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Has Obama Convinced Americans About the Importance of Community?

While neither political party has a monopoly on “community,” in recent years Democrats have been more inclined than Republicans to invoke it—none more conspicuously than Barack Obama. In the peroration of the 2012 State of the Union address, he declared that “No one built this country on their own. This nation is great because we built it together. This nation is great because we worked as a team.” A month earlier, in the city where Theodore Roosevelt delivered his landmark “New Nationalism” speech, Obama argued that “Our success has never just been about the survival of the fittest. It’s been about building a nation where we’re all better off. We pull together, we pitch in, and we do our part.”

On one level, Obama was offering what he takes to be a cool statement of fact: America works well when it works together. But for the duration of his presidency, Obama has also been saying more than that. Indeed, undergirding many of Obama’s pronouncements about the country’s economic life has been a distinctly ethical claim: that Americans are deeply connected to their fellow citizens, and that we must act on the basis of those bonds. Even as we compete, we must cooperate.

It’s important to note that this is only a new variation on an old theme in American political thought (one might say, the oldest of them all). Although some versions of this theme resonated with the American people, many others fell flat. So while the President (and his speechwriters) can fairly be credited with reviving an honorable tradition, the question remains: How effective will Obama’s version be?

SPEAKING ON BOARD the Arbella in 1630, Governor John Winthrop said that “we must be knit together in this work as one man. … We must be willing to abridge ourselves of our superfluities, for the supply of others’ necessities.” More than that, he continued, “We must delight in each other; make others’ conditions our own; rejoice together, mourn together, labor and suffer together, always having before our eyes our commission and community in the work, as members of the same body.”

Winthrop had no doubt about the basis of the community he urged. The men and women on the Arbella had jointly entered into a covenant with God. They were members of the same body because “all true Christians are of one body in Christ,” and “the ligaments of this body which knit together are love.” Although this was a theological statement, it was also intensely practical. Winthrop understood that unless the people he was addressing felt connected to one another, they would not be willing to sacrifice for one another. But a successful community requires just such sacrifice. Why else would those with more than enough—“superfluities”—be willing to transfer their surplus to those in need?

Still, contemporary Americans cannot invoke these Christian sentiments as the basis of a community encompassing the nation as a whole. Our religious diversity makes that impossible. If our community is to be a living and active faith, it must draw upon a different source.

New York Governor Mario Cuomo tried to offer such a source in his keynote address to the 1984 Democratic convention, in which he depicted the American community as a family writ large: “We believe in a single fundamental idea that describes better than most textbooks and any speech that I could write what a proper government should be: the idea of family, mutuality, the sharing of benefits and burdens for the good of all, feeling one another’s pain, sharing one another’s blessings. ... We believe that we must be the family of America, recognizing that at the heart of the matter we are bound to one another.”

As family members sacrifice for one another, Cuomo suggested, so must Americans for their fellow citizens. And they must do so in the knowledge that those who sacrifice today may be in need of others’ sacrifice tomorrow. First parents sacrifice for their children, and then children for their parents. Like a family, a political community is a zone of reciprocity over the cycle of life.

There’s a problem with this: As political theorists from Aristotle on have shown, a political community is not a family writ large. It differs from the family, not just quantitatively, but also qualitatively—especially in the nature of the relations and ties among its members. While our language sometime suggests the contrary (George Washington is called the “father of his country”; our Constitution posits a connection between “ourselves and our posterity”), experience gives us no reason to believe that emotions akin to parental and filial sentiments normally characterize our political life.

Indeed, we have found ingenious new ways of bringing benefits into the present while pushing burdens into the future.  While parents typically sacrifice in the hope of providing their children more opportunity and better lives, our society as a whole is doing just the reverse. Expecting citizens to behave as members of one family is wishful thinking. And the relatively short life of Cuomo’s metaphor offers proof of that.

War has been the other classic metaphor on which Americans have tried to base their ideas of political community. Countless World War II MGM productions depicted Americans from different regions, ethnicities, and religions brought together by the exigencies of mortal conflict. William James famously advocated national service—the “moral equivalent of war”—as a way of producing “healthier sympathies,” especially in the hearts of “gilded youths” whose privileged upbringing separated them from those who live harder, harsher lives. Theodore Roosevelt began and ended his New Nationalism speech by invoking the valor and sacrifice of Civil War veterans as the model for civic life. More than a decade earlier, in his book American Ideals, he insisted that “No amount of commercial prosperity can supply the lack of the heroic virtues, or can in itself solve the terrible social problems which all the civilized world is now facing.”

A day after taking office at the depths of the Great Depression, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, TR’s distant cousin and heir to the Progressive tradition, continued developing this trope. He told America’s veterans that “It is a mistake to assume that the virtues of war differ essentially from the virtues of peace. All life is a battle against the forces of nature, against the mistakes and human limitations of man, against the forces of selfishness and inertia, of laziness and fear.” He invoked the “great ideals of sacrifice and service,” insisting that “the essential things of life are related intimately to those to great words.”

