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Seeking Common Ground 3: Reasserting the American Commitment

"Public interest" and “private interest" are not such different matters.

This post is in response to
Seeking Common Ground II: The Progressive Spirit

“The First New Nation.” That is what political sociologist Seymour Martin Lipset called the American enterprise. We were the first people, or so he claimed, to rebel successfully against our European colonizer and, having done so, to confront the task of starting a modern nation. Most of us today take pride in our founders’ accomplishment. But we also know that their great project remains unfinished, indeed was never intended to be completed. Collectively and individually, Americans have always lived in the future much more than in the past. All of us are encouraged to tinker and invent—and to make things, including ourselves, better than they were before.

The previous two essays offered contrasting views of this change-making process. Those who call themselves conservatives are more reconciled to the frailties of human nature. Sadly or not, people need to protect themselves and solidify their self-interest. Allegiances based on family, religion, ethnicity, and local community are useful in this regard. Progressives, on the other hand, envision new patterns of social connection that address the challenges of a rapidly expanding, urbanizing, and diversifying global society. Does the future demand different conceptions of community and, with these, new ideas about the rights and responsibilities of persons?

Many of the writings in this series have commented on the tensions inherent to the American experiment. As we’ve seen, the prospect of individual achievement, pursued on the aspirant’s own terms, glistens. Self-creation is perhaps the dominant theme of our individualist mythology. We are told to improve ourselves by acquiring education, jobs, friends, family members, and possessions of every description. Distant dreams—be these larger television sets, vacation homes, jobs with a corner office, new spouses, or places in heaven—are to be pondered strategically and then realized. The best positions in life are those where the occupant sits easefully and surveys all that lies below. Social creatures, we like to see—and be seen—in favored settings.

The other portion of the American Dream acknowledges our respect for other people, who presumably are similar to us in their concerns and commitments. For those who endorse this country’s competitive approach to human relationships, that means acknowledging the ideal of “fair play.” But beyond such competition, this value signifies the importance of trust and cooperation. Most of the “good things in life” cannot be acquired entirely by our own efforts. We need other people to help us realize our ambitions, to give us approval for what we’ve done, and to help us recover from our failures. Freedom is a social condition, which is safeguarded, willingly, by the millions.

Such tensions Lipset understood clearly. And he also saw how equality—not only of condition but also of opportunity—was being undone by wealth-seeking, both by individuals and by organizations. The First New Nation was published more than 50 years ago. Who today would declare its thesis wrong?

My concern in this essay is to discuss the prospects for closing the philosophical divide—between red and blue—that now characterizes American society. I see no point in declaring one position—conservative or progressive—superior. There are, after all, an abundance of radio and television commentators, newspaper editorialists, and website sponsors that dedicate themselves to that task.

Nor do I think it sufficient to say that we do not have persuasive language—and thus guiding ideas—for the challenges we face. That viewpoint, it may be recalled, was presented by Robert Bellah and his colleagues in their path-breaking book, Habits of the Heart. Americans may lack coherent cultural supports for conceptualizing well-being and for recognizing their indebtedness to one another. But telling phrases are not enough. As any teacher knows, those who would be educated must see the pertinence of what they are being taught.

For much the same reason, moral exhortation is misplaced. Arguably, the world would be a better place if we loved our neighbors as ourselves, turned the other cheek after being struck, and donated many of our belongings to charity. Doubtless, we should be more self-disciplined. Many of us drink, eat, and smoke too much—and commit countless other indiscretions that have both pleased and plagued humans through the centuries. Such “moral rearmament,” to use terms that were fashionable a couple decades ago, is never inappropriate. But it is not the course that I follow below.

Instead, I wish to center the discussion—about the ways in which ideologically divided groups can move past publicly proclaimed “positions” to communicate about matters of shared concern—on the concept of “self-interest.”

Doing this, it should be acknowledged immediately, appears to be the very opposite of what is needed now. Self-interest, as most of us understand it, connotes the privatizing, acquisitive quest of individuals. According to that credo, people should be “self-reliant.” They should fend for themselves, build strong fences, cultivate their own gardens, and ponder difficult matters in the recesses of their own consciousness. They should steel themselves for life’s difficulties. How does any of this lead to better conversations about common concerns in a time of rapid and far-reaching change?

My response—and a consistent theme of this essay-series—is to expand the ideas of both “self” and “interest”.

