Freedom means Opportunity
David Brooks wrote an Op-ed in the NY Times, “The American Way of Equality”, about the unique way Americans view freedom. (unfortunately it is available only through the Times Select Paid subscription.). He describes the work of recently deceased Seymour Martin Lipset who, over a lifetime of research, made distinctions between the US and other Cultures.
Mr. Lipset pointed out that relatively uniform cultures, as in most countries in Europe and Asia, believe that their government should provide social safety nets, While diversified cultures like ours tends to define freedom as opportunity and that individuals are responsible for their own success and wellbeing. “Over 70 percent of Americans believe â€œindividuals should take more responsibility for providing for themselvesâ€? whereas most Japanese believe â€œthe state should take more responsibility to ensure everyone is provided for.â€?
Political movements that run afoul of these individualistic, achievement-oriented values rarely prosper. The Democratic Party is now divided between moderates â€” who emphasize individual responsibility and education to ameliorate inequality â€” and progressive populists, who advocate an activist state that will protect people from forces beyond their control. Given the deep forces in American history, the centrists will almost certainly win out.
Indeed, the most amazing thing about the past week is how modest the Democratic agenda has been. Democrats have been out of power in Congress for 12 years. They finally get a chance to legislate and they push through a series of small proposals that are little pebbles compared to the vast economic problems they described during the campaign.
They grasp the realities Marty Lipset described. They understand that in the face of inequality, Americans have usually opted for policies that offer more opportunity, not those emphasizing security or redistribution. American domestic policy is drifting leftward, but there are sharp limits on how far it will go.
I suspect that what began in the midterm elections is a correction back towards the middle where most Americans live. It seems to me that the Democrats got the messages and an article in today’s Washington Post “House Republicans Break Away” seems to indicate that the Republicans are waking up as well.
One Republican Congressman who has been voting with the Dems recently said “The Democrats “deserve the same credit that we got in 1995,” when Republicans took control, “They’ve picked up on the really big issues of the day, the ones they won the election on, and the ones that really resonate in Republican districts.”