Victory for a vision

Published: Sunday | November 11, 2012 Comments 0
President Barack Obama smiles during his acceptance speech Wednesday morning. - AP
President Barack Obama smiles during his acceptance speech Wednesday morning. - AP

Lawrence Alfred Powell, Contributor

Basking in the resplendent glory of Obama's political victory last Tuesday, it is easy to lose sight of the reality that the United States is still a country sharply divided between two opposed visions of itself, a nation in the throes of an identity crisis. The contrast between these two competing visions of America's future was best captured by Bill Clinton in his speech at the Democratic National Convention:

"You have to decide what kind of country you want to live in. If you want a you're-on-your-own, winner-take-all society, you should support the Republican ticket. If you want a country of shared opportunities and shared responsibilities, a we're-all-in-it-together society, you should vote for Barack Obama and Joe Biden."

The Romney-Ryan vision, still subscribed to by about 48 per cent of Americans if last week's election results are any indication, is of a land of unbridled individual freedom to do whatever one wants, whether in economics or otherwise, independent of restriction by government regulation or any other social compulsion to contribute to the well-being of others and the public good. As Paul Ryan's boyhood idol, Ayn Rand, put it so bluntly in her books, selfishness is ultimately a "virtue". The artificial pretence of unselfishness is folly, leading to a stifling, inferior society that tyrannises everyone and undermines their creative contributions, reducing them to mindless conformity, laziness and inertia.

Borrowing heavily from past philosophers like John Locke, John Stuart Mill and Adam Smith, this is an 18th-through-19th-century vision of America and its mission - what political scientist Walter Dean Burnham has called the "hegemonic ideology of irrational Lockean individualism".

Appropriate in an age of cowboys fighting to survive and explore a 'new' American frontier, it reflects the social Darwinism of 'every man for himself' that reached its peak during the late 19th-century Gilded Age - an era that was splendid for the one per cent, but harsh and exploitative for the 99 per cent. This vision believes that superior virtues arise out of ruthless competition and natural dominance, that the fittest members of society naturally rise to the top; the least competent and least motivated tend to settle to the bottom.


It believes poor families stay poor not because of exploitation or social disadvantage, but because they pass down weak character traits from one generation to the next.

At the psychological level, historians and political psychologists tell us that this world view seems to be rooted in a narcissistic, sometimes also rather paranoid, obsession with defending control over one's personal life space - viewed as being inherently in competition with others. There is also a fear of ambiguity and the unknown - avoided through holding narrowly defensive (as opposed to tolerant, open-minded) views of others and society. This is a fight-or-flight, adrenaline- and testosterone-driven world view, concentrated on satisfying the base-level Maslow needs of maintaining physical survival and personal security.

In practice, this vision has often led historically to exploitation, wasted societal energy, and war - to an unnecessarily cruel social world of forced, involuntary social Darwinism (as a self-fulfilling hypothesis, not as a natural occurrence.) In the context of this vision, then, it is only 'natural' for more powerful, developed countries to exploit and colonise underdeveloped countries to their economic advantage, with no apologies given.

Economic dominance and profits come first, human needs and compassion come second, if at all. Raw predatory capitalism, free of state interference or international constraints, is seen as the natural order of things and the best route to a good society. Public regulation of that is inherently bad, and unnatural. Hence the bitter distaste for, and fear of, 'big government' among today's Republicans and Tea Party supporters.


The Obama-Biden vision, supported by about 51 per cent of Americans according to last Tuesday's election results, sees the American future, and indeed that of the world, as one of mutual interdependence rather than private independence. This is a vision of a you-and-me future, rather than a you-or-me future.

Whereas individual self-reliance and ruthless competition may have been at a premium, and therefore virtuous, in the 19th-century age of the wild frontier and the rise of industrial capitalism, the 21st century is now one of increasing global interconnectedness, economically and in terms of electronic mass media.

We are now well on our way to realising Marshall McLuhan's vision of a "global village". In such a world of interdependence, 'every man for himself' becomes maladaptive as a philosophy of life, and our mutual survival depends more and more on our being able to recognise the importance of shared fate, of cooperation, of tolerance, of compromise for the common good.

At the psychological level, this vision of interdependence appears to be rooted in a primordial need for intimacy, belonging, a sense of connectedness to other people and nature. This is an open-minded, tolerant, compassionate, nurturant world view. It goes beyond the fixation on physical survival and security, focusing more on the higher-level Maslow needs of relatedness, growth, creativity and unselfish contribution to society and humanity - 'self-actualisation', rather than selfishness.

In practice, this vision is more likely to produce peace in international relations, cooperation rather than conflict, tolerance rather than bigotry, and is essential to achieving social synergy and the building of social capital. Human needs and compassion come first; economic growth and prosperity are seen as means to that end, not as ends in themselves.

Capitalistic initiative

Economic production captures the best of capitalistic initiative, but then shifts gears when it comes to distribution of society's benefits - allowing compassionate norms of sharing and equality to sustain the tribe, rather than seeing these as a hindrance to production and prosperity.

This optimistic vision of human nature trusts people to want to work, and recognises they will enjoy it, rather than intentionally making employment scarce and market-dependent, then condemning the unemployed for being 'lazy' and 'undeserving'. It also views the relationship between developed and underdeveloped countries differently, placing more emphasis on our common fate as humans, rather than on rationales for economic domination like Manifest Destiny and spheres of influence.

This latter vision has clearly triumphed for the time being, as of last Tuesday's election. But just beneath the surface, these two world views are still locked in a tense arm wrestle for America's future identity. Both sides remain thoroughly convinced that their vision is the right and moral one.

So Obama has temporarily rescued the country from the jaws of what he sees as a regressive, antiquated 19th-century philosophy of government - dusted off and sold to the public as neoliberalism. But he still has an uphill battle to fight to convince more than half of America that his is the better way, the way of the future.

Lawrence Alfred Powell is honorary research fellow at the Centre of Methods and Policy Application in the Social Sciences at the University of Auckland, New Zealand, and the former polling director for the Centre for Leadership and Governance at UWI, Mona. Email feedback to and

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