Debating Pensions: Self-Interest, Citizenship & the Common Good


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Is sacrificing self-interest for the common good un-American?

This is what Dad asked me to understand that day in our Granada. This is what Democrats used to ask of people. Political philosophers argue about when they stopped; Michael Sandel believes that republicanism died with the New Deal.

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But for me, it's clear that the great period of liberal hegemony in this country was, in fact, a period when citizens were asked to contribute to a project larger than their own well-being. And, crucially, it was a period when citizens a majority of them, at least reciprocally understood themselves to have a stake in this larger project. The New Deal, despite what conservative critics have maintained since the s, did not consist of the state the government merely handing out benefices to the nation the people , turning citizens into dependent wards; it engaged and ennobled people: Social Security and all the jobs programs and rural electrification plans and federal mortgage-insurance programs were examples of the state giving people the tools to improve their own lives while improving the collective life of the country to say nothing of the way Franklin Roosevelt rallied Americans to common purpose in fighting through the Depression and the war.

Harry Truman turned the idea of common purpose outward to the rest of the world, enacting the Marshall Plan, creating NATO and other regional alliances, exhorting Americans to understand that they belonged to a community larger than even their country. John Kennedy engaged Americans precisely at the level of asking them to sacrifice for a common good, through the things that are obvious to us -- the Peace Corps, and of course "ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country" -- and through things that history's fog has made less obvious his relentless insistence that victory in the Cold War could be truly achieved only through improvement at home, which would require sacrifice and civic engagement.

Lyndon Johnson's Great Society, until it washed up on the bone-strewn beaches of Vietnam and New Left-driven atomization, fit the paradigm, too. Consider just the first two sentences of Johnson's remarks upon signing the Civil Rights Act: "I am about to sign into law the Civil Rights Act of I want to take this occasion to talk to you about what that law means to every American. Not Southerners. Not even "our nation. In March , Johnson again emphasized every American's stake in the fight for equal rights: "should we defeat every enemy, and should we double our wealth and conquer the stars, and still be unequal to this issue, then we will have failed as a people and as a nation.

Their cause must be our cause, too.

Public Value – Common Good and the Society

Because it is not just Negroes, but really it's all of us who must overcome the crippling legacy of bigotry and injustice. What Johnson and his advisers knew, just as Hubert Humphrey down Pennsylvania Avenue in the Senate knew, was that desegregation would fail if the matter were put to the American people only in terms of the rights of those directly affected; it had to be presented as advancing the common good.

This was a core belief for these Democrats besides which, they knew -- and their testimony on this point is amply demonstrated in books and memoirs and the like -- that their programs would never get through Congress if they lacked this element. Today's Democratic Party has completely lost connection with this principle. How and when did this happen? Against this small-r republican tradition that posits sacrifice for larger, universalist purposes is another tradition that has propelled American liberalism, that indeed is what the philosophers call liberalism proper: from Locke and Mill up to John Rawls in our time, a greater emphasis on the individual and, later, the group , on tolerance, on rights, and on social justice.

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In theory, it is not inevitable that these two traditions must clash. But in the s, it was inevitable that they did. And it is clear which side has won the argument within the Democratic Party. The old liberalism got America out of depression, won the war against fascism, built the middle class, created global alliances, and made education and health care far closer to universal than they had ever been.

But there were things it did not do; its conception of the common good was narrow -- completely unacceptable, in fact, to us today. Japanese Americans during World War II and African Americans pretty much ever were not part of that common good; women were only partially included. Because of lack of leadership and political expediency Roosevelt needing the South, for example , this liberalism had betrayed liberal principle and failed millions of Americans. Something had to give.


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At first, some Democrats -- Johnson and Humphrey, for example, and even some Republicans back then -- tried to expand the American community to include those who had been left behind. But the political process takes time, and compromise; young people and black people and poor people were impatient, and who could blame them? By , '66, '67, the old liberalism's failures, both domestically and in Vietnam, were so apparent as to be crushing.

