Twenty-Four Years Ago candidate Ronald Reagan launched our society on its present course when he asked Americans, “Are you better off today than you were four years ago?”
I am increasingly convinced that this marks a decisive turning point in the public life of our American society. From this remark to the present day, our society has been defined by a single-minded emphasis on this one question: “How am I doing?” While this insight is by no means original to me, I am struck more and more every day how much it explains about the sorry state of our national civic life.
WARNING: OFFICIAL CURMUDGEON MATERIAL FOLLOWS.
When I was a kid, the news would report on how we as a society was doing. Our average income was up! For the 24th year in a row! Our standard of living, already undeniably the highest in the world, was up again! Our literacy rate had achieved near-impossible levels of success. Our government was focused on improving the lives of what we called the “less fortunate.” It seemed to matter how the least amongst us were doing, and what those who were called “fortunate” worried about doing enough to give back to society.
Today, of course, under the insidious guide of personal responsibility, poor people are poor because they have made bad choices: either they failed to get the education they should have, or they took jobs in shaky businesses, or they failed to prevent terrible injury, or whatever. Any reason that someone might be poor today comes back to one thing in our modern era of personal responsibility: the individual involved must have made a mistake at some point.
And of course, the happy people of means have much to be proud of: their entrepreneurial spirit, their hardwork, their brains their innovation, whatever. Rich people are rich because they deserve to be. Money has become an almost perfect substitute for human and/or moral worth.
The pre-Reagan era of collective responsibility was an easy target. To hear the Republicans tell the tale, nothing was ever anybody’s fault. Can’t get cable tv? It’s the government’s fault, the right would have their strawmen cry. Can’t get a job, the strawman would ask? Blame corporate America.
To make this new paradigm work, the right needed to disengage government from a decades-long reliance on social science. Social science promised to use the best methods from the world of hard science to help us discern and alleviate the problems of society. Data collection was of course central to the enterprise. For the right, this meant playing the left’s game.
So we chucked social science in favor of anecdotal evidence. Reagan’s welfare queens. Militant gays. The rise of the living proof in the form of an ordinary person attending the State of the Union.
And so, the social scientists have continued to labor in obscurity, collecting data that the right deems irrelevant. What’s important they say is not the world as is exists (the derisively named “Reality-based world”), but the world as we imagine it should exist (a world they might like to call the “Leadership World”).
I’m a big believer in the productive power of balance – proportional levels reality and imagination. And I do believe that we on the left have forgotten the power of imagination and thought leadership, and relied too heavily on the value of measuring and managing reality as we find it. But while we may be weak, we at least are on the side of angels. And we do not spurn outright the other half of these particular paired opposites. The right rejects the notion that data and reality is even relevant. I’m not sure why they even fund the National Institutes of Health or the National Science Foundation. I’m sure there are people on the right who would turn the funding off on these tomorrow.
My formulation of our “brand DNA” has been “Community. Responsibility. Opportunity.” And the phrase that typifies it for me is, “Are we better off than we were four years ago?”
If the never-varying cycle of generational partisan shifts is 36 years, the question is whendo we start measuring. If we take it from 1980, we've got a ways to go. But I'd be excited about helping to build a movement that culminates with our candidateushering in the "We" generation. I just hope it won't take til 2016 for it to happen.