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On American Unity and Individualism



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A column, a speech and a film have caused me to reflect during these post-election days. First, David Brooks, writing in the New York Times following the election, has enjoined the Republican Party to abandon its unsuccessful single-minded argument that enshrines individualism and contends that government is the single most significant force in America that prevents individuals from succeeding. As he succinctly put it, in this view:

Growing beyond proper limits, government saps initiative, sucks resources, breeds a sense of entitlement and imposes a stifling uniformity on the diverse webs of local activity.

While Brooks contended there is innately nothing wrong with this argument, it does not resonate with the nation’s emerging demographic and therefore, he suggested, should be abandoned in favor of a perspective that celebrates work and a government that does all it can to support the productive lives of its citizens. For Brooks, the GOP’s survival demands a change in course in tactics, if not in principle.

While I certainly agree there is nothing wrong with celebrating work and the can- do American spirit, I am not so sure as Brooks that this mantra was not taken too far in the 2012 campaign, and in recent decades in the GOP more generally. Romney’s infamous “47% dependency” remarks, the willingness of the party to blame the federal government, immigrants and minorities for a major share of the nation’s challenges with the implication that the first is utterly incompetent and unproductive while too many of the latter are “welfare dependents” and stereotypically lazy, goes far beyond a clarion call to rugged individualism. Indeed, what concerns me is that the banner so stridently taken up in the late campaign particularly, was in principle deeply corrosive of the ties that unite Americans. And it is only those bonds that join the nation as nation. Americans can and should debate which level of government ought to do what and whether certain responsibilities ought to be the province of government and how public services might most effectively and equitably be delivered. But these are quite obviously different questions than asserting that only some citizens are productive while others are dependent slackers, that taxes or regulation per se constitute illegitimate actions or the implication that only some among us are deserving of full citizenship. And it is also worth highlighting once more that the GOP has generally tied these claims to calls for the market to take a far larger role in the nation’s political economy. The implicit, and often explicit, claim accompanying these assertions is that the market can substitute for democratic self-governance in the organization of the nation’s political economy.

Given these contentions I was struck secondly that the President chose to call for American unity in his victory speech early Wednesday morning. This was not merely a tactical call to rally individuals around his likely next policy steps, but a ringing declaration in Lincoln-esque tones that the American citizenry constitutes a single nation and that the population’s differences should never obscure that underlying reality. Likewise, the President did not argue that this or that group was responsible for the nation’s challenges or aver that the market could take the place of the difficult and tough negotiations that attend to democratic self-governance in a heterogeneous society. He did not contend that only some were sufficiently “productive” to be included in that conversation, but again and again reminded his listeners that self-governance demands disciplined self-reflection and a willingness to include all Americans in such efforts with the aim of identifying just action and common ground. I was struck again that there is no alternative to such efforts if we wish to remain a united and free people. Making metaphoric democratic “sausage” is not always pretty, but unless we begin from the premise that we are one nation and our national government represents both the symbol and only legitimate instrument of that unity as we address our shared concerns, we will not long enjoy the privilege, messy or not.

So, finally, it has been interesting to read about the release of Steven Spielberg’s new film, “Lincoln,” which is already being touted as a potential Oscar nominee. The film treats the President’s final period in office and highlights Lincoln’s struggles to create one nation in the midst of a terrible war and grievous social and political divisions in the country. It seems to me the timing of this film is serendipitous, as much can be learned for our time from the president many regard as America’s finest ever. First, Lincoln never flinched from his abiding belief in the nation as a unity, nor his determination to assure self-governance for its people. That is, he never sought alternatives or scapegoats for the hard work of democracy. Second, Lincoln always displayed a keen sense of humor, humility and self-awareness that might serve as useful guideposts for our current leaders as they enter into important discussions concerning significant choices for our nation’s future. Finally, and recalling that much else might be said, it seems to me Lincoln demonstrated a steady determination on behalf of the commonweal that should stand as a shining reminder for our elected officials today. Their promise and their challenge rest in serving the American people and not one segment or group or individual of the same. They should do so acknowledging the fragility as well as enormous reservoir of strength that inhere in the regime and the people it serves. They owe that nation in all of its vital heterogeneity, frailty, vigor and dynamism their very best efforts.

Publication Date

November 11, 2012