One side sees the U.S. government as a barrier to economic opportunity and individual freedom, and the other side sees the same government as the instrument by which social justice is achieved. Since it is the same government, the difference must be in the preconceptions of the antagonistic sides.

From the early division between the Federalists and the Republicans onward, this confrontation has continued, abated only during times of national danger—depression or war. Without the external danger of an attack or collapse, however, we’ve proved unable to coalesce and reach any kind of durable consensus on what kind of government we want and what kind of society we want.

Late in life I’ve lost hope that we will ever agree on these fundamental questions, that we will ever become a mature society, that we will ever, in a word, grow up. Perhaps it’s in the American character always to want to re-litigate every question, to never accept a decision as final, to presume that every policy, even those agreed to by a large majority, ought to be challenged repeatedly.

Central to this characteristic is the notion that conservative presidents and Congresses seriously intend to diminish the size of government. They never do. They never have. The common response to this truth is that “liberals won’t let them.” That is nonsense. Who won’t let them are the American people, the very people who vote for conservative candidates believing that the government they intend to shrink is a different government than the one that provides the services they want and demand.

This kind of profound immaturity leads its believers to accept totally fallacious notions that eliminating “waste, fraud, and abuse” or plundering discretionary programs alone will balance the budget. The same people are outraged when spending is reduced and they are required to wait for attention to receive the benefits from program they like.

All government programs are enacted by Congress and approved by the president, both elected by a majority of the people. Those who may not like or want those programs have a quarrel not with “the government” but with their fellow citizens. But wait, aren’t some of those programs and policies the product of special interest pressure (Wall Street, etc.) and a corrupt campaign finance system? You bet. And the Constitutional remedy for that is to organize opposition to Members of Congress who support the special interests. Yet, more often than not, those angered by “big government” and special interest politics persist in returning those same Members of Congress to repeated terms.

All of this is, or should be, pretty obvious. But the deeper question raised at the outset really is about how we see our country: Are we a collection of individuals out for ourselves, or are we a society, a nation of people with common interests? There is something economists call “economic man”, the individual who makes all important decisions based on self-interest. I believe there is also something called spiritual man and woman, human beings who care about each other, who share concerns for fairness and justice, who are unwilling to accept poverty among children, unemployment among the healthy, sickness among the elderly.

Sooner or later we’re going to have to decide which we are. Or perhaps we never will.

7 Responses to “Which Will It Be: The I or the We?”

  1. Nancy Lee Says:

    This is one of your finest postings, Senator Hart. It should be required reading for every member of Congress and for those running for office.
    But, like you, I am beginning to despair that our elected officials will every work together for the common good of the citizens of this nation.
    Money plays to big of a part in the mix. Money, I fear, dictates to every member of Congress and every function of government.
    Voters do not take the time to research the issues. They listen to and believe the spin of politicians.
    The emergence of the tea party has thrown the entire discussion out of kilter. Now we have the protests against Wall Street and the media, once again, dividing us over the legitimacy of the protestors. What a mess! And we expect our president to wave a magic wand and make the debt go away and jobs magically appear.

