Tuesday, January 31, 2006

The Culture: What the President won't be talking about tonight . . .

. . . and why Objectivists need to think long and hard about it.

Tonight is President Bush's State of the Union address, where the president will lay out his agenda for the next year. According to Weekly Standard executive editor Fred Barnes, it won't be the "ownership society."

When running for re-election in 2004, and again last year as he campaigned for Social Security reform, President Bush repeatedly advocated an "ownership society." It was a bold concept aimed at producing a historic shift in power from Washington bureaucrats to individual Americans. But "ownership society" is not a phrase you're likely to hear from him tonight in his State of the Union address. Instead, he is expected to take a more conventional--and politically palatable--approach. His domestic agenda for 2006 includes easing the burden of rising health-care costs, trimming entitlement spending, increasing economic competitiveness, promoting measures to spur energy independence and making his tax cuts permanent. "No one will come away from the speech with ownership society on their lips," a White House official said. [Wall Street Journal]
So not unlike President Clinton's State of the Union addresses, President Bush is expected to rely upon the "micro-initiative" to sell his agenda. How pathetic.

The State of the Union address offers a president a unique opportunity to communicate directly with the American people. It gives a president the chance to explain the reasoning for his political agenda in as much detail as the strength of his voice will permit. So why not use it to make a case for private ownership that would otherwise go unheard? Why not use it to elevate the argument against statism?

Why not? Because that is not what this President believes.

President Bush has had two major policy thrusts in his administration: the "ownership society" and the "forward strategy for freedom." Both on their face sound noble, yet both have proven to be utter disasters in execution. Despite the nice title--the "ownership society" died before it even went public. By failing to directly challenge the altruistic moral premise of programs like Social Security and government-controlled healthcare, the case for the "ownership society" was never able overcome the inertia these programs enjoy. For goodness sake, Bush has created new entitlements--not repealed them. You can't defeat your enemy by adapting his arguments--especially his moral arguments.

The "forward strategy for freedom" has also come to be a miserable failure. The base premise made sense: free nations don't attack one another. In execution, it has relied upon a fantasy. The president's "forward strategy for freedom" holds the Middle East can be transformed by democratic elections made possible by the blood of American solders. Never mind that nowhere in human history did open election precede the protection of individual rights by a people. Never mind that not nearly enough jihadists have died to discredit militant Islam as a cultural force. And never mind that Hamas was just democratically elected by the Palestinians and that the Iraqis voted themselves into a theocracy. These are just inconvenient facts to be belied by true believing neo-conservatives-and unfortunately, more than a few Objectivists.

Yet despite the outrage of many of us, there is little we can do about our nation's flawed strategy in the near term. The reason President Bush is in power and we are not is because President Bush's views reflect the dominant philosophy, and we (as of yet) do not.

So just what then can Objectivists do in the realm of politics?

Perhaps first would be to admit the utter failure in "Anti-Bushies for Bush" as an Objectivist mantra. There was a lot of debate during the last presidential election in Objectivist circles over who to vote for. The spread went 80%-20% pro-Bush, dominated mostly by "Anti-Bushies for Bush" who could not stomach Kerry as a leader.

I always thought it ironic though that Objectivists who could not abide a Kerry White House nevertheless adopted a key component of Kerry's political philosophy: the position of supporting a thing while simultaneously opposing it. I think one would be hard-pressed to found anyone open to receiving Objectivism who would be taken in by such a position. If Kerry didn't deserve our support, neither does Bush-he is an intellectual nightmare and a proponent of new bad ideas. And if ideas matter, Bush's ideas ought to exclude him from receiving anything from us, whatever it may be in our power to give.

And I'm not saying I don't understand who some people get taken in by Bush. I've been taken in by the man in the past and if you read some of my writings, you'll see just how many times I responded to something he said in a speech only to be let down with him again and again and again. It's been five years now. I'm sick of it.

I think the far more successful stance for Objectivists to take would be to position themselves as what we truly are: uncompromising intellectual radicals for a new philosophy of reason and individual rights. It's that simple.

Objectivists reject the status-quo of sacrifice and self-abnegation, both as individuals and as a nation. Communicate that effectively and we will swell our ranks--get sidetracked and we will fail as a movement.

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