A new generation exposed this "common good" as nothing more than a lie to keep power functioning, so as not to disturb the "comfortable, smooth, reasonable, democratic unfreedom" that Herbert Marcuse described in in one of the more memorable phrases of the day. Activists at the time were convinced -- and they were not particularly wrong -- that the old liberalism, far from nurturing a civic sphere in which all could deliberate and whose bounty all could enjoy, had created this unfreedom.

The only response was to shatter it.


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  • Other activists opposed the shattering -- to the contrary, their goal was to make the Democratic Party more inclusive. But even this more salutary impulse could be excessive, as with the famous example of the Cook County delegation to the Democratic Convention, in which, of the 59 delegates, only three were Poles. Many in the Democratic Party of that era opposed these attempts at inclusion and new social-justice efforts vehemently.


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    But in time, the party rid itself of those elements, and some of the '60s activists became Democratic operatives and even politicians. The stance of radical oppositionism dissipated as the '60s flamed out; but the belief system, which devalued the idea of the commons, held fast and became institutionalized within the Democratic Party.

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    The impact on the party was that the liberal impulse that privileged social justice and expansion of rights was now, for the first time, separated entirely from the civic-republican impulse of the common good. By the s, some social programs -- busing being the most obvious example -- were pursued not because they would be good for every American, but because they would expand the rights of some Americans. The old Johnsonian formulation was gone. Liberalism, and the Democratic Party, lost the language of advancing the notion that a citizen's own interest, even if that citizen did not directly benefit from such-and-such a program, was bound up in the common interest.

    Democrats were now asking many people to sacrifice for a greater good of which they were not always a part. Toss in inflation, galloping under a new Democratic president; a public, especially a white urban public, tiring of liberal failures on the matters of crime and decline; the emergence of these new things, social issues, which hadn't been very central to politics before but became a permanent fixture of the landscape now; the Iranian hostage crisis; and the funding on a huge scale, unprecedented in our history, of a conservative intellectual class and polemical apparatus.

    Toss in also the rise of interest-group pluralism: the proliferation of single-issue advocacy organizations. All supported good causes, but their dominance intensified the stratification. They presented Democrats with questionnaires to fill out, endorsements to battle for, sentences to be inserted into speeches, and favors to be promised -- and not just at election time; but even more importantly, when it came time to govern.

    By , Reagan had seized the idea of the common good. To be sure, it was a harshly conservative variant that quite actively depended on white middle-class resentment. But to its intended audience, his narrative was powerful, a clean punch landed squarely on the Democratic glass jaw.

    The liberals had come to ask too much of regular people: You, he said to the middle-class and probably white American, have to work hard and pay high taxes while welfare cheats lie around the house all day, getting the checks liberal politicians make sure they get; you follow the rules while the criminals go on their sprees and then get sprung by shifty liberal lawyers. For a lot of white people, it was powerful.

    And, let's face it, manipulative as it was, it wasn't entirely untrue, either! Bill Clinton took several important steps to address this, and to recapture the notion of the common good. He was quite attuned to the sometimes heated academic debates of the s that pitted liberalism against republicanism and the then-new school of thought called communitarianism. With some programs, Clinton strove toward a kind of civic-republican liberalism: notably AmeriCorps, his program of national and community service that has been a noble attempt to create a sense of civic obligation among young people, even if it has never quite penetrated the national consciousness.

    But, after the health-care fiasco, he didn't really use political capital he would argue that he didn't have any, and he'd have a point to try to build a liberalism of the common good. The DLC did have its own conception of the common good; indeed, the DLC, along with the communitarians, introduced the vocabulary of "rights and responsibilities" as a way to restore a civic-republican impulse to Democratic politics.

    Adding that word "responsibilities" was seen by many liberals as racial code, but, to be fair, the DLC also proposed, for example, an aggressive corporate-welfare program in the s that is, responsibility for the corporate body, too. On balance, adding "responsibilities" was a useful rhetorical corrective. But in the real world, it ended up applying chiefly to poor black women i.

    Debating Pensions: Self-Interest, Citizenship and the Common Good

    Because what the DLC gave up on, by and large, was government -- a belief in public-sector answers to large and pressing problems. If the rights-based activists of the s were guilty of defenestrating the idea of the common good, then the centrists of the s and early s were guilty of pushing too far in the other direction -- the direction of a too-extreme reticence about state interventionism, and of trying to make the rights crowd just shut up.

