New leader of the state Senate Kevin de León made waves last fall for both the lavish "inaugural" bash he threw himself and for the speech he gave there. "Isn't it time we shatter the great American myth about pulling oneself up by the bootstraps?" the Democrat said to appreciative applause from his nearly 2,000 guests at Walt Disney Concert Hall in downtown Los Angeles. "Every single one of us, whether rich or poor, is relying on someone else for our own success. And reliance, reliance is nothing of shame — it is the American way."
While the media criticized the inappropriate extravagance of the $50,000 party — paid for by a variety of special interests — conservatives jumped on his speech for what they believed De León was saying about the roles of government and citizens. Richard Grenell of Fox News immediately declaimed "Ladies and gentlemen, if you ever thought that the American dream was under assault, that Democrats are out to encourage Americans to learn to love a handout instead of hard work, here's proof."
Is that what De León was saying? Although De León's remarks might trouble many on the right, California Republicans seeking a road back to relevance in the state should know conservatism's in agreement with the essence of the senator's words, and thereby find our own way of communicating a politics of reliance.
In his new book, “The Pity Party: A Mean-Spirited Diatribe Against Liberal Compassion,” William Voegeli shows that words such as “empathy” and “fairness” are increasingly used by Democratic politicians to win political arguments. As Voegeli puts it, many Democrats believe “that liberalism is fundamentally noble because it places compassion at the center of its political efforts; and that conservatism is fundamentally odious because its central purpose is to reject compassion.”
De León's talk of "reliance," then, is in keeping with a stream of liberal rhetoric casting Democrats as the party of help and support, and Republicans as the party that wants to be — in the words of Republican presidential aspirant Sen. Rand Paul — "the leave-me-alone coalition."
Like De León, President Obama uses this rhetoric of empathy, criticizing those who disagree with him about the expansion of particular government programs by claiming that they want to leave citizens "on your own." The comprehensive American Presidency Project database of presidential speeches and memoranda shows Obama using that exact phrase no fewer than 138 times in public remarks over his six years in office, almost always to castigate opponents of his program proposals.
Along these lines is the president's “you didn't build that” remark made at a 2012 campaign rally in Roanoke, Va. In that speech, Obama supposed that “If you were successful, somebody along the line gave you some help. There was a great teacher somewhere in your life … somebody invested in roads and bridges. If you've got a business, you didn't build that. Somebody else made that happen.”
For the moment, let's leave aside the reality that those business owners are also paying taxes to build roads and pay teachers, and that the rest of us also derive benefits from these things. Republicans need to respond not by dismissing “reliance” but by reconnecting with a conservative political philosophy that dates back centuries, and to a fiscally constrained future that demands greater dependence on citizens and civil society to deliver services that have invariably been offered by government.
Conservatism is rooted in the recognition that we are social beings who depend on one another at varying levels throughout our lives. The difference — and it is central — is that conservatives recognize that instead of government, reliance should first be realized in our families and social networks, and then to civil society. When government must become involved, we look to local levels of government first.
Although the grandfather of conservatism, 18th century British politician Edmund Burke, famously coined the term “little platoon” to describe communities of neighbors working on public problems, it took a 19th century Frenchman to “translate” Burke's proposition into an American context. In “Democracy in America,” Alexis de Tocqueville explained that America's minimal government infrastructure offered both great freedom with an increased dependence on one another.
Tocqueville described an American virtue of “self interest rightly understood,” marveling at our propensity to rely on one another — without government involvement — to accomplish public goals: “Americans of all ages, all conditions, all minds constantly unite … everywhere that, at the head of a new undertaking, you see the government in France and a great lord in England, count on it that you will perceive an association in the United States.”
This is reliance and individualism rightly understood, and today's Republicans need to do a better job of talking about it. California Republicans must communicate that we too understand that reliance is natural in a free society, while always questioning who we are being asked to rely upon.
We must highlight our dependence on civil society and family while celebrating an active citizenship that seeks solutions to real problems outside government involvement. Also, in an era when we have witnessed government failure in numerous bankruptcies, it is essential that we move beyond the “big-vs.-small government” argument to one about the performance of government — and what we should rely on it to accomplish. By doing so, we will attract potential allies in communities who previously wondered whether Republicans just want to — in the unfortunate words of another partisan — “drown it in the bathtub.”
Pete Peterson is executive director of the Davenport Institute for Public Engagement and Civic Leadership at Pepperdine University's School of Public Policy.