Are We a Society?

Author: Gary Hart

           When asked about the impact of her draconian policies on British society, then Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher is reported to have said, “There is no such thing as society.”

            The current U.S. budget confrontation raises the same issue: is there such a thing as an American society?  The Oxford dictionary defines society as: “the sum of human conditions and activity regarded as a whole functioning interdependently” and as “the customs and organization of an ordered community.”

            The current confrontation between parties and ideologies is over the role of government.  But even more deeply it is a foundational disagreement over whether we are a society, a community, or whether we are a collection of individuals inhabiting the same geographical space.

            If we are all “in this together,” then we share more than just an interest in collective security.  And if we have collective interests, the instrument by which we pursue and promote those interests is the national government, not Wall Street or the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

            As we learned in 1929 and 2008, markets can fail, usually through greed and lack of regulation.  Although a rising tide lifts all boats, a falling tide lowers all boats, except for the gilded yachts.

            The Goldwater-Reagan-Gingrich-Tea Party revolutions all called into question whether we are a society and therefore whether we act through our national government to pursue our common interests.  Though virtually all mature democracies have basically resolved this question decades ago, the people of the United States seem unable to do so.  Many Americans continue to believe we can have the public services a very large majority wants without paying very much for them.  Thus the “waste, fraud, and abuse” of the Reagan years.  Or a recurring vocal minority continues to argue that we should do away with those services altogether and devil-take-the-hindmost.

            It would be an interesting, though destructive, experiment to see how many Americans would like the nation the Tea Party seeks to construct.

            The current, and perpetually recurring, confrontation is only symbolically about “spending.”  Public programs flow from policies.  Policies flow from partisan ideologies.  Ideologies flow from political philosophies.  So long as the question of whether we are a society, a national community as Franklin Roosevelt believed, remains contested, so long will budget wars continue carried out by factions waving one banner or another mostly decrying the evils of government.

            Thomas Jefferson wanted our government to do only those necessary things that individuals could not do for themselves.  That is quite a large territory.  It includes transportation systems, public safety and judicial systems, public education, and national security among many other undertakings.  The real confrontation is over the social safety net constructed between the age of Roosevelt and the age of Johnson.  Overwhelmingly, the American people wish to maintain this safety net.  They simply do not wish to bear its costs, nor do they wish to accept its demise which would involve taking our grandparents back into our homes.

            In a perfect world we would have a great debate throughout the nation, not just in Washington, over the issue of whether we are a society, a national community, and, if so, what role we wish the national government to bear in maintaining that community.  Alas, we do not live in a perfect world.  So we let our elected officials struggle over budget cuts that are but symbols of our deeper dilemma and our unresolved definition of who we really are.  Two hundred and twenty years should have been enough time to have resolved this question.

25 Responses to “Are We a Society?”

  1. Robert Schiesel Says:

    “Are We a Society?” is a thoughtful piece–another component of this discussion
    could be “What is the purpose of an economy in an industrialized democracy?”

  2. Jeff Says:

    I agree with your statements and wonder: are we victims of properity? We are the wealthiest contry in the world, by far. Our wealth is directly as a result of having, now and historically, an incredible bounty of natural resources. Abundant farmland, forests, minerals, fresh water – in our short history, we’ve been able to expand and grow from practicaly limitless domestic resources or acquire them by trading with others. You can see this is an entitlement in our domestic and foreign policies, as if America has a right to acquire whatever we want and need. As world population grows and resources get scarcer, the gap between the “haves” and everyone else (have nots, wants, needs, etc.) grows. The assumption of American dominance is being challenged by emerging economies and other motivated interests (anti-American agents like Al-Qaeda, petroleum-rich governments, etc.).

    While not all Americans feel the sense of entitlement, many in power do. Our adventuristic foreign policy has largely been about access to oil. There’s no doubt that America does much good around the world but it seems like an increasing segment of world population is wary of our motives.

    “Many Americans continue to believe we can have the public services a very large majority wants without paying very much for them. ” We seldom hear the anti-tax people phrasing the question this way. Taxes are bad, therefore paying taxes is bad. Are taxes not the price of admission for a free society? Or, by paying less taxes and doing away with services that benefit the many, are we going further down the road of properity for the privileged few?

