Editor’s Note: The following article was originally published as the lead article in the September/October 2008 issue of The Progressive Christian and later appeared as the lead article in Faith & the Common Good: The Best of Zion’s Herald and The Progressive Christian, 200-2011, A Limited Collectors’ Edition (ed. Stephen Swecker). The 2008 article is used with permission and followed by afterword by the author updating the piece for the current elections.
“Perhaps no other culture so clearly defines itself by its morality tales.”
-Robert Reich, Tales of a New America, 13
2012. Election cycles in our society typically involve the retelling of our nation’s stories and the proposal of revised or even new narratives with which to identify ourselves. The American Dream, the City on a Hill, the New Frontier, the Great Society, the Bridge to the Twenty-first Century, the Fair Deal, the New Deal, the War on Poverty, the Reagan Revolution, and numerous other mottos have summoned us either to our roots or to a new identity as a people. Because of the security they give us, it is not easy to abandon or modify the traditional stories and learn to tell new ones about ourselves. But what if a changed world calls for changed stories? That we live in such a world that calls for such a change was precisely the claim of award-winning, Clinton administration labor secretary Robert R. Reich when he wrote Tales of a New America in 1987.
Reich, then a Harvard political economist and now professor public policy at the University of California at Berkeley, believed that our most cherished stories or “morality tales” had outlived their usefulness in their traditional forms. We needed, he argued, to learn to tell better stories about ourselves in a shrinking, increasingly interdependent world. However valid and useful the stories had been in the past, the four major American morality tales needed to change because they all pitted “us” against “them” both domestically and globally, even if they sometimes envisioned “us” doing good things for “them” rather than “us” disciplining or defeating “them.” Two decades later it is not apparent that we have heeded his admonition, and his more recent writings, such as The Future of Success (2000) and Supercapitalism (2007), do not suggest otherwise. Meanwhile the need for better stories has probably grown as new developments have accelerated the trends he cited and yet hardened the commitments of many to the four traditional morality tales that Reich considered outdated. Will this election cycle convince us of the need for better stories (and what is better is admittedly a judgment call), or will it prompt a re-enforcement of our entrenchment in those four revered tales? It will take compelling leadership to sell a narrative more adequate to today’s challenges.
Because of the security they give us, it is not easy to abandon or modify our traditional stories and learn to tell new ones about ourselves. But what if a changed world calls for changed stories?
The four tales that Reich saw woven in our history and espoused by conservatives and liberals alike, often in differing renditions and combinations, are the Mob at the Gates (about foreigners), the Triumphant Individual (about entrepreneurs and workers), the Benevolent Community (about the poor), and the Rot at the Top (about big business and big government). How do these tales frame the way we look at issues?
About “the Mob,” conservatives and liberals have not always identified the same “dark forces” (Reich’s term) that threaten the order and security of our society or advocated the same strategies toward them, but we all have our mobs. Nazi Germany and Japan at the time of World War II, the Soviet threat, “the Yellow Peril,” Japanese auto imports, international drug traffic, terrorists, illegal immigrants (at times all immigrants), and other nations that are unreliable allies or unfair competitors are a good start on a list.
Reich was quick to acknowledge that there is evil abroad in the world, but in an interdependent world that survived the Iron Curtain and the nuclear arms race (so far) and has seen the development of the Japanese-American corporation, he questioned neat divisions of the world into the evil others and the good Americans. He even stated, “But there is no mob. And there are no gates” (102). In other words, the international drug traffic is not only a Colombian problem; it is also an American problem.
The tale of the Triumphant Individual exalts the ingenuity of the entrepreneur who succeeds by dint of individual initiative and hard work. The flip side can be that poverty is an insult to the victim and in no way a problem for the successful. In a world of winners and losers, you pick your team. Our history has seen numerous heroic examples of realizing the American Dream, but our individualist myth can overlook the indebtedness of the successful to others, the prevalence of triumphant teams (such as group winners of Nobel Prizes), and the undeserved barriers to prosperity that the poor experience. Reich saw the times of the Great Depression and World War II as a period when Americans felt a large measure of solidarity with their fellow citizens and thought more in terms of “our” problems than of theirs and mine. In his view, we have seldom seen such solidarity since.
