For too many in the conservative movement, the meaning of citizenship essentially comes down to “I owe nothing to anyone but myself, for that’s what it means to live in freedom.”
If someone wants to act like Donald Trump, they should be allowed to do so. To inhibit this pursuit of self-interest, by, say, asking the rich to contribute toward universal health care, is an act of tyranny. The very notion of a common good, of collective goals that we all must pitch in for, should be abolished, since it oppresses one’s ability to live selfishly.
You cannot underestimate how incredibly wrong this perspective is, and the way it tears at the foundations of society.
A country simply does not work if we don’t embrace our responsibilities to each other, in addition to our personal happiness and desires.
For proof of this truth, compare the ultimate result of today’s modern era of Republican government, with the outcome of the New Deal.
Since 1980, America has been ravaged by a myriad of negative forces. Good-paying manufacturing jobs have fled to China or were eliminated by automation. New positions have been created in the technology sector, but these require a level of skill that is out of reach for many Americans, who have resorted to menial work as a result. Due to wage stagnation, millennials with a college degree have less purchasing power than a high school graduate did in the 1970s, according to data from the Pew Research Center.
Unfortunately, at the same moment these trends started to seriously emerge, the conservative movement ascended to power. Instead of embracing a reform agenda designed to help citizens cope with such a frightening new status quo, Ronald Reagan and his ideological successors argued for the opposite approach — drowning government in a bathtub by cutting social spending, regulations and taxes on the rich.
The best society, these new ideologues believed, was one in which Congress provided for basic functions like national defense and let people fend for themselves. Private greed, not public service, was to be the driving priority.
As a result America has stood still and done little to combat the trends tearing apart our social fabric. The world has changed, yet our policies remain mired in the past. The ladder of opportunity that enabled prior generations to succeed no longer works for the present day.
We live with the suffering this dynamic has wrought, namely the highest level of economic inequality in modern history, according to the Census Bureau. As the rich get richer, so many slide deeper into despair and struggle to survive in economically devastated communities where suicide and opioid abuse are at record levels.
Yet history shows there’s another way of doing business.
At the dawn of the Great Depression, President Franklin Roosevelt and his New Dealers entered office at a similar time when upheaval was ripe. It was the Industrial Age, a time of epic corporate power when firms like Ford, Standard Oil and General Electric amassed fortunes beyond comprehension, but at the expense of an exploited workforce with few rights under the law.
During this period, however, the federal government made a conscious effort to place the common good at the center of our national life, above all other concerns. The wealthy were taxed to subsidize policies that expanded opportunity for the rest of the population. A noble, gentler America was FDR’s north star.
For example, to ensure access to education, the GI Bill was passed and allowed a generation to attend college; as a way of enabling workers to meaningfully share in corporate profits, the Wagner Act gave unions collective bargaining rights; and the FHA’s guaranteed mortgage program made home ownership accessible for the average family.
These policies, along with many others, were instrumental in creating the incredible prosperity of the mid-20th-century, when America boasted the greatest middle class in the world. Economist Paul Krugman refers to this period as “the Great Compression,” a time when living standards between the rich and the masses narrowed like never before. In his book “The Conscience of a Liberal,” he writes:
“Postwar American society had its poor, but the truly rich were rare and made little impact on society. A worker protected by a good union, as many were, had as secure a job and often nearly as high an income as a highly trained professional. And we all lived material lives that were no more different from one another than a Cadillac was from a Chevy: One life might be more luxurious than another, but there were no big differences in where people could go and what they could do.”
The historical record, in other words, is clear. When the public sector gets out of the way, and capitalism is allowed to run in its pure form, conservatives consider this “freedom.” But inevitably it really means freedom for the rich to gobble up as much wealth as possible, while good, decent citizens are ravaged by forces beyond their control. The New Deal had a larger vision in mind, one in which the government would play referee, and ensure the people had a fighting chance.
In this election year, we stand at a crossroads and must decide between these two competing approaches. Conscience demands support for the progressive point of view. To be a true patriot, one has to believe in more than greed, the profit motive, and “what’s in it for me?” Loving America requires acting with love toward our fellow Americans, and supporting bold efforts to ensure every citizen — from the janitors to the CEOs — can live with the dignity God meant for them.
Josh Heath is a Santa Clarita resident.