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Moral Claims, the “Government” and Campaign Rhetoric



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The Republican presidential candidates have all recently claimed in varying ways that the federal government and its actions must, as President Ronald Reagan famously averred, be seen as the nation’s most difficult problem. In this view, it is the government and not corporate overreaching or greed, or changing social values, or a lack of regulation, or even a changing global marketplace that created the nation’s now long-lived economic slow down. And these candidates argue the government has created the United States’ supposed slide into secularization and into various purportedly repugnant public policy stands that represent the roots of the nation’s challenges. The various proposals each has offered to address this “public problem” are fascinating in what they suggest about how these would-be leaders view their nation and the collective it represents. Newt Gingrich has advocated permitting state officials (and at least the President) to ignore federal judicial decisions they do not wish to embrace, for whatever reasons. Gingrich has also called for additional “opportunities” for children to work and for “lower” taxes and “decreased” regulation. Michele Bachman has said she supports torture as a way of preventing our alleged international weakness. In each case, the nation’s chief challenge is a generalized federal policy or practice, according to these candidates. And in each case, the “solution” offered is for the nation to weaken its engagement on behalf of the health and safety of individual citizens, the poor, the environment or those considered minorities. So-called “activist” judges must step back from enforcing civil rights claims or asking business interests to expend resources to protect employees on the basis that such claims are, per se, undue, morally problematic and economically costly.

Similarly, all of the major GOP candidates have attacked the nation’s recent effort to assist the millions of its citizens without access to healthcare or health insurance on the grounds that the effort interferes unduly with private provision of such services. And, all have suggested that on their watch Americans would never suffer additional taxation, as it is axiomatic that taxes are too high already and they take away money that rightly belongs to the taxpayers, and not to the commons, via the government. Indeed, Ron Paul has suggested broadly that “government growth,” in spending and regulation, is THE problem. As might be surmised, Paul contends he will rein in both when others have not. Mitt Romney has added to this fairly typical battery of claims the similarly common GOP contention that he is well equipped to “fix” the national government (the nation’s chief obstacle to economic prosperity in any case) because he has spent a share of his career in business. That experience, he suggests, positions him uniquely to address the nation’s fiscal woes and many substantive challenges.

These assertions share two primary characteristics and make three related claims. The first overarching characteristic is that for all of these candidates, the nation’s government always is to blame for the polity’s challenges. Whatever the character of the problem, these individuals will contend that its root cause is national government action and likely undue public intrusion into personal, or more likely business, activities and sphere of discretion. It is worth noting how sharply reductionist such arguments are, as they imagine that no other actor in the nation’s broad political economy is in any sense responsible for society’s challenges. Second, the nature of the offered solution is always less government action, whether regulation, taxation or civil rights enforcement. The implicit argument is that such retrenchment always portends positive (at least) economic results, although little empirical evidence typically is offered for the proposition, which is usually presented as per se true.

Whatever the arguments offered, these candidate claims also tend to provide vague but apparently simple explanations and/or scapegoats for the challenges presented. For Bachmann, considering terrorism, it is “softness” in dealing with terrorists. For Gingrich and the complexity of public problems and differing views, it is judges making philosophically disagreeable choices. For Paul, it is “those guys in government” (of which Paul is surely one) who are incapable of understanding how the Constitution ought to work. For Romney, it is the hoary chestnut that good business management will make right all that is perceived as wrong with government. For all of these individuals, the problem spurring illegal immigration is that the government has been too “soft” on such individuals and too unwilling to protect strongly against their intrusions.

All of these claims also suggest that government is not simply acting ineffectively or inefficiently, but also acting immorally, unethically, or both. If only, these candidates argue, government was not profligate, not so willing to impose burdens on corporate and individual freedom and not so willing to make manifestly “secular” or otherwise “mistaken” policy choices, all could be made well, and quickly. Taken together, these candidates argue the world is rather simple in moral terms. It is government actors who falsely make it appear complex and whose choices often cloud otherwise clear political and moral alternatives. It is therefore the candidate’s responsibility to make the fundamental and straightforward choices obvious. Finally, all of these claims share a propensity not only to suggest that the choices raised are clear, but also morally unambiguous.

The sort of rhetoric outlined here often misinforms, leads to false claims of certainty concerning the “simple” roots of social problems and lends its adherents an erroneous sense of moral rectitude that may lead proponents to imagine others they encounter are not simply wrong headed in their interpretation of policy issues, but morally repugnant and disreputable. Such rhetoric is profoundly disingenuous and ultimately anti- democratic in its tendencies. The abiding question now is whether those propounding this rhetoric, irrespective of whether they genuinely believe it, have any incentive to behave otherwise. Sadly, there seems little reason to imagine any change in these tendencies in the near term. What seems likely is that the result of such political behavior for the polity as polity will not be moral certainty, but a sharply less legitimate, if not strongly delegitimized government. That outcome is likely to be accompanied by a similar erosion of citizens’ willingness to support and participate in the commons. Such an outcome can be in no political party’s interest.

Publication Date

December 31, 2011