There was, rightly, a massive amount of discussion about the 2008 presidential election being a very historic election. All by itself, the election of the first African-American president guaranteed that -- and then there was Hillary Clinton's historic candidacy, Sarah Palin's vice presidential candidacy, and the massive financial collapse happening just weeks before election day. Heavy duty historical business was going down in the fall of 2008, and it was remarkable to see it happening.
But history calls to us in every election year, and there are some big things moving and shaking this time around, too. On the one side we hear the echoes of John C. Calhoun, the Social Darwinists and Robber Barons of the 1880s, the people who cried out that Social Security and the New Deal would lead us to slavery, the Southerners who said that states' rights trumped civil rights, and the selfishness-is-a-virtue-charity-is-weakness philosophy of Ayn Rand. On the other side, we hear the call for community and equal opportunity that is reminiscent of the Pilgrims, Jefferson, Lincoln, the Roosevelts, and Martin Luther King, Jr. We should choose to be on the right side of history.
You may think I'm exaggerating, but I'm not. The values that these two political parties have laid out are as starkly different as anything I've seen in my lifetime. Even with Romney's etch-a-sketch turn to the center since the first debate, he and his running mate Paul Ryan, along with their fellow Republicans further down the ticket running with them, have made it clear throughout this election what their guiding philosophy would be, and it is as hard core extreme right as any since maybe Cal Coolidge in 1924. We've had a Romney-Ryan budget proposal that eviscerates every program that benefits the poor and middle class; privatizes and voucherizes Medicare; block grants and slashes Medicaid; explodes the military budget; and showers huge new tax cuts on the wealthy and big corporations. We've had Romney pushing to privatize FEMA and disaster relief; we've had a frightening and bizarre series of references to rape that sound like they are coming straight out of the history of the 1800s; we've had anti-immigrant rhetoric that sounds like it is from the 1920s; and we have had videos from both Ryan and Romney talking about how huge percentages of Americans (30 percent in Ryan's case, and more famously 47 percent in Romney's) are lazy, dependent non-contributors to society, an idea straight from the pages of Ayn Rand and the Social Darwinists. A Romney election would be historical, alright, but very much the wrong kind of history.
The Republican definition of freedom has become that of Calhoun and the Southern plantation elite of the 1800s. Freedom to them was the freedom to do whatever they wanted to whomever they wanted to do it, and they were quite explicit about that. When Romney and Ryan extol freedom, wanting to lift the burden of regulation and taxes from those job creators on Wall Street, wanting to celebrate the "makers" (wealthy people) in contrast with the "takers" (those folk who get Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, student loans, veterans' benefits, and the like), they are echoing Calhoun's celebration of the planter elite.
Thankfully, though, there is another tradition in American history -- and it started very early. Pilgrim founder John Winthrop, ironically the same City on a Hill letter writer conservatives get so excited about quoting when talking about the idea of American exceptionalism, said this about the idea of America: "We must delight in each other, make others' conditions our own, rejoice together, mourn together, labor, and suffer together, always having before our eyes our commission and community in the work, our community as members of the same body." The founders at the constitutional convention were part of that same tradition, proclaiming that these United States were one people: E Pluribus Unum. Out of many, one. The presidents from later generations who history deems our greatest presidents ever -- Lincoln, Teddy and Franklin Roosevelt -- carried on in the same tradition as well. They saw this country as a big united family, indivisible, one people whose fates were tied together, and they stood up to the powers that be, whether slave owners or big rapacious corporations, that were exploiting us and ripping us apart. Martin Luther King saw the same thing: that we were one people who should be sitting down at the table of brotherhood together, that we were "inextricably linked in a garment of destiny."
Now I am not suggesting that President Obama should be compared with those men, but his philosophical underpinnings clearly come from the same foundation. Here he is yesterday, making the historical argument:
History calls to us again in this election. It's an old values debate, begun between the planters who came to these shores in the South and the Pilgrims who came to New England in the 1600s. It continues today, in this election. When our country has made progress, when it has gone forward, it has been when the leaders who believed in community, and that we were one people who would rise and fall together, were in charge. When we have chosen a more selfish vision of America, such as when conservatives brought us the Great Depression, or when George W. Bush was in office for the eight years at the start of this century, most of us have suffered while a few became incredibly wealthy. Let's choose to be on the right side of history in 2012. Go vote, and make sure all your friends do too.
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