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The Common Good

I totally agree with this American Prosect essay:

"What the Democrats still don’t have is a philosophy, a big idea that unites their proposals and converts them from a hodgepodge of narrow and specific fixes into a vision for society. Indeed, the party and the constellation of interests around it don’t even think in philosophical terms and haven’t for quite some time. There’s a reason for this: They’ve all been trained to believe -- by the media, by their pollsters -- that their philosophy is an electoral loser. Like the dogs in the famous “learned helplessness” psychological experiments of the 1960s -- the dogs were administered electrical shocks from which they could escape, but from which, after a while, they didn’t even try to, instead crouching in the corner in resignation and fear -- the Democrats have given up attempting big ideas. Any effort at doing so, they’re convinced, will result in electrical (and electoral) shock.

But is that as true as it appears? Certainly, today’s Democrats can’t simply return to the philosophy that was defeated in the late 1970s. But at the same time, let’s recognize a new historical moment when we see one: Today, for the first time since 1980, it is conservative philosophy that is being discredited (or rather, is discrediting itself) on a scale liberals wouldn’t have dared imagine a few years ago. An opening now exists, as it hasn’t in a very long time, for the Democrats to be the visionaries. To seize this moment, the Democrats need to think differently -- to stop focusing on their grab bag of small-bore proposals that so often seek not to offend and that accept conservative terms of debate. And to do that, they need to begin by looking to their history, for in that history there is an idea about liberal governance that amounts to more than the million-little-pieces, interest-group approach to politics that has recently come under deserved scrutiny and that can clearly offer the most compelling progressive response to the radical individualism of the Bush era.

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....

This is the only justification leaders can make to citizens for liberal governance, really: That all are being asked to contribute to a project larger than themselves....

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.

Arguing for it is the only way that Democrats can come to stand for something clear and authoritative again...."
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