Obama is now drawing consciously on this tradition. Indeed, his most recent State of the Union address begins and ends by invoking it. This is how he starts:

These achievements [honorably ending the war in Iraq, blunting the Taliban’s momentum, and hunting down bin Laden] are a testament to the courage, selflessness, and teamwork of America’s Armed Forces. At a time when too many of our institutions have let us down, they exceed all expectations. They’re not consumed with personal ambition. They don’t obsess over their differences. They focus on the mission at hand. They work together. Imagine what we could accomplish if we followed their example.

And here’s his conclusion:

Those of us who’ve been sent here to serve can learn from the service of our troops. When you put on that uniform, it doesn’t matter if you’re black or white; Asian or Latino; conservative or liberal; rich or poor; gay or straight. When you’re marching into battle, you look out for the person next to you, or the mission fails. When you’re in the thick of the fight, you rise or fall as one unit, serving one Nation, leaving no one behind.

Alas, war works little better than family as a template for political community. In war, there are clear goals and a chain of command. The entire force has undergone similar training designed not only to impart necessary skills but also to weld the group into a tight-knit unit. And it is literally the case that the ineptitude or cowardice of a single member can lead to the death of others.

But it’s not only that democratic communities happen to lack officers and hierarchies of command—it’s that they are founded on a notion of liberty that inexorably produces a society with a diversity of interests and views. In the entire sweep of American history, only one peacetime episode—the Great Depression—comes close to James’s moral equivalent of war. If Obama’s moral appeals have fallen flat, it’s in part because we know that the instances of solidarity he evokes lie well outside the experience of most Americans today.

THERE ARE TWO other accounts of community—neither metaphorical, but both of which have recurred in our political discourse—that Obama has the option of drawing on. Some thoughtful conservatives have argued that the quest for an overarching national community is somewhere between futile and dangerous. Instead, America should be understood as a community of communities, in which neighborhoods, voluntary associations, and faith communities define and enact their various visions of the good life.

As a matter of sociological description, there is much to be said for this thesis. But it does not resolve the problem of mutual obligation among citizens. Indeed, it may intensify that problem. The kinds of social ties that exist within groups and fortify relations of mutual support among its members can weaken the sense of responsibility they feel for those outside the group. Unless we assume that a civic invisible hand solves broad social problems through the sum of intra-group activities, the consequence of an exclusive focus on sub-communities may be the neglect of those with the greatest needs. Even if, as it is written in Deuteronomy, “There will always be poor people in the land,” they may not be in our group, or anybody else’s. It’s hard to feel confident that there are enough good Samaritans to do what needs to be done.

And finally, there is the idea of America as a creedal community, dedicated to a common body of fundamental principles and institutions. This account accurately describes who we are as a people and what we are as a nation. But it does not resolve the problem of mutual responsibility. There’s a gap between the beginning of the Declaration of Independence—in which the nascent American people jointly affirm certain truths as self-evident—and its end, where its signatories “mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our fortunes, and our sacred Honor.”  The simple fact that you agree with others—even about something important—doesn’t necessarily mean that you’re willing to die for them, or for the ideas that you all espouse. Even if Obama were to speak movingly about the fact that all human beings are created equal and endowed with the same rights, that doesn’t mean that he’ll have convinced anyone that they ought to care about one another. For that to happen, some deeper connection would have to be forged, one visceral enough to inspire action, even sacrifice.

AMERICA IS CLOSEST to being a national community, with common joys and sorrows, when it is sharing a symbolic experience—John F. Kennedy’s assassination, John Glenn’s flight, the Challenger disaster, the 9/11 attack. We pull together for a while, and we can set aside our differences. But these moments always prove evanescent, and all too quickly our quarrels resume. We cannot hope to build stable ties of community on fleeting peak experiences.

Yet grand metaphors aren’t what we need either. President Obama insists that we’re all in the same boat, and in the long-run he’s right. Those claims, however, are contradicted by the everyday experience of most Americans. Businesses can boost profits even as they shed workers. By and large, the children of professionals live in stable families, get good educations, and succeed in life, while the others stagger along without fathers (and sometimes mothers as well), drop out of high school, and lack all hope. Thanks to our all-volunteer Armed Forces, one percent of Americans do the fighting and dying for the rest of us.  And we find it more and more difficult to take account of the long-run to which the president appeals.  We are still warming ourselves with the cooling embers of the Interstate Highway System without investing in its 21st century equivalent.  Postpone current consumption to build a better future?  Maybe next year.

It is societies such as ours, badly divided and obsessed with the present, that most need communal ties. But they are the least likely to produce them. Obama’s speeches have gestured at this problem but haven’t solved it. Indeed, in these circumstances, only a steady appeal to common sense and common decency has any hope of sustainably convincing American citizens to act in what Tocqueville called their self-interest, rightly understood. But it’s still an open question whether our leaders have the fortitude to make, and our citizens the disposition to hear, such an appeal.

William Galston is a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and a contributing editor at The New Republic.