I do not dispute the fact that many of us continue to think of the “self” in the nineteenth-century fashion just described. We equate self with the boundaries of body and mind; self is furbished—and defended—by possessions: family members, houses, bank accounts, pets, and beliefs stored in the mind. That view, articulated by the great psychologist William James, has much to recommend it. And persons who conceptualize themselves in such terms are often fierce in their qualities of steadfastness, character, resilience, and moral resolve.

But the concept of the privatized self, as James himself recognized, was never entirely adequate. People do not stand apart from the world; they live within it. They recognize their responsibilities to others; they know that they depend on these others for fulfillment of their basic needs; indeed, they identify themselves with such persons. What adult—at least one whom the rest of us would admire—proclaims self-interest at the expense of his or her family? Who is careless with the feelings of dearest friends? Who steals from their children or trashes their grandparents’ graves? Most of us recognize our connections to other people, especially those we love but also those who provide us with services we need.

I believe it is only “modern” people who maintain this pretense of self-sufficiency. People in the past—and in traditional societies still—know that their very existence depends on the groups that shelter them and grant them their identities. To be cut off from these defining contexts is a terrible thing. They constrain everyone, yes. But they are also sources of being.

For we moderns then, the challenge is to recognize the extent of our relationships to others. Clearly, our obligations to our spouses and children are legally chartered matters. We feel morally bound to other kin, including our parents. We like our friends. We tolerate others at our churches, workplaces, and schools. Beyond this, commitments become hazy.

But we are wrong to conceive of our self-connections so narrowly. Should we collapse on the street, we depend entirely on the helpful passerby. When our lives are threatened, we rely on first responders: fire fighters, emergency workers, and hospital staff. Our cherished liberties are protected by our police officers and military personnel. We would be foolish to declare ourselves independent of them.

But we also depend on the (commonly unseen) people who deliver our mail and newspapers. There are the store cashiers and restaurant servers who treat us courteously. We ride trains and buses and get our cars serviced by people we trust. When our heating systems go out or washing machines break down, we want honest, competent repair-persons coming into our homes. We expect the same level of commitment from our teachers, religious leaders, attorneys, dentists, therapists, and coaches. It is possible to conceive of such people merely as hirelings. But I believe most of us recognize that they are much more than this. They are the very real people—with interests and concerns that differ little from our own—who make our lives possible. Many of them we care about at some personal level; and they reciprocate our feelings.

It is easy enough to acknowledge some connection to people we see on a regular basis. But what about those we do not see, indeed, will never see? Someone, presumably, is picking the fruits and vegetables we eat. Others are packaging these and bringing them to our stores. Humans pick up trash and clean the streets. They pave the roads. Those same people pay taxes and thus support the public services we use. They shop at some of the same stores we do and stand in lines with us. Sometimes, they hold doors to let us pass, and we reciprocate their courtesy.

What have these strangers to do with us? Why should we care if their lives are relatively safe and comfortable? Does it matter if their children are well-schooled, if their families are religious or patriotic, if they commit themselves to an orderly civil society?

There are some persons who choose to live inside a fenced compound, away from society’s entanglements. But the rest of us live deeply in the broader world. We have contacts, if only glances of mutual recognition, with thousands of people, many of them strangers and semi-strangers. It is entirely within the realm of our own self-interest that such people share a vision of life similar to our own.

To phrase this as a question, what does it profit us if our streets and public places are dangerous? Why should we want the public-health scourge of drug abuse, or the closely related problem of criminal acts by those who must get their fix? Is it in anyone’s interest to sustain a criminal “second economy,” to encumber the vast expenses of arresting and prosecuting such people, or to have high percentages of the population in jails that serve as schools for criminality and poison the occupants’ chances for re-entry to society’s more ordinary settings?

This is not an argument for softened treatment of those who commit terrible deeds. Instead, I ask whether it is in the interest of such persons themselves—and their families—to have more conventional patterns of employment, which support a stable life-course. That stability, or so I contend, would benefit the rest of us as well.

After all, wouldn’t a strong national healthcare system help prevent illnesses from reaching terrible levels of disability—and from reaching the catastrophic expense levels of our hospital emergency rooms? What about heightened training for young adults—and not just college—that would give them some sense of direction and valuable skill sets? Do we really need “food deserts” in some parts of the country, and abutting them, the junk-food culture that so many of us support? Why should we countenance addictions to meth, crack, and heroin—and to the designer-drugs of the wealthy?

