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Dec 08 2013

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The Pope and the Future for Republicans

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A Worthy Challenge...

A Worthy Challenge…

You know that something big has happened when religion-friendly conservatives are calling Pope Francis a Marxist, while the religion-hating left enthusiastically embraces a statement on faith from the Catholic Church. But such was the case last week when Pope Francis released an “Apostolic Exhortation” that contained a very robust and unfavorable critique of capitalism and free markets.

The instant analysis makes you wonder if either side actually read the Pope’s document in full.

Churlish, defensive conservatives, who are taken aback by Francis’ obvious hostility to the only economic system that has ever successfully created prosperity and improved the human condition, might look more closely at other elements of the papal document:

In the prevailing culture, priority is given to the outward, the immediate, the visible, the quick, the superficial and the provisional. What is real gives way to appearances. In many countries globalization has meant a hastened deterioration of their own cultural roots and the invasion of ways of thinking and acting proper to other cultures which are economically advanced but ethically debilitated.”

Who among the conservative faithful would not agree. Or this:

“The process of secularization tends to reduce the faith…to the sphere of the private and personal. Furthermore, by completely rejecting the transcendent, it has produced a growing deterioration of ethics…and a steady increase in relativism…We are living in an information-driven society which bombards us indiscriminately with data – all treated as being of equal importance – and which leads to remarkable superficiality in the area of moral discernment. In response, we need to provide an education which  teaches critical thinking and encourages the development of mature moral values.”

By the same token, Church-hating progressives entranced by Francis’ blistering case against capitalism, might want to consider his indictment of serial “complainers” and the Pope’s core conviction that true joy is only found in God and Jesus:

Sometimes we are tempted to find excuses and complain, acting as if we could only be happy if a thousand conditions were met….I can say that the most beautiful and natural expressions of joy which I have seen in my life were in poor people who had little to hold on to. I also think of the real joy shown by others who, even amid pressing professional obligations were able to preserve, in detachment and simplicity a heart full of faith. In their own way, all these instances of joy flow for the infinite love of God, who has revealed himself to us in Jesus Christ.”

But these issues aside, the central fact of the debate is not in dispute; the Pope is ill-disposed toward capitalism.

Today everything comes under the laws of competition and the survival of the fittest, where the powerful feed upon the powerless. As a consequence, masses of people find themselves excluded and marginalized: without work, without possibilities, without any means of escape.”

And this:

“In this context, some people continue to defend trickle down theories which assume that economic growth, encouraged by a free market, will inevitably succeed in bringing about greater justice and inclusiveness in the world. This opinion, which has never been confirmed by the facts, expresses a crude and naïve trust in the goodness of those wielding economic power and in the sacralized workings of the prevailing economic system.”

Ouch.

Set aside for a moment (with every possible respect) that the Holy Father may not have, um,  collected all pertinent facts related to capitalism’s accomplishments in the modern era,  the fact remains that the Pope has raised legitimate social and economic issues in a moral context.  As a result, a compelling intellectual case for capitalism is incomplete unless the papal issues are solvable in a capitalist context.

Yet the immediate reaction from free-marketers has been muted at best. Defenders of capitalism and markets have openly blanched at providing a more fulsome and yes, moral defense, appearing uncharacteristically thin-skinned and hyper-sensitive to the Francis’ view, and mostly limiting retorts to the free market’s general economic accomplishments.

 Why not use Francis’ critique as a challenge? Indeed failure to do so implies the limits of capitalism itself and its alleged by-product – a permanent, hopeless underclass. This intellectual debate, in turn,  flows nicely into the current predicament of the Republican Party, and its possible future.

Five years into Obama’s America, Republicans are flummoxed by the predicament of consistently being right on the big issues, but on the wrong end of intellectual and public opinion.

ready. Obamacare in practice has more than lived up to Republican warnings dating back to 2009. Wall Street Fat Cats get wealthy on White House sanctioned Federal Reserve stimulus, while average Americans cannot get a loan and millions endure the humiliation of foreclosure, that itself was triggered by Wall Street avarice and the implicit guarantees of the government mortgage agencies Freddie and Fannie.

 Despite $5 trillion in new debt, and the elixir of tax increases on the wealthy, which the President finally managed in 2013, the vast majority of American are poorer, income inequality is worse and upward mobility further out of reach. This, as a record number of our fellow citizens must now depend on the government support due to a lack of opportunity. This, from a government that professes to adhere to Francis’ economic critique.