  2. Forest Book Says:

    I agree with Ms. Lee; this in fact harkens to your powerful book “The Fourth Power” – It is this level of engagement and truth telling that this nation needs. The message is clear, and vital: We can not, and we must not loose the pluck to remain ardent in service to our principals of Democracy. Democracy. Not the seeming, almost, carcass of Democracy; which appears to be being murdered by a million bureaucratic paper cuts; by laws they change to make this murder legal. I listened the other night to a mayor, and his council tell the majority of people in the room who opposed the building of another dangerous, toxic “energy” delivery method that this county is allowing to be built, “We do not want, nor will we accept adversarial attitudes, or agitated language. While the majority in the room (estimated 75+ in a small town of 15K) do not want this, I have to, like we all do, abide by the law. And there is nothing on the books that denies me the authority to override the majority. I am bound by the law to render a decision on this in favor of the corporation. If that’s what it comes down to.” In contrast he posed a terribly interesting question: “Where were all of you when the laws were being written? Why did you not come out in these numbers? Why won’t you come to the meetings that are boring, and tedious; but, all deal with the details of running this government?” He’s is right (literally). Why will the American people only become active in their Democracy when slighted, cheated, or abused? And only when those are so gross that to do nothing is, … Why will they not engage more fervently in their government? Why have they allowed their government, our government to be handed over, by alterations in the law; making legal
    (or almost legal) the wrongs common opportunists perpetrate? You called this absence of engagement, and the absence of strategic national thinking “ad-hocracy.” We live the consequences of this day in day out in the form of moral indignation. Sadly the results of this are dynamics that I doubt those Americans who need to understand, will not; or will choose to remain in their dogma. With the election season upon us; the American people will be subject to another round of product advertising. Conscious shaping tags and images. How many Americans can see that Mr. Obama’s “brand” is an fusion of the Target logo, the navigational element on an iPod, and the red graphic a haunting similarity to the Bank of America brand logo? In the face of such clever, and professional marketing, the American people more often than not will ask two questions: “What can I do against this?” and “Which is the lesser of two evils?” The answer to these questions is almost predictable based on another question: “Which one is better looking?” Getting back to the town hall meeting: That same mayor asked people to identify themselves from one of two organizations within the county, who are considered “liberal” “progressive” “environmentalists.” No one identified themselves from either of these groups. The mayor then said, “There you are. Where is their concern for you now?” The people in the room agreed with him with that familiar tone of moral indignation. One person stood up and said that she had spoken the director of one of the organizations who said they were conflicted. This same organization helped two other towns keep this same issue out of those places? Most in the room exploded with moral indignation with comments like, “Yeah. Where are they now?” “They sure want my donations, but we really need something, nothing.” So, you see, we are at a very serious juncture: There is no Democracy to reclaim. There is only the Democracy our founding parents created; that we engage, use, and redefine this Democracy. Our Democracy. Otherwise: Is it, or will it be Democracy? Now is not the hour to loose faith. Question ones faith, sure. But, to loose it is unthinkable.

  3. Forest Book Says:

    Sorry for the typos.

  4. Gary Hart Says:

    And, as usual, I thank one and all. And I apologize for the confusion caused by this being posted twice. I guess I got frustrated with the ponderous process and pushed the button twice.

  5. Denise Barreto Says:

    This is my favorite commentary on the subject to date. I am a locally elected official and I cannot tell you how much this rings true on every single level of gvt. People want more for less. Every year.

    It is enough to make “normal” folks like myself give up but I am not. WE are the government. So every time a citizen sends me an email or stops me with a comment – I invite them to the table – the bi-weekly village meetings. Not many have accepted the invite but it is open. It is even worse on the federal level.

    That is my question, too – when will grow-up?

  6. Andy Says:

    In any democracy there will always be conflict – we can never have a homogeneous society (nor should we) and there will always be a natural line (or lines) where there will be sides. Look where it’s taken us – we should be proud of the progress America has made with the democratic process. While I’ve always dreamed of a utopian society where we have more common ground – I’m resigned to the belief that democracy will always be a messy process — that there will be greedy people, unrealistically ideal people and a whole host of unhealthy disagreement and debate. In addition, you will always have different levels of civic engagement. It’s human nature and I don’t think that will ever go away. So is the gridlock we are experiencing today just part of the process?

  7. Gary Hart Says:

    In response to Andy, this blog is not advocating utopia. It argues for a level of national maturity that seeks to establish consensus on some basic functions of government, especially in the realm of a social safety net for those left out. Debate is good. And differing philosophies will always be with us. But, sooner or later some fundamental things should be resolved, as adult individuals do in their own lives, and then we can move on to deal with emerging issues of the day, yes, in a messy way.

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