The four tales that Reich saw woven in our history are the Mob at the Gates (about foreigners), the Triumphant Individual (about entrepreneurs and workers), the Benevolent Community (about the poor), and the Rot at the Top (about big business and big government).
The Benevolent Community story of barn-raisings and United Ways has never disappeared from our society, and Reich cited religious communities as having, from early in our history, influenced our national sense of community to be more inclusive, advocating full rights of community membership for slaves and women, for example. With such social programs as the War on Poverty, however, we have been better at charitable efforts by “us” for “them” than we have been at concerted efforts to address problems viewed as affecting us all. For conservatives, the marginalized may need discipline, and for liberals they may need relief, but both have “us” doing what is best for “them” instead of affirming a sense of shared membership in a national community or a global community.
The fourth morality tale, the Rot at the Top, may locate the problem in big government or big business, but Americans have had a nose for the corruption of power from our start. Unchecked power does corrupt, and Reich’s more recent Supercapitalism cites the “not quite Golden Age” (the three decades after World War II) when big business, big government, and big labor had a balance of power that saw us through. Now, he laments, the global economy has advanced the interests of the consumer and the investor at the expense of the concern for the common good that should characterize civic virtue of the citizenry in a democracy. Instead, profits are equated with the common good. When Reich wrote Tales of a New America, he was concerned about a too facile location of all rot in one sector of our national life, whether in Washington or the corporate boardroom. As he observed, “Americans are determined to take their devils one at a time.” Instead he advocated being vigilant about rot wherever it exists and appreciative of the varied roles that business and government have to play for the general welfare or the common good. Once again, he saw a crying need for stories that recognized social solidarity and interdependence amid the overlapping interests of increased globalization.
In the two decades since his challenge to tell better stories about ourselves, plenty has happened that could either entrench us more deeply in the old stories or spur us to stories that transcend the “us” against “them” liability of the four traditional tales. In the current political campaign, the candidates have seemed more concerned with “the vision thing” than their recent predecessors, and they are trying in differing ways to appeal to a desire for change in the electorate, as evidenced in polling statistics about satisfaction with the current administration. At the same time, they have invoked some of the standard themes of the four venerable morality tales (the American Dream, for example). What may distinguish them from each other is the extent to which they attempt to lead us to tell better stories about ourselves that expand the reach of our sense of solidarity and move us beyond “us” and “them” polarities and divisions both domestically and globally. How well can they engage us in a common search for a common good?
In the decades since Reich’s challenge to tell better stories about ourselves, plenty has happened that could either entrench us more deeply in the old stories or spur us to stories that transcend the “us” against “them” liability of the four traditional tales.
The Mob at the Gates has certainly not disappeared from our political rhetoric. The dark outside forces that threaten our homeland security have forged their way into even greater prominence since 9/11. The “clash of civilizations”; the growing numbers of terrorists; the greater influx of illegal immigrants; the former allies who have not joined us in Iraq; and varied religious (read Muslim, especially), racial, and ethnic “others” are variously identified as threats to our security. In a recent column entitled “Getting Bubba,” Kathleen Parker observes this about a portion of the American electorate that fears the loss of our nation’s heritage and traditional values amid our burgeoning diversity and pluralism: “What they sense is that their heritage is being swept under the carpet while multiculturalism becomes the new national narrative. And they fear what else might be lost in the remodeling of America” (The Advocate-Messenger, May 15, 2008, A9). What some would propose as a better story about ourselves, a multicultural narrative, is seen only as a threat (a mob) to these Americans. For some the lament about lost heritage can be a conscious or unconscious cover for racism, but for others it can have a more commendable rationale.
Two decades deeper into globalization, the new economic giants—China, India, and Brazil—may also seem like new mobs and new threats to America’s long-enjoyed pre-eminence and hegemony. In Fareed Zakaria’s words, “We have become suspicious of trade, openness, immigration, and investment because now it’s not Americans going abroad but foreigners coming to America. Just as the world is opening up, we are closing down.” (“The Post-American World,” Newsweek, May 12, 2008, 31)
In our “culture wars,” people with “other” sexual orientations are perceived by some as a threat to the institution of marriage and to the foundations of our civilization. Through gated communities, withdrawal to new homogeneous communities removed from mixed neighborhoods, and other residential and educational “sorting mechanisms” (a Reich term from The Future of Success, now echoed in Bill Bishop’s The Big Sort), many Americans seek to insulate themselves from increasingly pervasive pluralism and multiculturalism. Efforts to expand the circle of “we,” to find common ground, to discover overlapping interests, to seek common cause with the “others” persist, but they have an uphill climb to make.
