Thursday, December 17, 2009

The Greater Good

I recently took the time to re-read Michael Tomasky's 2008 piece in The American Prospect, "Party in Search of a Notion." In it, Tomasky (now editor of the excellent Democracy Journal) urges Democrats to revive the party ethos of an earlier era, one in which the values of so-called civic republicanism prompted American citizens to support major domestic and international initiatives that benefited the common good and the larger American project of an ennobling liberal democracy. The New Deal at home, as well as the Marshall Plan abroad, are two examples of such efforts; ones that had the effect of improving the immediate and future socioeconomic well-being of millions, but which did not invoke an appeal to self-interest for every citizen individually. Contrast that with today's political scene, where every legislative proposal draws out a visceral individual defensiveness -- health-care: I like my (horribly inefficient) employer-sponsored health care! -- or corporate appeals masked as consumer protection -- credit card reform: You'll shrink the availability of credit to the economy (subsidized by the poor, unlucky, and imprudent)!

Tomasky says that the Democratic Party lost its common good civic republicanism in the 1960s, a time when individual rights -- another liberal tradition -- came to the forefront:
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. In theory, it is not inevitable that these two traditions must clash. But in the 1960s, it was inevitable that they did. And it is clear which side has won the argument within the Democratic Party.
I agree that "in theory" these two traditions don't appear mutually exclusive. After all, for the last fifty years most appeals to tolerance, rights, and social justice have been made not for the broad public (with the recent health-care debate being an exception), but on behalf of some marginalized segment of society. Implicitly, these movements are appeals to the greater good, to the ideals of fairness and opportunity that political leaders evoked much more explicitly during and prior to the 1960s.

But the sentiment has been lost. The Democrats and President Obama repeatedly fail to maintain a convincing "common good" narrative in what should be slam-dunk arguments. In health-care reform, evidence-based medicine may crowd out procedures that patients now expect or demand, but that are wasteful or ineffective on net. Limiting such practices would lower everyone's insurance premiums. "Cadillac" plans would be taxed at higher rates, but this would partially offset the subsidy they receive from employer-sponsored health insurance. In other words, serious health-care reform is going to require self-sacrifice. Not everyone can expect to be made immediately better off should a health-care bill pass, but their support for reform will mean both new coverage for those that may have suffered or died without it, and a stronger safety net and economic infrastructure for everyone.

Health-care reform is just one example of a relevant contemporary issue warranting a solid "greater good" narrative. The gay rights issue -- even though it would seem to fall on the Locke-ian side of the liberal tradition -- desperately needs to be seriously framed, in LBJ fashion, as a vital test of our collective American character. Indeed, every single problem that threatens the endurance of our nation (structural deficit) or our species (climate change) necessitates the return of civic republicanism and the ascendancy of those leaders ready to embrace it.

I don't pretend that the Democrats have anywhere near the political credibility to convincingly argue for large-scale economic sacrifice, particularly after the Wall Street bailout and obvious institutional corruption of Congress itself. But if their Republican counterparts are going to avoid issues of governance and recede into Nixonian ressentiment, the Democrats would be wise to regain some measure of magnanimity by relentlessly redefining themselves as the party of the common good.

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