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Democrats Rediscover The Common Good

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On June 13th, Congressional Democrats unveiled their domestic agenda, A New Direction for America. It begins with the phrase, "putting the common good of all Americans first for a change." Heading into the November elections, Dems have seized on the common good as a unifying theme.

Of course, the common good is not a new idea for Democrats. It was embedded in the political ideology of FDR and the era of the New Deal. Still, it fell out of favor during the seventies. It was resuscitated in Barack Obama's speech to the 2004 Democratic convention, "alongside our famous individualism, there's another ingredient in the American saga, a belief that we are all connected as one people" it is that fundamental belief -- I am my brother's keeper, I am my sisters' keeper -- that makes this country work."

In an April article in The American Prospect Michael Tomasky suggested that the common good again be the Dems' unifying theme. After laying out the history of this idea, Tomasky argued, "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."

Tomasky's plea seems to have taken root. On June 13th, Senator John Kerry spoke to a Washington audience about "the common good." "A commitment to community and a shared commitment that brings every single one of us to a set of ideals that are bigger than each of us individually."

There are two reasons why the time is right for Dems to resuscitate the common good. The first is the fact that Republicans have abandoned this notion. Rather than being governed by the ethic, "I am my brother's keeper and my sister's keeper," they've substituted a warped version of personal responsibility, "what's in it for me." They're unwilling to ask citizens to sacrifice for the best interests of the nation by, for example, conserving energy. After 9/11 President Bush did not call for common sacrifice but, instead, suggested that citizens go shopping.

Rather than embrace the notion of "we're in it together," the GOP advocates the social Darwinist philosophy of "You're on your own; whether your thrive or fail depends upon your merits as a human being." Yet, a recent survey found that "68% of voters strongly agree that the "government should be committed to the common good and put the public's interest above the privileges of the few." The public is ready to reject the GOP ideology of "you're on your own" and embrace the Dems notion of the common good.

Starting from the principle of the common good should help Democrats describe how shortsighted and biased the Republican agenda is. For example, early in June, Republicans attempted to permanently repeal the estate tax. Labeling this "the death tax," the GOP launched a propaganda campaign to convince average Americans that the estate tax affects them and inhibits entrepreneurs. But these were lies: the estate tax does not affect average Americans and there is no evidence that it inhibits entrepreneurs. Less than one percent of Americans who die each year pay any estate tax (around 12,600 estates). United for a Fair Economy found that 18 families, worth $185 billion, financed the campaign to repeal the estate tax. A Congressional Budget Office report found that most of the benefits of a repeal would go to "830 of the best-off estates." They would reap $16 million per year per estate.

Fortunately, the initiative to repeal the estate tax narrowly lost in the Senate. Permanent repeal of the estate tax was against the common good for two reasons: it would have further increased the national debt, eventually costing $1 trillion as the interest accrued; and it would have increased inequality in the United States, further divided us into a nation of "haves" and "have nots."

Republicans opposition to the common good isn't just an ideological battle. Their intent is to excise consideration of the common good from the public sector. One aspect of their campaign has catered to special interests with initiatives such as the repeal of the estate tax. Another has attempted to dismantle the "New Deal" legislation introduced during the Roosevelt era. The cornerstone of these laws was social security. At the beginning of his second term, George Bush introduced the notion of the "ownership society," where "more people will own their health care plans, and have the confidence of owning a piece of their retirement." This initiative began with a reframing of the retirement safety net from being a collective responsibility to an individual responsibility, from an element of community to one of personal responsibility. Fortunately, Dems stood fast and saved social security.

The motto of the United States is E Pluribus Unum, "From many, one." Republicans seek to replace it with Hodie mihi, cras tibi, "Today for me, tomorrow for you."

The time is right for Democrats to unify behind the notion of the common good. The public has grown tired of the failed conservative policies of the Bush administration and agree that "government should be committed to the common good and put the public's interest above the privileges of the few."
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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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