One gets the distinct feeling that this presidential election is about to blossom into a very serious and substantive debate about voter choices on the future of this country. Unfortunately at present, there are only hints of this meaningful battle beneath the surface of the frivolity involving such inanities as Bain Capital’s outsourcing, the “made in China” U. S. Olympic Team uniforms, the continuing mind-numbing demagoguery about how to “pay for” the continuation of the Bush tax rate cuts for “the rich”, and Mitt Romney’s tax returns.
Several astute observers (not to be confused with what passes for mainstream coverage of the issues), including Yuval Levin in The Weekley Standard and Jay Cost in National Affairs, have recently written that, in effect, the entire American social contract that has been in place since World War II is now up for grabs, and I agree. Levin says it this way: “We have a sense that the economic order we knew in the second half of the 20th century may not be coming back at all…….We are on the cusp of the fiscal and institutional collapse of our welfare state, which threatens not only the future of government finances but also the future of American capitalism”. Cost offers this take on it: “The days when lawmakers could give to some Americans without shortchanging others are over; the politics of deciding who loses what, and when, and how, is upon us……Neither party yet fully understands the implications of this shift……….”
Finally, in a thoughtful essay in The New Criterion, James Piereson makes the point that we may very well be on the verge of what he calls “the fourth revolution”, after the first three American political revolutions–the election of 1800, the Civil War, and the New Deal–because the crisis we now face is far deeper than the overhang from the recent “great recession”. Rather, as he says, almost parroting Levin and Cost, “The deeper causes lie in the exhaustion of the postwar system of political economy that took place in the 1930s and 1940s……….That system is now unwinding for several reasons, not least because the American economy can no longer underwrite the debt and public promises………The urgent need to cancel or renegotiate these debts and public promises on short notice will ignite the fourth revolution”.
Beyond a few well-intentioned and courageous individual initiatives (Congressman Paul Ryan comes to mind), as a body politic we haven’t come anywhere close to engaging these issues and their ramifications with the depth and intensity that they deserve. Nor do I think that we have yet come to grips with what the answer will mean for our republic and our constitutional order. Needless to say, there are very different worldviews at odds in this debate and very different ideas about the future of the current model, which is clearly no longer sustainable. Whether or not the American people are willing to face that reality and make the necessary transformation to a new model will depend on the quality of the coming debate and the skill of the opposition party and its leader in making the case. A fourth revolution? I don’t know, but I do know that this is a very big deal.