05/09/2008 04:53 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

The Pressure To Be Good

In a recent interview for his new book on democracy, Bill Moyers presented the bleakest face of goodness that one could imagine. He is too gentle to mount a jeremiad, yet Moyers' recent career has been one long lamentation. He says, "Politics can create problems that politics can't solve," citing the frightening rise of lobbyists, special interests, and ideological factions. The moneyed classes ride roughshod over the poor. Political power slides into lucrative influence peddling the minute a senator, congressman, or president leaves office. None of these genies can be put back into the bottle, as he sees it. The forces of greed and corruption are too strong, too deeply entrenched. Democracy has crumpled in the grip of dark forces. What remains of Moyers' brand of Sixties liberalism? Only a residual feeling in people's hearts that a society should be decent, good, and fair.

I bring this up to pose a larger question. Is the pressure to be good powerful enough to counter the urge to be selfish? Essentially, Moyers stands for the politics of altruism, which can be traced back to the Great Depression. With an entire society buckling under mass economic distress, allegiances were formed across old boundaries. Giving a helping hand became a political ideal, beginning with welfare and jobs programs under FDR, ultimately culminating in the civil rights movement under JFK. Altruism depends upon doing good, seeing the needs of another person as equal to your own. The pressure to be good gets turned into political reality.

Yet many psychologists (famously led by Freud) take a bleaker view of human nature. In the balancing act between the forces of good and the forces of darkness -- fear, aggression, selfishness, greed, sexual rapacity, and revenge -- they see an inner war. Goodness may win temporary victories, yet the darkness exerts constant pressure that may prove irresistible. Nazism became the satanic exemplar of this ever-present danger, and to liberals of Moyers' generation, Reaganism fits the same mold in a milder way but one no less alarming. Reaganism took what was most worrisome in human nature and painted it with a smile.

I think the bleakness of this view discounts how powerful the pressure to be good actually is. One aspect of goodness is tolerance. Once altruism had its day, liberalism deflated in America -- there simply were no big crusades left to fight on the social justice front. (Not to mention the effect of a backlash against drugs, crimes, immigrants, the poor and racial minorities.) With little left undone on its 1930s agenda, liberalism fell into a period of passive toleration for the right wing. Other societies like Japan have governing elites controlled by wealthy business interests that seamlessly merge with the political elite. Perhaps America would become such a country, allowing the free market to rule everything, converting influence peddling from a felony into business as usual. The problem with this laissez-faire attitude is that it left goodness out of the equation.

In the past decade we have experimented with amoral toleration, and it hasn't worked. The poor have grown poorer; racial divisions have been cemented in place; health care and an aging population pose enormous burdens. Moyers' concept of the good-hearted citizen has started to come to life. Young people in particular are aroused by finding solutions that cross political divides -- they seek fixes where the whole society bands together to help everyone. This isn't pure naivete by any means. Other societies based on rational goodness are succeeding: Denmark, Norway, Sweden, and Holland, for example. The big difference is that those countries are homogeneous, while America bursts at the seams with divisive forces. Goodness must find new ways to cope with these pressures. The enemy isn't evil so much as gaps: between rich and poor, churchgoers and non-churchgoers, one race and another, the native born and immigrants.

Rather than lamenting the end of the politics of altruism, we should focus on how goodness is morphing into something new. For example,

--The so-called "millennials" -- young people born since 1982 -- are tending against conservative values.
--They are more blind to gender than previous generations. Men accept women as equals in the workplace, for example.
--They freely mix across racial lines, making friends and dating without regard to color.
-- Compromise and toleration are rising values among young voters, who see themselves as much less tied to rigid party allegiance.
-- Charitable giving and volunteerism are strong forces in society, and by some measures they are on the rise (discounting a recent falling off in giving traceable to the poor economy).

Pollsters tell us that over 80% of responders feel that America is heading in the wrong direction. If that number represents mass discontent, resentment, and hatred of "the other," deep trouble lies ahead. But it could stand for another kind of discontent, the kind that seeks new solutions and creative change. In essence a second culture has evolved in America that marches under the banner of goodness, and even though it appears weak compared to the anti-democratic inertia that holds sway in Washington, we may be at a turning point. The experiment in amoral tolerance has fizzled, while the pressure to be good never lets up.