more fundamental level than they ever have. Obama and his congressional allies have unwittingly launched a grass-roots movement that is actively questioning the role of government in our lives. Although a large portion of the protesters remains confused about the principles at stake, an increasing number are gaining clarity. They are coming to see the Democratic proposals for health-care “reform,” for instance, not as a matter of new programs backed by good intentions, but as an attack on individual rights and an effort to impose a dictatorship—as signs at tea parties attest. And many are beginning to see that the Republicans as well have been guilty of such attacks.
Clarity is the first step toward understanding, and understanding is the prerequisite to rational evaluation. For three generations now, America has needed a blunt confrontation with the policies that have been leading the nation toward dictatorship and into bankruptcy. Such confrontations were stillborn in 1940, 1964, and 1980 because in each case Republicans failed to stand up, on principle, for capitalism, liberty, and individual rights. Republicans repeatedly collapsed into the quicksand of compromise and accepted the welfare state principles of their opponents while arguing about the “proper” amount of government coercion they would enact. The trend toward statism continued, because the incremental steps accepted by Republicans obscured the stark difference between America’s founding vision and its statist future.
Obama has given active-minded Americans a close-up view of this future. His vision—a government bureaucracy to administer medicine, an environmental agency to shackle industry, and the institutional mechanisms for bringing the government into the most intimate details of our lives—is where we have been headed for decades. But until now this destination has been hidden by the smoke and mirrors of rhetorical obfuscation. Obama’s strident efforts to impose this agenda are enabling people to see that future with clarity.
But even this does not fully explain why the protests have erupted now. Obama has energized the opposition because his plan is not some abstract utopia to be found in the distant future. He wants it now. He has asked Congress to pass both health-care and environmental legislation this year, and Congress has produced the bills. At a rally in August, he restated this pledge: “I promise you, we will pass [health-care] reform by the end of this year.”14 By putting forth firm dates when these measures are to become law—by saying that more than one-third of the U.S. economy could be under direct federal control as early as next month—he has motivated a large segment of the American electorate to stand up against these plans. Millions of Americans are deeply disturbed not only by Obama’s particular aims, but also by his ideological framework. Many are coming to see the issues, even if imperfectly, in terms of dictatorship versus individual rights.
Republicans should have brought forward a positive, principled alternative to the statist trend years ago. They failed. Obama has now done the job for them. He has presented the stark alternative from the other side, by specifying and demanding a comprehensive agenda that carries no pretense of individual liberty. He has created an alarming sense of urgency by demanding that this agenda be made into law now.
Many Americans are now able to see Obama’s plans as an assault on the founding principles of this nation. In addition, many Americans realize that time is running out—that the future is here, today. These two factors are energizing otherwise nonpolitical Americans to literally rally around the flag, to confront their elected representatives, and to turn against the administration in droves.
Military history provides an illuminating parallel to Obama’s explosive effect on American political life. By 1945, Japan had lost the war with America—but Japanese leaders evaded that fact and refused to make the decision needed to end the war. When the United States issued its demand for surrender (“the alternative is prompt and utter destruction”) and dropped two atomic bombs, the Japanese could no longer evade the facts or postpone the decision. The shock of the bombs made Japan’s alternative clear: to continue the war until they were burned into the bedrock, or to change the nation’s course. Had the Americans not forced the Japanese to confront that alternative and that deadline, the Japanese leadership could have reacted incrementally to events and manipulated the population in order to keep its power. Had it done so, Japan might have remained on the path of war past the point where reform was possible. The bombs forced the Japanese to make a life or death decision now.
Obama has dropped the equivalent of an atomic bomb into the American political arena. Many Americans are now shocked at the scale and speed of the coercion being unleashed. The Democratic economic policies, the cap-and-trade bill, and the health-care proposals are similar to what Bush had supported, and to what John McCain had promised. But the Obama administration and the Democratic leadership are openly unabashed in their reverence for greater government power, and this has strengthened the shockwaves rolling across America
The Democrats—shocked in their own way by the public response to their transparency—spent the late summer trying to obfuscate these issues. They have portrayed the protesters as “un-American,” the Republicans as obstructionist, and themselves as reasonable. Such attempts are further isolating the Democrats from millions of Americans, many of whom are beginning to see that the Democrats rather than the protesters are opposed to America’s founding principles. Unlike the atomic bombs dropped on Japan—which turned Japan away from dictatorship and toward freedom and individual rights—Obama’s bomb is intended to move America more quickly into authoritarian rule, and ultimately into dictatorship. Rather than acquiesce to the ultimatum, however, many Americans are standing against it.
The protests and the polls are clear: Americans have, by and large, rejected the radical leftist agenda. But the issue is not yet closed. The Democrats have one last resource—one secret weapon—with which they can save their plans while avoiding political suicide in the next election. That weapon is the Republicans.
If the Republicans compromise—if they accept federally-mandated health insurance in the guise of a “co-op” or the like, or a cap-and-trade bill that is marginally less draconian than the Democratic version—they will have once again capitulated to their opponents, abandoned liberty, and ruined the opportunity to redirect this nation toward its founding moral principle: individual rights, protected under a constitution in a free republic.
President Obama has made the issue of freedom versus statism clear, and has forced an immediate decision on the American people and their representatives. His most astute opponents are correct to see his plans as attacks on their individual rights. But many people remain confused about the nature of the threat because they lack an understanding of the principles needed to grasp the cause and meaning of the trend toward statism and to reverse that trend. Those principles begin with the rights enshrined in the Declaration of Independence, and with the founding purpose of our government: “to secure these rights.” To grasp the meaning of this seminal statement, we must understand that the right to life does not mean the right to coerce others into providing us with the needs of life. It means the right to live our lives free of such coercions.
The essence of the capitalist system is freedom: each man’s freedom to pursue his own goals, to pursue his own happiness, to keep the material products of his efforts, and to deal voluntarily with others. But to reestablish and maintain their freedom, Americans must assert, with full knowledge of the principles at stake, that they have a right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, and that the only proper moral purpose of government is to secure these rights. Now is the time for all good men to come to the aid, not of their party, but of their country’s founding principles, by understanding those principles and guarding them as if their lives depended on it—because they do.