A month before the presidential election, we know it will be close, and it will be a choice — no mere referendum on the executive management skills of the current president. The electorate is choosing the balance between public and private sectors, between more and less government. But it is also choosing between the different ends to which government is directed, the different visions about what government is for, and in particular, the relationship politics has with suffering and sacrifice.
Paul Ryan offered the clearest expression of this choice, in forthrightly declaring his opposition to “the best this administration offers — a dull, adventureless journey from one entitlement to the next, a government-planned life, a country where everything is free but us.” With nods to Rand, Hayek, and Tocqueville, Ryan presents an exaggerated but effective reductio ad absurdum of the policy and endpoint of the progressive welfare state. The statement was also bold in its way, because all of us on our worst days, and too many of us every day, actually crave the security of a “system” that eases our cares and allays our fears, and we are moved at times to offer this peace to others worse off than ourselves. To highlight this shared anxiety — the source of the eternal appeal of the Democratic Party — is to take a risk. It becomes easy for one’s opponents to say, as they will do in myriad ways, We care about you and for you; we will relieve your suffering, and all your ups and downs will be smoothed and gentled; and, if the state hanging on your sleeve means you cannot jump very high or run very fast, well, at least you will never falter, fall, and be crushed beneath the crowd. Here at last is a real choice for the electorate, but inevitably, many will select the less painful option.
This selection implies a dull and “adventureless” life, perhaps. But what good, after all, are adventures? As Bilbo Baggins of the famous novel Lord of the Rings said, they are nasty, disturbing, uncomfortable things that make one late for dinner. For Bilbo to change his mind and leave the drowsy comfort of the Shire required the intervention of a wizard, in short supply these days. Tolkein’s ultimate answer, however, is that the chance for a fuller and nobler existence is worth the discomfort of the adventurous life, and something in that vein must also be the foundation of the Republican answer. Therapeutic competition with Democrats is obvious folly, so Ryan was right to offer something different; the open question is whether he and Governor Romney can persuade the voters to take up the offer.
The Democratic Party presents itself as the enemy of pain — no bad thing, certainly, from an electoral perspective. On its leftist fringes is a political theodicy attributing the existence of suffering to the malign forces of some hidden power: the one-percenters, the fat-cat bankers, the rich, the greedy, the privileged, the vampire capitalists. You suffer and lack because They take too much; you hurt because They allow it through their cruelty and indifference. More broadly, though, the Democratic Party as a whole seems committed to the proposition that one’s suffering is contingent and corrigible, that if only the nation got the policy right pain would disappear. At the least, it is deemed our collective duty as good utilitarians to redress pain wherever it is found.
Some voters choose Democrats to seek a palliative for their own problems, but many liberals are simply motivated by a strong emotional reaction to human suffering. To the exclusion of other goals — honor, tradition, excellence — research has shown the psychology of the Left is singularly focused on an ethic of caring and on the consequent “sacralization of victims” and their suffering. Progressives have prioritized pain as the world’s central evil and dedicated themselves to its alleviation. As a corollary, they prize in leaders the supposed Clintonian capacity to “feel the pain” of anonymous masses, and the anesthetic expertise to relieve it.
No mainstream parties are friends to pain, nor should they be, for needless suffering is a great wrong. Still, the Republican Party’s view is more complex because achievement, liberty, responsibility, and many other qualities are within its calculus, to be weighed against discomfort. Nor does conservatism have the luxury of believing in government’s power to wholly take away the pain of human existence — its view of the limited malleability of human nature is not utopian, but instead richer, more tragic. When Republicans centered their first day’s convention theme on the claim that individuals (rather than government) “built that,” it was not solely as a rebuttal of an awkward quote from the president; rather, it went to the larger point that suffering is endured for a purpose — that through it, through long hours, through anxiety and uncertainty, through the work of the hands and lives, something is created. The pride and joy of creation, ennobled by the suffering that made it possible, was certainly an undertone of the Republican message.