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Revitalizing Our National Community
Speech by Senator Bill Bradley
The National Press Club--Washington, DC--February 9, 1995
Two nights ago I attended a dinner in St. Louis, Missouri to honor former U.S. Senator Jack Danforth. Fifteen Senators from both parties attended along with several thousand Missourians. Nearly a million dollars was raised for an organization called Interact, to which Jack Danforth will dedicate much of his post-Senate energies. The organization's charter is to coordinate efforts by the religious community in St. Louis to support programs which will improve the life chances of inner-city, predominately African-American children.
When I left Missouri for college back in 1961 the number of children in St. Louis born to a single parent was 13%; now it is 68%. Among black children it is 86%. Senator Pat Moynihan points out that this social crisis is taking place across the North Atlantic world (English out-of-wedlock births are 31%, and in France, 33%) and Jack Danforth has waded into this crisis in hope of developing a strategy that can turn these tragic numbers around.
I begin with this story because Jack has chosen to leave government to tackle one of the nation's most intractable problems and he has chosen to do it through institutions of religious faith. His efforts may offer us a fresh perspective on our commitment to address not only single parenthood in poor neighborhoods, but what is happening to our sense of family and community in suburbs, cities and small towns across America.
Never in American history has a new vision begun in Washington. Never has it been the sole property of either political party. In fact, to initiate a frank discussion of our current American condition requires us to throw off many of the barnacle-encrusted categories with which we are accustomed to talking about this nation's problems. This could seriously disrupt the respective moral allegiances and political turfs of both the Democratic and Republican parties. I would like to start making that disruption happen, for out of such ferment might emerge the fresh ideas of a better American future.
Our contemporary political debate has settled into two painfully familiar ruts. Republicans, as we know, are infatuated with the magic of the "private sector," and reflexively criticize government as the enemy of freedom. Human needs and the common good are best served through the marketplace, goes their mantra.
At the other extreme, Democrats tend to distrust the market, seeing it as synonymous with greed and exploitation, the domain of Jay Gould and Michael Mlkens. Ever confident in the powers of government to solve problems, Democrats instinctively turn to the bureaucratic state to regulate the economy and to solve social problems. Democrats generally prefer the bureaucrat they know to the consumer they can't control. Of course, both parties are somewhat disingenuous. Neither is above making self-serving exceptions. For example, Republicans say they are for the market, but they support market-distorting tax loopholes and wasteful subsidies for special interests as diverse as water, wheat, and wine. Then there are the Democrats who say that they want an activist government but won't raise the taxes to fund it or describe clearly its limits or its necessity. Still, these twin poles of political debate--crudely put, government action versus the free market--utterly dominate our sense of the possible, our sense of what is relevant and meaningful in public affairs. Yet, the issues that most concern Americans today seem to have little direct connection with either the market or government. Consider the plague of violence, guns, and drugs; the racial tensions that afflict so many communities; the turmoil in public education; the deterioration of America's families.
Today I will suggest that any prescription for America must understand the advantages and limits of both the market and government, but more importantly, how neither is equipped to solve America's central problems: the deterioration of our civil society and the need to revitalize our democratic process.
Civil society is the place where Americans make their home, sustain their marriages, raise their families, hang out with their friends, meet their neighbors, educate their children, worship their god. It is the churches, schools, fraternities, community centers, labor unions, synagogues, sports leagues, PTAs, libraries and barber shops. It is where opinions are expressed and refined, where views are exchanged and agreements made, where a sense of common purpose and consensus are forged. It lies apart from the realms of the market and the government, and possesses a different ethic. The market is governed by the logic of economic self-interest, while government is the domain of laws with all their coercive authority. Civil society, on the other hand, is the sphere of our most basic humanity--the personal, everyday realm that is governed by values such as responsibility, trust, fraternity, solidarity and love. In a democratic civil society such as ours we also put a special premium on social equality--the conviction that men and women should be measured by the quality of their character and not the color of their skin, the shape of their eyes, the size of their bank account, the religion of their family, or the happenstance of their gender.
What both Democrats and Republicans fail to see is that the government and the market are not enough to make a civilization. There must also be a healthy, robust civic sector--a space in which the bonds of community can flourish. Government and the market are similar to two legs on a three-legged stool. Without the third leg of civil society, the stool is not stable and cannot provide support for a vital America.
Today the fragile ecology of our social environment is as threatened at that of our natural environment. Like fish floating on the surface of a polluted river, the network of voluntary associations in America seem to be dying. For example, PTA participation has fallen. So have Boy Scouts and Red Cross volunteers. So have labor unions and civic clubs such as the Lions and the Elks. In the recent "Mood of America" poll taken by the Gannett News Service, 76 percent of those surveyed agreed that "there is less concern for others than there once was." All across America, people are choosing not to join with each other in communal activities. One recent college graduate even volunteered sadly that her suburban Philadelphia neighbors "don't even wave."
