Last Thursday, Ron Paul ended his twenty-three year career in Congress with an appeal to the idealist. "The idealism of non-aggression and rejecting all offensive use of force should be tried," he proffered in his farewell address. "The idealism of government sanctioned violence has been abused throughout history and is the primary source of poverty and war."
Though Obama might not quite characterize his brand of idealism as such, he certainly wouldn't object to the use of the term. He himself has described his election as a victory for idealism. Not the silly kind, "the wishful idealism that allows us to just sit on the sidelines or shirk from a fight." Just, you know, the grounded form of idealism which holds that "It doesn't matter whether you're black or white or Hispanic or Asian or Native American or young or old or rich or poor, able, disabled, gay or straight, you can make it here in America if you're willing to try."
In fact, the liberal idealist is a common trope. It's certainly the source of much sage, unsolicited advice I've received from teachers, relatives, and colleagues eager to assure me that they, too, used to be liberals before casting aside their youthful naivete. (For the record, I found the condescension as infuriating at 14 as I do at 24.) Never mind that virtually every disillusioning experience I've ever had has bolstered or even radicalized my progressivism. What's the old joke, the one that always manages to bowl over the teller with its cleverness? Ah, right. If you're a conservative at eighteen you're an asshole. If you're a liberal at thirty you're a fool.
I once met a Ron Paul enthusiast who described his fandom thusly: Ron Paul is an incredibly charitable man. While working as a doctor, he often provided free or discounted medical services to members of his community. His personal generosity is what drives his ideology. Ron Paul's policy works in a society in which everyone is like Ron Paul.
The Romney-Ryan ticket's similar appeals to personal charity ruffled many feathers for what was misread as an attempt to obfuscate on questions of policy. There was Ryan's story of a young Romney who sent a friend's children to college, immediately pounced upon by a visibly miffed Biden. There was Romney's meme-generating tale of his efforts to lure women to his administration by offering them time to trade in their pinstripes for pearls before their husbands got home. But, for conservatives, reliance upon personal charity is the policy. These tales were meant not just to remind us that Romney has a soul, but to serve as parables about the innate generosity of the human spirit, a generosity that the overreaching arm of government has managed to snuff out.
I should point out that there are some pretty serious intellectual and moral contradictions at work here. The first is that the worship of the free market by conservatives seems to directly contradict this important caveat. Ron Paul's entire ideology is built upon the premise that the ruthless pursuit of self-interest by the individual creates the optimal outcome for all. It's ludicrous to suggest that support of that same man must be contingent upon charity -- charity, which holds that there are things we find valuable, like the well-being of our neighbors, that do not have monetary value. The very recognition of charity as an occasional necessity in a healthy society is also a recognition that there is an element of "value" not captured by the almighty free market.
The second, and perhaps more insidious, is that if you truly believe that the culture of dependency is what makes people poor, charity is no longer virtuous. One cannot complain that government handouts tether people to poverty, then tout that his policy works because communities will provide handouts with the same reliability as the government. If every dollar received, but not earned, serves to ensnare people in poverty's seductive tentacles, wearing one's charity as a badge of honor is morally inconsistent.
But make no mistake. The foundation of the Republican argument is that, in our very capitalist society, the poor are poor because they don't have enough motivation to be rich. The conservative worldview holds that, with its welfare checks and free lunches, the most pressing challenge our nation faces is that poverty here is just too awesome. The outlook isn't just idealistic: it's willfully, blindly naïve. It also encapsulates all the worst forms of American exceptionalism, the kind that Ron Paul, in his stern condemnation of our interventionist foreign policy, has spent an entire career railing against.
Nowhere was this pernicious form of patriotism more evident than at the Republican National Convention, where the audience was bombarded with an onslaught of humble beginnings. Speakers stressed their journey out of poverty as a way of affirming that government's only responsibility to its people is to get out of the way. It's as though health care and housing are barriers to the pursuit of one's passions, impeding progress by making people feel too safe and secure where they are. There was a subtle but important distinction in the narrative stressed by the Democratic National Convention, one in which a father might work long hours in an awful job motivated by the desire to give his children opportunity he didn't have. The Republican worldview brands this sentiment as hateful for its admission that here, in the greatest country in the history of the world, opportunity might not always be limitless.
But liberals remain maddeningly eager to bask in their own idealism, despite the fact that it is a horribly inaccurate description of what liberalism means in today's America. The validity of progressivism lies in the jaded recognition that there are significant social, cultural, and, yes, institutional barriers which stand between poverty and the middle class. Unlike conservative ideology, which appeals to the delusion that we're all one big idea away from massive wealth, progressive ideology appeals to a more realistic reality that we're all one big accident away from destitution. And holds that, for many of us, that accident was one of birth. Entitlement spending has grown largely because we've broadened the scope of what people are entitled to: food and shelter, education and medicine. While the deficit is a problem that needs to be addressed, it is evidence not solely of our vast carelessness, but, in part, of our moral progress.
This is not, of course, the argument made by President Obama. In a recent press conference about the impending fiscal cliff, he couldn't even bring himself to utter the word "poverty." While he went out of his way to stress that he is also the President of those whose votes he did not win, he seemed completely unaware that his constituency does not consist solely of a single economic stratum. The closest he came to acknowledging those who lie beneath the middle class was a veiled aside to members of the citizenry "working hard" to get there. But the moral case for entitlements lies not in an argument about class mobility. Instead, it's a relatively simple proposition: in a nation where the game is astoundingly rigged, punishing its losers with homelessness, starvation, and sickness seems a tad extreme.
That not everyone has social and geographic proximity to wealth. That those who control resources will not consistently care for their brethren. That they won't always be charitable in a society that scoffs at charity as sinful. And, most fundamentally, that you cannot always make it here in America if you're willing to try. These notions do not comprise the delusional mythology of a wide-eyed college freshman. They are hard-earned truths that result from honest reflections on our own privilege and painful realizations about chances we'll never have. Anyone who refuses to grapple with these questions out of a misguided sense of idealism ought not dare call liberals fools.