Through gated communities and other residential and educational “sorting mechanisms”, many Americans seek to insulate themselves from increasingly pervasive pluralism and multiculturalism.
Meanwhile, our unabated individualism supports a persistent belief that we need not concern ourselves about the common good. It will allegedly take care of itself if we all continue to pursue our own self-interest without stultification by governmental regulation. As Reich further argues in The Future of Success, the decline of institutional loyalty has produced the reduction of careers to a series of contracts, the reduction of community to a commodity instead of a sense of belonging, and the reduction of higher education to a way to make contacts more than a way to experience a tradition and prepare for democratic citizenship. Such recent developments as the heightened awareness of the threat of climate change and the spread of concern to an ever-broader constituency provide a pull toward more “commons” sense on behalf of our planet and our progeny, but any suggestion that the relentless push for economic growth should be tempered by environmental stewardship can be a tough sell in some quarters.
What Reich saw as a version of the Benevolent Community morality tale that is outdated lives on in the desire to reduce the social safety net, rely more on faith-based agencies and private contractors, and shrink the government, in the words of Grover Norquist, leader of Americans for Tax Reform, “to the size where it can be drowned in a bathtub.” The Katrina tragedy and ensuing fiasco showed that we still want government to be our friend when disaster of certain kinds strikes and that we feel betrayed when it is not. It has also shown us that the wells of national community spirit have not run dry. The front burner status of proposals for universal health care in the current campaign also suggests a surge of support for government involvement in protecting us from financial ruin due to medical misfortune. (It is noteworthy that neither of the surviving major candidates would frown on an active role for government to near the extent that our current administration does although they clearly differ on the issue.)
The Rot at the Top morality tale obviously still fuels the discourse of the campaign trail, and with good reasons. Washington, we hear, is where good ideas go to die. Our leaders are charged with having misled us about Iraq. Lobbyists for “special interests” are leading our representatives astray. Enron and World Com head an impressive recent list of corporate malefactors. Oil companies, pharmaceutical companies, no bid contractors in Iraq, and risky mortgage lenders have ripped us off. Looking abroad we can cite genocidal rulers, governmental blockers and seizers of food aid in crisis situations, and international companies that exploit labor and spoil the environment. There is no indication that corruption of power and disregard of the common good are going out of style. And when we look at international talks about controlling emissions and otherwise addressing climate change, what we have often seen is a recycling of “us” against “them” rhetoric by developed and developing countries about each other.
If we take global warming as Exhibit A, we and the other nations of the world are facing a threat to our global commons that jeopardizes all of us, as well as other life forms and future generations. If we are to tell better stories about ourselves and other nations, it would seem that we had best acknowledge that we are all part of the rot and that we need to find common ground among nations and between government and business based on mutual interest, even with those we regard as our adversaries or our enemies. Likewise, the growing gap between the world’s rich and the world’s poor and the ravages of the AIDS pandemic necessitate more framing of issues as “our problems” rather their “their problem” or “my problem.” Still the voices summoning us to tell better stories about ourselves at home and abroad are often considered unrealistic and out of touch. (I did not follow closely what better stories Reich may have tried to sell when he ran for governor in Massachusetts recently, but he fared poorly at the polls.)
The story of “We the people” has witnessed notable expansions and inclusions since the founding of our nation, but we are still confronted with proposals to constrict our story to “the real Americans,” heedless of who is left out.
