Whatever happened to public service, or One Nation, Under God, indivisible?

Abstract: Many are fed up with today’s partisanship in politics, but it is not the partisanship which is new. While partisan politics has always divided us, our civil society rooted in the American civil religion is what served to unite us as a nation and forge a disparate collection of immigrants into a people. It is the loss of a common identity that makes the partisanship seem so toxic. The sense that what we share is greater than what divides us is eroding from our national discourse. It is that national unity that turns holding political office into national service. Without that, it is simply a competitive struggle, a win-lose proposition of defeating the enemy and “taking the country back” from those corrupt people on the other side of the issues from me who have taken it away.

If a space alien came to America during this election season, it would have to scratch its head – assuming it had one – and wonder why they allowed the dregs of society to run for election to leadership roles. The television ads, which run non-stop, portray each candidate as the absolute lowest most contemptible life-forms known to man. Our nation’s pundits have called the current political culture one of toxic partisanship, but this is a partial answer at best.

If you look over American history, there are plenty of examples of more extreme partisanship than now. If you look at the fistfights that take place in other nation’s parliaments from time to time, our politics looks positively tame. However, something has surely changed in America, or rather numerous things have changed since the time, just a generation or two ago, when Congress would argue over policy during the day and go out to the same social functions at night.

There are many symptoms of this problem. Talk radio on both the left and right, but the right has a much greater audience, routinely vilifies those politicians on the other side of the isle, but they are not alone. Organizations like Moveon.org and so-called “527” non-profit groups that “swiftboated” John Kerry are other examples of this toxic political culture.

While no one doubts that all of these developments have led to a coarsening of our national debate, the idea that they are the cause of the problem is misplaced. If the culture did not accept Rush Limbaugh suggesting that he hoped President Obama would fail, or, for that matter Moveon.org and the war protestors belittling President Bush as an idiot, these political statements would be widely criticized as illegitimate and those who propagated them would be ostracized and marginalized and their platform to speak would be removed. Rather, they are hailed as heroes and patriots by those who share their views, vilified by those who do not.

As partisan as our politics have become, it is the change in culture that has authorized it. American political culture from the beginning was based on two somewhat contradictory cultural pillars. One was economic freedom and free trade. The other was religious freedom. The original tea partiers threw the King’s tea into Boston harbor. No taxation without representation was a rallying cry. The other strand that composed American political culture was rooted in religious freedom. Because so many different groups came to America looking for freedom, a culture of religious tolerance developed and a civil religion that acknowledged the commonality of different religious traditions and found expression in a common civil society to which all had a sense of belonging.

That ethos informed a sense of public service. Holding office was a right, but even more so a duty, an obligation that we had to the society that provided us with life, liberty and the ability to pursue our happiness. No one seems very happy now. We don’t belong to a common project any longer, or at least many of us apparently do not believe we do. There is a lot of talk on both sides about taking our country back from those that took it from us, namely those in the other camp from us. In such a society, there is no talk of public service but rather of defeating the other side. We are living in a Hobbesian war of all against all.

Economic freedom is rooted in capitalism and capitalism exists on a culture of competition, as businesses and economic interests compete for market share and profitability. They do this by creating value. This competitive culture is part of America’s greatness, every bit as much as is the Judeo-Christian religious beliefs that underlie our sense of human rights and fair play. The two strands of our culture have been in a constant state of tension throughout our history. It has been a productive tension and the drive to succeed and excel has been informed by a sense of morality rooted in Judeo-Christian values.

That civil religion that undergirded our civil society has now largely disappeared. There are still signs of it, as we sing God Bless American at the ballgame, but it is mostly empty, devoid of its former power. Most intellectuals are of the opinion that as rationality and rationalism replace religion, civilization becomes more enlightened. Human rights are better guaranteed by reason that religion. However, there is a problem with that argument. Rationality, in the form of homo economicus, is the foundation for our capitalist system, as rational actors pursue their private ends. But the same rationality is also subject to the prisoner’s dilemma.

Rationality is individual, and maximizing individual utility can typically lead to rational individuals to act in ways that are individually rationally while irrational for the society. The classic case is the tragedy of the commons which leads individuals pursuing their own rational strategy to overgraze the common pasture and ruin the resource for everyone.

