The Culture of Interdependence

Terrance Heath

First, let me be clear: I take no credit for the messaging or themes of first two nights of the Democratic convention. But in some of the most talked about speeches of the last two nights, I heard echoes of ideas I’ve been writing about for years. No, it doesn’t lead me to think anyone in the White House or at the DNC has been reading my blog posts. But it does give me hope that Democrats have what can be a winning message, if they back it up with effective policy to create jobs and rebuild the middle class — and then make voters believe they’ll fight for those policies after the election.

They’re off to a good start. The best speeches of the night spotlighted a moral framework and set of values that will resonate with many Americans, and benefit Democrats in November and beyond, if they back it up.

I haven’t seen most of the convention as it’s unfolded. In our house, those hours are consumed by dinner, dishes, playtime, homework, and bedtimes. Instead, I read the speeches, or watch online videos of them, long after “prime time.” I was particularly impressed with the speeches given by  Julian Castro and First Lady Michelle Obama, and Elizabeth Warren’s speech last night. (Yes, Warren introduced Bill Clinton, but the Big Dog has once again proven that he’s in a class by himself.)

Julian Castro

Though very nearly upstaged by his three-year-old daughter Carina, Julian Castro set the tone Tuesday night with a speech focused on his unlikely rise from a low-income childhood in Texas, to rising Democratic political star, and the story of his immigrant grandmother’s pursuit of the American Dream itself for her grandchildren.

My grandmother didn’t live to see us begin our lives in public service

But she probably would’ve thought it extraordinary that just two generations after she arrived in San Antonio, one grandson would be the mayor and the other would be on his way – the good people of San Antonio willing-to the United States Congress!

My family’s story isn’t special. What’s special is the America that makes our story possible.

Ours is a nation like no other-a place where great journeys can be made in a single generation…no matter who you are or where you come from, the path is always forward.

It’s a story and background that many Americans — not just the DREAMers lined for their chance at the American Dream — can identity with, and one that Castro said Mitt Romney just “doesn’t get.”

Mitt Romney, quite simply, doesn’t get it. A few months ago he visited a university in Ohio and gave the students there a little entrepreneurial advice. “Start a business,” he said. But how? “Borrow money if you have to from your parents,” he told them. Gee, why didn’t I think of that? Some people are lucky enough to borrow money from their parents, but that shouldn’t determine whether you can pursue your dreams. I don’t think Governor Romney meant any harm. I think he’s a good guy. He just has no idea how good he’s had it.

We know that in our free market economy some will prosper more than others. What we don’t accept is the idea that some folks won’t even get a chance. And the thing is, Mitt Romney and the Republican Party are perfectly comfortable with that America. In fact, that’s exactly what they’re promising us.

As I wrote earlier, not only does Mitt Romney not get how good he’s had it, but he appears not to get or care how much worse other people have it compared to him. Mitt Romney has repeatedly declared that he will not “apologize for being successful,” but ignores how much his success and that of his sons is due to to the importance of being a Romney.

Last month, blogs were abuzz about recent studies suggesting that wealth reduces compassion — that increasing wealth corresponds with decreasing empathy for others. That’s gotta be one of the reasons Mitt Romney — one of the the richest people to run for president in 20 years— could stand in front of audience of college students in Ohio and tell them “Take a shot, go for it, take a risk, get the education, borrow money if you have to from your parents, start a business,” without acknowledging that many of those students will struggle to find jobs and pay student loans after graduation? How else could Romney regale students with a story about a friend of his who borrowed $20,000 from his parents to start a business, and remain utterly oblivious that the parents of most of the students in the audience probably didn’t have $20,000 to lend them in the first place?

…It doesn’t occur to Mitt Romney that most students today don’t have parents who can lend them $20,000 — or $20, or so much as bus fare in some cases — any more than it occurs to him that those students’ parents probably didn’t get their start “struggling” to live on the yields from their stock portfolios.  And it doesn’t occur to Tagg Romney that (a) having parents who could give him $10 million and (b) being Mitt Romney’s son opened doors to him that would have remained firmly closed to others who did have private equity experience, but lacked $10 million in parental support, and the advantage of being the son of the next likely Republican presidential candidate. (And, it goes without saying, possibly the son of the next president.)