Progressives respond to these issues with calls for heightened education, systems of governmental support, and expansions of health insurance. They identify certain disadvantaged groups as requiring special attention with regard to these services. They want wealthier people—and wealthier companies—to pay taxes that reflect their capability.

Conservatives typically suggest the role of private enterprise—and the market system as a whole—in responding to these concerns. They stress the responsibility of individuals—and families—to manufacture their own lives. The United States is said to be the land of opportunity—with chances still open for those who persevere.

These two positions are not contradictory. Nor is either, by itself, satisfactory. Government support will not secure stable life-trajectories for those currently marginalized. By the same token, moral encouragement of spirited, hard-working people will do little without the end-point of decent jobs. A few of the disadvantaged will advance; the vast majority will not.

It is surely one of history’s great ironies that the world’s strongest economy, which opens its doors to more than a million immigrants a year, should have such great pockets of deprivation and despair. For the last 30 years or so, the wealthiest citizens have done well. Globalization has meant that companies can conduct their operations abroad, with cheap resources and labor and lax environmental regulations. Markets are being expanded, profits made—but with what consequences for working people in this country. Immigrant labor—much of it undocumented—is winked at, even appreciated openly. For it responds to undersupplies in both skilled and unskilled jobs, guarantees a highly motivated and insecure workforce, and keeps wages and benefits down. Immigrants buy goods and services here, pay taxes, and otherwise contribute to economic stability.

All credit to those who have been able to advance themselves in this way—and in the process build the stability this country needs. But it is also clear that citizens of long-standing have lost standing. They have not kept pace with the advantaged groups, either in income levels or in general quality of life. This is unacceptable.

We all know the character of the economy is changing. Jobs in the so-called knowledge industries, including those demanding complicated technical skills, have expanded. So have jobs in the service industries, where workers deal with the personal and interpersonal needs of their clients. But manufacturing and resource provision jobs have shrunk dramatically, due largely to automation and the general omnipresence of the machine. None of this is news. But both conservatives and progressives to this point have failed to confront the issue of how most Americans in the years ahead are going to find stable, meaningful, and decently paid work.

Those who believe strongly in our free enterprise system—and in the general contributions of business to our way of living—must envision that system of re-employment. It is one thing to provide jobs for underpaid workers in China, the Philippines, and Vietnam; confronting the needs of American workers is quite another.

Those who believe strongly in the role of government must conceive systems of support that encourage employers and employees. Training is not enough. Strategic support for companies and workers is required. This country is too rich not to have adequate schools and healthcare, safe communities, and provisions for people to have decent retirements.

To be sure, difficulties abound in deciding which kinds of incentives, supports, and protections is appropriate to the character of this nation—and which will be effective. But most people, or so I believe, are committed to the general theme expressed here - to have a prosperous stable country which rewards those who commit themselves to that country’s “general welfare” as well as to their own private advancement.

In a much quoted article, the sociologist Herbert Gans wrote, satirically, that poverty has its “functions.” People of higher standing, or so he claimed, find comfort in the existence of the less fortunate. The poor do the society’s dirty work; they buy the shoddy goods and services; they provide jobs for middle-class people who attend to their “needs.” Poor people bring us illicit drugs and sex. They provide spectacles of the criminal justice system at work. They absorb the first waves of economic recession and deleterious social change. Mostly, it gives the rest of us pleasure, and a kind of status, to know that there are millions below us.

Again, Gans was writing satirically. There are better responses to society’s difficulties than a permanent underclass. Nor should the poor have to “act out” their grievances to be recognized. I believe that most of us are well aware that our “better selves” are capable of transcending our narrowest visions of who we are. Our religious traditions are equally clear in this regard. The challenge—for both blue and red—is to abandon the noisy rhetoric and to consider, earnestly, how personal and public good can be integrated.


Bellah, Robert, et al. (1985). Habits of the Heart; Individualism and Commitment in American Life. Berkeley, University of California Press.

Gans, Herbert. (1972). The Positive Functions of Poverty. American Journal of Sociology. 78(2): 275-289.

James, William. Principles of Psychology (1952). Chicago: Encyclopedia Britannica.

Lipset, Seymour Martin (1963). The First New Nation: The United States in Historical And Comparative Perspective. New York: Basic Books.

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