July 16 • 07:42 PM

Achieving a balance is optimal

June 04, 2008
During the 1976 presidential campaign Gerald Ford said, "we are now engaged in a great national debate between our two great political parties and within them over the role of government in the lives of individuals; how much government can or should do for the people and how best to go about it."

In a recent New York Times article writer David Brooks picked up on Ford's theme when he wrote "the central political debate of the 20th Century was over the role of government. The right stood for individual freedom while the left stood for extending the role of the state. But the central theme of the 21st century is over quality of life."

Quoting Oliver Letwin, a Tory Party strategist, Brooks wrote, "politics (in the 21st Century) once eco-centric must now become socio-centric…the great challenge in this decade and the next is social revival…We used to stand for the individual. We still do. But individual freedoms count for little if society is disintegrating. Now we stand…in a word for society."

Brooks notes that some of these ideas would not sit well with American conservatives, who, unlike their British counterparts, have yet to move beyond the narrow base of their philosophy to embrace one which recognizes the needs of society as whole while at the same time supports a smaller, decentralized and interactive government.

Considering Americans are facing a recession, gas at more than $4 a gallon, the seemingly endless war in Iraq, the threat of terrorism, and a foreclosure crisis, it is no wonder that many are pessimistic about the future and see a new world being shaped in distant lands where our status is being challenged as the distribution of power begins to shift away from an era of American dominance to one where the world is defined and directed from many places and by many people.

Writer Fareed Zakaria, in his new book 'The Post American World,' does not see this as necessarily a bad thing and in fact is quite optimistic about the future but, given the pessimism of recent months, it is easy to understand why voters might be uncertain about the future.

In recent years the Americans have become more polarized than ever. The "ideological difference between the political parties are growing…and have become embedded in American society itself," according to William A. Galston and Pietro S. Nivola, the authors of a recent study on political polarization, quoted in The New York Times Magazine, "the great majority of voters now fuse their party identification, ideology and decisions in the voting booth.

"In 1984 41% of them were located at or near the midpoint of the ideological spectrum compared with only 28% in 2004.

"While a party system that differentiates sharply between alternatives has virtues, not the least being that it engages more voters, offers clearer choices and enhances accountability (and) public trust and confidence in government."

Thus the lesson for both conservatives and liberals alike in this campaign is to avoid the extreme ends of the political spectrum and seek a return closer to its midpoint. To achieve, in other words, a balance between the liberal and conservative conceptions of the ends and means of government. In what Oliver Letwin described earlier as a

"disintegrating society," one can only hope the candidates of 2008 will follow this example as well, so the divisions of the last few years, between red states and blue, can begin to begin to be healed.

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