"Social Darwinism" versus "Government-Centered Society": According to President Barack Obama and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, these are the competing visions Americans will be asked to choose between this year.
It's dramatic-sounding stuff. But is such drama truly necessary?
The theologian Reinhold Niebuhr had this to say about the pre-Goldwater, consensus-driven politics of his day:
The development of American democracy toward a welfare state has proceeded so rapidly partly because the ideological struggle was not unnecessarily sharpened. It has proceeded so rapidly in fact that the question must be raised in America, as well as in the more collectivist states of Europe, whether the scope of bureaucratic decisions may not become too wide and the room for the automatic balances of unregulated choices too narrow.
These are misgivings which will confront every modern democracy and may confront them till doomsday, since there is no neat principle which will solve the relation of power to justice and of justice to freedom.
The further in time we get from that era of consensus, the starker this debate seems to become. Ironically, our "ideological struggle" now is more like the one Niebuhr said we had graciously avoided then. (Born in 1892, he lived for 78 years—long enough to see the Goldwater rebellion crushed and vital center-ism seemingly restored by Nixon.)
Niebuhr obviously meant by "ideological struggle" something distinct from healthy democratic debate. There's plenty of room in Niebuhr's appraisal for a constructive critique of the welfare state. Indeed, isn't the opposition to Obamacare fundamentally about "the scope of bureaucratic decisions" impinging on "unregulated choices"? The difference lies in Niebuhr's framing: He was a champion of the New Deal; he could admit of the possibility that it could be pruned or tweaked without also appearing to be seeking its abolition.
Niebuhr's sense of equanimity stemmed from his innate realism. While democracies might never agree on a "neat principle," he didn't despair. A mature people should be able to handle the "misgivings" that accompany hard choices.
That no longer seems to be the case. For far too many actors on our national stage, it's either the Neat Principle, or bust.