I’ve often thought that the difference between modern-day conservative and liberal politics in this country could be pretty well summed up by the difference between these two common phrases:
“Pull yourself up by your own bootstraps.”
“A rising tide lifts all boats.”
It comes down to the difference between individual and collective effort.
When Republicans (and Libertarians) talk about “freedom,” what they are often referring to is the ability of the individual to be “free” from collective responsibility. In America today, the one collective that unites us is our federal government. And so the Reagan revolution was all about defining government as “them,” and therefore, the root of the challenge to our individual freedoms.
If you’ve listened carefully to President Obama over the last six years, you know that he has challenged that notion regularly.
For example, during the 2012 election the President talked about how collective actions are what lay the groundwork for individual success in what became known as his “you didn’t build that” speech. Conservatives were so incensed by that one phrase that Mitt Romney made opposition to it the theme of the Republican Convention.
President Obama made a different case at the Democratic Convention.
We honor the strivers, the dreamers, the risk- takers, the entrepreneurs who have always been the driving force behind our free enterprise system, the greatest engine of growth and prosperity that the world’s ever known.
But we also believe in something called citizenship — citizenship, a word at the very heart of our founding, a word at the very essence of our democracy, the idea that this country only works when we accept certain obligations to one another and to future generations…
We, the people — recognize that we have responsibilities as well as rights; that our destinies are bound together; that a freedom which asks only, what’s in it for me, a freedom without a commitment to others, a freedom without love or charity or duty or patriotism, is unworthy of our founding ideals, and those who died in their defense.
As citizens, we understand that America is not about what can be done for us. It’s about what can be done by us, together through the hard and frustrating but necessary work of self-government. That’s what we believe.
What greater expression of faith in the American experiment than this, what greater form of patriotism is there than the belief that America is not yet finished, that we are strong enough to be self-critical, that each successive generation can look upon our imperfections and decide that it is in our power to remake this nation to more closely align with our highest ideals?
That’s why Selma is not some outlier in the American experience. That’s why it’s not a museum or a static monument to behold from a distance. It is instead the manifestation of a creed written into our founding documents: “We the People…in order to form a more perfect union.” “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.”
These are not just words. They’re a living thing, a call to action, a roadmap for citizenship and an insistence in the capacity of free men and women to shape our own destiny. For founders like Franklin and Jefferson, for leaders like Lincoln and FDR, the success of our experiment in self-government rested on engaging all of our citizens in this work. And that’s what we celebrate here in Selma. That’s what this movement was all about, one leg in our long journey toward freedom…
Because Selma shows us that America is not the project of any one person. Because the single-most powerful word in our democracy is the word “We.” “We The People.” “We Shall Overcome.” “Yes We Can.” That word is owned by no one. It belongs to everyone. Oh, what a glorious task we are given, to continually try to improve this great nation of ours.
If we as a country are ever to heal from the discord spawned by the Reagan revolution of assuming that our democratic form of self-government is a “them” to be feared and defeated, this is the rallying cry we must take on. The whole concept of “we” is the foundation upon which progressivism is built.