Often when we hear political debate between Liberals and Conservatives, the descriptions of whatever candidate, policy, or law in question are so far apart one has to wonder if the two sides are actually talking about the same thing. Where one side sees a record of achievement and success, another sees decline and suffering. These debates raise an important question about today’s political discourse. How exactly can two sides look at the same situation and come away with such completely opposite assessments?

A prime example of this is the debate about the keystone accomplishment driving Texas governor Rick Perry’s late entrance into the Republican primary race—and I’m not talking about his perfectly coiffured hair or habit of jogging while armed: I’m referring to the fact that since June of 2009, 40 percent of jobs created in the United States have been created in Texas.

Governor Perry uses this statistic to spin a narrative of a prosperous and growing economy unencumbered by burdensome regulation, big government or high taxes. Governor Perry, in short, presents Texas as a model of prosperity. However, to hear his opponents talk about what Texas is like, you have to wonder if they are talking about the same place.

Perry’s opponents talk about a state that has the third worst health care system in the nation: one that leaves 25 percent of the state’s citizens without health insurance. They mention Texas’s poor high school graduation rate and high pollution levels. Don’t think this is just a debate specific to Texas. Take a look at how taxes are characterized differently by the two parties in national debates. For liberals, they are a fair way to raise income to support vital programs and investments. To conservatives, they are job-killing, economy-stifling heralds of an economic apocalypse.

Faced with polar opposite portrayals of these two situations as free-market utopias or oligarchical dystopias, the astute political observer returns to the question posed above: how can two factions look at the same situation and come away with such completely opposite assessments?

The answer lies at the heart of our political divide and has to do with the very definition of what we as a nation aspire to. Our leaders are tasked with trying to work towards prosperity, pure and simple. The goal is simply to make the lives of Americans better, and to fulfill that unwritten but sacred American compact that says our children will live better than we did. I submit that the source of much of our political acrimony is rooted in fundamentally different definitions of prosperity.

To conservatives, job creation is the surest path to creating prosperity. It signals that industry is healthy and innovative and that new inventions are being created and new companies founded. These innovations point to more wealth creation and a higher standard of living in general. It means that more people have jobs, and with that comes the power to support themselves, educate and raise their children and purchase homes and healthcare.

Liberals and progressives define prosperity differently. They see it grounded in more than GDP growth, since that simple benchmark often ignores rising inequality and other societal ills. Education, healthcare, and the environment are things that tend to get ignored by the free market but are vital to a nation’s well-being. Liberals and progressives ask, if students aren’t graduating high school, then how can today’s gains be maintained in the future? Can we destroy our environment and still enjoy the same quality of life? They note that rising healthcare premiums eat into workers’ wages and cause more and more people to go without insurance, often with catastrophic results. Poverty, inequality, and pollution are all things that mark an unhealthy society; one that cheats too many people of opportunity and happiness to be considered prosperous.

This is the reason why our political divide remains so deep and why it seems that our representatives talk right past each other. Conservatives and liberals disagree not just about proposed solutions, but also about how to define and frame our challenges. I do not pretend to know which side has defined prosperity better, but it is vital that we as voters understand this dynamic. If job creation is what you primarily care about, then you might want to read up on Governor Perry. If you see prosperity as bound up in access to healthcare, education, and a robust government, then you should look elsewhere.

As a voter, don’t be fooled by politicians who pretend that their programs and policies will solve every problem. They won’t. The way a politician defines prosperity will, in the end, determine what problems they choose to address. You should not support a candidate because of specific promises that they have offered you just in time for Election Day. Vote for the candidate that sees our nation’s problems as you do, and embodies your hopes and dreams for what we as a nation can and should be. Vote for the candidate who defines a strong and prosperous nation the same way that you do. If you do that, you’ll never waste a vote.

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