Left or right? Democrat or Republican? White supreme year or Black Lives Matter? These are all labels that incite a certain response, and that response tends to be negative. If that response is only marginally negative, in about three more seconds it becomes impossible to explore the meaning of the labels, to debate any issue openly and fairly, and so find any possible grounds for agreement. I saw this so clearly on Sunday morning, reading my Wall Street Journal.
In the Review section on the front page was an article by Mark Lilla, based on his upcoming book, “The Once and Future Liberal: After Identify Politics“. It is an interesting article that explores what has happened with the left-leaning side of American politics and the so called liberal wing lost its way by focusing too much on specific social goals by flouting them in front of every other policy and voter. But this is not the main point I wanted to call out.
In the opening sections of the article Mr. Lilla so nicely expresses the very reason why our politicians, even our own colleagues, are unable to discuss politics without it becoming an emotional or charged issue. The author introduces a way to look at democrats and republicans as follows:
“Ronald Reagan almost single-handedly destroyed the New Deal vision of America that used to guide us. Franklin Roosevelt had pictured a place where citizens were joined in collective enterprise to build a strong nation and protect each other. The watchwords of that effort were solidarity, opportunity and public duty. Reagan pictured a more individualistic America where everyone would flourish once freed from the shackles of the state, and so the watchwords became self-reliance and small government.”
This explanation of what happened at this pivotal time in US history clearly unmasks the misunderstanding that is actually reinforced and even peddled by those that want to emphasis a difference – real or imagined – between our political parties. Let’s look at this perspective for a moment. First Roosevelt. The New Deal was basically a Keynesian expansion of public sector spending. It was designed to drive economic recovery in America after the terrible challenges of the Great Depression, itself brought on and exacerbated by Congress’ unwillingness to forgive World War I debts. The New Deal of public works indeed worked substantially, and it brought with it social services to help the less-well off. However, the watchwords chosen are misleading. Opportunity is a word the right tends to see ownership of: the left tend to focus on equal outcomes, the right tend focus on equal opportunity.
Now looking at Reagan and you again would be confused. Reagan did not dismantle the New Deal. The reality is that social services and the entire continued transfer f public funds to the population continued (and continues today – see A Nation of Takers). But Reagan did ask of us all a question: Are you not first and foremost responsible to yourself? This is a key point since it presupposes that you are not, in the first instance, owed a thing. You are supposed to try your hardest to help yourself. That is why self-reliance is a good watchword, it it is portrayed as something alien to the New Deal or democratic values.
I think there is a lot more common here than meets the eyes but media, press and writers like Mr. Lilla want to paint a murkier picture since it stokes spending on their wares and it drives eye balls and voter emotions who have nothing better to do with their time (#WhileRomanBurns). Here is where the common ground exists:
- We are first and foremost individuals. We should be proud of our ability to stand alone, fend for ourselves, and play a key role in society, our family, and wherever and whatever we call home
- Second we have a responsibility to our fellow man. This means we should respect her needs, her wants, much as she should respect ours. Everyone is equal under the eyes of God or the sun, which influences you most.
- Third we have a civic duty to help others who, through bad luck and ill fortune, have need of assistance until and if they are able to again stand up and live as equal among us. We should work together to better our opportunities and the world around us. We should create civic services to serve the wider community; to educate, to serve, to heal, to protect.
These are all common ground issues. What they do not say or imply are any of the following:
- Minority preferences should not be flouted and used to subvert the way the majority behaves. Respect and support for minority needs will be supported, in their place
- We are all owed an equal outcome. There are no such things as differences between sexes, creeds, religions, and secular groups. Though we all start from different places we are owed a common experience.
- It is our right to be given a job, good health, entertainment, and all that would otherwise come to us by hard work, clean living, and honesty.
I would agree with Mr. Lilla’s premise that the Liberals lost their way. Sometime in the 1960s’ this “identify politics” become a legitimate goal in its own right. Each and every minority cause was celebrated, then promoted, then sold, as a national concern that should alter everything for everyone. Instead of mutual respect, and yes uneven experiences, liberals and left-leaning “progressives” adopted a national platform for change which resulted in a splintered view of the world, yet with the cloak of uniformity.
Likewise the right has failed too but for different reasons. The individualism that was at first a message of responsibility resulted in example after example of selfish acts, groups and even organizations. Responsibility gave way to greed. It turns out that this was not a fault of capitalism or right-wing politics. This was a failure that came about because we are all human. It is human to want, to greed, to collect. You only have to understand our history to know this. Worse, no amount of legislation can change this.
So left and right made mistakes but rather than any third force see those mistakes and call them out, they have become hidden in the shroud of politics and now represent some underlying, simmering reason for arguing for why the other side is wrong. If we could start all over again, with no preconceptions of what is right or wrong, what is left or right, we might get past today’s current blind spot. The only trouble with that idea is that we would destined to are the same mistakes all our forefathers have made over and over again.
So for now we need to message the common ground – call it a New Bargain. Over time members from the left and right can join; but they cannot join with a message of, “I join because the other side is wrong”. They just have to forget their identity politics and remember who they are: individuals first, responsible for their own success, working together to help all have the same opportunity.