Every day the news brings another account of Americans being disconnected from each other. Sometimes the stories seem comical, such as that of the married couple in Rochester, New York who unexpectedly ran into one another on the same airplane as they departed for separate business trips and discovered that each had, unbeknownst to the other, hired a different babysitter to care for their young daughter. Often the stories are less amusing, such as that of the suburban Chicago couple, unbeknownst to their indifferent neighbors, left their two little girls home alone while they vacationed in Mexico. Or the story in New York City of the murder of a young woman in a running suit whose body went unidentified, unclaimed, and apparently unwanted for a week before she was identified by her fingerprints as a New Jersey woman wholly estranged from her family.
It is tempting to dismiss these stories as isolated cases. But I think they have a grip on our imaginations precisely because they speak to our real fears. They are ugly reminders of the erosion of love, trust, and mutual obligation. They are testimony to a profound human disconnectedness that cuts across most conventional lines of class, race and geography.
That is one reason, perhaps, that we love the television show, "Cheers." It is the bar "where everyone knows your name." How many of us are blessed with such a place in our lives? How many of us know the names, much less the life stories of all the neighbors in our section of town or even on several floors of our apartment building?
To the sophisticates of national politics, it all sounds too painfully small-time, even corny to focus on these things. After all, voluntary local associations and community connection seem so peripheral to both the market and government; both the market and the government have far more raw power. Government and business are national and international in scope. They're on TV. They talk casually about billions of dollars. In many ways the worlds of politics and business have de-legitimized the local, the social, the cultural, the spiritual. Yet upon these things lie the whole edifice of our national well-being.
Alongside the decline of civil society, it is a sad truth that the exercise of democratic citizenship plays, at best, a very minor role in the lives of most American adults. Only 39% of the eligible voters actually voted in 1994. The role formerly played by party organizations with face to face associations has been yielded to the media, where local TV news follows the dual credos, "If it bleeds, it leads, and if it thinks, it stinks," and paid media politics remains beyond the reach of most Americans. When only the rich, such as Ross Perot, can get their views across on TV, political equality suffers. The rich have a loudspeaker and everyone else gets a megaphone. Make no mistake about it, money talks in American politics today as never before, and no revival of our democratic culture can occur until citizens feel that their participation is more meaningful than the money lavished by PACs and big donors.
Then, there are the campaigns that we politicians run which short-circuit deliberative judgment. People sit at home as spectators, wait to be entertained by us in 30-second pre-polled, pre-tested emotional appeals and then render a thumbs up or a thumbs down almost on a whim. Outside the campaign season, we, the elected leaders, too often let focus groups do the thinking for us. Public opinion does not result from reasoned dialogue, but from polls that solicit knee-jerk responses from individuals who have seldom had the opportunity to reflect on Bosnia, GATT, property taxes or public education in the company of their fellow citizens.
From the Long House of the Iroquois to the general store of de Tocqueville's America to the Chautauquas of the late 19th century, to the Jaycees, Lions, PTAs and political clubs of the early '60s, Americans have always had places where they could come together and deliberate about their common future. Today there are fewer and fewer forums where people actually listen to each other. It's as if everyone wants to spout his opinion or her criticism and then move on.
So what does this all imply for public policy?
First, we need to strengthen the crucible of civil society, the American family. Given the startling increase in the number of children growing up with one parent and paltry resources, we need to recouple sex and parental responsibility. Rolling back irresponsible sexual behavior (sex without thought for its consequences), is best done by holding men equally accountable for such irresponsibility. Policy should send a very clear message--if you have sex with someone and she becomes pregnant, be prepared to have 15% of your wages for eighteen years go to support the mother and child. Such a message might force young men to pause before they act and to recognize that fatherhood is a lifetime commitment that takes time and money.
And given that 40% of American children live in homes where both parents work, we have only four options if we believe our rhetoric about the importance of child-rearing: higher compensation for one spouse so that the other can stay home permanently; a loving relative in the neighborhood; more taxes or higher salaries to pay for more daycare programs; or, parental leave measured in years, not weeks, and available for a mother and a father at different times in a career. The only given is that someone has to care for the children.
Secondly, we need to create more quality civic space. The most underutilized resource in most of our communities is the public school, which too often closes at 4:00 pm only to see children in the suburbs return to empty homes with the television as their babysitter or, in cities, to the street corners where gangs make them offers they can't refuse. Keeping the schools open on weekdays after hours, and on weekends, with supervision coming from the community, would give some kids a place to study until their parents picked them up or at least would provide a safe haven from the war zone outside.
