The Day After The Fourth of July
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“For this end, we must be knit together in this work as one man, we must entertain each other in brotherly affection, we must be willing to abridge our selves of our superfluities for the supply of others' necessities. We must uphold a familiar commerce together in all meekness, gentleness, patience and liberality. We must delight in each other, make others' conditions our own, rejoice together, mourn together, labor, and suffer together, always having before our eyes our commission and community in the work, our community as members of the same body.”
Contrast those statements by our founders with the we-are-all-in-this-alone-with-no-obligation-to-each-other rhetoric from those on the right. Here’s Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal on why we shouldn’t help poor people receive health care coverage: “The President needs to understand what makes this country great in part is that we’re not dependent on government programs.” Yeah, like public education or the Homestead Act or interstate highways or Social Security or Medicare or the GI Bill or student loans. No, Governor, what makes this country great is that we are, in Washington’s words, a united people; in Winthrop’s words a “community as members of the same body.”
The American idea of equality and community has always been controversial. Thirty percent of the colonists supported Britain in the revolutionary war. The opposition to the Constitution was bitter and intense; it almost did not make it precisely because people opposed a stronger central government. John Calhoun and his fellow conservatives hated Jefferson’s equality language in the Declaration, and the idea of democracy itself, and when abolitionists kept pushing to end slavery, Calhoun’s ideological heirs launched a civil war. The robber barons and Social Darwinists of the Gilded Age despised the Progressive and Populist movements that brought TR’s reforms, and FDR, JFK and LBJ’s reforms were all vehemently opposed as socialistic or worse. But these ideals of equal opportunity and an American community where we “make others’ conditions our own” is what sustains us in the kind of tough times we are living in today.
We are living in a historical moment where in my view this American idea is at as great a risk as it has been since our Civil War. Concentrations of wealth, industry, and power have grown to such a frightening size that they threaten both our democracy and our economic well-being, and too many of our political leaders have become fervent disciples of Ayn Rand’s philosophy that selfishness is a virtue. That combination is deadly to our future, and if the threat is not turned back, America’s days as a great nation will pass into history.
I was raised to believe in that I was my brother and sister’s keeper, that I needed to keep the Golden Rule, that I would ultimately be judged by whether I had shown love and compassion toward those with less than me. And inextricably linked to those beliefs was my belief in that American idea, the dream that we were one people who stood together when times were tough, that we had equal rights and opportunities under a government of, by, and for the people. I know the dream was never complete, that we had to constantly be striving for a more perfect union. But that idea and that dream -- of Jefferson and Franklin and Washington, of Lincoln, of FDR and Martin Luther King, Jr. -- is still possible, and it is always worth striving for.