Issue #24, Spring 2012

Restoring the Language of Obligation

To read the other essays in the “First Principles: Reclaiming Citizenship” symposium, click here.

Within little more than a decade, however, such hopes had evaporated. Struggles within each of the movements for black liberation, women’s liberation, trade union reform, and against the war in Vietnam began to seem almost as bitter as the struggles fought by the partisans in those conflicts against conservatives. By the time that the prolonged economic expansion of the postwar decades ended with the oil crisis of 1973-1974, the cultural confidence of liberal Democrats had been shattered, and the constituency of white working-class males that had celebrated the New Deal began to abandon the Democratic Party. As their own economic prospects began to dim with the early stages of deindustrialization, these Americans located the threat to their continuing prosperity not in a changing economy but in the demands of blacks and women. Less than a decade after that, Ronald Reagan was elected president—and the language of obligation that had undergirded the programs of Progressives, New Dealers, and Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society had become a target for critics on the left as well as the right.

After the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991 and the U.S. economy began to lose ground relative to both the industrialized and the developing world, navigating the new terrain of domestic and international politics became more treacherous. Increasingly, the terms of political and scholarly debate were set by free-market champions in newly ascendant right-wing think tanks such as the Cato Institute and their allies in academia such as William Riker, whose models proclaimed self-interested behavior as the consequence of “rational choice.” The particularistic agendas of identity politics challenged the integrationist programs of the civil rights movement and 1960s feminism. Now the desires of the sovereign self took precedence over the idea of obligation, which began to seem quaint in the face of a naturalized and thus unassailable free-market model premised on ostensibly neutral data drawn from the social sciences or evolutionary biology.

Ever since the era of progressive reform, demands for regulating banking, the workplace, and the environment have been framed in terms of social responsibility. Just as those who benefited from the highest salaries owed the greatest debts to the society that made possible their prosperity, so those who created dangerous conditions had a duty to clean up after themselves. Today, more than half of Americans express preferences for progressive positions such as more steeply graduated taxation, more stringent regulation of the financial-services industry, a higher minimum wage, and stricter pollution controls. Yet a large majority resist calling themselves liberal and identify either as moderates or conservatives. Why? I believe the answer lies, in large part, in most liberals’ abandonment of the older language of obligation. Earlier American reformers spoke of duties and responsibilities as well as rights, and they unapologetically invoked Judeo-Christian ideals of benevolence and justice. Since the 1960s the language of social solidarity has been muted on the left while the language of freedom, rights, and individual choice has risen to an increasingly shrill crescendo. As celebrations of obligations owed to God, family, community, and nation—language that progressives and New Dealers used unapologetically and with confidence—have become the language of the right, the left has found itself cut off from the richest resources in American history for fueling progressive political movements.

That is why when Elizabeth Warren speaks unequivocally about paying back one’s debts to society, her implicit invocation of social responsibility sounds threatening to many American conservatives, just as it makes many on the left nervous. Both left and right hear in talk of responsibilities a code for constraining their freedoms. But there is nothing un-American or reactionary about the idea of obligation. It is the language of John Adams and Madison and Lincoln; of Wilson and both Roosevelts and Martin Luther King Jr. Historically, the language of American democracy has been the language of duties as well as rights.

The language of duties has also been the language used by Barack Obama. It ripples through Dreams from My Father and The Audacity of Hope, and it is the language he rediscovered in the speech he delivered on December 6, 2011, in Osawatomie, Kansas, where Theodore Roosevelt unveiled his own New Nationalism a century before. In that speech, perhaps the first speech of President Obama’s campaign for re-election, he quoted Theodore Roosevelt’s insistence that a “real democracy” requires economic regulation, wage-and-hour legislation, and a progressive income tax. Echoing the formula of Jane Addams, as he often does, Obama said that American democracy depends on our realization that “we’re greater together than we are on our own.” The Republican Party’s economics of “you’re on your own,” Obama declared, has never worked. Instead he embraced the progressives’ and New Dealers’ commitments to “fair play” and to giving every American a “fair shot” and a “fair share,” commitments that historically have yielded both more sustained economic growth and greater equality than simply trusting the market. Fairness, Obama concluded, requires all of us to “take some responsibility,” and he challenged all of us to face our “broader obligation” because “we still have a stake in each other’s success.”

