Friday, May 21, 2010

A "New Culture War"?

Writing my new introduction for by book took precedent today over blogging, so I'm going to be light today. I was struck, though, by the headline "America's New Culture War" on the Washington Post's PostPolitics section. The piece, by American Enterprise Institute president and former Syracuse University business professor Arthur C. Brooks, proclaims that we struggling:

between two competing visions of the country's future. In one, America will continue to be an exceptional nation organized around the principles of free enterprise -- limited government, a reliance on entrepreneurship and rewards determined by market forces. In the other, America will move toward European-style statism grounded in expanding bureaucracies, a managed economy and large-scale income redistribution. These visions are not reconcilable. We must choose.
Bailing out GM and not taxing the poor, apparently, are harbingers of European-styled socialism.


Brooks claims that most (70 percent) of the nation supports the "free enterprise" America in this fight, but the dogged minority of statist autocrats have been calling the tune since, um, the Bush Administration.

The term "free enterprise" dates back to the 1930s, when it overtook the phrase "laissez-faire" in the conservative lexicon. According to historian Wendy Wall, the term "free enterprise" was an invention of corporate opponents of the New Deal to explain to the American public how their interests were truly represented by American business and not FDR. They, too, compared liberal governance with the socialist (or even fascist) regimes of Europe.

There aren't any fascists left for Brooks to kick around any more, but there's plenty of corporate excess to defend. For instance, his assertion that "Money is not the same as earned success but is rather a symbol, important not for what it can buy but for what it says about how people are contributing and what kind of difference they are making. Money corresponds to happiness only through earned success." The salaries of AIG and Lehman Brothers executives is just Free Enterprise America's way of saying, "you're welcome, everybody."

Ok, so it's not so shocking that the president of AEI likes unfettered capitalism and doesn't like taxes or federal regulation. But this rhetorical strategy of proclaiming two Americas at "war" with each other is very interesting. Maybe it's only interesting to me because it's a strategy that's so old, as Wall helps to elucidate. It also creates the classic, patriotic-tinged false choice that has been a favorite of conservatives since the 30s -- either the nation continues on as corporate heads would want, or it turns into a decrepit, foreign-styled autocracy that rots the human soul with welfare benefits. It's 2010. Is this the best the president of the leading conservative think tank can do?

Brooks' effusive praise for the Tea Party Movement is also curious. It's hard to see how people who decry the federal reserve system and show up to rallies with signs that proclaim "government hands off my Medicare" have much in common with the heroic entrepreneurs Brooks lauds. Only they, as the vanguard of a majority that is curiously, despite a democratic system at its disposal, is unrepresented, can save the nation from change that will "transform our great nation forever."

If this were truly a "culture war" for the fate of America, and both sides knew it, why is only one side fighting?

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