I have to confess that I don’t care much for the speeches delivered at national political conventions. Even the most modest attempts at eloquence produce moistened eyes, and even the most banal observations are invariably met with thunderous applause. I think that Bill Clinton’s speech at this year’s Democratic gathering was interrupted by rapturous ovations approximately every twenty seconds, making it fifteen minutes longer than the former President’s notoriously lengthy address at the 1988 convention. Also, the television reporters unfailingly characterize the bloviations of any nominee as “the speech of his life.” We’re an awfully long way from the Gettysburg Address, which was delivered in the course of a few minutes and met mostly with puzzlement, but managed to simultaneously be deeply rational and truly poetic. But what bothers me most about convention speakers is how they appeal to their uncritically partisan audiences precisely by caricaturing their opponents’ positions.
I will give just two examples, one from each of the conventions. Time and again, Mitt Romney painted Barack Obama as a “big government” man, an advocate of “European-style socialism,” and someone inimical to “small business.” True enough, the Democratic philosophy—and Obama is one of the most ideologically pure Democrats to emerge in national politics since George McGovern—tends to favor statist solutions to economic problems. Franklin Roosevelt’s “New Deal” and Lyndon Johnson’s “Great Society” are particularly clear cases in point. But if the Catholic principle of subsidiarity is right, then sometimes “big” government is “right” government. In other words, if an economic or political problem cannot be solved at lower and more local levels of organization, then it ought to be referred to the highest and most federalized level, for in that case it would be unjust to do otherwise.
Catholic social teaching speaks of distributive justice, which means the right or balanced relation between the government and the social whole. The goods of a society need to be distributed rightly or fairly, and the monitoring of this process is one of the principle responsibilities of government. Thus, to cite simply the most obvious example, the federal authority has the right to tax citizens and to use those funds for the achievement of a common good that could never be otherwise realized. Does anyone think that civil defense, the construction of a national highway system, the maintaining of programs of social welfare, Medicare and Medicaid, etc., could be brought about and maintained at a level lower than the federal? And does anyone, apart from the most extreme Tea Party advocates, really think that the economic disaster of four years ago could have been addressed without any intervention on the part of Washington? To be sure, people of good will might disagree about the details, but I think it is hard to argue that some measure of “big” government was required to ameliorate that situation.
So the relevant question is not “big” versus “small” government; it is “just” vs. “unjust” or “effective” vs. “ineffective” government. Which is better, big or small, federal or local? The only valid answer—and the one corresponding to Catholic social teaching—is “it depends.”
Now there was at least an equal amount of caricaturing and simplifying on the Democratic side as well. In the course of his stem-winding address, Bill Clinton, over and again, laid out a stark either/or. The Republicans, he maintained, held to a dog-eat-dog, “you’re-on-your-own” individualism, whereby the economically advantaged become stronger and the marginalized become weaker. But the Democrats, he contended, are the party of social cohesion, togetherness, cooperation and compassion. Whereas Republicans subscribed to a Hobbesian (even Ayn Randian) vision of ruthless competition, Democrats opted for the beautiful community of love and mutual support. The philosophical assumption behind Clinton’s speech, which was mirrored exactly in a documentary film that the Democrats produced for the convention, is that government is the privileged instrument of social cohesion, the principal means by which we find community. As I suggested above, Catholic social teaching does indeed hold that, sometimes and in some ways, government plays an indispensible role in achieving social justice. But it also insists that there are a myriad of mediating institutions that play a far more important role in producing real social cohesion. Churches, schools, social organizations, clubs, unions, societies, neighborhood groups, and above all, families, contribute mightily to the shaping of the beautiful community. People learn, for example, that “dog-eat-dog” is an incorrect attitude, not so much from federal legislation, but from pulpits, conversations around the family table, encounters with fellow citizens, the gentle correction of friends and neighbors, the daily fulfilling of professional obligations, etc. When these institutions have broken down or are ignored, then we are left with the unhappy binary option of “the individual” vs. “the government.”
I know that many people find convention speeches inspiring and uplifting, but I would recommend that you don’t pay a lot of attention to them. Your time would be much better spent reading the documents of the Catholic social teaching tradition. In those texts, you will find a balanced expression of what is actually best in both the Democratic and Republican philosophies—without the attendant distortions.