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Oct 30, 2011

The Inversion of America’s Dominant Ideology


At a million-dollar San Francisco fundraiser today [October 26], President Obama warned his recession-battered supporters that if he loses the 2012 election it could herald a new, painful era of self-reliance in America.

“The one thing that we absolutely know for sure is that if we don’t work even harder than we did in 2008, then we’re going to have a government that tells the American people, ‘you are on your own,’” Obama told a crowd of 200 donors over lunch at the W Hotel.

“If you get sick, you’re on your own. If you can’t afford college, you’re on your own. If you don’t like that some corporation is polluting your air or the air that your child breathes, then you’re on your own,” he said. “That’s not the America I believe in. It’s not the America you believe in.”

How horrible the prospect! On your own to pay for your own health care; on your own to pay for your own college expenses; on your own to pay for a lawsuit against a corporation that has harmed you unlawfully. How can anyone with an ounce of humanity in his body expect people to take such self-responsibility? The next thing you know, those callous, reactionary Republicans—you know, the ones who ran up the size, scope, and power of government consistently under every Republican president since Chester Arthur—will demand that people take care of their own children and aged parents! Where will it end?

To gauge the extent to which the dominant ideology of the United States has changed—indeed, turned upside down—during the past century or so, we need only recall one of Grover Cleveland’s most characteristic declarations, made in his veto of the Texas Seed Bill, a trifling appropriation of $10,000 to help drought-striken farmers in 1887:

I can find no warrant for such an appropriation in the Constitution, and I do not believe that the power and duty of the general government ought to be extended to the relief of individual suffering which is in no manner properly related to the public service or benefit. A prevalent tendency to disregard the limited mission of this power and duty should, I think, be steadfastly resisted, to the end that the lesson should be constantly enforced that, though the people support the government, the government should not support the people.

The friendliness and charity of our countrymen can always be relied upon to relieve their fellow-citizens in misfortune. This has been repeatedly and quite lately demonstrated. Federal aid in such cases encourages the expectation of paternal care on the part of the government and weakens the sturdiness of our national character, while it prevents the indulgence among our people of that kindly sentiment and conduct which strengthens the bonds of a common brotherhood.

Later, in his second inaugural speech, in 1893, Cleveland reiterated this traditional American stance in favor of limited government, personal self-reliance, and private charity:

The verdict of our voters which condemned the injustice of maintaining protection for protection’s sake enjoins upon the people’s servants the duty of exposing and destroying the brood of kindred evils which are the unwholesome progeny of paternalism. This is the bane of republican institutions and the constant peril of our government by the people. It degrades to the purposes of wily craft the plan of rule our fathers established and bequeathed to us as an object of our love and veneration. It perverts the patriotic sentiments of our countrymen and tempts them to pitiful calculation of the sordid gain to be derived from their Government’s maintenance. It undermines the self-reliance of our people and substitutes in its place dependence upon governmental favoritism. It stifles the spirit of true Americanism and stupefies every ennobling trait of American citizenship.

The lessons of paternalism ought to be unlearned and the better lesson taught that while the people should patriotically and cheerfully support their Government its functions do not include the support of the people.

No politician seriously seeking the presidency today would dare to say what Cleveland—an exceptionally courageous and honest politician even in his day—said in the late nineteenth century. American politcos have learned that the people have come to crave government paternalism, indeed, that they pant for it and demand it at every turn. Obama is not the brightest light, yet he understands how to get elected, and in that quest he is pandering to the same personal irresponsibility and desire to prey on one’s fellows that have been the hallmarks American politics from the Progressive Era to the present. 

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