  3. Pat Boice Says:

    Terrific piece, Mr. Hart! Here in Idaho we have an email group of 93 “moderates” (for want of a better name!) who have just been discussing this subject. I shall forward your piece to them. The individualistic approach and disdain of the government – any government but especially the Federal government- is rampant here in Idaho!

  4. Larry Motuz Says:

    Senator Hart,

    A very good article. What most don’t understand, it seems, is how much the liberty of individuals is bound up in the liberty of communities, and vice versa. These liberties interpenetrate, sustain, support, limit and restrain each other, in one case through laws, customs and traditions and the other through good governance. Of course, we all dream of a secure retirement; of meeting our basic needs; of having equality; of having equality of opportunity, and, through our governance and individual action seek to have these things for all.

    There is a good, long out-of-print book by Reinhold Neibuhr called “The Children of Light and The Children of Darkness” which he subtitled “A Vindication of Democracy and a Critique of Its Traditonal Defenders” (London: Nisbet and Co. Ltd, 1944).

    I am sure you would find it an interesting read, for his argument is precisely that we do have common interests and that democracy is meant to advance as well as protect them.

    Thank you,

    Larry

  5. Debbie Lackowitz Says:

    Excellent post. Thanks Gary. With the shut down of the government averted (for now), we STILL have to discuss the budget for NEXT year (2012). An election year no less. With just about the entire lot of them up. And then, as if THAT weren’t enough, the debt ceiling looms. If we take the premise that budgets are moral documents (I’m not overly religious, but they do demonstrate our priorities) then we need to discuss this not as individuals, but as a community. And that word really doesn’t come up very much any more. There appears to be a general sense of selfishness around lately, and I don’t know whether is just because of the meltdown, or something else. Sure, we do have to look out for ourselves, of course. But then there’s fear too; I’ve got mine (now) but I’m really not too sure if it will be there in the future. We’re all really shaken up, and don’t feel very secure. So the idea of thinking outward is given short shrift. So what if I see my people in my neighborhood going to food pantries? Don’t have health insurance? The answer to that? What am I supposed to do about it? I can barely hang in there myself! But the more we neglect the very thing that sustains us (community) and withdraw into ourselves as individuals it becomes a fierce battle between individuals which ought to be acting as a whole (community). This budget battle should be engaging us and bringing us together to meet the challenges. Unfortunately, the reverse is happening. We’re divided and can’t seem to agree on ANYTHING!

  6. Judy M. Says:

    Wonderful article…but one that will not be read by the Right! I personally believe that until our country addresses the stranglehold the evangelical community has on the Right, nothing will improve. One of the rallying cries by the evangelicals is the fear of collectivism so, of course, their focus is going to be on the individual, not the wellbeing of society as a whole. And,
    why would we want to take care of environment since Jesus is returning soon? This mindset/beleif system is helping to destroy us and it needs to be front and center in our national discourse.

  7. William James Says:

     “In a perfect world we would have a great debate throughout the nation, not just in Washington, over the issue of whether we are a society, a national community” – If there is no debate, then you have your answer. The concept of community or debate is lost on an individual-centric generation, which views society as merely the audience for the individual to project into, an awareness-optional fashion accessory that encumbers and burdens private life. Community was the meeting place between life-politics and governmental-politics, and now that the concept has been done away with, nary the two shall meet; the American political mindset has been reduced to “let the baker do the baking, let the barber do the barbering, and let the politician do the politicking,” the very Old World sentiment that was so prevalent in Europe in the early 1930’s…

  8. JimG Says:

    Thank you. I had been thinking about this, after reading http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/on-faith/post/government-shutdown-a-clash-of-fundamentalisms/2011/04/06/AFnwbxqC_blog.html

  9. Mike Curiel Says:

    Senator Hart,
    i was very excited to read your article even after simply glimpsing its title. Upon finishing your piece, I was a little dissapointed. I am a fervent speculator, dreamer, observer, even idly and often without conscious purpose. But the front page of the Huffington Post seems like no place for idle whimsical musings of this nature. Considering our political, social, corporate, and military climate, hard working people and families losing their jobs for “propagandish” reasons, is this any time for a lack of poignant, relevant substance? Are Senators really US citizens? Or are words are sentences really just squigly lines? Are corporations really just businesses? Can a centralized government of wealthy private people who are for the most part above the law, really work towards the best interests of 300 million people?

