sowing seeds of misunderstanding

Salon author Michael Lind has written a piece for politico magazine that is at once both enlightening and upsetting. The piece applies an historical paradigm to what’s happening today, which I found interesting and thoughtful. However, the insidious barbs against libertarian-conservative thought are misleading and troubling. Misunderstandings between thinkers of different political persuasions is one of the big reasons why we are experiencing a high level of political polarization in our country today, and one of the tendencies I like to focus on in my own writing. There is actually a good bit of common ground between different American schools of thought, but writers like Mr. Lind sow seeds of misunderstanding between them.

The Jeffersonian-Hamiltonian paradigm is a familiar one in American politics. It formed the basis for the early iterations of our two-party system, has been used as a tool to help understand foreign policy by such thinkers as Walter Russell Mead and Henry Kissinger, and continues to inform the debate to this day, as Lind shows(a good breakdown of the different viewpoints can be found here). However, Mr. Lind’s intellectually dishonest application of this paradigm to Tea Party thinking is troubling, to say the least.

In Mr. Lind’s view, “Welfare dependency” is attributed by Jeffersonians to personal vice amongst the masses, being self-employed is “virtuous,” and working for someone else is “demeaning.” Following this strict interpretation of Jeffersonian thought, the far right has realized that “the actual agenda of [establishment] conservative politicians has less to do with the needs of small business owners and small farmers than with the desires of big companies and the financial industry.”

The author then goes on to argue that Jeffersonian populism has no place in today’s industrialized modern economy. The competitiveness of our economy is owed to large aerospace firms, steel mills and a technology sector that requires “massive amounts of R&D, which even national and multinational corporations are unable to provide on their own—thus the centrality of government-business-research university partnerships at the technological frontier.”

Finally, he posits “…the real argument of today’s Jeffersonian populists is not with the Chamber of Commerce or the Business Roundtable. It is with modernity.”

Mr. Lind uses so many straw man arguments in his writing, it’s hard to know where to begin correcting him. I can’t think of a more textbook straw-man argument than:

“… many of the policies that Jeffersonian populists attack as “crony capitalism” and “corporate welfare” strike Hamiltonians of left, right and center as legitimate and necessary. Where industries are natural geographic monopolies, like water, sewage and electricity, either public ownership or public regulation are in the public interest, to ensure universal service and to guard against predatory monopoly.”

Who ever raised an argument against public regulation of water, sewage and electric plants? No one in their right mind would do so. Mr. Lind is making up arguments for conservatives that simply have not been made.

Then there’s this:

“The small businesses idealized by populists create many jobs—and they also destroy many jobs, because most small businesses fail… the startups that contribute the most to economic growth tend to be those with the potential to turn into huge, dynamic national and global firms. In contrast, multiplying owner-operated lawn-mowing companies does nothing for American productivity or living standards.”

This is rich, considering the fact that 50% of people employed in the United States are employed by small businesses. And small businesses were responsible for almost $1 trillion worth of revenue in 2011. While obviously not the primary or only factor in explaining the high living standards we enjoy, it is certainly not insignificant.

Which brings me to the heart of my argument. Conservatives today lean towards Jeffersonian-style populism because they believe that hard work should be rewarded. If you want to succeed bad enough, you can eventually do so in the ideal American economy. There is no vice-virtue paradigm between self-employed people and those who punch time cards at the end of their work day. As long as one works hard and contributes to the well-being of our country (assuming he or she is an able-bodied and -minded adult), there is a place for you. It is not demeaning in the least to work for others, and I have yet to hear someone make such an argument, Tea Partier or otherwise.

At the same time, one of the great things about our country is that if someone does have a vision to innovate or produce, they can do so. Perhaps, as Mr. Lind argues, this does happen mostly in the R&D department of Google, Iowa State University, or the National Cancer Institute. And perhaps, from the macro view of international competition, these are the things that make us the largest economy in the world. But the fact that an average person can start a business on her own and support her family from Main Street is a great thing. It is something that should be fostered, not shunned.

A rich culture of small-business production is not necessarily opposed to an innovative panoply of mega-corporations that keep our economy at the forefront of industrialized nations, despite Mr. Lind’s objections to the contrary.

Further, most conservatives have no problem with large corporations in the U.S. working in partnership with the government to ensure good infrastructure, education, and security environments so that those businesses can thrive. What is dangerous (Mr. Lind even quoted this himself) is when the President declares that anyone who built a business, risked everything they had, poured their soul into their work “didn’t build” their business. The tacit suggestion is that the system is ultimately responsible for the successes of the individual.

But we are then left to wonder: what is the system itself built upon?

The answer: the will of the individual. Our national ethos is built on the centrality of the creative and productive power of the individual. We celebrate individual efforts, success stories, achievements. Government’s job, the system’s job is to grease the wheels of private, individual ingenuity. No matter whether it’s a worker at Eli Lilly developing a new medication or someone is her garage starting a clothing company.

In the final analysis, Mr. Lind argues that a 21st Century Jeffersonian populism “can and should be pursued today,” which is surprising given his multitude of misrepresentations. He gives his straw men way too much credit. Anyone in their right mind would conclude that the conservatives he describes are a bunch of nutjobs, which I’m sure was the goal of his article in the first place. I digress…

A culture of self-sufficient hard work and success is not diametrically opposed to a culture of big business-innovation. So as much as Mr. Lind wishes it so, big business is not going to flee from the Republican party. The mere suggestion that big business only supports the Republican party is a silly assumption to even begin from. Business will continue to play both sides and support incumbents as they have been doing since the rise of our modern political system.

To be clear, I am sure that somewhere along the way some wild conservative Ted Nugent-type has made some arguments that Mr. Lind would point out in response to my grievances. There are plenty of outliers to be found on both sides of the spectrum. My point here has not been to defend Tea Party ideologies as it were but to show that Mr. Lind’s interpretation of libertarian- conservative views does not accurately represent libertarian-conservative views in general.

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