The point here is not that it doesn’t matter who the president is; the point is that in sending saviors to Washington, the people have effectively minimized and relinquished their own role in the stewardship of America. We have come to think of our main obligation as electing a president, who will then do all the important work while Congress roils around being, incorrigibly, Congress: annoying, posturing, legislatively incontinent.
The Founding Fathers didn’t see it that way – and indeed, it hasn’t turned out to be a very good idea. Now the political turning point in 2012 rests squarely with the people. There is no “champion” – no savior – running for president in either party. It’s down to us now.
What is our character? Can we see through demagoguery and even outright lies? Do we acknowledge our responsibility for a government that today sees us alternately as lab rats and pack mules, and is currently spending our great-great-grandchildren’s earnings? Are we willing to take responsibility for ourselves and our families? Are we willing to help those in need ourselves, rather than handing the government an open-ended charter to remake us all?
What is our view of government? What is government supposed to do? What does it mean to elect someone to public office? What are our responsibilities for self-government? How well do we understand the competing philosophical justifications for small government and big? What do we really think of them?
I see two ways for conservatives to view the vote in November. One involves a pragmatic view of government as something to be handled, as much as possible, through prudent tactics. This view emphasizes method and calculation over philosophy. The other involves a view of government that makes the choice of president a form of positive affirmation of what we believe in. With this view, philosophy is paramount; if philosophical sympathy is absent in the leading candidate(s), no mere method of politics is a way of correcting the deficiency.
Neither perspective stands alone. In most election years, campaigning entails a combination of these perspectives, and a candidate is chosen who seems to marry them as effectively as possible for electoral politics. In 2012, however, conservatives simply can’t make of Romney a “what we believe in” choice. He is instead a “prudent tactics” choice: a placeholder who will basically not be Obama for the next four years.
The only strategically significant point of having a placeholder is so that the people themselves can regroup. Romney cannot be a savior, and in policy terms, he is not the answer to our problems. In the foreseeable future, we have to do the heavy lifting.
What I would like to suggest is that it has been unrealistic all along for American voters to imagine that we can find, every four years, a political avatar of all our hopes and dreams. That is an unrealistic view of politics, and a dangerous view of the role government should play in our lives. It is essentially the role defined by the left for its favorite sons.
It is also unrealistic to suppose that we can delegate to government, or to a particular president, the responsibility of standing up to bad ideas and trends in our society. We ourselves have to stand up to them, in school board meetings and local zoning hearings, in state legislatures and the House of Representatives. We have to stand up to them in our family lives and our personal lives, our lives as citizens, employers, employees, volunteers, philanthropists, and believers.
Even on the political right, we have come to assign government and particular politicians too large a role in correcting the problems around us. Most of us believe in “government” too much now; instead of believing in the smallness of government and the benefits of our own liberty, too many of us have been induced to simply believe in the American government itself, whatever its size.
Our Founders were profoundly – and properly – skeptical of government. They stated repeatedly that their reliance was ultimately on the good sense and character of the people. In 2012, it’s all about the people: who we are and the clarity with which we see our predicament and our options.