The current political culture clearly resembles the tragedy of the commons. Individual actors, trying to get elected, “go negative” – a lovely euphemism for hurling all kinds of baseless charges of greed, avarice and corruption at their political adversaries in order to achieve their ends – to get elected. The by-product of this is ruining our county, our sense of shared values and community, and perpetuating the “us against them,” red v. blue split that is alienating the electorate from the process, from the political culture and even encouraging them to have a low opinion of the very people that they put in office. All is justified in the name of winning.

The only check against this unfettered competition has been a civil society undergirded by a strong civil religion which serves to mitigate and check the worst excesses and abuses of such unfettered competition. You can disagree with your brother or sister, even call them an occasional name, but only in the worst of families does this lead to all out strife because what you share in common is stronger than the differences over which you fight. But even with family, you have to work at it. One nation, under God, indivisible may no longer be the case, of maybe for not much longer. That’s a much greater problem than if those nasty Republicans or profligate Democrats win the House this time.

2 comments to Whatever happened to public service, or One Nation, Under God, indivisible?

  • Portal1

    Well, which is it? Public service or one nation etc.? My atheist ancestors’ are crying into their socks right about now.

    (This opionion is brought to you by the letter ‘blue’.)

  • I believe one of the major reasons for the widespread partisanship can be rooted in U.S. income tax. The income tax, which followed the Sixteenth Amendment, created a pool of money of which everyone wanted a piece. During World War I, Woodrow Wilson guaranteed the banks that they would be repaid any loans lost due to the defeat of a country that had borrowed money from them. In 1920, states that had previously built their own roads asked the federal government for money for roads. In the mid 1920s, corporations began going after a piece of the pie under Coolidge, whose slogan was “the business of government is business.” Then then common man got into the act with job security and Social Security with the New Deal Programs. With World War II, military contractors entrenched themselves in the “military industrial complex.” Then came new departments for every other imaginable special interest from pharmaceuticals and energy production to public schools.

    The income tax provided more federal income in 1916 than the federal government had spent the previous 125 years since its inception–including the Civil War. This amazing source of revenue, originally of little burden to the middle-class citizen, was systematically increased a couple percentage points at a time to enable all special interests brazen enough to ask for it a piece of the pie. Of course, over time, this eventually became a great burden on the common man and the party came to and end.

    Now the squabbling over federal money we witness is a result of a taxed-out economy and those many interests whose livelihoods derive from redistributed income tax are increasingly desperate and thus uncivil in their behavior. Federal money that always came easy no longer does so, and the bellicosity of the partisanship increases to a fever pitch.

    This is not the first time in human history such wealth has been squandered. Look at what happened to Spain after all the gold and other wealth it plundered from South America. The same thing happened on a different level with the National Council of Churches in the USA in 1969-1972, when its resources were spent on all kinds of things, including aid to SWAPO, a violent communist revolutionary organization in South Africa, anti-Vietnam War protesting, and many other activities considered counter-cultural were supported by the federal religious body. During those three years, the contributions to the NCC-USA were cut in half. Much of the camaraderie among the various department heads and staff people that had been characterized by daily worship services and lunches at the “God box” on Riverside Drive turned into back-stabbing and enmity as those employed on the national religious largess were reduced to tactics of survival of the most cunning and institutionally adept. Such unfettered competition thus revealed itself not only in nasty debates between Republicans and Democrats, but among the very religious leadership that should have been providing norms of civility for the United States.

    In sum, dependence upon public money can reduce the outwardly noblest and best educated people into uncivil and crude behavior. Human beings are at their best when they can live of the fruits off their own labor. What we see in US politics today is the behavior that arises when too many people try to live off of the fruits of the labor of others.

    The US founders foresaw this possibility as they were close to the behavior of those who enjoyed the spoils of the British Empire. They left collection of taxes to the sovereign states and in the Constitution required that any money collect from the states be on an apportioned basis. They knew that collecting federal taxes from individual citizens would create a Leviathan that would bypass and usurp state power. Alas, we forgot the lessons of previous history and are forced to learn them all over again.

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