Here we are then in what Zakaria is calling “the post-American world” (a term in decided contrast to the “American Empire” narrative that has been both bandied about and roundly criticized of late), and it is hard to take as well as hard to take in for many Americans. This world is increasingly globalized and interdependent due to trade, technology, and other problems that do not observe national borders. It is also frightfully fraught with fragmentation and polarization and bloody tribal, ethnic, and religious conflict. Within our own nation, we are “red” and “blue” states, we are black and brown and white, and we speak of class wars and culture wars. We are ripe for leadership that will bring us together for some high purpose greater than what is in it for “us” against “them.” Columnist Leonard Pitts wrote recently, “No one says ‘we’ when they talk about homelessness or hunger, no “our” enters the discussion of fatherless families or abortion rights, “us” is a stranger to the debate over failing schools and crime. These conversations are framed by words like ‘them’ and ‘they.” (“A hunger for national purpose,” The Courier-Journal, April, 23, 2008, A7)
As Reich pointed out in Tales of a New America, our religious communities have at times been major influences in our history that have expanded the inclusiveness of our national community. They have also done some good at expanding narrow nationalism. In our current situation, it is debatable whether religious communities are more part of the problem or of the solution when it comes to building a greater sense of human solidarity in our national and our global communities. Our time sorely needs both religious and political leaders that can help us tell better stories about ourselves, stories that match the realities of a world in crisis, stories that prompt dialogue about the common good.
Some analysts of campaign rhetoric have observed the relative prominence of “I” language, “they” language, and “we” language among candidates on the campaign trail. They flag an important consideration. Equally important, if not more so, is who is included in “we.” If we are as ripe for “change” as the polls indicate, are we ripe for leadership that will dare us to tell better stories about ourselves as Americans? By better, let us hope that we mean stories that move us beyond fruitless antagonisms between “us” and “them” to a solidarity that finds a way to work together for a common good about which people at the bottom as well as the top have a voice.
Social conflict is not going away, and sometimes we may fear “the other” for good reasons. Our fears, however, become self-fulfilling prophecies if we are always acting on our worst suspicions of “the other” instead of seeking areas of overlap between our problems, our interests, and even our hopes. Trying to tell stories that move us beyond the counter-productive antagonisms of “us” against “them” will not make all of our differences go away, but better stories could restore a sense of community membership in our land and even beyond our borders that has characterized us in our best moments as a people. In a world of increasingly inescapable interdependence and mutual vulnerability, the need has never been greater.
2016. Nearly thirty years have passed since Robert Reich’s call in Tales of a New America for Americans to tell better stories about ourselves, and nearly eight years have elapsed since I related his call to the election campaign of 2008 between John McCain (“A Leader You Can Believe In”) and Barack Obama (“Change We Can Believe In”). According to Reich, these better stories would recognize our global interdependence and outgrow our dated morality tales pitting “us” against “them,” even if sometimes the “us” group was waging a War on Poverty or offering some other benefit on behalf of “them.” Today in the midst of our abysmal societal divisions and our ultra-acrimonious election campaign, it seems that any progress toward a more unifying and inclusive national narrative is not audible to the unplugged ear.
When Donald Trump promises to “Make America Great Again” and says that “Americanism, not globalism, is our new credo,” he is clearly not envisioning a more inclusive and pluralistic America. Building walls to thwart further incursion by Mexicans and “extreme vetting” (beyond current screening procedures) to weed out fearsome Muslims are not proposals that resonate with “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free” (Emma Lazarus). When Hillary Clinton touts “Stronger Together” or (earlier) “It Takes a Community,” her heart seems to be in a good place, but her detractors think her tax returns and her emails raise suspicions about her coziness with Wall Street and her casualness about national security.
With the almost daily escalation of the personal attacks on the other candidate and the deepening of the divisions in the electorate, the concern of some has moved to what happens after the election, regardless of the outcome. What could bring us together as a nation and enable us to find common ground for the common good? Reich doubted when he wrote Tales of a New America that we had ever recovered the feeling many had during the Great Depression and World War II that we were “in it together” as a people, and there is even greater reason to harbor such doubts now.
Returning to Reich’s analysis, we need ask whether the adulation of “the Triumphant Individual” over the self-denying team player has really changed. Where does our vision of “the Benevolent Community” stand when libertarianism keeps weakening our societal sense of responsibility for the common good? What of our newly dotted topography of the terrain of racial injustice and discrimination with such names as Ferguson and Charleston and Baltimore? (It is startling in this regard, and perhaps indicative of Reich’s social location, that racial discrimination gets only one reference, as does affirmative action, in the index of his 1987 book.)
History is replete with claims that an impending election is the most crucial one in our nation’s story, but it can legitimately be argued that the soul of America is being tested in a distinctive way in the current campaign.