No one’s asking Mitt Romney or Paul Ryan to “apologize” for having the good fortune to be born to wealthy parents, go on to inherit or marry into even more wealth, and then invest that wealth in creating even more personal wealth. Yet, asking them to just be honest about the web of privilege that supports them,  and how much they’ve benefited from government assistance is asking too much.

But the heart of Castro’s speech was its beginning, when he touched on a theme that Michelle Obama would carry forward later in the evening.

Texas may be the one place where people actually still have bootstraps…and we expect folks to pull themselves up by them. But we also recognize there are some things we can’t do alone.  We have to come together and invest in opportunity today for prosperity tomorrow.

Michelle Obama

If Julian Castro set the table on Tuesday night, Michelle Obama served up a fulfilling main course.

A disclaimer: I’m a big Michelle Obama fan. So, I’m bound to be biased, but a cursory reading of the media responses — not to mention an avalanche of tweets — suggest that Michelle Obama hit a home-run Tuesday night, much as she did in 2008. While her task was somewhat different last night, than it was in 2008, she gave much the same basic speech she did then — full of warmth and personal touches.

But this time, Michelle Obama did much more. In re-telling both her and her husband’s personal stories, as well as their struggles as a young couple starting out, Mrs. Obama picked carried forward theme that Castro introduced in his speech, and strengthened the connection to values.

You see, even though back then Barack was a Senator and a presidential candidate…to me, he was still the guy who’d picked me up for our dates in a car that was so rusted out, I could actually see the pavement going by through a hole in the passenger side door…he was the guy whose proudest possession was a coffee table he’d found in a dumpster, and whose only pair of decent shoes was half a size too small.

But when Barack started telling me about his family – that’s when I knew I had found a kindred spirit, someone whose values and upbringing were so much like mine.

You see, Barack and I were both raised by families who didn’t have much in the way of money or material possessions but who had given us something far more valuable – their unconditional love, their unflinching sacrifice, and the chance to go places they had never imagined for themselves.

… Like so many American families, our families weren’t asking for much.

They didn’t begrudge anyone else’s success or care that others had much more than they did…in fact, they admired it.

They simply believed in that fundamental American promise that, even if you don’t start out with much, if you work hard and do what you’re supposed to do, then you should be able to build a decent life for yourself and an even better life for your kids and grandkids.

That’s how they raised us…that’s what we learned from their example.

Without mentioning Ann Romney by name, Michelle Obama related a story much more accessible to Americans than selling off stock to get by, and make it through college without having to work. But the real difference between the two speeches — the current First Lady and the would-be — wasn’t measured in offshore accounts, Cadillacs or car elevators.

Ann Romney’s speech brought to mind her 1994 Boston Globe interview, in which she talked about how she and Mitt supported themselves as college students by selling off investment stock “that came from Mitt’s father,” yet simultaneously claimed the young couple never received any help from their parents. Michelle Obama’s speech capped off an evening of speeches that exposed the Republican’s empathy gap.

She never mentioned Mitt Romney, but as she described her husband, a man with a rusted-out car, who wore shoes a half-size too small, whose single mother struggled to raise him and whose tenacious grandmother nonetheless hit a glass ceiling at her bank; who managed massive student loan debt until he got to the U.S. Senate and who comes home most nights to have dinner with his daughters; well, the contrast with Romney was stark. “Barack knows what it means when a family struggles,” she said. Unlike someone else we won’t mention.

It wasn’t just Michelle Obama – in San Antonio Mayor Julian Castro, in Lilly Ledbetter, in Illinois congressional candidate Tammy Duckworth, known for her military service but who talked of relying on food stamps when she was young, we heard from people who knew hard times personally, who couldn’t liquidate some stock options when times were tough, or go to their parents for money to start a business or attend college. And they proudly attributed their success not merely to their own talent and hard work, or their parents’ – although that was there – but to a government that helped when they needed it. David Brooks unbelievably called the GOP “the party of strivers”; maybe he’ll think differently now that he sees real strivers – who don’t want to slam the door behind them after they’ve made it. There’s no better symbol of the GOP than Paul Ryan saving his father’s Social Security benefits so he could attend college – then crusading to privatize Social Security now that he’s a wealthy man.