    Also -- of dressing up small and innocuous proposals in the garb of world-historical significance. The common good was said to be waiting to be rekindled not in the idea that capital should be taxed just as highly as wages, or in large-scale investments in public infrastructure, but in the form of the V-chip.

    For all his important successes, Clinton's broadest appeal was to people's self-interest; "I feel your pain. Meanwhile, even though the party controlled the presidency, it lost the Senate, the House, many statehouses, and several state legislatures. In philosophical terms, the s was really a decade of conservative advancement -- checked and meliorated by the presence of a reasonably progressive president, but an age when the attacks on liberal governance that started in the late s really took root, well below the level of the presidency, creating this thing "Red America," making the Gingrich revolution possible, and laying the groundwork for the second Bush era.

    Then came September 11, and Iraq, and a bulldozing Congress. Democrats were lost in the woods, completely disconnected from their mission and history. So where does this leave today's Democrats? A more precise way to ask the question is this: What principle or principles unites them all, from Max Baucus to Maxine Waters and everyone in between, and what do they demand that citizens believe?

    As I've said, they no longer ask them to believe in the moral basis of liberal governance, in demanding that citizens look beyond their own self-interest. They, or many of them, don't really ask citizens to believe in government anymore. Or taxes, or regulation -- oh, sort of on regulation, but only some of them, and only occasionally, when something happens like the mining disasters in my home state earlier this year.

    They do ask Americans to believe that middle-income people should get a fair shake, but they lack the courage to take that demand to the places it should logically go, like universal health coverage. And, of course, on many issues the party is ideologically all over the place; if you were asked to paint the party's belief system, the result would resemble a Pollock. At bottom, today's Democrats from Baucus to Waters are united in only two beliefs, and they demand that American citizens believe in only two things: diversity and rights. Sometime last fall, after John Roberts' Senate Judiciary Committee nomination hearings but before the full vote, I was on a conference call set up by Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid with a few reporters and bloggers.

    The Nation 's Eric Alterman wanted to know whether Reid would make the Roberts nomination a party-line vote. No, he said; but he himself would be opposing Roberts. His stated reason: Roberts' refusal to apologize to Chuck Schumer during the hearings for his use of the phrase "illegal amigos" in a White House memo. Let's agree that Roberts should have apologized, said it was a poor attempt at humor.

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    Let's even say that it does demonstrate a certain attitude that is inappropriate to this day and age. But honestly -- of all the many reasons to oppose Roberts' elevation to the Chief Justice's chair, this is the main one cited by the top-ranking Democrat in the country? Like a bungling politician in a Milan Kundera novel, here is brave Reid, ready to defend the polity, not against reactionary interpretations of the establishment clause or executive power, but against a year-old politically incorrect joke!

    Since she held the crucial vote in many of its most highly charged cases, her vision shaped American life for her quarter century on the court.

    Debating Pensions: Self-Interest, Citizenship & the Common Good Debating Pensions: Self-Interest, Citizenship & the Common Good
    Debating Pensions: Self-Interest, Citizenship & the Common Good Debating Pensions: Self-Interest, Citizenship & the Common Good
    Debating Pensions: Self-Interest, Citizenship & the Common Good Debating Pensions: Self-Interest, Citizenship & the Common Good
    Debating Pensions: Self-Interest, Citizenship & the Common Good Debating Pensions: Self-Interest, Citizenship & the Common Good
    Debating Pensions: Self-Interest, Citizenship & the Common Good Debating Pensions: Self-Interest, Citizenship & the Common Good
    Debating Pensions: Self-Interest, Citizenship & the Common Good Debating Pensions: Self-Interest, Citizenship & the Common Good
    Debating Pensions: Self-Interest, Citizenship & the Common Good Debating Pensions: Self-Interest, Citizenship & the Common Good
    Debating Pensions: Self-Interest, Citizenship & the Common Good Debating Pensions: Self-Interest, Citizenship & the Common Good

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