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It's the Values, Stupid!

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President Obama's April 13 th speech about the economy emphasized cornerstone American values.  Voters must understand these values to fully comprehend what's at stake as Democrats battle Republicans over the Federal debt limit and budget for the 14 months prior to the 2012 election.

While acknowledging there's a streak of "rugged individualism" in the American character, President Obama observed Americans also share the belief that "we are all connected; and that there are some things we can only do together, as a nation."  As a community we build schools and roads.  The President noted that Americans also share the belief that "each one of us deserves some basic measure of security," which is why we have Medicare and Social Security.

In a classic essay, Robert Reich wrote that embedded in the fabric of the American ethos are two positive narratives.  The first is the Triumphant Individual, "the little guy who works hard, takes risks, believes in himself, and eventually gains wealth, fame, and honor" this is the "rugged individualist" Obama alluded to.  The second American narrative is the Benevolent Community, "Neighbors and friends who roll up their sleeves and pitch in for the common good" this corresponds to Obama's observation "that there are some things we can only do together."

There's a tension between these two value statements: individualism versus the benevolent community.  Occasionally in American history we've seen this tension boil over; as the West expanded, rugged individualists rushed to grab land and sometimes ran roughshod over laws and the needs of the community.  In the present era, the tension between individualism and the benevolent community is played out on the battleground of taxes.  Republicans believe that this generation's equivalents of rugged individualists, entrepreneurs, are inhibited by taxes; that if there were lower taxes and less government, the free market would magically provide for everyone.  Republicans minimize the notion of the benevolent community, replace it with the grim dictum, "you're on your own."

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In his April 13 th speech, Obama observed that the notion of fair taxation ultimately derives from Americans' belief in the benevolent community.  "As a country that values fairness, wealthier individuals have traditionally born a greater share of this [tax] burden than the middle class or those less fortunate... it is a basic reflection of our belief that those who have benefitted most from our way of life can afford to give a bit more back."  The President noted that Republicans want to change this agreement, this "social compact," and have proposed a budget "that claims to reduce the deficit by spending a trillion dollars on tax cuts for millionaires and billionaires."  Obama provided his vision for America: "where everyone makes sacrifices but no one bears all the burden; where we provide a basic measure of security for our citizens and rising opportunity for our children."  The president called for shared sacrifice for the common good.

Activist Van Jones has embarked on a nationwide "Rebuild the Dream" speaking tour to help Americans reclaim our core values .  In a recent Huffington Post article Jones elaborated seven steps to renew America, ranging from fair tax policy to a manufacturing agenda that honors American workers.   In his writings and his tour, Van Jones emphasizes the narrative of the benevolent community, that "we are all connected," and core values including empathy, fairness, and civility.

UC Linguist and political consultant George Lakoff observed, "Democracy is based upon empathy," the notion that we are all members of a benevolent community.  Historically, Americans have shared a concern for the common good and the welfare of all our citizens.  We've believed that government can be a force for good when it serves all the people, not just the wealthy or powerful.

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The benevolent community values fairness.  Americans value competition under fair conditions, "the level playing field.".  And we honor workers as well as entrepreneurs; we believe that everyone should receive a fair day's pay for a fair day's work, share in the rewards of their labor.  We don't believe that wealth and power should unduly influence democratic process and we don't accept that corporations have the same rights as do individuals.  Americans believe in responsible government that serves all the people and see good government as a vital part of our democracy.

Finally, a benevolent community demands civility.  Americans recognize that in a vital democracy each of us has a voice; that for all our voices to be heard rich and poor, Democrat and Republican, blue state and red state we must treat each other with respect. We understand that our democracy requires that we act with integrity and responsibility. In the words of Van Jones, "[We] stand for the idea that, in a crisis, Americans turn TO each other - and not ON each other."

 Democracy is at risk.  To defend it, Americans must reclaim our core values.


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Bob Burnett is a Berkeley writer. In a previous life he was one of the executive founders of Cisco Systems.

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