Mitt Romney's selection of Paul Ryan as his running mate underscores the central question posed by this campaign: Should cold selfishness become the template for our society, or do we still believe in community?
Romney wanted the election to be seen as a referendum on the success or failure of President Obama's economic policies. Instead, he has revealed that the campaign is really a choice between two starkly different philosophies. One could be summed up as: "We're all in this together." The other: "I've got mine."
This is not about free enterprise and it's not about personal liberty; those fundamental principles are unquestioned. But for at least the past 100 years, we have understood capitalism and freedom to exist within a larger context -- a complicated, real-world, human context. Some people begin life at a disadvantage, and it's in the national interest to open doors of opportunity for them. Some people make mistakes, and it's in the national interest to create second chances. Some people are too young, too old or too infirm to care for themselves, and it's in the national interest to secure their welfare.
This sense of the balance between individualism and community fueled the American Century. Romney and Ryan apparently don't believe in it.
It is well known that Ryan, at least for most of his career, has been enamored of the ideas of Ayn Rand, the novelist -- "Atlas Shrugged," "The Fountainhead" -- whose interminable books touted self-interest as the highest, noblest human calling and equated capitalist success with moral virtue. Ryan now disavows Rand's worldview, primarily because she was an atheist, but he lavishly praised her ideas as recently as 2009.
What about Romney? While he has never pledged allegiance to the Cult of Rand, his view of society seems basically the same.
At least three times in recent days, as part of his response to President Obama's "You didn't build that" peroration, Romney has told campaign audiences variations on the following: "When a young person makes the honor roll, I know he took a school bus to get to the school, but I don't give the bus driver credit for the honor roll."
When he delivered that line in Manassas, Va., on Saturday with Ryan in tow, Romney drew wild applause. He went on to say that a person who gets a promotion and raise at work, and who commutes to the office by car, doesn't owe anything to the clerk at the motor vehicles department who processes driver's licenses.
What I hear Romney saying, and I suspect many others will also hear, is that the little people don't contribute and don't count.
I don't know if Romney's sons ever rode the bus to school. I do know that for most parents, it matters greatly who picks up their children in the morning and drops them off in the afternoon.
It may not be the driver's job to help with algebra homework, but he or she bears enormous responsibility for safely handling the most precious cargo imaginable. A good bus driver gets to know the children, maintains order and discipline, deals with harassment and bullying. Romney may not realize it, but a good driver plays an important role in ensuring a child's physical and emotional well-being -- and may, in fact, be the first adult to whom the child proudly displays a report card with all A's.
School bus drivers don't make a lot of money. Nor, for that matter, do the clerks who help keep unqualified drivers and unsafe vehicles off the streets. But these workers are not mere cogs in a machine designed to service those who make more money. They are part of a community.
The same is true of teachers, police officers, firefighters and others whom Romney and Ryan dismiss as minions of "big government" rather than public servants.
And what do the Republicans offer their supposed heroes, the entrepreneurs who start small businesses? The few who succeed wildly would be rewarded with tax cuts so huge that they, like Romney, might one day have a dressage horse competing in the Olympics. The majority who just manage to scrape by -- or whose businesses fail -- could look forward to only as much health care in their senior years as they are able to afford, and not one bit more.
This is a campaign Democrats should relish. The United States became the world's dominant economic, political and military power by recognizing that we are all in this together. School bus drivers, too.
Eugene Robinson's email address is email@example.com.
© 2012, Washington Post Writers Group