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The Ideological Election

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For most of its 223 years as a nation, the US has been an ideology-free zone. Observers since De Tocqueville have marveled at the American preference for practice over theory, efficiency over principle, and money over nearly everything. America's major contribution to the realm of philosophy is pragmatism, a school of thought that elevates practicality and concrete reality over airy speculation. American elections have tended to be fought over specific issues - patronage, progress, national security - by parties clustered around the center of the ideological spectrum.

Until now. To the surprise of many Americans, the 2012 campaign has turned into one of the most heated ideological struggles in recent history. This clash has little to do with President Barack Obama, who has governed mostly as a centrist, or with his Democratic Party, which has for decades embodied the mixed-economy moderation of European social democrats. Instead, America's rediscovery of ideology is the work of the opposition Republicans, who have cast the election as a referendum on the role of government.

In their view, Obama's Democrats have turned the U.S. into a European-style socialist hell of stifling regulation, slow growth and a lazy, government-addicted underclass. Instead, Republicans say, the state's role should be greatly diminished in order to unleash the entrepreneurial energy of "job creators." Mitt Romney, a pragmatist during his years as a financier and Massachusetts governor, is now running as a committed small-government ideologue. In a notorious, secretly recorded video, he tells a group of supporters he has no use for the 47% of voters who "are dependent upon government, who believe that they are victims, who believe the government has a responsibility to care for them, who believe that they are entitled to health care, to food, to housing, to you-name-it."

The intellectual parents of this Republican world view are two 20th century intellectuals who would no doubt be astounded at their new celebrity: Frederic Hayek, the Austrian liberal economist who championed free markets; and the writer Ayn Rand, whose novels celebrating lonely individualism are back atop best-seller lists. This deceased duo, and a handful of other, mostly dead conservative thinkers, owe much of their revival to the rise of the Tea Party, the anti-government movement that has led the Republicans sharply rightward. Romney's running mate Paul Ryan is a Hayek-loving congressman known for his efforts to cut government spending drastically. Ryan once required his staff to read Rand's novels, until he learned she was an atheist.

All this anti-government fulminating has put the Republicans in an awkward position. As Romney conceded to his donors, much of the electorate actually likes government help. U.S. discretionary non-defense spending as a percentage of GDP is already among the lowest in the developed world, so there is not much left to cut. And the Republicans' calls for a less intrusive government appear to be at odds with their calls for more government curbs on abortion and gay marriage.

Moreover, the Republicans' fondness for Hayek and Rand puts them in league with an ideology they accuse Obama of saluting and which they themselves abhor: Marxism. As Yale historian Timothy Snyder recently observed: "The irony of today is that these two thinkers, in their struggle against the Marxist left of the mid-20th century, relied on some of the same underlying assumptions as Marxism itself: that politics is a matter of one simple truth, that the state will eventually cease to matter, and that a vanguard of intellectuals is needed to bring about a utopia that can be known in advance."

That utopia -- of a government small enough to "drown it in the bathtub," as a leading Republican put it -- is receding as the election nears. Romney is behind in the polls. The slumping U.S. economy, which Republicans had hoped to use against Obama, is slowly recovering. The fastest-growing segments of the population -- Hispanics, other minorities and the young -- vote heavily Democratic. And Obama is so confident that the Republican message will fail that he has dismissed Rand-style individualism as less important to national greatness than collective action is. Where would all these "job creators" be, he asks, without government-provided roads, police, fire protection and schools?

The Republicans still have piles of money to spend on negative advertising against Obama, thanks to the Supreme Court decision striking down some campaign finance limits. And Republican-controlled legislatures in a dozen states have made voting more difficult for the demographic groups that prefer Democrats.

Nonetheless, this could be the last hurrah for the new, ideologically pure Republican Party. Not only are demographic trends unfavorable, but so is reality. Voters everywhere want strong, effective governments -- not small, weak ones -- to provide globally competitive infrastructure, education and research. "The way to national prosperity in the 21st century," concluded Timothy Snyder, "is surely to think non-ideologically, to recognize that politics is a choice among constraints and goods rather than a story about a single good that would triumph if only evil people would allow it to function without constraints." If so, then 2012 could also be the last U.S. election in which dead intellectuals reach from the grave and pull a major politicical party into the grave with them.