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Community versus Individualism: How To Tell The Progressive Story

Metaphors—and the broader narratives a candidate, party, and political movement use to tell their story—are the building blocks of short and long-term success in politics.

Photo Credit: Neon Tommy


One of the clearest dividing lines between conservatives and progressives is represented by a battle of metaphors: the individualistic "pull yourself up by your own bootstraps" metaphor vs. the community "we're all in this together" metaphor.

Conservatives have always been individualists first and foremost, believing that we are all ultimately on our own, and that being dependent on others and especially the government is the ultimate sin. Believing fervently in Adam Smith's "invisible hand" of the marketplace, many conservatives are so passionate about the primacy of market forces and individualism that they are willing to embrace the Social Darwinists' idea that if you're wealthy it was because that was how natural law intended things to be. They also embrace Ayn Rand's argument that selfishness is the ultimate virtue and that charity and self-sacrifice actually weakens a society by helping the "leeches.”

Progressives push back against these ideas, arguing that we are our brothers and sisters' keepers, should treat others as we want to be treated, that there is great value in a society where we look out for each other and give each other a helping hand. That, we say, is what builds long-term common wealth -- along with the trust that enables democracy to function.

This is one of the deepest fault lines in history, not just American history but all of human history. Thinkers like the Old Testament prophets, Jesus, and Francis of Assisi argued for community; whereas those like Aristotle and St. Paul (who was far more focused on individual salvation than on the community minded teachings of the Jesus of the Gospels) argued for a strong individualist view. During our own Revolution, some founders -- including Ben Franklin and Tom Paine -- argued strongly for that sense of community, whereas others -- like Gouverneur Morris and Patrick Henry -- came down far more on the side of individualism.

In the late 1800s and early 1900s, the Social Darwinists bitterly debated the leaders of the Populist and Progressive movements over this point. In the 20th century, Teddy Roosevelt, FDR, the Kennedys, and Martin Luther King (with his wonderful phrase about our fates "being inextricably linked in a garment of destiny")  were all strong believers in community, while Rand, William Buckley, and today's conservatives like Paul Ryan, Glenn Beck, Mitt Romney, and Rick Santorum all celebrate individualism as the number one virtue.

The question for those of us in political life is: Which of these metaphors has more power among voters?

It is, and always has been a close call, with swing voters — as is their nature — swinging back and forth between the two sides depending on the issue, the moment in political time, and the way politicians frame the question. My old friend and colleague from the Clinton White House Bill Galston has written a thoughtful piece in the New Republic on whether the community metaphor, which the President has used extensively in a variety of ways, has worked for Obama. Bill, who tends to be more centrist than me, is highly skeptical that the community metaphor can work in general. He walks through several different versions of the metaphor that different politicians including Obama, have made, making interesting arguments why none of them hold up very well.

I am not as much of a pessimist on the use of community or family as a metaphor as Bill is, though. Two of his examples of metaphors that don't work actually seem to work remarkably well based on what I know. The first was Mario Cuomo's famous speech at the 1984 Democratic Convention, where he talked about America as a family:

“We believe in a single fundamental idea that describes better than most textbooks and any speech that I could write what a proper government should be: the idea of family, mutuality, the sharing of benefits and burdens for the good of all, feeling one another’s pain, sharing one another’s blessings. ... We believe that we must be the family of America, recognizing that at the heart of the matter we are bound to one another.”

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