What has changed about “the Rot at the Top” if all establishment institutions are under increased suspicion? One side indicts Wall Street as the cause of our economic recession and the nemesis of our wronged home owners, or it attacks the party regulars who have stockpiled delegate votes. The other demonizes the government as bent on “taking our guns away.”
And what is new with “the Mob at the Gates”? Although majorities in both parties favor some immigration reform, Trump is making rollback and deportation the centerpiece of his campaign. “Any is too many” is a widespread response to mass movements of refugees. Triggered by the tragedy of September 11, 2001 and subsequent suicide bombings, “the war on terror” has provided every sector of society both with an object (though variously defined) for its fears and with a focus for finding fault with the responses (or lack thereof) of one’s opponents. Also beamed toward another perceived “Mob,” new strategies keep appearing to keep some people from voting or even registering, and resistance persists in some quarters to the restoration of voting rights to non-violent felons who have served their time.
It is not just that “we” remain suspicious of “them” and grow narrower in our willingness to be inclusive. In our persistent and pernicious brand of individualism, we elevate what William F. May calls in Testing the National Covenant (2011) the “imperial self” at the expense of the “civic self.” The self-interested imperial self resists any limitations on me by others or any sacrifice for institutions that seek to nurture and order our common life. This self inhabits an arena where winners and losers are determined in battle. As May observes, its fears gravitate toward a dualism that demonizes the other side both domestically and globally, and the other side often responds in kind.
The civic self, in contrast, is willing to limit pursuit of self-interest by itself and its interest groups on behalf of the common good. Civic selves make politics possible among the United States of America. When civic selves become a vanishing breed, our worsening fragmentation and suspicion of the compromises and concessions that make political democracy possible become our ruination as one nation.
In our persistent and pernicious brand of individualism, we elevate the “imperial self” at the expense of the “civic self.” The imperial self resists any limitations on me by others or any sacrifice for institutions that seek to nurture and order our common life. The civic self is willing to limit pursuit of self-interest on behalf of the common good.
The populisms of both Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump are manifestations of this fragmentation and suspicion, and as May observes, Barak Obama’s wresting of the nomination from Hillary Clinton in 2008 was its own brand of populism, bent on challenging the political establishment. May explains that any populism faces the challenge of building coalitions and making compromises in order to govern if it is successful, and Obama emulated the pragmatism of Abraham Lincoln as his best hope of success. In a speech given on the 200th anniversary of Lincoln’s birth (February 12, 2009), Obama challenged the nation with a description of civic selfhood that May would surely applaud. “Only by coming together, all of us, and expressing that sense of shared sacrifice and responsibility—for ourselves and one another—can we do the work that must be done in this country.” His adopted method of bringing people together probably counted heavily toward his election, and he believed that it could circumvent any looming liabilities of race. It was not to be so. Obama’s effort to create a unifying national narrative had the unanticipated effect of allowing white America to remain in denial about the depth of our systemic or institutional racism.
The strategy was to envision a post-racial society, to effect “racial transcendence,” to use the language of Tim Wise in Colorblind: The Rise of Post-Racial Politics and the Retreat from Racial Equity (2010). Its origins can be traced to Obama’s electrifying speech at the 2004 Democratic Convention. Recall his words: “There is not a liberal America and a conservative America; there’s the United States of America. There’s not a black America and a white America and Latino America and Asian America; there’s the United States of America.” These words put him on the political map, and his election stoked the claim that we either had become or could now be a colorblind society. Critical race theorists such as Eduardo Bonilla-Silva and Tim Wise have uncovered the damage that this illusion has done.
Efforts to reduce the problems of racial minorities to universal economic problems of class or to government–abetted problems with a “culture of poverty” diverted attention from stubborn social illnesses and attitudes that need race-conscious treatment. Obama’s effort to win white support by reducing problems of racial minorities to universal problems blended with the analysis of William Julius Wilson and Bill Clinton to put race on the back burner despite its persistent devastating impact. The white power structure could claim that America is now post-racial, and when Obama returned the spotlight to race on occasion, he would be accused of being racist. Incidents like the Charleston church massacre and shootings by police of unarmed African Americans could have made us close ranks as a nation, but too often racial rancor boiled over instead. And although it is difficult to prove, there are good reasons to suspect that racism, often unrecognized and not admitted even to the perpetrators themselves, factored significantly in efforts to defeat Obama in every form of social change he attempted on the domestic front.
