The Politics of the Common Good

(I really should be working on papers, but I stumbled across this stuff today and need to post about it while it's fresh in my mind.)

My colleagues in the deliberative democracy seminar will recall that one of the central tenets of any version of DD is that individuals do not enter discussion vying for their own interests, but rather for some notion of the common good.

It probably occurred to most of us that this notion is absent from contemporary interest group politics in America. We've rued this development, and yet we've failed to neglect the significant strategic advantage such sentiments could play politically.

The Republican worldview is a cynical one. Even the religious right sees most of us as damned to hell, and this world as a dangerous place full of evil people (which is why they need their guns to protect their family). What we get is social Darwinism, libertarianism, and a sort of "Fuck Everyone But Me" (to borrow an apt phrase from driftglass) politics.

Shakespeare's Sister recently posted on a related matter, trying to figure out what distinguishes progressives from conservatives and why we're always perceived as being reactive rather than proactive. I commented on this post, and ended up asking what she thought the "progressive movement" actually was, since I had a pretty good idea of what the conservative movement was but hadn't much heard progressivism talked about as a unified movement. She gave a thoughtful response, but not one that could be summed up easily.

And that's the problem, there isn't any easily articulable governing philosophy for progressive politics. Democrats and liberals are dominated by single issue interest groups that, while important, make us look fragmented and full of in-fighting. But there is another way.

This is where the political potential of a notion of the common good fits in. Michael Tomasky, in an essay entitled "Party in Search of a Notion" has proposed reviving the civic republican idea of shared sacrifice for the sake of something greater than self-interest as the unifying idea for the progressive movement. I highly recommend his article, although it is a long one. Here are some noteworthy excerpts:
For many years -- during their years of dominance and success, the period of the New Deal up through the first part of the Great Society -- the Democrats practiced a brand of liberalism quite different from today's. Yes, it certainly sought to expand both rights and prosperity. But it did something more: That liberalism was built around the idea -- the philosophical principle -- that citizens should be called upon to look beyond their own self-interest and work for a greater common interest.

This, historically, is the moral basis of liberal governance -- not justice, not equality, not rights, not diversity, not government, and not even prosperity or opportunity. Liberal governance is about demanding of citizens that they balance self-interest with common interest. Any rank-and-file liberal is a liberal because she or he somehow or another, through reading or experience or both, came to believe in this principle. And every leading Democrat became a Democrat because on some level, she or he believes this, too.


...[D]iversity and rights [the two current unifying themes among progressives] cannot be the only goods that Democrats demand citizens accept. For liberalism to succeed, they have to exist alongside an idea of a common good. When they don't, things are out of balance, corrupted; and liberalism is open to the sort of attack made by Stanley Fish on The New York Times op-ed page back in February. Liberalism, he wrote, is "the religion of letting it all hang out"; its "first tenet" is that "everything (at least in the realm of expression and ideas) is to be permitted, but nothing is to be taken seriously."

This is preposterous, and the column drew many angry (and intelligent) letters. But unfortunately, I suspect that many Americans -- not just people on the right, many not-terribly-political people -- believe that Fish described liberalism precisely. Anything goes, man, because we don't really think about how a given action affects the community; we just care about whether, in questioning that action, the community is trampling on the actor's rights. We're in an age today -- the age of Guantanamo, of withdrawal from the Geneva Conventions, and of illegal spying justified as executive necessity -- when rights must be guarded with special care. But to think of every mode of action in terms of whether it can be enshrined as a right is a habit of mind that can lead our fellow citizens not to take us as seriously as we want them to when we talk about these other very real infringements on rights.


The Democrats need to become the party of the common good. They need a simple organizing principle that is distinct from Republicans and that isn't a reaction to the Republicans. They need to remember what made liberalism so successful from 1933 to 1966, that reciprocal arrangement of trust between state and nation. And they need to take the best parts of the rights tradition of liberalism and the best parts of the more recent responsibilities tradition and fuse them into a new philosophy that is both civic-republican and liberal -- that goes back to the kind of rhetoric Johnson used in 1964 and 1965, that attempts to enlist citizens in large projects to which everyone contributes and from which everyone benefits.

His thoughts are backed up by this four-part series by John Halpin and Ruy Teixeira which details findings from extensive research on Americans' attitudes towards the Democratic Party and progressive politics. (Unfortunately, I have not had an opportunity to read this, but I plan to once I finish some of these papers.)

I stumbled upon these articles when I read another piece by Paul Waldman, who recently published a book entitled Being Right Is Not Enough: What Progressives Must Learn from Conservative Success. He largely agrees with Tomasky and Halpin and Teixeira, but offers something more concrete:
...I offer a variant of the "common good" idea, one that is likely to perform its political function more effectively. The answer to the question, "What do progressives believe at their core?" is this: Progressives believe we're all in it together.

One might ask, isn't this just a quibble over language? It is most definitely about language, but it's anything but a quibble. First and most importantly, my formulation implies its opposite: while progressives believe we're all in it together, conservatives believe we're all on our own and we're all out for ourselves.

Second, these ideas can be easily presented in vernacular, so that candidates and advocates can explain them without beginning to sound like philosophy professors. Part of the power of the Four Pillars of Conservatism is that nearly all conservatives believe in them, and repeat them--in speeches, in campaign ads and in the mission statements of conservative organizations.

Unlike "the common good," furthermore, the idea that we're all in it together doesn't necessarily imply personal sacrifice for others' sake--that you have to give something up to benefit the common good. If I'm selling Americans' altruistic instincts a little short in arguing that a more direct appeal to sacrifice has political limitations, so be it. But being all in it together speaks to finding solutions that benefit everyone--yourself included. It's not about setting aside our interests, it's about finding where our interests and our values converge.

Waldman makes some excellent points. However, I don't see his view as incompatible with Tomasky's main point. If we can first agree that the common good is where we want to go, then we can begin to discuss particular formulations thereof and make a decision. Waldman's is one possibility.

And I find it to be a compelling one: accurate and accessible. He anticipates a standard objection posed by the "freerider problem". Freeloading is a threat to any common good, and is an issue that conservatives have been able to exploit successfully (in a racially-charged context). By suggesting that we're all in this together, there's the implication that those who are in it only for themselves won't be tolerated.

I browsed the excerpts from his book available online, and thought he made some good points. In the book, he tries to oppose what he calls "The Four Pillars of Conservatism" (viz., small government, low taxes, strong defense, and traditional values) with five core progressive values (viz., effective government, opportunity, security, individual freedom, and progress) which, unlike the conservative alternative, has the advantage of being unified by a notion of the common good.

I'd say more, but I really need to get back to work. I leave the matter open for discussion, and again urge you to take a look at the various links I've posted.


INTP said...

I think that you are making the pursuit of the common good (Federalist #57) way to complicated.

Simply put, it is imply solving our "common" problem. For example the genius of Martin Luther King Jr.'s "I Have A Dream" speach is that he made the plight of the Negro as the plight of all Americans. For progressives, "progress" is made when our "common" societal problems are solved. Perhaps as a guide to public policy, I like "minimizing avoidable suffering." This is the Democrats' core moral value of moral epathy: Bill Clinton's "I feel your pain." Note that for those who have seen the movie "The Passion of the Christ," the Latin translation of passion (passio) is "suffering."

specter_of_spinoza said...

I'm not sure I understand your criticism, INTP. I think there are many different ways in which a common good can be articulated.

The example you make reference to does seem to be promoting one version of the common good. But it is controversial--and you don't sufficiently back up your claim--to suggest that this is all that "common good" means.