Community versus Individualism: How To Tell The Progressive Story

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.”

Galston says the family metaphor doesn't work because people don't have the emotional bond to their fellow citizens that they do with their family. But my experience suggests a very different story.

Because Cuomo wasn't on the ballot in 1984, no one that I am aware of specifically did polling or dial testing on that speech, but as a young field organizer in the months after that convention, I was blown away by a phenomenon I have never seen before or since in politics.

I was organizing, and personally doing, a lot of phone calling and door knocking of swing voters in the swing state of Iowa. We were having trouble finding or convincing enough Mondale supporters among those swing voters, but shockingly often through the rest of that summer and fall following the convention, people would say to us, completely unprompted, some version of, "You know, I just can't support Mondale, but who was that guy who spoke at your convention, the Italian guy from New York? I'd vote for him." Quite literally, most of the people me and my field team were talking to could not remember Cuomo's name, knew nothing about him, but they remembered, and loved, that speech. And remember, this was before YouTube or the Internet, no clips of this speech were virally rocketing around the web to people.

The only other keynote convention speech that had that kind of impact in my lifetime was the Obama speech that put him on the map in 2004, and even then, I didn't running into anyone at the doors in the months to follow saying, "Who was that speaker at the convention? I'd like to vote for him.” So that whole family metaphor Cuomo used must have resonated pretty powerfully.

Another example Galston cited was Obama's military metaphor that he used twice in the 2012 State of the Union, at the beginning and end of the speech. He started the speech with: 

“These achievements [honorably ending the war in Iraq, blunting the Taliban’s momentum, and hunting down bin Laden] are a testament to the courage, selflessness, and teamwork of America’s Armed Forces. At a time when too many of our institutions have let us down, they exceed all expectations. They’re not consumed with personal ambition. They don’t obsess over their differences. They focus on the mission at hand. They work together. Imagine what we could accomplish if we followed their example."

And he ended it returning to the same metaphor:

"Those of us who’ve been sent here to serve can learn from the service of our troops. When you put on that uniform, it doesn’t matter if you’re black or white; Asian or Latino; conservative or liberal; rich or poor; gay or straight. When you’re marching into battle, you look out for the person next to you, or the mission fails. When you’re in the thick of the fight, you rise or fall as one unit, serving one Nation, leaving no one behind.”

Galston says the war metaphor doesn't work either, because there is no chain of command, life threatening danger, or clear goals. But in fact, dial testing from Democracy Corps show that those lines of the speech had an outstanding response, with 70 percent of swing voters moving their dials strongly in the right direction — one of the best reactions to anything in the speech.

Metaphors alone do not win elections. There are many factors that go into that, including economic performance, perceptions of strength and likeability and which candidate is on your side, the enthusiasm level of each party's respective base voters, the quality of each campaign's ads and field organizations, etc. But metaphors — and more fundamentally 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.

Progressives in America have suffered in the last four decades in great part because they allowed their narrative story to get disjointed and scraggly. We have to remind people that a broad based, prosperous, expanding middle class is what made America the envy of the world, and that the only reason we created it was a conscious strategy where we invested in our people and lifted our people up rather than waiting for the wealthy to trickle down blessings from above. We have to remind people that in working together and looking out for each other, we do actually make our economy and our country a better place. We have to remind people that when everyone is out for their own and devil take the hindmost, that a few get wealthy, but most of us lose.

Progressives can win the fight over narrative and metaphor, and it is important that we do. We need to tell our story of community.

Enjoy this piece?

… then let us make a small request. AlterNet’s journalists work tirelessly to counter the traditional corporate media narrative. We’re here seven days a week, 365 days a year. And we’re proud to say that we’ve been bringing you the real, unfiltered news for 20 years—longer than any other progressive news site on the Internet.

It’s through the generosity of our supporters that we’re able to share with you all the underreported news you need to know. Independent journalism is increasingly imperiled; ads alone can’t pay our bills. AlterNet counts on readers like you to support our coverage. Did you enjoy content from David Cay Johnston, Common Dreams, Raw Story and Robert Reich? Opinion from Salon and Jim Hightower? Analysis by The Conversation? Then join the hundreds of readers who have supported AlterNet this year.

Every reader contribution, whatever the amount, makes a tremendous difference. Help ensure AlterNet remains independent long into the future. Support progressive journalism with a one-time contribution to AlterNet, or click here to become a subscriber. Thank you. Click here to donate by check.

DonateDonate by credit card


Thanks for your support!

Did you enjoy AlterNet this year? Join us! We're offering AlterNet ad-free for 15% off - just $2 per week. From now until March 15th.