What does America stand for? What are its founding ideas? In this contentious election, each side is trying to convince us that its policies and ideals are the answer to this question. The Democrats have traditionally relied on a simple technique: appeal to the values of American individualism, while actually selling the American people the virtues of the all-powerful collective.
That is the theme that emerges from the first three nights of speeches at the Democratic convention. Note the pattern of this bait-and-switch philosophy.
Teresa Heinz Kerry says that “Americans believed that they could know all there is to know, build all there is to build, break down any barrier, tear down any wall…. Americans showed the world what can happen when people believe in amazing possibilities. And, that, for me, is the spirit of America.”
Freedom, self-confidence, a contempt for barriers and limits–that certainly is essential to the American character. But who, in Heinz Kerry’s view, best epitomizes these virtues? The inventor who develops a new product? The entrepreneur who pioneers a new industry? The hard-working businessmen who, in actual fact, “build all there is to build”? No. “To me, one of the best faces America has ever projected is the face of a Peace Corps volunteer…. Those young people convey an idea of America that is all about heart and creativity, generosity and confidence, a practical, can-do sense and a big, big smile.”
This is an attempt to connect the American character to self-effacing self-sacrifice. It’s OK to be creative, confident, and have a “can-do” manner–so long as you devote yourself to digging irrigation ditches in the Third World. But dare to pursue your own goals and seek to improve your own life and you are no longer part of the American dream.
This contrast is most striking in Tuesday’s keynote speech by Barack Obama, who borrows some of his eloquence from Thomas Jefferson: “Our pride is based on a very simple premise, summed up in a declaration made over two hundred years ago: ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal. That they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights. That among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.’ That is the true genius of America.”
But Obama goes too far–and gives the whole game away. What does it mean to believe that individuals have the right to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness”? It means that each individual has to right to be free from government interference–and free to pursue his own happiness and well-being. The Founders held an implicit ethics of rational self-interest. It was not the alleged self-interest of a brute who lives by plundering his fellow man, but “self-interest properly understood”–to use the phrase popular at the time–which means a system of liberty, property rights, the rule of law, and limited government.
But Obama brushes all of this aside when he gives his recommendation of John Kerry: “Our Party has chosen a man to lead us who embodies the best this country has to offer…. John Kerry understands the ideals of community, faith, and service.” How did we get from “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” to “community, faith, and service”? Obama provides no answer–but it is clear, by the end of the speech, which side of that contradiction is winning in his mind:
“Alongside our famous individualism, there’s another ingredient in the American saga. A belief that we’re all connected as one people…. It is that fundamental belief–I am my brother’s keeper, I am my sister’s keeper–that makes this country work