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Davis, California

Tuesday, May 28, 2024

A death and a birth

In many ways, Senator Barack Obama’s recent triumph radically altered much of the political and electoral landscape. Most importantly, it signals the passing of a prominent school of thought, displaced by another.

There are two major strands of thought in Western philosophy about individual choice and the government’s role. One champions freedom. This ideal indicates that through hard work, talent and motivation, an individual can ascend to the top of the social hierarchy, the master of his own destiny. Here, the government plays only a small role in the individual’s private life.

While the thought’s approach evolved over timebe it Darwinism, exceptionalism, capitalismthe fundamentals persisted. It forms the basis of modern conservative thought.

The second school emphasizes interdependence. Accordingly, we are social products, the consequence of a vast network of interrelated relationships. In this framework, fulfilling our ambitions by simply asserting our will isn’t that simple. There are constraints preventing us from doing that.

That constraint is the surroundings that shape us: society. Here, social upbringing predicts mobility. For instance, one living in certain conditions presumably often identifies with and adapts from his surroundings.

In turn, the individual reacts to the broader society with this internalization. When he meets someone who differs a lot, however, the very nature of the differences reduces opportunities for meaningful interaction. The cycle perpetuates, the behavior locking him in that societal structure.

Thus, even before birth, individuals have their future directions predetermined by the communal constructs they will inhabit. For a large segment of this group, especially the impoverished, the lack of proper education is a disadvantage.

Some believe that the solution to this is through direct assistance, advocating government programs for self-sufficiency. They also believe that upward mobility for this group doesn’t just lie in helping them, but in changing the overall system. They advocate progressivism, populism, socialism, radicalism. The focus is on the collective.

For the past two decades, the first school of thought often prevailed, despite economic research suggesting the equally vital role of stable societal conditions and institutions, created through government presence (or absence in others). Critical to the first school’s success was its transformational leaderReaganwho, through the power of his personality and message, won over certain segments of the electorate.

In the last eight years, however, the governing party deviated radically from, and practiced the extreme versions of, the conservative-Reagan principles. Indeed, the tremendous tax breaks for corporations and the affluent, and the market deregulations are a testament to this extremism.

As a consequence, corporations thrived, especially at the very top. Union bargaining power weakened, executive pay skyrocketed, middle-class pay stagnated. To be a CEO in America at this time was a dream come true.

The problem wouldn’t have been so severe if corporations earned their profits well and distributed them appropriately. Instead, some, especially Wall Street financial companies, gambled massively. Sensing opportunity, they hedged bets in financial derivativesa financial asset whose underlying value is dependent upon the performance of a different assetleading to unchecked sales of subprime mortgages to borrowers with questionable credit histories.

Moreover, some companies, under pressure to meet industry expectations, inflated earnings. This led to distrust in corporate accountability. Companies ripped consumers. But the government, the upholder of laws, disappeared too.

This situation is why Obama’s triumph is so interesting. With a massive congressional mandate, he can fundamentally alter the direction of the nation for the next decade. Should he fulfill his promise and resolve the most pressing problems, he could realign the center-right paradigm.

The first school of thought is under assault and in peril. The second one could dominate the next few generations. It has finally earned its due.


Support the second school of thought to ZACH HAN at zklhan@ucdavis.edu.


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