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Obama’s strength heading into 2012 vote based on the vulnerable

October 2011

Beneath all the posturing and verbal pyrotechnics that mark today’s politics (particularly in the United States), there runs a central question. What is the role of a national government? The question applies in certain instances in Canada (the authorization of a monstrous pipe line to carry oil to the Gulf Coast) but this controversy plays out full bore in the United States where both major parties are consumed with it.

What is the role of a national government in a modern democracy? There are two broad answers depending on where you stand on the conservative-liberal spectrum. Right wing conservatives, now concentrated in the Tea Party, argue that the role of government should be minimal. It should look after national security and the federal police and not a great deal more. In fact, Republican presidential hopeful Rick Perry says if elected he will make the Washington government as “inconsequential” as possible.

Others in the Tea Party are more specific. They want to abolish a whole raft of government departments starting with education. The Environmental Protection Agency would be next on the list to go. What would replace the national government in its oversight over these matters? The answer is the forces of the marketplace—that invisible hand that according to the right wingers can always be counted on to right the system. (Never mind the unregulated marketplace got us into the mess we are in now).

The marketplace can be counted on to wring bad teachers out of the system and to make sure that good teachers will get their just desserts. This would be more easily accomplished if unions could be gotten rid of. The right wingers don’t much like unions. Not only do most of their members support the Democrats, but union activities, especially strikes and walkouts, interfere with the even treatment of the marketplace.

What about programs that help care for the sick and the old? Of course the extreme Republicans would not scrap them altogether. But the philosophy behind them would be different. Everyone would have the right to pursue the American dream of life, liberty and happiness. Some would make it, some wouldn’t. A lot would depend on market forces and some would depend on luck. But what would happen to those who didn’t make it? Tough luck. It’s inevitable that the market will throw up some flotsam and jetsam. That’s the way the market works.

Besides, say the Tea Party, you were only guaranteed a crack at the American Dream. There was no guarantee that you’d achieve it.

Those on the progressive left see the role of the national government in quite a different way. They see its role as providing a context that gives individuals a hand and if they fall on hard times the government is there to support them. They support a whole network of social and medical services that are meant to soften the cruel hand of the impersonal market forces.

In this regard, it is not surprising that many of the Tea Partiers want to gut the social safety net. Medicare, social security and employment insurance and help for people ravaged by natural disasters—all are under attack.

Of course this attack is camouflaged. The Republicans argue that in order to help disaster victims, you must cut an equivalent amount of money out of other programs. All under the rubric of balancing the budget. It’s a cruel hoax while disaster victims wait in vain for help. What is the role of government. This question will now dominate American politics right up through the election of 2012. Consider for a minute how this question affects the debate on taxation. The Republicans flatly refuse to raise taxes by a thin dime on millionaires or anybody else. Such taxes distort market forces. Never mind that there is less money for programs like employment insurance. Tough. The role of the national government is not to prop up losers but to encourage winners. (No wonder the gap between the rich and the poor in the States is widening).

Democrats have quite a different view of the role of government. It is not just to hold up the American dream and yell, “Go for it” whether you are from a slum or an Ivy League College. The aim of the Democrats is to ensure a level playing field so that all have an equal chance at the prize. Democrats support social and educational programs and medical programs that help those who are old and sick. There is every reason to believe that in the coming election campaign the Democrats and Obama will be on the right side of the government issue. After all there are a lot more poor Americans than there are rich ones. For example, polls show that fully 75 per cent of Americans support Obama on the tax issue. Why in the world should business magnate Warren Buffet pay taxes at a lower rate than his secretary does? Who has the winning hand in the election? The Republicans who are ready to cut services to the poor? Or the Democrats who want to raise taxes on the multi-rich? It’s a no-brainer.



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