Posted on May 22, 2012
This originally appeared in The Hill
Barack Obama and Mitt Romney offer us a contrast not only in economic philosophy, political experience and religious upbringing. They also offer the voter an intensely different worldview of the proper place of the individual in our society.
Obama is a mystery man, while Romney comes from a mystery tribe.
The president is a contradiction. Born of a white mother and an African father in what was then the most exotic part of America, raised in a Muslim country, schooled on both coasts, Barack Obama finally decided to put down his roots on the South Side of Chicago. He defies easy description.
The former Massachusetts governor seems easy to figure out. His father was a governor and once a leading presidential candidate. Romney met his wife in high school, had business success, was a leader in his church and has a big, beautiful family, which are all typical attributes of a political star. Where Obama had to search far and wide for where to plant his roots, Romney is rooted firmly in his family tradition. But that family tradition and the church that is so central to it remains inaccessible and somewhat discomforting to non-Mormons.
The president is individualism personified. Romney is the product of a successful tribalism.
Obama, as a result, reflects the urges of an individualistic society, one where the highest value is placed on an individual’s happiness. If it feels good, go ahead and do it. This worldview fits in perfectly with the vast majority of the Democratic base, which sees individual expression as the most important freedom to be preserved.
Romney places more emphasis on tribal dynamics and social stability. The New York Times had a story this weekend that portrayed Romney as a strict enforcer of church rules. For him, an individual gains happiness from a well-ordered society, where people obey the rules, even if they seem trivial.
Human society has played out this philosophical debate for thousands of years. What is paramount to a culture’s survival: individual freedom or a rules-conscious society based on a common moral standard?
The poet John Donne once wrote, “No man is an island, entire of itself,” standing alone without need for help.
For Obama, the government plays a substantial role in helping the individual achieve personal happiness. The Obama campaign showed how deeply it sees government entwined in each person when it released on its website the “Life of Julia” campaign. For the president, the government is not just a partner in the development of the individual; it is the major partner.
For Mitt Romney, such a partnership is unimaginable. In Romney’s experience, the government plays only a limited role in an individual’s path to happiness. For the Romney clan, church and family, not government, occupy the pre-eminent position in an individual’s development.
Romney’s worldview is not unique to the Mormon Church. Indeed, it is a view shared by Catholics, Baptists, Presbyterians and many other people of faith.
Historically speaking, Romney’s belief in the subservience of the individual to greater social stability is on solid philosophical footing. Indeed, a nation wherein everybody does his or her “own thing,” without regard for the society at large, isn’t going to survive long.
But Obama’s worldview might fit better with the iCarly generation. We now have a higher percentage of people living alone than at any time in our national history, fewer going to mainstream churches, more doing their own thing by themselves and seemingly enjoying it.
Those who live alone and don’t attend church on a regular basis are far more likely to vote for President Obama, while those who are married and go to church are far more likely to vote for Mitt Romney, even if they have some qualms about the Mormon Church.
These two worldviews will collide this fall. The election is not just about the economy, despite what the pundits believe. It is also about these contrasting philosophies.