The upcoming presidential election is about a lot of things. It is about the economy and jobs. It is a referendum on President Obama. It is a referendum on the Republican party, too. It is also about whether voters believe that Governor Mitt Romney is the right man for the job.
In a larger, philosophical sense, the presidential election is about something else. Paul Ryan, Romney’s vice-presidential pick, in a speech to the Ayn Rand inspired Atlas Society in 2005, said, "And the fight we are in here, make no mistake about it, is a fight of individualism versus collectivism.”
The mythic rugged individualist persists as a strong archetype in the American psyche. It’s the idea that all good things American are accomplished by self-made juggernauts through heroic acts of pure individual will.
The mythical realm is a landscape of either/or propositions. In the mythical you cannot have a force for good without an equally menacing force that seeks to destroy it. For the champions of individualism and personal freedoms, that oppositional force is government.
Our founding documents speak to the issue of individualism and collectivism, but not in the same way that champions of personal liberty would have it.
The first full sentence of the Constitution reads, “We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.”
In that sentence is a nicely blended potpourri of collectivism and individualism. There we find words like, “We”, “Union”, “common”, and the phrase, “general Welfare.” Were our founding fathers a bunch of commies? No.
In crafting our fledgling democracy they understood that their task was to strike a balance. Hence, they spoke to the “Blessings of Liberty,” and “Justice.”
President Clinton said it well: “Take a penny from your pocket. On one side, next to Lincoln’s portrait is a single word: ‘Liberty.’ On the other side is our national motto. It says ‘E Pluribus Unum’—‘Out of Many, One.’ It does not say ‘Every man for himself.’ That humble penny is an explicit declaration—one you can carry in your pocket—that America is about both individual liberty and community obligation. These two commitments—to protect personal freedom and to seek common ground—are the coin of our realm, the measure of our worth.”
For some, the many is the enemy of the one. For others, you cannot have the one without the many, nor the many without the one. That is the yin and yang of Democracy, if you will. And come November, that’s the meta-issue we will vote on.