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Romney's Sleight Of Hand

Mitt Romney delivered a speech today to the National Rifle Association. In it he asserted that the country faces one of its great historical inflection points. Watch his reading of history:

One of these historical shifts came at the turn of the 20th century.  America went from an agricultural society to an industrial society. Warfare changed, with modern artillery, tanks and aircraft.  Our culture revolved around new, large cities and government assumed a more active role in the economy.

The Civil War was another decisive turning point: America became inexorably committed to Union and to the principle that the Constitution applied to every single citizen.

And if you go back one step further in history, you get to the Revolution – the greatest turning point of all. Up until this time, the world believed that the King or the government was sovereign and that the citizen was servant. The Revolutionaries had a different premise. They believed that the citizen was sovereign and government was the servant.  And the power of that idea gave birth to our country, and changed the world forever.

I believe that America is at another inflection point today. Militarily strategies are changing, our economy is changing.  Our culture is changing.  At a fundamental level, we're engaged in a great debate about  the duties of government and the rights of citizens.  And as much as ever, we need to remember and live up to the principles of America's founding.

Listening to our liberal friends sometimes, I'm reminded a little bit of the monarchists.  Not because they want a king instead of a president, but because they place their faith in government.  As they see it, government knows best. Government needs to protect us from ourselves. The supreme voice in the land is not the people, but the government.

There's obviously a lot wrong with this analysis, but the most gaping hole is the absence of the New Deal in his telling. The New Deal, of course, is the true moment when absolute individualism died in Amerian culture and government. That was the point when we stopped becoming a society where people assumed that personal misfortune must be a personal or family responsibility, and that the government had a role to play in managing the business cycle and limiting the most extreme repurcussions of capitalism. Obama may be expanding government in a significant way now, but he only proposes an appendage to the New Deal edifice.

So why is Romney omitting the central event of his narrative? Because it gives the game away. Conservative intellectuals may believe that the last seventy years of American history have represented a fall from grace, but few Americans do. That's the why the Republican politician will always present the next expansion of government as the terrifying moment we cease to be free, but will never say this about the last expansion of government, which most people like just fine.

--Jonathan Chait