Missing: Any Challenge for the Common Good

By Mark Shields

March 19, 2016 4 min read

For the presidential campaign of 2016, the best estimate is that the candidates, their political action committees, the political parties and so-called "independent" committees will raise and spend $5 billion — which would be twice as much as was spent in the 2012 presidential campaign. With the singular exception of Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, who has fueled his campaign with more than 4 million individual contributions — averaging, as he is quick to tell us, just $27 each — presidential candidates, to be competitive, must and do spend a lot of time in the company of and courting rich people who are capable of making six-figure donations to their campaigns.

It's a pretty good bet that individuals who are capable of writing a six-figure check do not live in public housing or depend upon public transportation or public recreation, and they probably do not educate their children in public schools. The Republican front-runner, New York developer Donald Trump, has avoided the fundraising frenzy. But his own personal fortune keeps him comfortably distanced from the pressures faced by the parents of the nearly 90 percent of American children who go to and rely upon public schools.

America's political language is impoverished. Where is the American appeal to the common good? Let's be clear: It is less hazardous politically for any candidate to coddle voters — us — rather than to challenge us. As University of Massachusetts wise man Ralph Whitehead has noted, the cherished tradition of sacrifice in this nation has long been in decline. Our culture has devalued individual sacrifice for the common good and has been reluctant to recognize, let alone to remind us of, the mutual obligations we, as citizens, owe.

There has been an unspoken collaboration between America's conservatives, who want to privatize and deregulate the economy, and America's liberals, who want to privatize and deregulate the culture. Privatization of the economy leads to the depreciation of the public sector and, inevitably, to a country where those of affluence and influence (but not families of ordinary means) are able to safely insulate themselves from any deterioration in public services. What Whitehead sees is an almost implicit libertarian bargain that has emerged from liberals and conservatives: "I won't meddle with your lifestyle if you won't meddle with my free markets."

The highest value becomes a nonjudgmental tolerance. The escape clause for Catholic Democrats who believe abortion is wrong becomes "I do not wish to impose my views on others." The fatal flaw in this logic is simply to substitute in place of abortion child prostitution, slavery or homophobia. Politics brims with examples of one side's efforts to impose its ethical values on the other. That is exactly what the continuing debate over the Affordable Care Act is.

If your opponent is unpopular enough, you can win a presidential election by simply being the other guy. But to successfully lead the nation, a president needs an affirmative vote endorsing what that president seeks to do in office. So the presidential candidates in 2016 need now to tell us what sacrifices for the nation's well-being and for the common good they would ask of all of us over the next four years. But they must not blow smoke; we are grown-ups who know that the future will not be painless. America is about "We the People," not all about "Me the Person." We know, as the only American who ever won the White House four times taught us, that "the test of our progress is not whether we add more to the abundance of those who have much; it is whether we provide enough for those who have too little."

To find out more about Mark Shields and read his past columns, visit the Creators Syndicate Web page at www.creators.com.

Photo credit: Michael

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