When we pull back from the current political debate, it tends to revolve around the same conflicts that were present during the founding of our nation; namely the rights of the individual versus the defined role of society as represented by government. Loosely speaking, Republicans or conservatives have been more in the former camp while Democrats or liberals tend to lean toward a more involved government role.
This is a healthy and necessary debate but only when there is more truth than exaggeration and a willingness to concede that there are serious flaws in both approaches when they go to their extremes. Our system of governance, along with economic realities, do well when there is a balance and fare poorly when there is an extreme.
Sadly, today, we are witnessing too much extreme on the right and too much indifference to economic realities on the left.
Successful administrations, Republican and Democrat, understood the vital role of balance. The hallmark administrations on the Republican side would probably include Abraham Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt, Dwight Eisenhower and Ronald Reagan. All understood the vital role of protecting and encouraging the success of the individual. However, they did not hesitate to use extraordinary governmental powers to preserve the union, harness excessive capitalism, enforce federal court mandates of desegregation against the perceived rights of states, and crush non-conforming unions.
But, in more human terms, they were all by nature and political bent inclined towards seeing America not as an endless array of individual silos but rather as a beautiful patch work of communities where people worked together for the common good. In essence, they understood the human role of government in helping others.
All post-world War II Republican Presidents were heavily influenced by the values of the Greatest Generation. They fully endorsed the notion of “we” when it came towards celebrating and committing financial resources to finance education, human services, the transportation infrastructure, and even using taxpayer funds to help businesses startup and grow. They were not into the drawing of arbitrary lines but rather governing with a sense of pragmatism. And while they may have decried regulations and bureaucracies they tended to use the regulatory powers of government and, surprisingly, expanded government.
But my central point here is that they avoided extremes, sought balance, and were protective of both individual rights and societal responsibility. In one way or other they would agree that it takes a village to raise a child.
From my vantage point, this new Republican Party now controlled by the Tea Party lacks the historical heritage to fully appreciate the role of community. All too often, they are like the ego-laden athlete who pounds his chest in a moment of self-glorification when he scores a touchdown. Yes, he may be the hero of the moment but how dare he be unmindful of the contributions of his teammates, the coaching staff and the entire support system that allowed him to score.
When Neil Armstrong walked on the moon, he declared: “One small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.” Why did he not instead shout “look at me, I did it"?
Coming out of the Bronx in New York City, I was blessed with a full scholarship to the Choate School in Connecticut. It was, without question, the most transformative experience of my life. Totally unprepared academically, the faculty through a process of tough love gave me the opportunity to catch up provided I was willing to put in the extra work. It was a wonderful tradeoff.
But my most lasting memories were daily chapel where the Headmaster would deliver sermonetts that stressed values designed to build a sense of community. Years before, John F. Kennedy sat in the same pews and heard the Headmaster of that time advise students “Ask not what Choate can do for you. Ask what you can do for Choate.” Obviously, Kennedy was touched by those words.
But the simple fact is that all of us have been touched and helped in a meaningful way by others; parents, teachers, friends, religious leaders, colleagues, and yes, even institutions including business and government. We believe in the helping hand.
I truly hope this new Republican Party gets out of the Ayn Rand syndrome and begins to recognize the role of balance and the strength of community.