Republican truth-telling on the unsustainable path for Social Security and Medicare have only made the Party the Democrats’ whipping boy for a war on the elderly. GOP truth-telling on taxes and regulations have only served to make the Party the protector of the “rich” and then enemy of the environment. It is a party cowed by baseless rhetoric at odds with the most basic truths.

Consider that in 2012, the GOP ran on the facts – and lost – despite winning on the issues. CNN’s exit polling demonstrated it.

Who was the better candidate to handle the economy?  Romney 49-48%.

With 59% saying that the most important issue facing the country was the economy, Romney won that cohort 51-47%. By 49-44% Americans wanted Obamacare repealed. Of the 27% of the people who said that the most important candidate quality was a man who shared their values, Romney beat Obama 55-42%

Why then did Romney and the GOP lose? It was crystal clear in a single exit poll question. For those that listed the most important candidate quality as the man who “cares about you” Obama blew Romney out of the water, 81-18%.

The lesson here is that if people are not at the heart of your agenda, you simply do not win. Tax reform, regulatory restraint, smart government, debt reduction and individual freedom cannot succeed in the abstract – they must come to life where people can see the benefit personally.

The 2012 election was a Republican critique of Obamaism. Perhaps that should have been enough given the harm inflicted upon the economy and social fabric by POTUS’ policies.  But in the end, as a strategy, it was not enough to simply state what was wrong about the President’s agenda without also laying out an alternate, companion plan that was both serious and superior, connecting with voters.  Despite excellent proposals that soundly addressed macro issues, the GOP was never able to articulate the micro-connection – how tax cuts in general, tangibly relate to working class families barely living paycheck-to-paycheck. How would it affect them?  Make their lives better?

Part of this relates to GOP cherry-picking of issues. Free trade, tax reform, spending cuts, entitlement reform and smaller government are important and “game changing issues” But they are not a magic wand for all of America’s ills. But the GOP also effectively ceded many systemic issues as the stakeholders to those priorities were never going to vote Republican, translating into wasted electoral effort.

But challenges such as “income inequality” are not Democratic issues. Neither is urban blight, income security for seniors or health security for citizens at large. They are American issues, deserving of American solutions, which the GOP all but ceded on a consensus that these were progressive issues solvable only through Democratic metrics and policies.

That was the key to the “cares about you” question. Republicans did not pass the test.

So back to the Pope and his economic critique.

Far from being an a simple indictment of capitalism, the pontiff’s words can be read as a challenge to capitalism.  This is why Francis’ text is so intriguing to the GOP as an intellectual catalyst. For instance, the Pope focuses on the dignity of the individual, which is the foundation of free marketers and the GOP. Both also focus on the propriety, indeed requirement, of a moral social order that enable societies to flourish. Both of these positions stand  in stark contrast to progressivism’s collectivist, grievance focused, relativism, where government, not God, is at the center of society.

In the Exhortation, Francis said:

We have to remember that the majority of our contemporaries are barely living from day-to-day, with dire consequences. A number of diseases are spreading. The hearts of many people are gripped by fear and desperation, even in the so-called rich countries. The joy of living frequently fades, lack of respect for others and violence are on the rise, and inequality is increasingly evident. It is a struggle to live and, often, to live with precious little dignity. This epochal change has been set in motion by the enormous qualitative, quantitative, rapid and cumulative advances occurring in the sciences and in technology, and by their instant application in different areas of nature and of life. We are in an age of knowledge and information, which has led to new and often anonymous kinds of power.”

The Pope is right on all accounts. But again, this is not only an indictment; it is an opportunity. The inherent advantages of markets and capitalism, their flexibility as an engine for innovation are the very tools that allow us to address systemic ills at the heart of Francis’ critique. The GOP can be the party to do that – using the Pope’s words as a guide-book to real world problem solving.

President Obama has done Republicans, conservatives and free marketers a service. By seeking liberal party-line solutions to America’s problems, he has more than demonstrated liberalism’s contradictions and epic failures as a governing philosophy. But that is not enough. The America that the next president will inherit will be much worse off  economically and socially than the country Barack Obama assumed stewardship over in 2009. If Republicans want to win, they cannot simply run on the issues that their supporters want to fix. They need to provide solutions for all.

We are only as strong as our weakest link.

If the GOP builds its new intellectual core around solving the issues with those weak links, it will have earned its way back to national leadership, and offered the world, ecclesiastic and lay alike, an example of the power of capitalism, not simply for selfish ends but of perfecting redemption.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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