David Callahan is a senior fellow at Demos , a New York think tank. John Schwarz is author of Freedom Reclaimed: Rediscovering The American Vision .
After years of squabbling over what might constitute a new vision for the Democratic Party, progressives seem to be making some headway. The theme of “the common good”—articulated best in a recent article by American Prospect editor Michael Tomasky, but also gaining support in think tanks like the Center for American Progress—seems to have struck a chord among many on the left.
There is much to this idea. The belief that Americans must look out for one another and better society as a whole is a cornerstone of the liberal tradition. If Democrats don’t clearly stand for this belief, they lose a basic reason for being.
But progressives must be realistic about how far they can get with appeals for shared sacrifice and mutual obligation. After all, the United States is a famously individualistic country in thrall to the notion of self-reliance. While talk of the common good helped fuel the triumphs of 20th century liberalism, much has changed since that special time. There is no longer a global communist movement that made liberals look moderate in comparison. Nor are there powerful labor unions. Also, we don’t have the kinds of profound national crises—the Great Depression, World War II and the Cold War—that brought Americans together and justified a strong state as never before.
Like it or not, the past quarter century—with its strong individualism and distrust of government—may be more indicative of the “default” U.S. political culture than the golden age of liberalism that came before. What’s more, survey data documents a long-term shift across all affluent nations toward a greater emphasis on personal autonomy and less trust in authority of every kind.
None of this is to say that restoring a politics of the common good is impossible. Polls show that Americans are hungry for a greater sense of purpose. There is also growing recognition that any number of national problems—for example, the health care crisis—can only be solved by large-scale collective action. As the conservative movement runs out of steam, a new liberal moment seems just over the horizon. But capitalizing on this opportunity requires a vision that jives with American values and growing demands for autonomy. The common good must be part of that vision; it can’t be all of it.
If Democrats hope to renew a sense of mutual obligation, they would get further by tapping into our nation’s most powerful shared value—namely that of individual freedom. This may seem counterintuitive, given that freedom has been narrowly defined by laissez-faire conservatives to mean an absence of mutual obligation. In fact, though, the Founders never saw individual freedom in that way. They advanced the revolutionary Enlightenment ideal that every person has fundamental dignity; that every person deserves to control their own life, not be controlled by others; and that every person deserves to advance through their efforts. The Founders understood that freedom of this kind could only be safeguarded by energetic attention to the common good.
This remains true today. We aren’t a free society, for example, when economic inequalities thrive at historic levels such that millions occupy jobs paying below a living wage and can’t get ahead no matter how hard they work. The average American’s real wage remains virtually the same today as three decades ago despite a 75 percent increase in productivity. Nor are Americans free when they lack the basic security of health care or are trapped in jobs they don’t like for fear of losing their health coverage. Americans aren’t free, either, if rogue companies can destroy our savings and retirement pensions with impunity. And we are not free when political inequalities allow a tiny wealthy overclass to often wield more influence over public policy—and thus people’s lives—than legions of ordinary voters. Finally, Americans will only be a truly free people when each and everyone of us is accorded respect and basic dignity, along with a fair shot to prove ourselves -- regardless of our race or gender or sexual orientatation.
Liberals once owned the concept of freedom. Visionaries like FDR, JFK and Martin Luther King, Jr., talked inspirationally about the link between personal liberty and the common good. Only by working together to build a just society, they said, could America honor the ideals of individual self-creation and independence.
Today, conservatives own freedom and have greatly narrowed the mutual obligations it entails. That can’t stand. If Democrats are serious about winning elections, they’ll get serious about the defending the common good, as many liberals suggest. But they will advance this ideal in a way that resonates with America’s identity. The simple truth is that for each of us to be free, we need to look out for one another and ensure true fairness for all.