A few weeks ago, I wrote, As we slide into the Presidential election season listen to the debate between the night watchman and the caretakers. I said at that time that American politics is marked by a stark contrast between those who believe that the states role is to protect rights, including property, and those who believe the states role is to help create the opportunities for individuals to lead full and rich lives.
This week, Mitt Romney was caught on film disparaging those who believe in the caretaker state. His words were extremely unfortunate as he suggested that these individuals are dependent on government and that they believe that they are victims. Such rhetoric works in politics when candidates believe that they are speaking to a particular crowd with a particular view but Mitt Romney should know that there are few private spaces anymore in todays world. He should have known better than to hope he could keep his comments from media attention.
The media and members of his own party have already pounced on Romneys words. Some have suggested that the Romney mask has been lifted and that we have seen the real Mitt." Commentators have suggested that he is out-of-touch and that he cares little about people who are not rich. Some say he was in a room of like-minded individuals and was just saying what like-minded individuals say.
But, I think that what happened to Mitt Romney says much more about politics (and I mean the Canadian as well as the American kind) than it does about who Mitt Romney is as a person. Frankly, I dont think this is necessarily a case of the mask being lifted. I think that the man in the room with the Republican supporters is exactly the same man that we see every day on the stump in this presidential race.
The problem is that conservatives have found themselves trapped into saying things that dont represent the real conservative view point.
I think that in this case Mitt Romney is probably hiding his private views and masking his real opinion in order to play politics. He may have insulted half of Americans by his comments but many Americans believe that other people are the undeserving benefactors of state support. In fact, I would suggest that this is a prevalent viewpoint here in Canada too.
The rising anti-tax sentiment is often framed by the idea that tax dollars are being distributed to undeserving or lazy individuals. We have done very little in our political conversations to examine the real benefits of social welfare and to understand, with deep empathy, the need to provide when individuals fall short of making ends meet.
So, I wonder if I might cast Romneys comments in another light.
I am not defending him.
I wish, however, to suggest that his comments were overtly political and that he could have contributed more significantly to political debate if he had asserted a real conservative viewpoint. He might have said, I do not believe that the role of the state is to be a caretaker for men and women. I think that the role of the state is to protect a citizens freedom to pursue their goals without coercion by the state. We are all responsible to each other and our obligation as citizens is to participate, through our church or other associations, to build our communities and, by extension, civil society. It is this obligation and this responsibility that are required to construct a strong, healthy nation. We must not abdicate this role to the state."
I think that these are the words that Mitt Romney might have wanted to say and he did not say them because he is constrained from being an authentic man by the ugliness of the political landscape and by the shallow nature of sound bite debate.
Many American and Canadian conservatives have fallen into the trap of allowing the right-wing debate to turn into a politics of distrust and contempt for other people.
This is not the real face of conservatism.
The debate between the caretakers and the night watchman is a debate about the extent of the states role in our lives.
It is not an excuse to forget our responsibility to care for one another.