On Wednesday, President Obama called on Americans to “expand our moral imaginations, to listen to each other more carefully, to sharpen our instincts for empathy, and remind ourselves of all the ways our hopes and dreams are bound together.” Those were beautiful words; they spoke to our desire for reconciliation.Krugman concludes with this wise admonition:
But the truth is that we are a deeply divided nation and are likely to remain one for a long time. By all means, let’s listen to each other more carefully; but what we’ll discover, I fear, is how far apart we are. For the great divide in our politics isn’t really about pragmatic issues, about which policies work best; it’s about differences in those very moral imaginations Mr. Obama urges us to expand, about divergent beliefs over what constitutes justice.
And the real challenge we face is not how to resolve our differences — something that won’t happen any time soon — but how to keep the expression of those differences within bounds.
What are the differences I’m talking about?
One side of American politics considers the modern welfare state — a private-enterprise economy, but one in which society’s winners are taxed to pay for a social safety net — morally superior to the capitalism red in tooth and claw we had before the New Deal. It’s only right, this side believes, for the affluent to help the less fortunate.
The other side believes that people have a right to keep what they earn, and that taxing them to support others, no matter how needy, amounts to theft. That’s what lies behind the modern right’s fondness for violent rhetoric: many activists on the right really do see taxes and regulation as tyrannical impositions on their liberty.
There’s no middle ground between these views. One side saw health reform, with its subsidized extension of coverage to the uninsured, as fulfilling a moral imperative: wealthy nations, it believed, have an obligation to provide all their citizens with essential care. The other side saw the same reform as a moral outrage, an assault on the right of Americans to spend their money as they choose.
This deep divide in American political morality — for that’s what it amounts to — is a relatively recent development. Commentators who pine for the days of civility and bipartisanship are, whether they realize it or not, pining for the days when the Republican Party accepted the legitimacy of the welfare state, and was even willing to contemplate expanding it. As many analysts have noted, the Obama health reform — whose passage was met with vandalism and death threats against members of Congress — was modeled on Republican plans from the 1990s.
But that was then. Today’s G.O.P. sees much of what the modern federal government does as illegitimate; today’s Democratic Party does not. When people talk about partisan differences, they often seem to be implying that these differences are petty, matters that could be resolved with a bit of good will. But what we’re talking about here is a fundamental disagreement about the proper role of government.
It’s not enough to appeal to the better angels of our nature. We need to have leaders of both parties — or Mr. Obama alone if necessary — declare that both violence and any language hinting at the acceptability of violence are out of bounds. We all want reconciliation, but the road to that goal begins with an agreement that our differences will be settled by the rule of law.