An unlikely, if revealing, union
Last August saw a rather strange political union. Prominent conservatives, among them Sarah Palin, Rush Limbaugh and Ted Cruz, found themselves supporting a speech that Ashton Kutcher gave at an award ceremony. In front of an audience largely consisting of screaming teenage girls, Kutcher extolled the virtues of hard work and dedication, talking about his early jobs and saying how he “had never had a job in his life that he was better than.” He also downplayed the importance of physical attractiveness in favor of intelligence and perseverance. Conservatives almost immediately came out of the woodwork to praise Kutcher, calling it a “remarkable speech” and praising Kutcher’s Iowan roots.
What is odd about this situation is that Kutcher’s liberal leanings are no secret. He donated thousands of dollars to President Barack Obama’s campaign in 2008 and appeared in a promotional video pledging his support for the president. So what gives? Why would a prominent liberal be caught advocating “conservative” values?
The answer is simple: hard work is not a conservative value. It is not a liberal value. It is a timeless quality that has existed long before either Republicans or Democrats attempted to hijack it for their own uses. By preaching a down-home, grassroots dedication to hard work and individualism, Republicans have managed to amass a huge voting base for which those ideas resonate. And why should they not? Americans like to feel like they deserve things, and a fundamental aspect of our mythology is the idea that if someone works hard, then he will become successful. This, in turn, can be reversed to create the notion that if someone is successful, he will have worked hard and will thus deserve his success.
The fact is that there are timeless values and timely values. Timeless values have been around for far longer than our country: hard work, generosity and personal responsibility come readily to mind, for example. These values should not be viewed as liberal or conservative; they are the bedrock upon which the rest of our values rest. No matter what part of the political spectrum someone resides on, he can respect and appreciate those values. They do not shift. Timely values, on the other hand, do shift. They consist of whatever is being debated in the political spectrum at the time and are extrapolations of our timeless values. Examples include universal health care, abortion and gay rights. These values change as the country changes, and their debate is what divides the parties.
So how can two very different groups stem from the same value set? The answer is perspective. Those who have been fortunate enough to see their hard work yield good fruit can look at the system with approval. If it isn’t broke, don’t fix it. On the other hand, those who have not seen their work return what society expects it to will cry foul. If the government’s responsibility is to perpetuate and enforce the values that our country was founded on, then why not create a society in which all people, regardless of circumstances of their birth, have an equal opportunity to succeed? A good work ethic does not equal success, but it should. And that is something that everyone can agree on.
Conservatives cannot lay sole claim to hard work anymore than liberals can claim a monopoly on compassion. No one is saying that people shouldn’t work hard to achieve their goals; that is a notion that every American, red, blue or otherwise, can get behind. By claiming to be the sole arbiter of what it means to be American, political parties capitalize on patriotism and fear to divide a populace, creating political deadlock and stagnancy. If such underhanded tactics can be abandoned, then perhaps we can continue the never-ending task of making this country the best it can possibly be.