Where Ann Romney proudly embraced the myth of the “self-made” American, and pretended never to have received or wanted any help, Michelle Obama gladly and humbly acknowledged how much her family’s success was due to the contributions of countless others.

We learned about dignity and decency – that how hard you work matters more than how much you make…that helping others means more than just getting ahead yourself.

We learned about honesty and integrity – that the truth matters…that you don’t take shortcuts or play by your own set of rules…and success doesn’t count unless you earn it fair and square.

We learned about gratitude and humility – that so many people had a hand in our success, from the teachers who inspired us to the janitors who kept our school clean…and we were taught to value everyone’s contribution and treat everyone with respect.

Those are the values Barack and I – and so many of you – are trying to pass on to our own children.

That’s who we are.

The reason those two speeches resonate is because that’s who we really are, all of us. While Republicans denounce an imaginary “culture of dependency,” the rest of us live day-to-day in a culture of interdependency.

What these programs and the social contract represent is space between the extremes of “dependence” and “independence” — interdependence. It’s the simple reality that we are mutually dependent upon and rely on each other for survival, and that what happens to one of us in some way eventually impacts all of us. Thus we have a mutual interest in one another’s well-being.

It’s an idea central to Buddhism that none of us exists as an island, detached from all others, uninvolved in and unaffected by the fates of others.

It’s also a deeply-rooted American value. It is manifested in the traditions of our past, like barn raising. It can be seen in contemporary movements, like Occupy Our Homes. It has taken to the streets in Madison, WI.

Michelle Obama’s speech Tuesday was a “declaration of interdependence,” as Harold Meyerson put it. 

The message of the first night of the Democratic Convention was “We built it together.” Speaker after speaker took aim at the Republican Party’s Randian, libertarian vision, at the ideology that Britain’s Margaret Thatcher succinctly expressed when she said, “There is no such thing as society.”

There is, too, replied the Democrats. There is temporal society—the intergenerational links, the investment in education that pays off not in your own success but, as San Antonio Julian Castro pointed out, in your children’s. There is the society of laws, where Democrats (in general) and Barack Obama (in particular) have fought for equality in matters of sexual orientation. There is the economic society—now more unequal than it’s been in 80 years—where Obama, in his wife’s words, ensured that paying your medical bill won’t mean you go broke.

The first evening on the Democrats’ conclave was a declaration of interdependence, backed up by personal testimony to the value not just of schoolteachers but, quoting Michelle Obama, of school janitors; of parents and grandparents; of the obligations to America’s children, whatever their parents’ lot. In the killer line in the killer speech of the night—again, Michelle’s—she contrasted that commitment, her husband’s commitment, to Mitt Romney’s. Her husband, she said, “believes that when you’ve worked hard, and done well, and walked through that doorway of opportunity, you do not slam it shut behind you.” 

It’s is a stark contrast to the conservative embrace of selfishness as a moral virtue.

Today, we’re told that our fates are not connected; that we can afford to abandon one another halfway up the mountain or across the the river; that as long as we “get over” we shouldn’t and can’t afford to worry about anyone else.

In the most extreme view — like that of Ayn Rand, a favorite “moral philosopher” of today’s conservatives — workers are less than nothing. They are “looters” or “parasites.” They are cogs in the machine built and run by Rand’s “great men,” and if they are ground up by that machine, so be it. They have no rights that giants of industry and capital need recognize.

American conservatism is increasingly wedded to a philosophy that raises selfishness to the level of moral virtue, that in fact extols it as the highest virtue. Pursuit of self interest, in this view, is not only the individual’s highest moral act, but it is his only — his only — moral obligation.

In his final speech, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. — whose words and work have much to say about the importance of the culture of interdependence — urged us to develop a “dangerous unselfishness,” that is the  foundation of the culture of interdependence which has been essential part of our history and identity as a nation, and which is now under threatened by a politics and philosophy that makes selfishness a moral virtue.

Elizabeth Warren

Last night was Elizabeth Warren’s first Democratic convention, and the first time she addressed one.

But previous speakers had already borrowed her words. Indeed, it looks like the entire party has borrowed them.

More than anyone else, Elizabeth Warren is responsible for shaping message of this convention, with a viral video defense of the social contract

 

In a video of a recent Warren appearance, posted online by an individual who says he or she is not affiliated with the campaign, Warren answered the charge. “I hear all this, you know, ‘Well, this is class warfare, this is whatever,’” Warren said. “No. There is nobody in this country who got rich on his own — nobody.

