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Party of Strivers – NYTimes.com

September 1, 2012 Leave a comment Go to comments

But there is a flaw in the vision the Republicans offered in Tampa. It is contained in its rampant hyperindividualism. Speaker after speaker celebrated the solitary and heroic individual. There was almost no talk of community and compassionate conservatism. There was certainly no conservatism as Edmund Burke understood it, in which individuals are embedded in webs of customs, traditions, habits and governing institutions.

Today’s Republicans strongly believe that individuals determine their own fates. In a Pew Research Center poll, for example, 57 percent of Republicans believe people are poor because they don’t work hard. Only 28 percent believe people are poor because of circumstances beyond their control. These Republicans believe that if only government gets out of the way, then people’s innate qualities will enable them to flourish.

But there’s a problem. I see what the G.O.P. is offering the engineering major from Purdue or the business major from Arizona State. The party is offering skilled people the freedom to run their race. I don’t see what the party is offering the waitress with two kids, or the warehouse worker whose wages have stagnated for a decade, or the factory worker whose skills are now obsolete.

The fact is our destinies are shaped by social forces much more than the current G.O.P. is willing to admit. The skills that enable people to flourish are not innate but constructed by circumstances.

Government does not always undermine initiative. Some government programs, like the G.I. Bill, inflame ambition. Others depress it. What matters is not whether a program is public or private but its effect on character. Today’s Republicans, who see every government program as a step on the road to serfdom, are often blind to that. They celebrate the race to success but don’t know how to give everyone access to that race.

The wisest speech departed from the prevailing story line. It was delivered by Condoleezza Rice. It echoed an older, less libertarian conservatism, which harkens back to Washington, Tocqueville and Lincoln. The powerful words in her speech were not “I” and “me” — the heroic individual. They were “we” and “us” — citizens who emerge out of and exist as participants in a great national project.

Rice celebrated material striving but also larger national goals — the long national struggle to extend benefits and mobilize all human potential. She subtly emphasized how our individual destinies are dependent upon the social fabric and upon public institutions like schools, just laws and our mission in the world. She put less emphasis on commerce and more on citizenship.

Today’s Republican Party may be able to perform useful tasks with its current hyperindividualistic mentality. But its commercial soul is too narrow. It won’t be a worthy governing party until it treads the course Lincoln trod: starting with individual ambition but ascending to a larger vision and creating a national environment that arouses ambition and nurtures success.

via Party of Strivers – NYTimes.com.

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