So Campaign 2012 comes to an end today. Was this a contest of big, consequential ideas, or was it petty, small, undignifying, and unchallenging?
Some seem to be concluding it was the latter. Politico has a big story today lamenting that the campaign was dominated by “small” arguments and “uproars over careless but inconsequential remarks by one candidate or another.” Politico notes that the campaign was shaped to an “unprecedented” degree by cable and Twitter, where arguments are limited to 140 characters or less. Gary Hart laments that the camapign didn’t “contain big ideas or challenging ideas.”
I disagree. Ultimately this was a contest of big and consequential ideas. Underneath all the noise, this election was driven by a handful of major questions with far reaching moral and practical consequences:
1) What is the true nature of our collective responsibility towards one another?
2) What is the true legacy of the great progressive reforms of the 20th century? Should their core mission — and the safety net they have created — be preserved and expanded upon to meet the needs of those who are still being left behind by the private market? Or does that mission need to be readjusted to deal with dramatically different economic circumstances in the 21st century?
3) What is the best way to guarantee shared prosperity and economic security at a time of rapid economic change? Should we take collective action, via democratically elected leaders, to try to guarantee a good life to as many people as possible, and to defend those who are suffering economic harm at the hands of the free market? Or are we currently at risk of overreaching in that direction, doing people more harm than good?
There were many petty-seeming battles throughout this campaign, no doubt, but you can find these questions lurking just beneath their surface. The battles over so-called “gaffes” and controversial remarks on both sides often turned on deeper questions about the nature of the society we want to live in.
The fight over Obama’s “you didn’t build that” comment, distorted or not, was ultimately a war over the true nature of individual achievement and the proper responsibility of the luckiest and most successful towards the society that helped enable his or her good fortune. One of the most viral and intensely contested YouTubes of this campaign — Elizabeth Warren’s comments about the rich and taxes — also turned on those fundamental themes. Both of these went directly to the question of how to best ensure shared prosperity — whether via collective governmental action enabled by a larger contribution by the wealthiest or by maximizing what Mitt Romney describes as "economic freedom” via an unshackled free market.
Romney’s “47 percent” video was seized upon by Democrats to accomplish the politically pedestrian goal of “driving up Romney’s negatives.” But at the same time, it triggered an epic argument about an actual worldview Romney appears to share with his running mate Paul Ryan when it comes to individualism, freedom and the fairness and morality of free market outcomes.
Indeed, if anything, the technology that is often blamed for making our campaigns petty and trivial — the internet, YouTube, etc. — brought to light extremely important moments that triggered deeply consequential debates that otherwise might not have happened.
Obama’s claim that the GOP favors “you’re on your own economics,” and his suggestion that the GOP drive to roll back environmental regulations would lead to “dirtier air” and “dirtier water” were angrily derided by Republicans as cheap attacks. Many mainstream pundits claimed such rhetoric seemed “small.” But as E.J. Dionne puts it, Obama has framed the fight as a big one indeed, as one against “a Republican Party determined to bring the Gilded Age back and undo the achievements of a century.” Republicans will angrily claim that they have no such intention. But the current argument is unquestionably one over the degree to which we should roll back government intervention in the economy, and what the human consequences of doing that would be. That’s a hugely important question. It isn’t small at all.
Or take the argument over Romney’s vow to repeal Obamacare, which is pehaps the greatest social reform since Medicare. The political discourse often focused on seemingly superficial questions about whether Romney was “flip flopping” away from his own Massachusetts plan or about what Romney did or didn’t say when it comes to covering those with preexisting conditions. But these political skirmishes actually embodied debates with immense moral consequence.
It’s hard to imagine a more fundamental and important argument than the one over how — or whether — the federal government should act to protect the sick and vulnerable. Whatever Romney would or wouldn’t do for those millions of people, this election may very well decide whether Obama’s solution to this problem, which may be incomplete but represents a major expansion of 20th Century progressive reform, endures. As Jonathan Cohn notes, this election could go a long way towards determining the future of progressive reform itself.
Yes, Twitter fights in 140 characters or less can numb the mind, and yes, the 2012 presidential race sometimes took detours into unbearable pettiness and stupidity. But ultimately, it was an epic campaign — one for the ages. I believe the American people understand what’s at stake in this election.
And now, it’s up to them.