  10. Tomas Says:

    @Judy M., I actually think it may be the other way around: The “starve the beast” Right has a stranglehold on the evangelical community. “What’s the Matter with Kansas? How Conservatives Won the Heart of America” by Thomas Frank does a better job than I can of explaining that theory.

  11. Tim Davidson Says:

    Senator Hart,
    Excellent article. While I disagree with your implied conclusion, this is the debate that the nation needs to have. As a point of order, I believe that many folks are not upset about paying for the safety net or essential government functions but they are upset about paying for the waste that is modern government. An excellent example is paying ‘only’ $460M to PBS. Putting aside the question of its value, why should our government which is currently borrowing $.60 of every dollar it spends fund entertainment? And while the talking heads say it is only $460 Million Dollars that is more money than most Americans will EVER make.

  12. Tommy Pane Says:

    “The current confrontation between parties and ideologies is over the role of government. But even more deeply it is a foundational disagreement over whether we are a society, a community, or whether we are a collection of individuals inhabiting the same geographical space.”

    It’s nice to read that someone on the left is willing to acknowledge the questions being raised by those who lean more Libertarian. The debate IS about the role of government, specifically, the federal government.

    Local and state governance is still the life-blood of our society, and the reason we as a nation can flourish given out diverse cultures. We share a common currency, a common military to defend us, and many other things that are rightfully regulated by the umbrella of the federal government. But all else is local. Our strength as a nation is in our willingness to respect the right of our neighboring communities to govern themselves, regardless of our opinion of how they do it. When the federal government is used to homogenize behaviors, resistance will bloom, and that’s what we’re seeing happen.

    It’s time to recognize that the large footprint of the federal government is stepping on us all, without discretion.

  13. DofG Says:

    This question reminds me of my experience in math class that one can have a grand equation; but if the predication, or any operation is wrong, the whole thing is wrong! In other words, we find ourselves with these monumental crossed purposes because what we’ve done do far, is not holistically rooted in cosmology, nor do we seek with any amount of collective focus to find “the path”. Thus, we have created a collective sphere of reality designed almost exclusively by the illusory human ego.

    Yes, we are a society, whether we think it, or not; for like the universe itself, our culture is also unitary. Unfortunately, despite all of our technological accomplishments, and all other things of Man, we dangerously flounder because we simply ignore that all that we do is rooted in the correct or incorrect application of Cosmic Law! If we simply look at our deficits that have accumulated over the decade. The laws of mathematics obviously demanded, at least, an approach opposite of what was done. But that didn’t matter, only the ideology mattered. And so the same can be said for all of our institutions that depend on dogma for their relevance and survival, rather than a transcendent understanding, or ontology that is inclusive and respects the immutability of Natural Law.

    How do we change this? Well, real change will never come from the politicians, but from the people. However, in the long term, we the people must first change and cultivate ourselves. And by doing so, we will change and cultivate a different breed of politician that understands that, in a universe without genesis; the only limitation is no limitations! And that true wealth is not merely the antonym of poverty, but the absence of poverty!

  14. Ricky Dee Says:

    You people, especially Judy M are raving lunatics. Complete idiotlogs.

  15. Jim Says:

    Dear Senator Hart-

    Please consider running for president in 2012. We desperately need a principled leader for this country. It is not Obama. But It really seems to me it could be you.

    Sincerely,

    Jim G.
    Raleigh, NC

  16. Ted Lemon Says:

    You quote the Oxford dictionary as saying that society is “the sum of human conditions and activity regarded as a whole functioning interdependently” and “the customs and organization of an ordered community.” This is a very inclusive description. You go on to say “And if we have collective interests, the instrument by which we pursue and promote those interests is the national government, not Wall Street or the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.”

    These two statements seem to contradict each other: on the one hand you define society as a whole, and then on the other hand you isolate one aspect of society, government, as being the sole instrument by which we pursue the interests of society. I think that by framing things this way, you actually weaken your case. In reality, government functions as a place where things best handled collectively (e.g., paying for health care) are done, and as a means of regulating antisocial behavior on the part of Wall Street. But Wall Street is still a part of society, and so is an informed, active electorate.

