DMI Blog

Mario Cuomo

Values that unite and divide us

This is the second installment in a series by former Governor Mario Cuomo.

mario cuomo.jpgAmerica needs a better idea of what we want to be as a nation: 300 million disassociated individuals struggling in a dog-eat-dog society or a society that combines strong individual rights and accountability together with an intelligent and vibrant sense of community.

The truth is we have always been a nation challenged by our great diversity of cultures and values – particularly religious values. Our Founding Fathers accommodated that diversity in the Constitution by protecting individual rights and independence. They did not, however, explicitly require us to make ourselves strong as a nation by becoming a sharing community: that was left to be done by us. And for two hundred years we have been finding ways to do it, taking down walls that divide us, and developing new synergisms.

The soul of our miraculous country has developed in phases. During the first 150 years our pioneer spirit was reflected in laissez-faire government that left our progress to the products of the market system, individual effort and charity. Then in the next phase that came after industrialization the beginning of acute-globalization and the economic calamity of the Great Depression, we were forced to add to our rugged individualism the ability to share benefits and burdens as a community.

Abraham Lincoln had presciently described that ability with stunning simplicity and clarity. Lincoln, like Adam Smith before him, noted that individualism, private charity and the market system are indispensable to our success as a nation but they are not sufficient to provide all we need to thrive as a society: that required government. He defined government as the coming together of people to do for one another collectively what they could not do as well or at all through the market and philanthropies, and he called upon people to come together, not arguing about “big” government or “little” government but by insisting on all the government we need but only the government we need in order to provide the necessary things that would not be adequately supplied by the private sector.

That’s what our government has struggled to do ever since, creating public education, Medicare and Medicaid, Social Security, the Marshal Plan, the highway program, the space program and other essential interventions in the market system. These programs gave birth to the period of the American Dream after the Second World War when a new strong middle class, the sons and daughters and offspring of immigrants, had good jobs, upward mobility and virtual assurance that their economic well being would be greater than that of their parents. The growth of labor unions helped spur regular raises in salaries and access to adequate health care and education, especially in public schools. On a salary of $30,000, you could raise five children, in a safe neighborhood, with your own house and car with only one parent working and a savings account that grew steadily. In those days, it was clear “community” worked well. Abraham Lincoln was proven right. He had understood what today some political leaders appear not to: that our reason as well as our religion tell us that progress as a nation depends upon our ability to combine our powerful instinct for individuality with the overriding and undeniable need for a commitment to the idea of community.

Indeed he believed that was true of the world as well. He knew that for our nation to be at its strongest, we must keep a strong hold on the sovereign right to defend ourselves while working as much as possible in concert with other nations.

Although globalization and the world community were at least a hundred years away Lincoln clearly perceived and welcomed them. More than once he said the principles he was fighting for in the 19th century in his own land would significantly affect and be affected by all humanity then living, as well as the generations to come. The next administration should understand that simple truth: it is a far cry from the divisive economic fragmentation and short-sighted global unilateralism demonstrated by the Bush Administration especially in its early years.

The period of the American Dream faded ironically just about the time that Ronald Reagan tried to tell us we were all living in a “Shining City on a Hill.” Reagan argued that we had to avoid an excess of “sharing” through government. In effect he was telling us we were in danger of having too much Lincoln type government. Instead he offered us “The Magic of Supply Side” – give tax cuts and other benefits to the rich and their enterprise will take care of the rest of us. That didn’t work when they called it “Trickle Down” and it has failed again as “Supply Side”. His huge tax cuts and spending created a recession and the greatest budget deficits and federal debt ever – until today’s. That debt forced President Regan eventually to raise taxes as dramatically as he had cut them.

For the next two decades the middle class dream faded. Global competition, exploding technology, a failure of American education to keep pace, the weakness of labor unions and a migration of American entrepreneurship cost us good jobs and ended the earlier assumption that workers were sure to go steadily up the economic ladder. Indeed they began to slide backwards, making them restive and discouraging growing numbers of poor Americans seeking a first step up the ladder.

