Monday, September 01, 2008

The new liberal compact

Crossposted to Daily Kos

Since Thursday, one line from the Democratic National Convention has echoed in my head since Barack Obama's introductory video:

"It is a promise we make to our children, that each of us can make what we want of our lives..."


David Strathairn delivers the quote much like an ordinary American would, echoed later in Obama's own speech:

"It's a promise that says each of us has the freedom to make of our own lives what we will, but that we also have the obligation to treat each other with dignity and respect."


Whether, or how strongly you believe in the former, it is easier for liberals to be attached to the latter. Going back to the days of Al Smith, the idea that government has a responsibility, not only to collect taxes in exchange for life and liberty, but also to provide the quality of life that makes such liberty worthwhile has always been central to the Democratic Party.

But the first part is just as instructive, and for the liberal cause to prosper, it must embrace the totality of Obama's message.

There is a duality in the American dream. There is nothing really more American than the ability of one to not only control their own destiny, but also to help shape the destiny of a greater good. Go to other parts of the world, and the goals are simpler. In some places, just barely surviving is a success in itself. In other places, the simple objective of having a career and family and not bothering anyone else is more than overwhelming. Beyond the United States, only in a few places on Earth (perhaps China, for one) will you find that it is not altogether strange for a private individual to say she wants to serve her country and has the ability to do so. Dreaming big is not altogether an absurd proposition.

But this is not to remark upon the uniqueness of America in the world, rather this is to recognize the opportunity that merely having the title of "American" can bring. With so many people of so many different backgrounds, abilities and accomplishments, this country need not be particularly restricted to carving out niches or specialties on the world stage (no one denies that American computer programmers, for example, are among the best, even if their counterparts in India receive their outsourced jobs for lower wages - we can do those jobs and many others if we choose to). It is because of the fabled American dream that Obama references that we can do whatever we want, should we commit the energy and effort to our motivations.

This is actually what draws conservatives to the concept of the free market. In this world of valuing your own skills and putting them to use, you can receive whatever you want, commensurate with your contributions. It is why, when Obama says that the Ownership Society merely means that you are on your own, conservatives from the upper class on down to the poverty line truly have no problem saying, "So what? That's fine with me."

Whether they ignore their own economic self-interests or not, Republicans (not independents, mind you, and certainly not Democrats) are more than eager to pull themselves up by their bootstraps, even if they don't have boots, as Obama remarks. Receiving help that they do not solicit can be one of the most embarrassing things to any person who has been made to believe they can make it on their own. Hence, the appeal of the conservatives' free market bent.

If "one's own destiny" and nothing else is the Republican Party's message, "the destiny of a greater good" and nothing else is the Democratic Party's message. It's why it's easy to call us socialists or communists without any thought as to what those words actually mean. I, for one, don't particularly trouble myself as to their meanings, but I do know that even in the private sector, one simply does not move up without help from others. One, for example, does not earn a promotion unless someone remarks how well they've done in their job. Even in the free market, one needs to be given the opportunity to participate. "We're all in this together" and "a rising tide lifts all boats" are the central tenets of the liberal cause. Hence, Social Security and federal Stafford Loans and Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. Federal support for those in need of, say, hurricanes in the Gulf Coast, too.

Whether mainly by design or mainly by chance, American politics, despite a society that has so much potential to do great things on an incredibly vast scale and scope, has taken hold of the law of excluded middle: you have one choice, or the other choice, and you may not have both. The independents in the center are not allowed to have their cake and eat it too.

Because I'm forced to choose, I would rather have a system that doesn't call for my complete and utter ruin should I fail in my personal endeavors. If I ever have a family, I would rather my children have the system of support that only society at large can provide them, especially during the times when, say, I'm busy at work or when they're studying at school, or both. That's why I'm a Democrat. That's why I'm a liberal.

But I have to believe in an electorate that wants it all. In a country that can fit 300 million people and probably twice that, given its size and reach, it has to be absurd that America can be limited by anything.

This is not merely an economic dichotomy, either. What got Jesse Jackson all upset this summer? Obama's call for the responsibility of fathers for their children. No doubt both are right: on one hand, fathers must own up to their obligations, but society, on the other hand, must own up to the reality that one-parent homes need support from various avenues, now more than ever. No doubt parents are probably overwhelmed by a pop culture filled with violence and other suggestive themes and need society to look at itself and monitor the effects of its own culture, but only parents are responsible for turning the television off if keeping it on would be detrimental to a child's development.

Perhaps lost in the details of Obama's speech (and there were many initiatives promised under an Obama administration) is the theme of the American duality: why not have it both ways? Why not provide financial assistance to college students while asking for public service? Why not recruit an army of teachers while asking for parents to get involved? Why not be both individually and mutually responsible at the same time?

Obama is right: patriotism has no party. But nowhere and at no time in this campaign has a conservative, a Republican or a McCain supporter advocated the degree of societal support that Obama proposes. It offends a conservative's sensibilities that the village that Hillary used to reference has a collective responsibility to raise each and every child within its care.

Liberals, on the other hand, have no such indignation towards the idea of personal responsibility. We have just talked about collective responsibility more, quibbling over the details of universal health care and the solvency of Social Security. But Obama, in his acceptance speech, has espoused both ends of the spectrum in equal parts, and this is the tone that we, as Democrats, should adopt, and haven't yet.

Maybe in four generations, Democrats have yet to outline in enduring terms the compact that government and a free society have toward each other, and the benefits that both bring to the table. But I am compelled by the notion that the party, and indeed the Presidential candidate, that details this compact to the electorate will win the election. Every time.

No one for the liberal cause need betray the principles of the base to say that both are necessary and vital to the endurance and prosperity of this republic. What is required of us, however, is the ability to carry Obama's new compact of both personal freedom and responsibility to the greater good to all Americans. Let's not merely talk about universal health care, but also the freedom to pursue all opportunities when one is healthy. Let's not merely talk about subsidizing a child's education, but also the endless dividends that a good education brings to one's quality of life. But let's also say that emergency rooms that are less crowded and schools with fewer failing students will do more good than merely sucking it up and taking hardship in stride ever could.

At the same time, let's also say that people should be free to do with their lives as they will, free from interference that society can sometimes unnecessarily bring to bear. Why can't we say that? In a nation with as varied a people as ours, let's give each and every American every opportunity to decide for themselves what would be good, both for themselves and for the people around them. Why not? It has been my belief that it is that freedom, under the compact held by the Roosevelts (a pledge to a New Deal) and Kennedys (ask not what your country can do for you) of our party and outlined by Senator Obama, is actually why we advocate for all of the collective responsibilities we have to each other.

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