When we birthed America, we birthed twins. One child arrived in the south with slaves and came to dominate rural areas. The promise of the new world lay in financial independence and a religion that blessed it. This twin came as the second- and third-born son of English estates, hard-scrabble Scot-Irish (my clan, the rednecks) and prisoners who would find a new lease on life. This child boasted of personal responsibility and pursued financial opportunity: Indeed, he perceived America as the land of opportunity in which he could fulfill both callings. After years of experiencing corrupt monarchy, this child distrusted central government and demanded a Bill of Rights when government grew more organized.
The other child arrived in the north and stayed in seaboard cities that grew. This child was more expressly religious. The promise of the new world consisted of the freedom to create homogeneous religious communities without being bound to the state religion of the motherland. She came as Protestant and Reformed in New England (eventually to spread out from there south and west to be Congregationalists, Presbyterians and Baptists), Quakers in Pennsylvania and Roman Catholics in Maryland. This twin also sought financial opportunity, yet felt strongly the communitarian bonds of covenant that would regulate trade for the benefit of the common good. This child trusted in government as the source of needed balance in human relations: between individuals; between individuals and other nations; and between individuals and both individual corporations and private institutions. She feared the alternative was a Hobbesian “all against all.”
These twins cohabited the land and raised their individual families. During the long years, sometimes their descendants struggled over questions as to what decisions should be left to individuals and what decisions should be made by people searching for the common good. Beginning in the 1930’s with the rise of both communism and the fascist corporate state, the communitarian child assumed dominance as a way to maintain the American tradition of democracy while also recognizing global economic realities. While much subsequent turmoil might be credited to individual acts of liberty, the main conflict was really over the distribution of social goods.This communitarian trend continued through 1980. Increasingly during this period, government programs entitled specific groups while expanding financial burdens on those who had few communitarian impulses. These latter folks were designated as the greedy: monopolies, robber barons, gilded age industrialists and Super Men of the Ayn Rand mold. Lost was the first twin’s original and rightful concern over government without restraint or accountability: Cash became King.
For the past 35 years, the first twin – the independent-minded, allegedly greedy child – has striven to gain the ascendancy it has now acquired. Feeling itself solely in charge, it now insists on a final, permanent cultural reset. This child wishes none but minimal restrictions on behavior. He promotes fundamental libertarian values such as untrammeled business, free trade and a strong national defense. Individual initiative should benefit those who have it, rather than goods be made social and thereby accessible to the unworthy or the unnecessarily dependent. Reset means eliminating all government policies and agencies that suggest there is a common good worth achieving. This child notes that entitlements are eating alive federal budgets, individual incomes and motivation. This child believes that all excellence has been worn down into a gray mediocrity and – as the case in his religion – the time has come to be born again by stripping way all that has come before. For this child, even the mutuality implied by the Constitution is open to renegotiation.
Here the power struggle is joined. The second child seems equally determined to have a reset, yet one far more communitarian than the nation has experienced for a very long time, if ever. This child wants sufficient revenue raised to insure that Americans have their basic needs for food, shelter, vocation-appropriate education and health-care fulfilled. This twin sees these shared social good as fundamental to liberty. This child resists the tendency to absolve itself of all responsibility for persons who are old, mentally challenged, paid low wages, fleeing persecution oversees, and the like. For this group, the old time religion’s theme song has always been “we gather together to ask the Lord’s blessing.”
Now here is the interesting part. In current parlance, we have tended to define these twins in rigid political terms: the Republicans are the advocates for individual responsibility and financial opportunity, without regard to social costs. The Democrats are those with communitarian tendencies, even if individual initiative is risked to achieve greater social equality. I doubt these divisions should be so simple.
Perhaps we would be better served by noting that during different stages of American history, libertarian issues have dominated, while during other stages, the nation has tended to be far more communitarian. Yin and yang have had equal time and always re-balance themselves. For example, prior to the American Revolution the impulses of political liberty and religious awakenings held national attention. During the early 19th century, the nation built the Benevolent Empire that included the erection of hospitals, orphanages and colleges for mutual benefit. Following the Civil War, libertarian trends birthed economic panics and the Gilded Age. Then came the creation of social nets such as Social Security and Medicaid. Now, over the past 35 years we have watched taxes cut and been assured that we are better off if these if these and other entitlement programs were dismantled. This destructive task is being done by the very grandchildren of those who built these systems of care. They are also the children of those that benefited most from these programs.
Three observations might be made from an institution that has outlasted and will outlast both political parties and the nation as a whole. First, every generation struggles with questions of justice and mercy, and all resolutions of them are merely temporary. The twins will struggle as long as the nation endures. Second, being trapped in sole adherence to any one political party is a formula for fossilization: The conversation will move on, with or without us. Third, when dialogue and compromise end – when yin prevails and refuses to give way to yang, or vice-versa – bloody social conflict results.
It is my personal opinion that the age of rugged, pull yourself up by the bootstraps individualism initiated in 1980 is ending. It is just that natural allies have not yet found one another or liberated themselves from political manipulation.
Working poor who voted for Trump, waiving their rebel flags and rejecting all educated attempts at analysis, are basically communitarian in nature. They are on the side of the future where all find a place at the table of plenty. The religious groups that struggle to keep the marriages and families of their adherents together are basically communitarian. Those who have served country, who labor in institutions, who pay their taxes without grumbling, who volunteer in soup kitchens and who garden in shared fields, are communitarian. Those who attend mainline churches, who sit on civic boards, and who are unconvinced that trickle-down economics work, are communitarian. These groups and many more are searching now for solutions to common problems. Eventually they will find each other, they will pursue joint solutions, and this will lead to shared outcomes and a future together.
Oddly, these communitarians may not fit well right now in any political party. We have taken decades to reach the nadir of an ideology that proclaims “every man for himself and the devil take the hindmost.” Everyone has drunk this Kool Aid: “There is none who is righteous, no, not one.” The self-serving political ethos is so repulsive to honorable people of good will that neither it – nor the parties advocating it – can last for long now that its most ugly manifestations are served up daily on social media.
It is evident that neither the ideological right nor left have any new, quick solutions to offer. The political parties spin in place because they have run short on bumper-sticker, sound-byte solutions. Meanwhile, our neighbors cry out to us: “The worst thing about living in extreme poverty is the contempt – that they treat you like you are worthless, that they look at you with disgust and fear and that they even treat you like an enemy. We experience the violence of being discriminated against, of not existing, not being part of the same world, not being treated like other human beings.” http://www.atd-fourthworld.org/leave-no-one-behind-the-agenda-of/
If we are in the age of a communitarian vision, then God’s invitation to us – the way out of our morass and forward – is as simple as Christ’s saving purpose. It is one that encompasses everything from grassroots organizing to the halls of power. This purpose can be simply expressed as the Warrior’s Ethos: “I will never leave a fallen companion behind.” If we strive to live beyond our own selfish ends to make all things right for everyone, including us, then we will find that no one – including us – has been left behind.