As the whole world knows by now, David Corn of Mother Jones procured secret video footage of a private Romney fundraiser that captures the candidate in an unusually perturbing and candid light. “There are 47 percent of the people who will vote for the president [Obama] no matter what,” Romney declared. He went on to declare that these entitled folks feel themselves to be victims, and the coup de grâce, that “my job is not to worry about those people. I’ll never convince them that they should take personal responsibility and care for their lives.” He simply writes off skeptical voters, and with that, forfeits any pretense of uniting a country that so desperately needs it after President Obama’s failure to do so.
I want to suggest a better line of rhetoric for the GOP than the brash mention of those who do not pay income taxes and the extolling of individual responsibility by “pulling yourself up from your bootstraps.” The GOP would do well to take a small lesson in political theory, particularly in social contract theories. In past eras, it was far easier to implore conservatives to heed the advice of their best political and historical minds. Alas, today this is not so. Yet, I believe that reopening the pages of the great conservative Edmund Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790) could help salvage much of the GOP’s rhetoric from a disastrous inability to connect with American voters.
Burke’s concept of the social contract is an intergenerational one. It is staunchly against the explicitly “statist” contracts of Rousseau or Locke and Hobbes before him. In these statist models, the people come together laterally and agree to the formation of a state and sovereign with limited, and often times enumerated powers. Burke’s contract ignores largely the state, focusing instead on “partnership” between generations. He says:
“One of the first and most leading principles on which the commonwealth and the laws are consecrated is, lest the temporary possessors and life-renters in it, unmindful of what they have received from their ancestors or of what is due to their posterity, should act as if they were the entire masters, that they should not think it among their rights to cut off the entail or commit waste on the inheritance by destroying at their pleasure the whole original fabric of their society, hazarding to leave to those who come after them a ruin instead of an habitation—and teaching these successors as little to respect their contrivances as they had themselves respected the institutions of their forefathers.”
Quite simply, society is a contract. “The state is a partnership not only between those who are living, but between those who are living, those who are dead, and those who are to be born.” Precisely where the GOP could earn points, especially with young and middle-aged voters often skeptical of their policies, is in explicating the profound transfers of fiscal burden that entitlement programs represent, and the shocking and unprecedented betrayal of Burke’s “societal partnership” between generations of the present and the future. (Professor Niall Ferguson suggested just this in his recent BBC Reith Lectures.) The most important remedy the GOP may offer is a solution to restoring the social contract between generations, a flaw of democracy that worried deeply that most observant and trenchant of commentators on American democracy, Alexis de Tocqueville. Aristocrats think and operate with a sense of their ancestors and their bloodlines, he said, while citizens of democracies live entirely and dangerously in the present.
The United States’ national debt is symptomatic of something that is terribly awry with our current representative government, i.e., decision-making ceased long ago to have any temporal frame of reference whatsoever. No notion of future generations exists, precisely because they are not represented; lacking Burke’s vision of the social contract, it is too easy to defer difficult decisions in the present and pass the bill to a future generation not yet represented. Ferguson hits the nail on the head in one of his lectures: “a pretty blithe disregard for the legacy of the past characterizes, it seems to me, a great many legislators. But perhaps more seriously, a real neglect of the interests of future generations…and that’s really the problem.” Representative government must operate with a greater sense of continuity between generations.
Best yet, such a line of rhetoric could appeal to a broad base of the American public, not just in terms of age but also across political parties. The GOP could earn electoral credentials with conservatives by presenting credible (and specific) plans to preserve and save entitlement programs for future generations; the GOP would need to defend these proposals from demagoguery for electoral gain by arguing that such an approach is a reckless path to bankruptcy. But the Burkean social contract rhetoric could also appeal to many Democrats and Independents who worry about the increasing fissures between the wealthy and not so wealthy. It is no wonder, many of them would say (not unreasonably), that there is no social contract between generations of Americans when wealth inequality has risen to an unprecedented level. The daily routines of some Americans make it almost impossible for them to sympathize with the long-term interests of other Americans once their kith, as Charles Murray shows in Coming Apart. In all, the GOP would do well to revisit the political thought of their great thinkers like Edmund Burke, and there was once a time when such obvious statements could go unstated.