“You built a factory out there? Good for you. But I want to be clear. You moved your goods to market on the roads the rest of us paid for. You hired workers the rest of us paid to educate. You were safe in your factory because of police-forces and fire-forces that the rest of us paid for. You didn’t have to worry that marauding bands would come and seize everything at your factory — and hire someone to protect against this — because of the work the rest of us did.

“Now look, you built a factory and it turned into something terrific, or a great idea. God bless — keep a big hunk of it. But part of the underlying social contract is, you take a hunk of that and pay forward for the next kid who comes along.”

That’s the culture of interdependence that turned what was narrow toll road to the American Dream into a  wide, paved road that was open to all. That’s the culture of interdependence that built the middle class. That culture of interdependence has been under assault by “unleashed greed” for “thirty troubling years.”

Her prime time slot introducing Bill Clinton was perhaps a nod to Warren’s contribution to the Democrats’ message. True to form, Warren used that spot to expand the idea that’s been borrowed by every Democratic speaker so far. Where before she defined the culture of interdependence, better known as the social contract, last night Warren pinpointed the severity of the threat to the culture of interdependence, and what that means for millions of Americans and their families.

People feel like the system is rigged against them. And here’s the painful part: they’re right. The system is rigged. Look around. Oil companies guzzle down billions in subsidies. Billionaires pay lower tax rates than their secretaries. Wall Street CEOs–the same ones who wrecked our economy and destroyed millions of jobs–still strut around Congress, no shame, demanding favors, and acting like we should thank them.

Anyone here have a problem with that? Well I do. I talk to small business owners all across Massachusetts.

Not one of them–not one–made big bucks from the risky Wall Street bets that brought down our economy. I talk to nurses and programmers, salespeople and firefighters–people who bust their tails every day. Not one of them–not one–stashes their money in the Cayman Islands to avoid paying their fair share of taxes.

These folks don’t resent that someone else makes more money. We’re Americans. We celebrate success. We just don’t want the game to be rigged. We’ve fought to level the playing field before. About a century ago, when corrosive greed threatened our economy and our way of life, the American people came together under the leadership of Teddy Roosevelt and other progressives, to bring our nation back from the brink.

The Republican vision is clear: “I’ve got mine, the rest of you are on your own.” Republicans say they don’t believe in government. Sure they do. They believe in government to help themselves and their powerful friends. After all, Mitt Romney’s the guy who said corporations are people.

No, Governor Romney, corporations are not people. People have hearts, they have kids, they get jobs, they get sick, they cry, they dance. They live, they love, and they die. And that matters. That matters because we don’t run this country for corporations, we run it for people. And that’s why we need Barack Obama.

Our long march towards increased inequality hasn’t gone unnoticed by ordinary Americans. Nor has the “rigged system” that drives it. That’s why it’s good to hear the Democrats talking about both, because the majority of Americans are primed to embrace a bold economic agenda to rebuild the middle class and right our rigged system.  The American people “get it.”

inequality-and-the-public

Given stagnating wages and frustratingly high unemployment, it’s unsurprising that popular opinion has turned against the rich.

Inequality is not merely a material issue. It permeates our society in myriad, unpleasant ways. A new Pew Survey takes the temperature of the Americans on the rich, and most are not happy. A majority (65%) of respondents realize, and are 57% unhappy that, the distance between rich and poor has grown over the past decade. Beyond income, poorer respondents reported being more unhappy, less healthy, and less satisfied with their jobs. The survey finds material status to be correlated with well-being.

Particularly interesting is that most respondents think that the rich are less honest than the poor or middle-class. More than half saw the rich as greedier than other people, and a plurality believe they’re less honest. This underscores other surveys that find a record low amount of trust in institutions.

…Taken in sum, these findings demonstrate that the gulf between rich and poor isn’t an abstraction. It has real societal implications. Policymakers ignore it at their own peril.

No wonder Democrats are getting props for “message discipline,” this week.

Democrats have what could be a winning message, and every speaker so far as echoed and expanded upon that message. Tonight President Obama has a chance to close the deal, by telling Americans how he and his party will not only turn that message in to effective policy, but fight for it. 

 

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