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Reframing the GOP’s American Dream

| Thursday, February 20, 2014

The Republican Party has a rhetoric problem. The general rhetoric of the party reflects a deviation from fundamental party principles and, I believe, is part of the reason the GOP has had difficulty pushing independents to the right in recent elections. I think this problem starts with the present Republican approach to one of its oldest allies: individual achievement and the American dream.

Now, I must qualify this problem. The Republican Party encompasses a vast range of the political spectrum and therefore this problem reflects a general trend, not an all encompassing, concrete shift. Also, a Democratic president makes it difficult for Republicans to frame their own narrative.

President Obama has spent his tenure as President arguing that the American dream is out of reach for too many Americans and immense government action is required to extend its reach. In response, the general tone of the Republican Party has been defensive and combative. While this tone has caused problems for Republicans, the content of this response, not the tone, is where the true problem lies.

Republican rhetoric has reframed the American dream as a radically individual concept. The second sentence of the GOP’s “Restoring the American Dream” platform reads, “Prosperity is the product of self-discipline, work, savings and investment by individual Americans.” Such rhetoric represents an approach to the American dream that is too individually centered. Further, it does not recognize a number of Americans do not have the opportunity to reach this definition of prosperity. It paints the American dream as no more than a dog-eat-dog, social Darwinist ideal. In an attempt to negate the President’s claim that an individual needs the government to achieve success, Republicans have held that all you need to make it in America is more blood, sweat and tears than the next guy.

I believe the President’s progressive approach to the American dream is fundamentally incorrect. The Republican vision correctly recognizes that government involvement and dependence is a poor strategy in expanding an American’s access to prosperity. However, I think the Republican answer to this progressive conception also misses the mark. A reaffirmation of the power of the individual is unappealing to voters who fear their share of the American Dream is shrinking and does not recognize the reality that achievement is directly correlated to a set of preconditions out of one’s control.

Republicans should stop arguing for a strict schism between the government and individual on the grounds of individual self-sustenance, but rather should advocate for the merits of the institutions that exist in the space between the individual and the government.

As described by Yuval Levin, the space between the individual and the government is made up of the free market, civil society and the family. Such institutions provide individuals with the assistance and resources that prerequisite individual achievement. These institutions establish a shared, political character that prioritizes individual achievement but recognizes that the common good is served by such individual efforts. This space is characterized by cooperation and a shared objective of success, not individual competition. Senator Mike Lee reminds that, “The vision of America conservatives seek is not an Ayn Rand novel. It’s a Norman Rockwell painting.” It establishes an environment of interdependence, not government dependence or independence, that grows economic opportunity and secures a civil society in which success depends on one’s contribution to this interdependent structure. In such a space, a society establishes communal values that direct individual behavior, not government incentives or competition. In such a space, the American dream is fully actualized.

Government action that restricts this space and replaces it with government involvement debilitates the institutions that secure the American dream. Entitlement policies that disrupt family structures, government activity in the private sector and the replacement of civic organizations with state programs are a few examples of government actions that deteriorate the space between the individual and government.

Republican rhetoric should seek to champion these intermediary institutions. It should recognize that an individual stripped of all resources will have difficulty achieving the promise of the American dream, but argue the institutions that exist beyond the public square is where one can find such resources and catalyze economic mobility. Therefore, the best Republican response to government overreach is a defense of these intermediate institutions. Republican rhetoric should describe what the government could do to allow such institutions to grow and prosper as opposed to repeating the tired cry against progressive inadequacy or an unrealistic appeal to the individual.

Republican rhetoric should mimic Levin’s call to “restore an idea of the government as a preserver and protector of the space in which our society thrives.” A change in Republican rhetoric is crucial in appealing to future Republican voters and realigning the Republican Party platform with its ideological basis.


JC Sullivan is a sophomore living in Keenan Hall.
The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.


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