Maybe it is the proximity of Thanksgiving that has gotten to me, but here is a really positive take on the year in politics: The good guys won. And I don’t just mean the president got re-elected. There was more to it, so let’s take a closer look at two specific aspects of the political landscape. First: Democracy was elevated. Yes, that may sound crazy after all the bile and nasty TV ads that buffeted us this year. At the fringe the ugliness was there, as it will always be unfortunately. But at its core—there was a healthy and sophisticated debate about the vision and role of government and our social compact. President Obama and Gov. Romney brought very divergent views about the role of government to the table —and the public got that. Even though Gov. Romney tried very hard to slide to the middle in the first debate, the specific programmatic positions he had taken over the course of the campaign couldn’t be ignored, and that created a true choice. The question—who built that—captured the debate at one level, and the public said loud and clear: We all did. Not just any one person, not just any one company. We all contributed to the fabric of the nation. The debate was healthy—and the outcome was right.
Second: At a more theoretical level, think of this tension as Keynes vs. Hayek and Rawls vs. Nozick. What do I mean by that? The worldviews of Obama and Romney are really proxies for the theoretical debate about Keynesian economics vs. the more libertarian views of Frederick Hayek. Obama’s support for a government stimulus and expenditures to invest are traditional Keynesian; Romney’s shrink-government-at-all-costs view is akin to the hands-off approach of Hayek and the Chicago school. Keynes won, as well he should have. Likewise, John Rawls’ view of a government that is concerned about the well-being of the least well-off member of society is akin to Obama’s interest in a progressive income tax where the wealthier pay more, and ensuring access to health care and food stamps for those who are needy. Romney’s statements about the 47 percent—even if one credits that he is more compassionate than those words might suggest—are more akin to the libertarian world of Nozick, where one eats what one kills, and if there are shortfalls, private charity not government should fill the void. When the choice was made, Rawls won over Nozick. As well he should have.
So why do I feel so positively about the last year, politically speaking? There was a discernible, clear choice presented to the public. The choice could be seen and understood at many different levels of abstraction—from “who built that” to a philosophical debate. And the process of choosing and debating these issues pulled in the attention of the public—and we participated—and that is what democracy is all about.