When major political parties hold conventions, they usually try to craft their messages to reach the broadest possible audience. The parties make the case that they stand for true American values and represent the best hope for freedom and liberty – within their definition of the priorities involved. But even with the acknowledgment that those meanings can shift depending on the issues, the Democratic Party and their convention got off to a very strange and very revealing start this week in Charlotte, North Carolina.
The host committee started off the festivities with avideo presentation that defended the use of government as a medium to address social ills and as a unifying presence in American lives. That’s not exactly a novel argument coming from Democrats and progressives. However, this statement was: “Government’s the only thing we all belong to,” the narrator intoned. “We have different churches, different clubs, but we’re together as a part of our city, or our county, or our state – and our nation.”
We all belong to the government? That’s not how most Americans think of themselves. As Mitt Romney tweeted almost immediately afterward, Americans usually labor under the concept that government belongs to the people, and not the other way around. Abraham Lincoln famously referred to American government as “government of the people, by the people, for the people” in the Gettysburg address. He didn’t refer to America as a people of, by, and for the government.
The American Revolution occurred in no small part over the rejection of ownership by the government. For more than a century, the colonists had enjoyed a large measure of autonomy while still retaining the status of subjects to the Crown. When the British had to fight wars on behalf of the colonists, they put that ownership paradigm to greater use by imposing taxes without consent and restricting trade in order to recoup those costs. The presumption of the time that people belonged to the Crown and its government made those kinds of policies rational and even understandable – but the American experience had produced a populace that finally demanded a government owned by the people instead of the other way around.
One could shrug this off as a badly-formed argument for American unity, but that explanation doesn’t meet the smell test, either. Government is the one area where our system was specifically designed for disunity – on all levels. Even within the structure of government at nearly every level, checks and balances were created to keep one small group from seizing power. The founders did not create co-equal branches of government as a means to promote unity, but to preserve effective dissent and limit the reach of each branch. Those structures exist in every state government and in most municipal governments as well.
The Bill of Rights extended that effort to the nation as a whole. The First Amendment protected the right to free speech not so that Americans could unify in government, but specifically so that government could not demand and enforce unity. The Ninth and Tenth Amendments specifically limited the powers of the federal government and protected the ability of the states to operate independently, and the people to retain their own choices. If the founders intended for government to produce unity, they would have never have provided these restrictions.
Americans don’t look to government for unity, and certainly don’t see government as something to which we belong. However, that concept is consistent with the Obama administration’s policies and arguments for a second term, which is another reason to see this as a revelation rather than an aberration.
First, recall what President Obama said about the American economy at the beginning of the summer. “The private sector is doing fine,” he told the White House press corps just after a poor jobs report for May. “Where we’re seeing weaknesses in our economy have to do with state and local government.” Unemployment at that time had ticked up to 8.2 percent, and civilian participation rate in the workforce had just hit a 30-year low in April of 63.6 percent. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, government employment in May was at the same level as in May 2006 (21.9 million), while private-sector employment was almost 3 million jobs lower than in May 2006 (111.1 million compared to 113.9 million).
Later this summer, Obama notoriously argued that government created the environment for success through infrastructure spending. “If you’ve got a business – you didn’t build that,” Obama told a crowd in Oakland. Obama later claimed he meant that businesses didn’t build the infrastructure that allowed them to be successful, and that government deserves the credit. But where did government get the capital to build the infrastructure in the first place? From the successful businesses that produced that capital, not from the Progressive Sunshine Forest.
The reference to churches in the video is another interesting point, although not one that Democrats want voters to notice. This administration imposed a mandate on employers to provide free birth control and sterilization to employees, even those employers whose religious values prohibit them from facilitating such access. Explicitly religious organizations such as schools, health care providers, and charities did not get an exemption, either. The message was very similar to what the video argued: you can join a church, but you belong to the government.
Finally, the convention has offered explicit defenses of the expansion of food-stamp programs and ObamaCare. The former now subsidizes a record number of Americans (around 47 million), a program whose enrollment has been amplified by three years of stagnation on jobs and economic growth. ObamaCare, however, creates an entirely new avenue for federal subsidies to Americans who shop individually for their health insurance.
The cutoff for federal subsidies to pay for insurance now mandated by federal law is 400 percent of the poverty line, which is an income level of more than $88,000. That is far above the median household income in the US, which is now at $51,000, almost 5 percent lower than at the start of the recovery in June 2009. As more employers dump health insurance and force employees to buy coverage individually, we’ll see more and more Americans “belonging” to the government through reliance on welfare, even those who have solidly middle-class incomes.
That’s why this convention video is no gaffe, no matter how much the Obama campaign and the DNC try to distance themselves from it. It represents their vision of America, which puts government first – ahead of property, church, liberty. George Bush once talked about an “ownership society” where Americans owned their own property and assets. Democrats want government to be the real ownership society, with themselves in charge of the serfs. Let’s hope that they’ve badly miscalculated the true spirit of the American electorate.