Thirdly, we need a more civic-minded media. At a time when harassed parents spend less time with their children, they have ceded to television more and more of the all-important role of story-telling which is essential to the formation of moral education that sustains a civil society. But too often TV producers and music executives and video game manufacturers feed young people a menu of violence without context and sex without attachment, and both with no consequences or judgment. The market acts blindly to sell and to make money, never pausing to ask whether it furthers citizenship or decency. Too often those who trash government as the enemy of freedom and a destroyer of families are strangely silent about the market's corrosive effects on those very same values in civil society. The answer is not censorship, but more citizenship in the corporate boardroom and more active families who will turn off the trash, boycott the sponsors and tell the executives that you hold them personally responsible for making money from glorifying violence and human degradation.
Fourth, in an effort to revitalize the democratic process, we have to take financing of elections out of the hands of the special interests and turn it over to the people by taking two simple steps. Allow taxpayers to check off on their tax returns above their tax liability up to $200 for political campaigns for federal office in their state. Prior to the general election, divide the fund between Democrat, Republican or qualified independent candidates. No other money would be legal--no PACs, no bundles, no big contributions, no party conduits--even the bankroll of a millionaire candidate would be off-limits. If the people of a state choose to give little, then they will be less informed, but this would be the citizen's choice. If there was less money involved, the process would adjust. Who knows, maybe attack ads would go and public discourse would grow.
Public policy, as these suggestions illustrate, can help facilitate the revitalization of democracy and civil society, but it cannot create civil society. We can insist that fathers support their children financially, but fathers have to see the importance of spending time with their children. We can figure out ways, such as parental leave, to provide parents with more time with their children, but parents have to use that time to raise their children. We can create community schools, but communities have to use them. We can provide mothers and fathers with the tools they need to influence the storytelling of the mass media, but they ultimately must exercise that control. We can take special interests out of elections, but only people can vote. We can provide opportunities for more deliberative citizenship at both the national and the local level, but citizens have to seize those opportunities and take individual responsibility.
We also have to give the distinctive moral language of civil society a more permanent place in our public conversation. The language of the marketplace says, "get as much as you can for yourself." The language of government says, "legislate for others what is good for them." But the language of community, family and citizenship at its core is about receiving undeserved gifts. What this nation needs to promote is the spirit of giving something freely, without measuring it out precisely or demanding something in return.
At a minimum, the language of mutual obligation has to be given equal time with the language of rights that dominates our culture. Rights talk properly supports and individual's status and dignity within a community. It has done much to protect the less powerful in our society and should not be abandoned. The problem comes in the adversarial dynamic that rights talk sets up in which people assert themselves through confrontation, championing one right to the exclusion of another. Instead of working together to improve our collective situation, we fight with each other over who has superior rights. Americans are too often given to speaking of America as a country in which you have the right to do whatever you want. On reflection, most of us will admit that no country could long survive that lived by such a principle. And this talk is deeply at odds with the best interests of civil society.
Forrest Gump and Rush Limbaugh are the surprise stars of the first half of the '90s because they poke fun at hypocrisy and the inadequacy of what we have today. But they are not builders. The builders are those in localities across America who are constructing bridges of cooperation and dialogue in face to face meetings with their supporters and their adversaries. Alarmed at the decline of civil society, they know how to understand the legitimate point of view of those with whom they disagree. Here in Washington, action too often surrounds only competition for power. With the media's help, words are used to polarize and destroy people. In cities across America where citizens are working together, words are tools to build bridges between people. For example, at New Communities Corporation in Newark, New Jersey, people are too busy doing things to spend energy figuring out how to tear down. In these places there are more barn-raisers than there are barn-burners. Connecting their idealism with national policy offers us our greatest hope and our biggest challenge.
Above all, we need to understand that a true civil society in which citizens interact on a regular basis to grapple with common problems will not occur because of the arrival of a hero. Rebuilding civil society requires people talking and listening to each other, not blindly following a hero.
I was reminded a few weeks ago of the temptation offered by the "knight in shining armor" when the cover of a national magazine had General Colin Powell's picture on it will a caption something like, "Will he be the answer to our problems?" If the problem is a deteriorating civic culture, then a charismatic leader, be he the President or a General, is not the answer. He or she might make us feel better momentarily but then we are only spectators thrilled by the performance, how have we progressed collectively? A character in Bertolt Brecht's Galileo says, "Pity the nation that has no heroes," to which Galileo responds, "Pity the nation that needs them." All of us have to go out in the public square and all of us have to assume our citizenship responsibilities. For me that means trying to tell the truth as I see it to both parties and to the American people without regard for consequences. In a vibrant civil society, real leadership at the top is made possible by the understanding and evolution of leaders of awareness at the bottom and in the middle, that is, citizens engaged in a deliberative discussion about our common future. Jack Danforth knows that, and so do thousands of other Americans who have assumed their responsibility. That's a discussion that I want to be a part of. The more open our public dialogue, the larger the number of Americans who join our deliberation, the greater chance we have to build a better country and a better world.
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