by J. Charles 'Chuck' Coughlin | October 11, 2017

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If you are the least bit mystified as to why our current political system is so incredibly dysfunctional and you haven’t read The Once and Future Liberal by Mark Lilla yet, you should do so right now. It is only 143 pages and it is a worthy read.  The book not only dissects what is hurting the Democratic Party, but the Republican Party as well. Read it today.

Author Mark Lilla’s thesis is based upon the notion that the beginning of the modern partisan political era began with Franklin D. Roosevelt’s election and the “Roosevelt dispensation,” a term for the policies enacted following the Great Depression.  Chiefly, the term refers to “The New Deal,” which expressed, through government action, a commitment to a social safety net.

The policies encouraged savings (Social Security) in American financial institutions, which would then help underwrite investment in the American economy.  Essentially, it was a program to promote confidence in the federal government’s ability to manage the economy and dampen catastrophic economic swings while creating steady economic growth that would benefit all Americans. This dispensation lasted through the Nixon Presidency, when the Environmental Protection Agency was created and the Republican President advocated for wage and price controls.

The civic and cultural revolutions of the 1960’s (civil rights, women’s rights, farm laborer rights, etc.) began to fragment that constituency – and the definition of “citizenship” began to be more deeply examined and questioned. He explains that demographic changes in the country, the advent of television news coverage, and an unjustified war in Vietnam fought largely by Americans of lesser economic means exposed class and cultural divides that had been denied or just ignored in the post-World War II economic boom.

The “Roosevelt dispensation” largely came to a halt as President Carter’s term ended with a “malaise” affecting the American experiment – the definition of social bonds which defined citizenship began to push Americans apart rather than together. Lilla uses a quote from Ted Kennedy in 1985 which aptly described the challenges of the Democratic Party at that time (and perhaps even today): 

“We must understand that there is a difference between being a party that cares about labor and being a labor party. There’s a difference between being a party that cares about women and being the woman’s party. And we can and we must be a party that cares about minorities without becoming a minority party.  We are citizens first.”

So as the Democratic Party began to define itself by its constituent parts and not a whole, Ronald Reagan, the “Great Communicator,” came along and gave it a decidedly potent shove with his sunny brand of American individualism and exceptionalism. These themes also largely ignored those cultural divides and spoke to an individualistic libertarian ethic that we are all just better off left alone and to fend for ourselves. Reagan championed that government was not the solution to the problem; it was the problem. He rallied people to the idea that the government was too big, too invasive, and that if it would just leave the American people alone, they would be just fine.

“Reaganism” essentially denied the role that government had played in creating the longest post-war economic boom in world history.  Free markets, free trade, and individual liberty would liberate the American people from this difficult exploration of what it meant to be a citizen of a larger community. 

As Grover Norquist said, “My ideal citizen is the self-employed, homeschooling, IRA-owning guy with a concealed-carry permit. Because that person doesn’t need the goddamn government for anything.”

Today, as Lilla points out much more articulately than I, Democrats are mostly defined by their identity: race, gender, sexual orientation, etc. (which is sufficiently supported and encouraged by our electronic media culture).  On the other hand, Republicans are largely defined by their libertarian, “leave me alone, I’m just fine on my own” ethic. 

Of course, there are exceptions to these broad brush strokes. Christian fundamentalists using the government to promote their own brand of cultural politics has literally driven both parties into defining themselves by our least common denominators, and not the higher calling espoused by our Founders and articulated in our founding documents, “…that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

But again, as our Founders knew and as the Old and New Testaments both speak to, none of us are free as long as one of us is chained. God’s bar is a high one and, as Lilla suggests, we need a healthy discussion of what it means to be a citizen in America again and the rights, duties and responsibilities that are associated with that.

In the aftermath of Las Vegas and in the anticipation of the next tragedy, perhaps we all should be asking ourselves personal questions. What can we do as individuals, and what is our personal responsibility as a citizen of the United States, to make sure the next potential shooter has someone to talk to? Can we be someone to reach out to, to listen, and to comfort them before they enter that space of spiritual darkness?

Perhaps we should be asking ourselves what we have done to connect and reach out to some of those most isolated people in our increasingly callous society and help them find a way away from committing the next heinous tragedy?  Perhaps that, and reading Lilla’s book, can help you begin your own internal dialogue and be the beginning of a national conversation about the obligations of citizenship in these United States of America.

It’s a tantalizing and interesting prospect for political discourse in a time where all political rhetoric seems to be driving us apart, rather than together.  It’s an opportunity for some talented, blessed, and patient soul to launch themselves into, with complete disregard for partisan labels, and see if through that simple question, “What does it mean to be a citizen?”   Perhaps then, we begin to articulate a political narrative that brings our country back together again.

Check out The Once and Future Liberal by Mark Lilla for yourself.



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