The gulf between the American left and right continues to widen against a backdrop of high unemployment, weak growth and high octane cultural battles.
I got to thinking about this growing divide in the aftermath of the Colorado movie theater shooting spree that left 12 dead, 58 injured, and a nation in shock.
Once the gravity of the story began to sink in, my mind turned to an inconvenient (for some) thought: How many lives would have been saved if someone in that theater had access to a firearm of their own?
On the other side of the divide, gun control advocates raced to use the tragedy as an opportunity to expand federal gun laws. A group of usual suspects led by Sens. Chuck Schumer and Frank Lautenberg and Mayor Michael Bloomberg were the first to jump. Similar to the outcry in the wake of the parking lot shooting of U.S. Rep. Gabby Giffords, many on the left view additional gun control as the "go to" answer whenever a gun-related tragedy occurs.
The aftermath of the 9/11attacks brought equally stark, diametrically opposed views to an important national security debate. Everyone began from the same premise: new screening procedures were required at our nation's airports. But how to get it done? On the right, the inclination was to work with the private airlines in building additional security infrastructure. On the left, the reflexive impulse was to create a new federal agency to run airport security. (Seems that traumatic national events always lead to new federal agencies and expanded federal power.) And so the post-9/11 debate gave birth to the Transportation Security Administration. Whether the creation of the TSA was the correct call will play itself out over time.
Congressional reaction to the recent mortgage crisis is another example. Conservatives saw the meltdown as the result of inappropriate government meddling and regulation: first, encouraging the notion that nearly everyone could afford a mortgage without regard to credit history and income; second, ordering the lowering of underwriting standards at Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac in order that more sub-prime loan packages could be bought and sold; and third, perpetuating a social justice approach to the application of the Community Reinvestment Act, thereby leveraging banks to approve ever-larger numbers of sub-prime loans on behalf of high risk consumers.
On the left, the meltdown was seen as the result of Wall Street greed; of ever-hungry brokers knowingly selling toxic assets to the world in order to generate huge fees and bonuses. The increasingly infamous Dodd-Frank financial regulation bill with its enormous costs and thousands of pages of rules represents a typical Congressional response.
Perhaps no present-day debate makes my point better than how the respective sides view wealth. Conservatives tend to celebrate the status, especially where one's personal wealth is the result of blood, sweat, and toil. You know, that old "self made man" thing. Even the accumulation of great wealth is no cause for alarm — most wealthy people exercise their moral responsibility to give back. Check it out: Americans lead the world in philanthropic giving.
"Angst"is the more appropriate description of how many liberals view this same phenomenon. Even greater discord is produced when great wealth is accomplished. Here, only major tax increases serve to assuage the progressive mindset. That this view is less about tax policy (even a 100 percent marginal tax rate on income in excess of $250,000 a year would not make a dent in our $16 trillion dollar federal debt) and more about egalitarian social policy is increasingly apparent.
These disparate views of wealth also provide insight into why Democrats and Republicans disagree on the right prescription for what ails our economy.
Both see a jobless recovery, slow growth, gloomy economic forecasts, and a worried American middle class.
The Democrats' solution is predictable: additional stimulus, more public sector spending, and steep, progressive tax increases. Recall President Barack Obama's infamous assertion that the private sector is doing "just fine" amid his call for more public sector jobs to bolster the economy.
Across the aisle, Republicans respond in equally predictable fashion: less spending, entitlement reform, and a tax cut for small business owners.
The election of 2008 propelled a free-spending, doctrinaire progressive into the White House: a gigantic stimulus, Obamacare, and $5 trillion dollars in new debt soon followed.
Two years later, it was a quite different storyline as a Tea-Party inspired tide returned House control to the GOP. The president's domestic agenda has been stalled ever since.
Election 2012 will be the tie breaker. One of the two competing worldviews will carry the day.
Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s column appears Sundays. The former Maryland governor and Member of Congress is a partner at the law firm King& Spalding, the author of "Turn this Car Around" — a book about national politics — and Maryland chairman for the Romney presidential campaign. His email is email@example.com.