When I was growing up and through my young adulthood, the political conversations I engaged in around the dining room table, in coffee houses, restaurants and refectories were all centered on one unifying theme: what constitutes a good democratic society and how do we achieve it. And there was a consensus around certain core ideas.
We believed that there should be universal free education up to the level of an individual's abilities. We believed along with John Dewey, Robert Maynard Hutchins, Frank Porter Graham, Jacques Barzun and others that a primary purpose of education should be the development of knowledgeable, thoughtful and competent citizens eager to put their learning to use in the betterment of society.
We believed that a primary economic goal should be the full employment of America's adult citizenry with both legislation and policies that would promote that goal. We supported the principle of equality of opportunity and a system of progressive taxation that would make this goal possible. We agreed with Hubert Humphrey, A. Philip Randolph, Bayard Rustin, Martin Luther King and Roy Wilkins, among others, that a central goal of government policies should not simply be the desegregation of facilities and the voting booth but the integration of our nation in our schools, our economy and our residence patterns. We shared the passion of Michael Harrington, Sargent Shriver and Lyndon Johnson that poverty should and could be eradicated or at least minimized and those impoverished cared for.
We hoped that the goal sought over the years by Theodore Roosevelt, Franklin Roosevelt, Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon, Ted Kennedy and Bill Clinton of a system of universal health care and insurance so that no American would suffer or die for lack of care would be achieved. We heard the wake-up call sounded by Rachel Carson and supported the policies initiated by Gaylord Nelson, Edmond Muskie and Richard Nixon that eliminated most harmful pesticides, provided for goals for cleaning the air and water and built enforcement mechanisms that made those goals possible. We supported the goal of expanded rail transport within cities and between cities even before it became a positive contribution to reducing sprawl and gridlock and, in a minor way, the consumption of fossil fuels.
Most of us shared the beliefs of Daniel Patrick Moynihan and Eugene McCarthy about the importance of institutions -- institutions of government and civil society through which orderly change was possible and without which neither change nor stability would be durable; and, particularly for Moynihan, the institution called the family as central to the development of healthy adults and the cohesion of American society.
We believed in government, as did the overwhelming majority of Democrats outside the south and the majority of Republicans nationally, as the only instrument that could make those goals possible. There were partisan differences as to methods, economics and priorities - between Nixonian concepts of federalism that was manifest in revenue sharing and New Deal concepts of a responsive and active national government. But one thing we, Democrats, Republicans, Garry Wills and the U.S. Constitution were in agreement about was that government was not a necessary evil but a necessary good. And many of us who grew up in those times of hope and accomplishment chose to dedicate much of our lives to making the nation that we love a more perfect union.
It is a vastly different time now. The war in Vietnam began the long series of events that undermined trust in political leadership. The Democratic Party, ostensibly the party of government, has been so scared of sailing against the prevailing winds that it has failed to defend the concept of government, the one glue to their grab-bag of issues, for more than 40 years. Ronald Reagan, who made many positive political contributions, including conspiring with Mikhail Gorbachev to end the cold war; reining in, with the assistance of Paul Volcker, virtually unprecedented inflation and providing, through four necessary tax increases, the wherewithal for government to effectively function, had one major negative legacy when he declared, "Government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem." This gave cover to those like Grover Norquist, the Club for Growth and the Tea Party, with whom Reagan would be in profound disagreement, to pursue an agenda of attempting to dismantle government and the governmental safety net and has helped produce the most polarized national politics in at least 150 years. The bloom of idealism and political engagement for the educated young, created by President Obama's 2004 convention speech and magical 2008 campaign, is off the rose. The choices now faced are hard and hope is in meager supply.
We don't talk any more about what would constitute a good and just society and how to achieve it. Our political dialogue is about debt, deficits, taxes and emotionally felt peripheral issues (plus one major one -- health care). There are clear choices in the 2012 election, but precious little vision. The continuing deep recession, early political missteps in 2009 and obstructionism have narrowed the prospects for major and positive change in the next four years. The political debate is narrowly tactical and personal. There are leaders of both major parties, mostly outside of government, who are working together to provide policies and solutions to some of the nation's most vexing problems but without strong optimism that the politics of the now will make it possible for their recommendations to be debated and enacted.
Maybe at some point in the future the clouds of contention and small-mindedness will clear and the nation, young and old, can return to talking about first principles. But that time is clearly not now.