Sunday, August 12, 2012

Election 2012: The Investment Election

It's been quite a while since I've posted to this space, but with Mitt Romney's bold, risky decision to select Wisconsin Representative and conservative darling Paul Ryan as his running mate for the 2012 election, I feel compelled to return here and post some of my own thoughts on the selection. News and political sites, blogs, twitter accounts, and even tumblrs have already spent a lot of time analyzing the political implications of this pick on the race. I, however, want to take a stab at discussing some broader rhetorical implications of the selection, particularly in light of some of my own work.

At the Rhetoric Society of America conference back in May, I presented a paper that argued, among other things, that we're currently experiencing the emergence of a mode of citizen-subjectivity that can best be described using the ideograph "investment" (I have to use quotation marks because Blogger won't let me use the traditional brackets). Celeste Condit and John Lucaites define an ideograph as "a culturally biased, abstract word or phrase, drawn from ordinary language, which serves as a constitutional value for a historically situated collectivity" (From their Crafting Equality book, 1993, p. xii). It's a term that can have multiple meanings and uses but still has both a common thread that unites each use and such widespread popularity that its meaning is practically implied. Examples of ideographs include "freedom," "equality," and "family values." In my paper (which I'm still working through and revising), I argue that has become one crucial way that our sense of citizenship is being molded and expressed in the 21st century. In one of the examples of this emergence, I examine the current political debate that has now been sharpened by Romney's selection of Paul Ryan as his running mate. Here, I argue that many of the major political debates of the past few years have revolved around which view of investment we want to accept. Democrats argue that public spending constitutes an "investment" in the future of the nation (just look at the most recent budget recommendation put out by President Obama…the word "investment" alone appears just under 400 times!) and that spending on roads, bridges, infrastructure, energy, etc. are not wastes of money but rather are the way that we support ourselves and each other. Republicans, of course, disagree with this characterization and instead argue for a reduced role of the federal government so that citizens are free to invest their own hard-earned money as they choose to secure their own financial future. The government shouldn't dictate to people how their tax dollars should be used to pay for their own health care, retirement, or insurance against the potential for hardship. Individual citizens should make those decisions for themselves, the theory being that compelling citizens to take on more personal responsibility for these aspects of their lives imbues them with a sense of ownership and investment in their own lives and, by extension, the society at large. The first blueprint for this perspective was George W. Bush's "Ownership Society," but now I think it's pretty clear that the current blueprint is the Ryan budget (in all its forms and versions).

These are two radically different views of the relationship between government and the citizenry, but they both involve an invocation of . Both rely on the same concept to achieve their vision. With the selection of Paul Ryan as Mitt Romney's running mate, many political observers have commented that the election has now shifted from a referendum on President Obama to a choice election. The two sides have stark contrasts, and the voters will have a clear choice between them. I agree with this sentiment, but I'm less convinced of the specific question that decides the election. Some argue that this election now becomes a fight about the size of government, a fight that the two major parties have been having by proxy elsewhere but now moves front and center this fall. I actually feel (along with Jon Stewart, Dean Baker, and others) that the "size of government" debate is a red herring. There are places where Democrats want to restrain the size and scope of government, and there are places where Republicans are happy to use government control and largesse to impose their will on others. It's not about size, but rather where the pressure is applied. The point is, though, that this may be a way to think about the election--a debate over where government pressure should be applied--but I'm not convinced it's the best one. Paul Ryan has, himself, categorized the broader issues around the election as "individualism versus collectivism." To say the least, this reduction of the debate to -ism's is a stretch. No one's arguing for complete, leave-me-alone individualism, and no one's arguing for automaton-style socialist control. The advocacies are somewhere in the middle (notwithstanding Paul Ryan's extremely conservative record on the issues).

Instead, I want to suggest that a different question frames this election, one that grows out of my own research: what kinds of investments do we, as Americans, want to make? Do want to invest in the future privately, through our own personal avenues, with greater individual choice over our investments but greater risk? Or do we want to make societal investments to build a firm foundation for the next generation? In the 2012 election, those two have now become mutually exclusive. Paul Ryan's budget, which Mitt Romney praised (before backing away slowly from it once he chose Ryan) takes us down the road toward less state management of the concept of investment by cutting taxes and assuming that individuals will make the best investment decisions for themselves, which will, in turn, they argue, benefit the country as a whole. The competing vision that President Obama, Elizabeth Warren, and others have articulated suggests that, while entrepreneurs have a vital role to play in the economy, their role cannot be the sole focus of government policy to the detriment of everyone else's contributions to the health of the nation. Recognizing this broader view of the economy and country requires a more communal view of investment, one that suggests that paying higher taxes and prioritizing infrastructure, development, and innovation through government funding lay the groundwork for a future return on investment in the form of great roads, solid infrastructure, and technological advances that make the US competitive around the world.

Two very different visions for the country, but again, both ask us to utilize the concept of investment. The deciding factor may just come down to which side can articulate and defend their sense of investment better than the other.


Paul Johnson said...

Nice post. seems like one implicit component of what you're describing is the bizarre sort of "investment conflation" we get when articulating difficult private economic times to concerns over govt issues like debt.

Blake said...

Thanks! I totally agree. Debt is completely intertwined with the concept of investment in many ways. It keeps popping up as an undercurrent in my research. I'm thinking of focusing more specifically on the rhetorical value of debt in future work. Just not sure how yet.