    Why does this matter? Because when you isolate some interest group and say that their interests are not society’s interests, you naturally place them in opposition to society’s interests. I don’t see how we can ever get back to a constructive national political discourse until we stop trying to frame portions of society out of the picture. I’m not much of a centrist, but I think that the debate needs to start from the center, or there’s not going to be any debate–just more of the shouting that’s currently going on.

  17. Gary Hart Says:

    With thanks to all (or almost all) for thoughtful comments, my responses to some: To Larry, as a former divinity student I do know the Neibuhr book and share your respect for its focus on social ethics; to Mr. James, our Founders very much considered the new nation a republican community with liberty and justice for all; to Mr. Curiel, I’m sorry you found this exercise in reflective political philosophy “whimsical musings”; Mr. Davidson and others should be reminded that government grew under a number of presidents committed to eliminating “waste, fraud, and abuse” as much as anything because they refused to include the Pentagon and they found themselves obliged to deliver public services that people demanded; to Mr. Lemon, I was not excluding Wall Street and the Chamber from the society, but simply saying they are not the instruments by which the society at large pursues its collective public purposes.

  18. Brendan O'Connor Says:

    Sen. Hart,

    Thanks for this, it so precisely sums up the pains I feel lay at the heart of our floundering ability to think in terms of a “greater sense of we,” as Robert Putnam has put it….I think of Robert Bellah’s great writing on this and our individualism as well in “Habits of the Heart.”

    I just wanted to ask though, if you happen to have time to write a quick response, if you could let me know a good reference for Roosevelt’s writings or speeches where he talks about that idea of a “national community”–I’m working on a master’s thesis at Vanderbilt Univ. on the historical and present-day uses of “community centers” (with particular focus on social and political uses/potential, as well as a related analysis of the concept of “community” and whether these entities actually build it in meaningful ways).

    With kind regards,

    Brendan O’Connor

  19. Gary Hart Says:

    Mr. O’Connor: Please see the Jan, 1941, state of the union speech…the famous four freedoms speech…in which FDR added “freedom from want” and freedom from fear to the more traditional freedoms. Also research the Roosevelt Institute in New York. Implicit throughout the New Deal was the belief that all Americans shared a heritage and a future and that none should be left behind. Up until this time, we had relied principally on private charity, until the Great Depression proved its inadequacies. Concentrated wealth hated Roosevelt for beginning the construction of a social safety net and he proclaimed in Madison Square Garden that “I welcome their hatred.”

  20. Jonathan Hujsak Says:

    A very thoughtful and insightful article.

    A friend in Shanghai introduced me today to the work of the Global Scenario Group. After reading up on that framework I couldn’t help but wonder if we are teetering on the brink between a sustainable “Great Transition” (possible future) and a descent into a future of “Barbarization” – complete polarization between the elite on one end, and the disenfranchised on the other. As we are seeing in the Middle East and Africa today, Barbarization (absence of Society) leads to chaos and violence in the end, and the collapse of the state (e.g. Libya, Somalia, Bahrain, Egypt, Cote D’Ivoire) . Great Transitions foster accelerating stability. World news is full of encouraging indicators every day, but they are buried in a mountain of noise. We are currently mining this information and making it available free of charge to the public on Twitter @SustainableNet as an experiment in augmented social cognition.

  21. Brendan O'Connor Says:

    Sen. Hart,

    Thank you so much for the quick word back! I will definitely look those resources up, and love the boldness in FDR’s “I welcome their hatred” line…that level of leadership from mainstream politicians seems like another era too much of the time.

    I do have to say really quick that, in that vein, I was pleasantly surprised to hear President Obama reference the idea of a national community in his speech tonight: “We have to think about our fellow citizens with whom we share a community.” I hope he can maintain the tenor of the speech in general, because it so clearly ended up addressing the exact questions you raised in this piece about whether we are a society or not.

    Thanks again, so much, as the fact that you wrote this really helps confirm many of the core questions I have had about where we are as a country.

    All the best,

    Brendan

  22. Katherine Hahn Says:

    To me, your last paragraph is the most important one. Since I’m fairly new to politics, maybe I’m naive and starry-eyed. But I do believe it’s possible to begin to have that grand debate within our neighborhoods. We can start by organizing in our precincts, and continuing to be engaged between big elections. We need to talk face to face; it’s harder to vilify your neighbor than it is to vilify politicians and pundits.