That way of framing the issues should remind liberals that many of us have lost our way. The focus on securing equal rights for the disadvantaged and marginalized was important; protecting those achievements remains a priority. But we should not forget the other demands that have long accompanied the call for freedom. The increasing gap between rich and poor angers so many Americans because it undermines the solidarity that has undergirded the implicit social compact in place since the New Deal, a compact that remains solidly in place despite repeated efforts to demolish it. Instead of continuing to stress perceived threats to the rights of minorities, a language that social conservatives can easily exploit for their own purposes, the left needs to pay more attention to the economy. Because the buying power of the minimum wage has been falling steadily since the 1970s, a robust increase would be the best way to address the problem of poverty among the majority of Americans who work long hours for little pay. Because jobs at Walmart, KFC, and UPS cannot be shipped offshore, predictable shrieks about the consequences of a higher minimum wage can be answered by emphasizing the value of enabling people with such jobs to buy cars and tools and furniture and restart the stagnating economy. Liberals need to stop cowering before the threat of outsourcing and insist again that American businesses have a responsibility to American workers and consumers, not just to the bottom line. They need to stop shrinking from invocations of the Judeo-Christian ideals of benevolence and equality and stop being squeamish about deploying the language of patriotism to fuel demands for social justice. As an antidote to our cynicism, we need a strong dose of Woody Guthrie.

When Obama reiterates his conviction that we all benefit when our wealth is spread around, he often invokes Warren Buffett or former Intel CEO Andy Grove, as if their assent could somehow inoculate him against conservatives’ barbs. But he needs to recover his own—and Elizabeth Warren’s—firmer tone. He needs to recover the confidence of American reformers from the seventeenth century onward, people who did not believe they had to apologize for seeking social justice. Even though that goal has always escaped our grasp, Americans on the left should remind ourselves that striving for it remains, as it has always been, as American as apple pie. One might say it’s our obligation.


More from Democracy: A Journal of Ideas

The Networks of Self-Governance by Carmen Sirianni

Read More »
Issue #24, Spring 2012
Post a Comment

John R Huff Jr:

You are exactly right about Obama. Once he finds out he needs to speak up more to win the election he does. Why in the hell didn't he do it for the first three years? I am not very crazy about him at all. I will vote for him only because he is the Democratic nominee.

Mar 15, 2012, 4:03 AM
Dan Holway:

I wonder if Elizabeth Warren will soon begin to buttress her political beliefs by arguing that they represent true Christian morality and that her opponents are enemies of it. It would make for interesting debates.

Mar 15, 2012, 8:23 PM
M Jindra:

This is a good article, but one thing that has bothered me about Warren is her neglect of obligation or responsiblity among the broader population. She tends toward scapegoating the wealthy, and while I agree they need to step up, there are also major problems in the culture in general re personal responsiblity, as this journal has made clear in other writings. Putting it in terms of social theory, structure, culture and agency(personal practice) all need to play a role, and I suspect anyone who fails to pay attention to all three, a weakness on both the political left and right.

Apr 28, 2012, 12:04 PM

Okay, let's talk about obligation. Does a person have an obligation to work at any occupation at any wage before accepting welfare benefits? Does a woman have an obligation to marry before becoming pregnant? Does a well-off senior have an obligation to decline Medicare benefits? Does the 48% of the population that pays zero federal income tax have an obligation to pay to pay some federal income tax? All of us - not only the 1% - benefit tremendously by living in our society.

May 31, 2012, 1:59 PM

Post a Comment



Comments (you may use HTML tags for style)


Note: Several minutes will pass while the system is processing and posting your comment. Do not resubmit during this time or your comment will post multiple times.