WASHINGTON – There is no doubt that the “anti-incumbent” sentiment strongly favored the Republicans on November 4. Most opinion polls taken prior to the vote revealed a general anxiety among likely voters. “America is going in the wrong direction”, “My children will have a worse life than the one I am having”, “Obama does not know how to lead in foreign relations”, “The impact of Obamacare is mostly bad”, etc.
We lost our way
In my opinion, this state of mind that translated politically in a bigger than expected Republican political victory is the result of the widespread perception that “America is no longer what it used to be”.
Indeed, America is slowly becoming a large, social-democratic, Europe-style, welfare state, with a slow rate of growth, a bigger government, and bigger deficits.
The average voter may not know exactly which policies are causing this, but he or she “knows” that we are deviating from our “brand”.
The myth of the Frontier
Sure enough, the mythical notion of the rugged, “do-it-yourself” American, the proud descendent of the pioneers who conquered the Western Frontier, is mostly that: a myth. But it is a powerful myth that became part of the national consciousness. Until recently, we thought that we were all children of the Frontier. Therefore, we were supposed to be self-sufficient, capable, thrifty, industrious, brave, ingenious, unbending and –more than anything else– always optimistic. Paraphrasing Ronald Reagan: “Of course we love a challenge. We are Americans. We can do anything”.
The entitlement society
Well, not anymore. At least some Americans see themselves as marginalized, discriminated against and therefore entitled to some redress. Americans seek pensions, not challenges; job security and not enterprise.
And the Democratic Party has become the political force whose main objective is to fix inequality and to give something more to those who have been left behind.
The problem with this approach is that Democratic policies have created a large class of Americans who feel entitled and who believe that they are supposed to get “something” through the political process. What the economy does not provide will be handed over by solicitous politicians who know very well that this public largesse will translate into votes at election time.
It does not work
However, supposedly benign public policies aimed at helping the poor in practice do very little to lift the poor out of poverty. Whatever the intentions, in reality they create dependence on public programs and therefore a perverse self-perpetuation of the poverty problem they wanted to correct.
All in all, by design or by default in essence the Democratic Party has become the party of public largesse sold as the best medication to alleviate poverty. And therefore it is no surprise that the party has gained a powerful natural constituency among those who are or feel weak, vulnerable and needy: young people, minorities, single mothers, the elderly.
After the Republican victory
That said, where are we today, after the Republican mid-term elections strong victory? I can tell you where we are not. This vote, with a really modest popular participation, means a desire for something new and different expressed by many. But it does not say anything as to what this “new” should look like.
More of the same?
However, I can tell you that if the Republicans plan to become a powerful national force with a truly broad appeal by sticking to the old Gospel of “lower taxes and less government” they are in big trouble. And it will be an even bigger trouble if they lace this fiscal conservatism with the usual list of conservative social issues. Do they really plan to have another fight on abortion, gay marriage, prayers in schools and other religious matters? Is this the path to create a new national Republican Majority? This is the path to remain the party of a white middle class, mostly male and mostly reasonably well off people.
I am afraid that unless a new –and truly compelling– national theme emerges, it will be more of the same.
An alternative to the welfare approach
Well, here is an idea. The welfare approach to poverty championed by the Democrats is very expensive and –more than anything else– it does not work. Well, so what is the alternative?
The alternative is to create the foundations of a new “Opportunity Society”. The poor may need money, of course. But more than anything else they need practical tools that will help them climb out of poverty. First of all they need to believe that they live in a society in which “they can have a real chance”.
And society, through adequate programs, has to give the tools that will reinforce an optimistic “can do” spirit. For adults, this means real training programs that teach real skills that can be applied in today’s economy. For children this has to mean a real education. And this can come only through a radical transformation of the entire primary and secondary education system. As of now, the system is hostage of change resistant and powerful teachers unions. They are the main obstacle to modernization.
Education for all
Today’s grim reality is that the children of the poor are destined to remain poor, because they do not have access to a real education since most public schools are mediocre or really bad. Some of their parents understand this.
I remember the documentary “The Lottery”, an extremely well done production that described the incredible emotions of parents who were waiting for the results of a Charter School lottery. They knew that if their child won the lottery, he or she would have a shot at getting a good education in a Charter School. Losing the lottery meant going to a regular, mediocre to bad, public school –a dead end.
So here is the problem that the Republican Party needs to address and solve. “Do we want the future of poor children to be dependent on winning lotteries?”
Everybody in America should have a shot at a good education.
This may not guarantee upward mobility to all. But, for sure, lack of education in today’s ultra-competitive economy is a ticket to marginalization, poverty, and probably a lot worse: such as joining a gang, getting killed, or landing in jail.
Reach out with an “Education for All” message
So, here is an idea for the GOP. Of course America needs to be fiscally responsible. Of course we should reform costly and outmoded entitlement programs. Of course we need tax reform that will incentivize business creation. But we cannot seriously believe that a better macro-economic environment, although critically important, by itself will take care of everything and everybody.
The marginalized do not have the tools to participate.
Therefore we need to reach out. And we need to do our best to give people who feel they do not belong tools that they can recognize as useful in order to improve their circumstances.
Income support, free this and free that, alleviate the pain of poverty. But they are not game changers.
“I can do this”
A good education, learning new skills will give millions of people a new sense of self worth. Faced with a new task, the educated person will say: “I can do this”. Give marginalized people tools, give them a foundation on which they can build the self-confidence that will allow them to climb out of poverty and join the mainstream.
Via education, give all — minorities, single mothers, poor children–access to a new, inclusive, positive, optimistic and brave “Opportunity Society”.
Remember Thomas Jefferson
This is what the Republicans should do if they really want to shape a better, modern, dynamic and future oriented America. An America where everybody is on board. An America in which nobody is left behind.
This is not about being politically smart. This is about going back to the good and solid foundations of the American Experiment. Remember that Thomas Jefferson insisted that education is at the foundation of everything.
He was right.