    By the way, you said at a recent Mountain Area Dems meeting (I won’t be able to quote you correctly) that an elected representative’s job is not to ask constituents what they want and promise to give it to them, but to seek the best solutions to our problems and to present those solutions to constituents. Elected representatives ought to educate themselves, educate constituents, and persuade. At least that’s how I interpreted what you said- and I emphatically agree. Ordinary citizens need to be engaged and to have a voice, but most of us can not be policy experts. That (I guess) is why we send elected reps to D.C.

  23. Cab02149 Says:

    The wrong question, literally.
    Irrelevant.
    Bread and butter issues are and always have been senior.
    We would do better to assume interdependence and get on with problem solving. That lies at the base of our current stress; Inability to problem solve in all levels of government for at least 30 years. Corruption also remains king.
    As Warren Buffet said, he could not have succeeded if he was born in Bangladesh. He would have been a farmer. Society, by any name, does make a difference in individual lives.
    The unregulated media and unrestricted corporate influence on government should get the scrutiny; along with substandard elected officials at all levels with inadequate rules by which they make policy. They behave like they are special and exclusive. Hah !
    We have no clear definition of a corporation in law.
    We have insufficient criteria for those who run for office.
    Our election processes are easily corrupted.
    I think our salvation will come from reconstructing our political and media institutions and not whether all the rest of us wastes time debating your question.

  24. james l pinette Says:

    Dear Mr.Hart sir:
    Tried to leave a public comment on your article at Huffington but they had closed the comments. That’s good because I found your site. Things are trending right,Why? Is it because we have a dumbed down electorate? Followed you career since the Amway comment and still giggle. Long time ago long time passing.

  25. Tom J. Flaherty Says:

    A

    Progressive Identity

    Against all odds ears have been opened to the word Progressive. Thank You Internet Neutral.

    Time presents this opportunity to clarify and updated a basic principles piece to serve as a uniting work in harmony with the guiding principles of the US constitution and it’s intent as concisely written into the pre-amble of.

    Progressive, traditionally meant tax structuring that equalized a civil society by asking higher tax rates of those that reaped more benefits from our “free enterprise system”.

    In response to the ongoing failure of this goal and the small window to present our sincere aspirations prior to the further assault by the Supreme Court of the United States upon the NATURAL CITIZENS, Three major facets of progressivism shall be paramount.

    1. Public financing of elections shall be the holy grail of this Progressives (natural peoples) faction.

    2. From this extreme point as the most unequal of all industrialized nations with respect to wealth we must strive to be among the most equally/fairly distributed.

    In this we do not divorce or distance from the free enterprise system that has been so productive and hence better for so many for so long. Better we embrace with a civil society what works to increase the Quality of our Life/Freedom/Family/Community/Ecology as it coexist with subservient entities. High in this ideal shall sit transparent government including banking by the government that shall be maintained as per the United States Constitution and as viable and efficient competition to any private banking entity.

    In the name of money and all financial instruments a basic concept of real should be made. First economics is an artificial constraint on a civil society. It can be depressive or inflationary. In the ideal STEADY STATE economics is the goal with only minor inflation. To peg an economy in this age to a commodity like gold tend to be depressive and inhibits the betterment of mankind’s spirit as a whole hence as the United States Government prints money on the full faith and credit of our Nation it should do so with balance only slightly to the inflationary side. Treaties that affect negatively on the balance of trade shall be openly assessed and when needed preferable dynamic tariffs placed. In a good and positively directed system all boats should rise so to speak. For example the current accounts balance should continually increase due to prudent planning and implementation. It seems to the Progressive paying interest to the banks is to be a goal to distance from and the rates should be minimal and in the end banks and financial institutions should be taxed especially progressively as a constraint on the bad behaviors manifest through history. This as well can be done in a dynamic way so as to grow the base while preventing “To Big to Fail”. Hedge fund style entities especially in the derivatives markets shall at minimum post to government exchanges all transactions, document all contractual changes, and post fully transparent records two years and three months retroactive to the fiscal year they posted.

    3. A social compact that respects the basic needs and sets minimum community standard for it’s Natural Citizens and at the same time allows the government to engage in efficient and productive enterprise on it’s own or in partnership with private enterprise again with a goal of increasing the quality of life in the Nation and secondarily the community of nations.

    Sincerly, to the attentive,

    Tom

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