With Bush II we have seen the return of Supply Side and an economy that is good for investors and the already wealthy but punishing to workers with moderate or low skills. The nation’s sense of community has withered during the last six years. In addition to having been fragmented economically, we have been split by a clash of religious values caused in part by a conservative political constituency’s attempt to convert God into a Celestial Party Chairman. That is not what the founding fathers had in mind as the role of religion. The First Amendment prohibits government from establishing a state religion or impeding the free exercise of religion whether it be theistic religions like Judaism, Christianity and Islam, or non-theistic religions like Buddhism, Shintoism, Hinduism, Confucianism or Ethical Humanism. In effect, the First Amendment protects my right to be a Christian by protecting your right to be a Jew, Muslim, atheist or agnostic.

The many Supreme Court decisions dealing with the use of religious symbols and language by government have been eccentric and often contradictory, but they are not a major impediment to freedom of religion and freedom from religion, both of which were dear to the founding fathers and remain so today to most of us. The larger problem has been created by government seeking to force on citizens what is in fact a religious belief. That is what Shariah does for – and to – some Muslims. Under our laws the President has the right to advocate values as he or she deems appropriate. The fact that those values happen to be religious does not automatically deny their acceptability as part of an American consensus, but it does not necessarily command their acceptance either. Before a whole nation of believers and non-believers of all kinds can be expected to accept a value that restricts their freedom on the use of stem cells, or in any other way, it should be justified by something more than someone else’s religion, private revelation or act of faith. It should be based on facts that are open to challenge and debate, providing a rationale that most Americans find acceptable whatever their religious disposition.

The President’s position with respect to embryonic stem cells – and abortion as well – is a case in point. He says he cannot allow embryos to be used (except for a limited number on hand) because human life starts at conception and taking the stem cells would destroy the embryo, which is tantamount to killing a human being. Asked how the President determined that human life begins at conception, a question on which scholars and religious authorities have differed over the years, the President’s science advisor, Dr. John Marburger, said the question was a “sacred” question and not a scientific one. The President in effect is denying Americans the possible benefits of embryonic stem cell research and vitalization because he wishes to accommodate his personal religious belief. That, it seems to me is – at the least – a violation of the spirit of the First Amendment and certainly is not an acceptable rationale as far as most Americans are concerned. The recent passage in Congress of a bill allowing the use of embryonic stem cells and helping to finance research using them, evidences that disapproval. The President once again ignored popular sentiment by vetoing the bill.

The challenges created by attempts to convert religion into policy remain formidable. Some are the product of deeply rooted cultural habits and commitments often religious in nature that have been calcified into rock-hard impediments to civility and fairness. That’s the case with opposition to “same-sex” marriage, just as it was for miscegenation and even divorce generations ago.

On the other hand there are a host of strong positive religious values that are so compellingly rational to religious believers and non-believers alike that they are easily accepted and have been by most Americans whether religious or not. The most fundamental of these are two principles upon which virtually all our religions and much of our social policy are based. The Hebrews called them tzedakah and tikkun olam. Technically tzedakah means "charity: as righteousness and tikkun olam means "repairing the world" or "making the world whole again." These principles call on all humans to respect one another as equal kindred spirits, and to share our strengths and advantages in order to create a stronger and better society for all: protecting the weak and the innocent, resisting evil aggression without war if possible – as required by the “just war” theory, providing opportunity for worthy seekers, caring for the disabled, protecting the environment and the truth.

Those religious principles and the implicit morality they encourage are perfectly consistent with Abraham Lincoln’s philosophy – and he made clear that he held no formal religion - calling for a community of people doing what they can collectively to make our nation stronger in ways we could not accomplish privately through the market system. That is the moral and the pragmatic force that pushes us to help the impoverished people of the undeveloped nations, the victims of the tsunami, Katrina and 9/11. It is the message Adam Smith left us in his “Theory of Moral Sentiments” and President Abraham Lincoln delivered in his speeches as he sought to infuse the natural law morality of the Declaration of Independence into the spirit of the Constitution. It is the foundation on which all our “big ideas” for government should be built.

In tomorrow’s post I will explore where we are today as nation with regard to economic equality.

Mario Cuomo: Author Bio | Other Posts
Posted at 7:40 AM, Sep 11, 2007 in Democracy | Economic Opportunity | Federal Budget | Fiscal Responsibility | Middle-class squeeze | Politics | Progressive Agenda | Welfare | public services
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