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Wednesday, May 9, 2012

The Supreme Ritual

Years ago when our children were small we went with friends to New Mexico to stay on a Cochiti Pueblo to experience the most sacred ritual of the tribe.  The pueblo is divided into two moities, the Turquoise winter people and the Squash summer people.  The moitie "warriors" having gathered in their respective kivas (ceremonial chambers) would dance alternatively in the open, competing to encourage the heavens and the earth to be kind as the growing season began.  Though the day started out clear and cloudless, during the dances clouds began to gather.  When it started to rain, I turned to little Suzanne and said:  Isn't it amazing? It's raining? "Of course, Dad," she replied.  They're dancing."

The dance of Obama and Romney begins. The final teams are selected. The score cards printed. The play books written. The cameras are rolling. Millions of dollars have been collected to hire the coaches and players and attract the participants. The bets are placed. There will be a winner and a loser in this four-year ritual.  But it never really ends because as soon as there is a triumph the losing team is preparing to defeat the winner.

We can get a sense of the American religion and the interests, values, affiliations that motivate Americans through the presidential election contest, its highest ritual. We can unveil the symbols of the contest to discern the American religion's underlying meaning. We can find the main tenets of its salvation theology with its warnings against damnation and its promise of paradise in candidate websites. We can read the candidates' sermons for the pronouncements and prophesies they use to inspire their congregations and keep them on the path to glory.

This will be our ongoing inquiry until the winner is declared, but let us start with the issues selected by the contesting teams.

It's the Economy, Stupid

On their websites: Obama put "Jobs and Economy" as the #1 issue. Romney has it as "Jobs and Economic Growth." 

Yes, there are different approaches: the old 19th century or U of Chicago more libertarian approach vs the New Deal or Keynesian approach. And there are different nuances: focus on "fairness" in Obama with the rich paying more and the disadvantaged getting more assistance; focus on "growth" in Romney: the rising tide, the filter of wealth from the top down.  Obama believes government should be an equal partner with the private sector and use its resources to support programs that create jobs and channel towards the new economy. Romney believes that government should get out of the way to allow the ingenuity of the private sector working to pursue wealth to set the agenda and use the market for its purposes.

But the measure of success for individuals and for the collective remains the same: compensation or income, value of stocks, GDP, amount of wealth or assets, housing prices, consumption, balance of payments. The higher all these measures are the more successful we are.

Most pundits seem to accept uncritically that this election is about the economy and whether people see that Obama saved it and we are on the road to recovery or that our recovery is slow because Obama policies interfered too much.  

America First

In his State of the Union Address, Obama said that those who say America is in decline don't know what they are talking about. Romney is calling for an American Century in which America continues (or regains) its dominance. He explicitly claims "American Exceptionalism" and attacks Obama for apologizing for America (which Obama never has done).  

National Defense/Military. The Obama national defense has centered on killing the leaders of Al Qaida and stopping terrorism. He would not scale back the military except to make it more efficient, but keep adding to its technology and making robot warfare (drones). Romney cannot really criticize the Obama defense tactics though he does just as Kennedy attacked Eisenhower/Nixon for the missile gap (which there wasn't).

Foreign Policy. Romney attacks Obama for being too weak in foreign policy, by announcing withdrawal from Afghanistan and by not being more militant with North Korea and Iran. Romney expresses a more robust defense of Israel and containment of China. Obama has been adamant about support for Israel and has led in developing sanctions on North Korea and Iran.  

America's Role in World. Obama is reading neo-conservative Robert Kagan who advises Mitt Romney but supported Clinton's intervention in the Balkins and has not criticized Obama. Decline is a choice that America should not make. Only this nation with a strong military can preserve the present world order of corporately structured free enterprise that brings economic progress to the world.

Romney and Obama, wearing their flag lapel pins, profess to retain America's dominent role in the world making it safe for individuals and corporations to pursue wealth.  

  • Under "values," Romney talks about stopping abortion, marriage between man and woman, stem cell research. Obama talks about equal rights, women's health care (including contraception), progress for LGBT, stopping hate crimes. 
  • Romney talks about Gun Rights; Obama doesn't.
  • Both use the word "fairness" but mean different things. Obama is closer to Rawl's definition of substantive justice: dignity of all human persons. Romney speaks of justice as opportunity provided in a free economy without government intervention.  
  • This consistent with immigration views. Both want secure border. Obama wants education assistance for children of immigrants even if illegal and a path for citizenship for those here illegally but contributing to the American economy and community. Romney against "amnesty" as magnet for further illegal immigration.

Nature and Role of Government
  • Spending--Romney: less spending for everything except military. Obama: investment strategy in research for manufacturing, education, renewable energy, infrastructure.  
  • Regulation--Both talk about reducing unnecessary regulation. Romney would eliminate EPA and HUD, cut regulations for all business transactions. Obama wants to enforce regulation of financial institutions and equal rights.  
  • Obama wants to maintain tax breaks for middle class but raise on wealthy (Buffett rule). Romney wants no new taxes and to reduce for all investors and those with large capital who invest in economic growth.
  • Both want to maintain but reform Social Security/Medicare--both vague on how.  
  • For Romney, the role of government is to remove obstacles to free enterprise which will add to the accumulative wealth of the nation. For Obama, the role of government is to lay tracks for economic investment in a changing economy and insure basic needs are provided for everyone's subsistence.

Energy (and Environment)

  • Romney focuses on oil, drilling, fragmenting, shale; wants to remove environmental restrictions on exploration, production, and transmission of oil, natural gas, nuclear and limit alternative energy research. End the EPA regulation of carbon emissions and in general all environmental considerations if they impede economic growth.
  • Obama wants an "all the above strategy" which keeps producing traditional energy in a way that does not harm the environment, but provide greater research and investment for renewable energy.

Education and Labor

  • Romney says leave it to the states and to the private sector to come up with the best education system.  Obama wants to use Bush's "No Child Left Behind" but allow states to set standards. He also want to extend student college loans and support for community colleges.
  • Romney is against organized labor and believes that workers and businesses are best served through pro-choice without labor union influence in "right to work" states. Obama has little to say on labor unions though worked with them to save jobs in the auto industry.

Health Care

Romney will repeal the Affordable Health Care Act even though it was based on his own Act in Massachusetts. Obama will continue and strengthen the Act so that healthcare is available to all citizens in a way that contains its cost.

Conclusion:  There are some differences in emphasis and approaches. Romney wants a more passive government with less investment in infrastructure and investment. Obama a more activist government providing investment in new technologies and infrastructure. Obama believes that government needs to provide minimum resources to maintain human life. Romney believes this can best be accomplished through a free market where the industrious succeed and the weak or lazy fall. But both measure success in terms of economic wealth. Both advocate a strong military to keep America dominant in the world to protect free enterprise and technological progress.

The American religion is strong. The ideal community is where individuals are pursuing and achieving happiness, i.e. the ability to produce and consume. Whether government's role is to remove obstacles (Romney) or to provide partnership and investment (Obama), the private sector working to increase private wealth is the main actor in the social order. Economic growth is the measure of human success.  America's role is to preach, model, and defend free enterprise for this human success.  

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