As the attacks and counter attacks have escalated in the current campaign, it is not surprising that Trump has decided to label Clinton a bigot because she had the temerity to play the racism card against him and that he is attempting to make the Democratic Party solely to blame for the systemic racism that has shackled many African Americans without any sense of his and his party’s complicity in it.
If we are merely a contractual society composed of self-interested individuals and groups our tale has been told. If we are to any degree a covenantal society, that is a very different story.
As for globalization and America’s role among the nations, Obama attempted to position the United States between what William May calls “the first over others” imperial doctrine of George H. Bush and the “first apart from others” isolationism of the 1930’s. Suggesting an America that is “the first among equals,” Obama sought to rein in our imperial temptations, to act multilaterally rather than unilaterally, and to lead rather than dominate in concerted action with other nations.
This heroic proposal got him a Nobel Prize, but his own missed opportunities and the backlash of his imperial antagonists kept this vision from becoming our shared national narrative of global interdependence and solidarity (regarding climate change, for example). Obama’s foreign policy even now seems locked into an over-militarized mixture of drone warfare, surveillance, unsavory client regimes (countries or parts of countries we have invaded, and others, like the Philippines, which we were trying to protect). Has Obama been reluctant to fight harder on climate change, consumer protection, closing Guantanamo, public investment in infrastructure, or has he been wise in reducing the volume with regard to tensions with China and Russia and Muslim nations?
History is replete with claims that an impending election is the most crucial one in our nation’s story, but it can legitimately be argued that the soul of America is being tested in a distinctive way in the current campaign. May wrote Testing the National Covenant even before Obama won his second term, but his question about the meaning of “We the people” anticipates the crisis confronting us in the current campaign. If we are merely, in May’s terms, a contractual society composed of merely self-interested individuals and groups and in no way “members one of another,” quoting John Winthrop quoting the Apostle Paul, our tale has not only been told; it is being retold in the latest version of the perennial conflict between “us” and “them,” in the dualism William May decries. If we are to any degree a covenantal society, that is a very different story. It obligates us to each other as Americans and furthermore expands the ties that bind us to each other to other “others”—other races, religions, nationalities, sexual orientations, and life forms—and even to our shared earth and ecosystem.
The story of “We the people” has witnessed notable expansions and inclusions since the founding of our nation, but we are still confronted with proposals to constrict our story to “the real Americans,” heedless of who is left out. Reich entitled his book Tales of a New America. In a globalized and polarized world, we could settle for a regression to an earlier America that only protects the interests of those who already have it made. Or we could keep striving to be civic selves, to tell better stories about ourselves, to be concerned about who is left out. Once more with feeling we are confronted with the question: Are we a people or not?
AUTHOR BIO: Eric Mount is Nelson and Mary McDowell Rodes Professor Emeritus of Religion at Centre College, where he taught for thirty-six years and served at various times as vice president and dean of students, chaplain, and director of the college’s program in Strasbourg, France, assisted by his wife Truly, who taught French at Centre. He also served as the Lilly Distinguished Visiting Professor at Davidson College in the Fall of 2003. He was educated at Rhodes College, Union Presbyterian Seminary, Yale Divinity School, and Duke University (Ph.D.) Among his books are Professional Ethics in Context: Institutions, Images, and Empathy and Covenant, Community, and the Common Good: An Interpretation of Christian Ethics. A teaching elder member (retired) of Transylvania Presbytery, he recently finishd several years of service on ACSWP. Eric and Truly have four daughters and ten grandchildren. The daughters are Diane Mount Nisbet, attorney and senior clerk for a Court of Appeals judge in Nashville, TN; Laurie Mount Grimes, director of psychological services with Home of the Innocents in Louisville, KY; Marcia Mount Shoop, senior pastor at Grace Covenant Presbyterian Church in Asheville, NC; and Mary Faith Mount-Cors, international education specialist, whose consulting company contracts with the World Bank, USAID and various NGOs on projects in developing countries focused especially on education of women and girls.