11/08/2010 02:51 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Are Policies That Serve the Common Good Un-American?

One likely spin-off from the recent election will be a creeping redefinition of programs and policies that serve the common good as "un-American." Some of the Tea Party's most vocal members, including Rand Paul, Michele Bachmann, and others have already suggested having a "conversation" about privatizing or phasing out medicare, social security and even abolishing the Department of Education.

So I'd like to move the "conversation" along and state outright that, yes, promoting the common good is, indeed, un-American. And, that recognizing it as such is a good thing. Here's why: The Republican/Tea Party's stated vision for "taking America back" is a doctrine of extreme self-interest and greed. It both reflects and fuels what I described in a recent post as a "social psychosis" in personal and public life.

This "pro-American" vision is maladaptive to the realities of today's world and our own changing society. Self-interest and the pursuit of individual power are twin agents for subversively undermining a healthy, thriving society. But that vision is likely to be with us for some time, with potentially devastating consequences.

However, there's also a rising shift towards serving the larger common good throughout our society. I described the evidence for this in a subsequent post. And it is, indeed, un-American, with respect to the extreme Republican/Tea Party doctrine.

That is, serving the common good goes against grain of thinking that "getting all I can and keeping it for myself" somehow lifts all boats. It reflects, instead, the view that a thriving society requires active, rational use of governmental policy, along with business and individual responsibility, to promote economic and human development for all, not just the privileged few. It reflects embracing the reality of a rapidly transforming, interconnected global society, and acting in ways that are adaptive to it.

Ironically for legislation battles, some recent research finds that positive rather than adversarial interactions actually enhance specific mental capacities you need for solving problems. I'll say more about the political implications of that later, but first let's take a look at the ratcheting up of adversarial positions in the aftermath of the election.

Posturing "For the American People"

  • In a recent NPR interview, Texas Gov. Rick Perry asserted that Texas has benefited from policies of "freedom," which he described as lower taxes, getting rid of government regulations, and cutting spending. When asked how that reconciles with Texas having a low high school dropout rate, a high incarceration rate, high numbers of impoverished people, and low spending for social services - and whether his philosophy is that having no social safety net is just fine, because it costs less - Gov. Perry didn't disagree.
  • On Fox News Sunday, following the November 2 election, Rep. Eric Cantor, the No. 2 Republican in the House, refused to take government shutdown or default on U.S. debt off the table -- despite common knowledge that default, in particular, would trigger worldwide economic meltdown.
  • Senator Mitch McConnell, the minority leader, also stated, following the election, that "our top political priority over the next two years should be to deny President Obama a second term."
In response, New York Times columnist Charles Blow wrote, "Not jobs? Not the deficit? Not the two interminable wars?" And, Blow added,

The Republican majority in the House arrives with this aim: make no deals and take no prisoners. A May poll released by the Pew Research Center found that a plurality of Republican voters said that they were less likely to vote for a candidate who 'will compromise with people they disagree with.' They want either steamrollers or roadblocks, not consensus-builders.

  • All four Republicans vying to take over the House energy committee are climate change deniers; all salivate at the prospect of deregulating the fossil fuel industry. Highlighting their confused state of mind, Bracken Hendricks recently argued in The Washington Post that conservatives should fear climate change the most, especially if they hate big government.

The Power of Disorganized Thinking

Speaking of that confused state of mind, the research I mentioned above, from the University of Michigan, found that the cognitive capacities known as "executive functioning," needed for solving problems, actually increase after people interact in positive, engaged ways. But there's no increase at all when those interactions are adversarial and competitive. This illustrates the benefit of empathy - stepping into the other person's mentality and perceiving their point of view from the "inside." Doing that enhances more productive compromise and effectiveness with respect to solving problems. Not a bad prescription for good legislation for real problems.

However, adversarial interactions go hand in hand with increasing self-aggrandizement, power-seeking and loss of perspective. All of that moves you farther away from reality. And that's what we see: The Republican/Tea Party says it intends to pursue lower taxes, reduce debt, eliminate regulations on corporations, block climate change legislation, and reduce spending - yet somehow maintain the services and programs the society requires in order to keep functioning. Such contradictory positions illustrate the power of emotionally-driven, disorganized, even delusional thinking.

The late historian Tony Judt wrote in his recent book Ill Fares The Land, about the societal danger of "uncritical adulation of wealth for its own sake." He pointed out such thinking precludes the idea that taxes might be a contribution to the collective goods that individuals could never afford in isolation, such as roads, firemen, policemen, schools, lamp posts, post offices, as well as soldiers, warships, and weapons.

We Need More "Un-American" Thinking
I advocate more "un-American" activity for helping our country to function effectively in a changing world. Today's challenges, especially in the aftermath of 9-11 and the 2008 economic meltdown, require high-level cognitive and emotional awareness that fuel actions serving the common good. Limited, simplistic slogans aren't solutions to our challenges -- ranging from the impact of India's and China's economic growth to very personal stresses and dilemmas that hit you in daily life.

Tom Friedman recently highlighted the former, writing

What if (India and China) are just finishing a 20-year process of getting the basic technological and educational infrastructure in place to become innovation hubs and that we haven't seen anything yet?

He anticipates disruptive business models

...coming out of (India) -- to a neighborhood near you. If you thought the rate of change was fast thanks to the garage innovators of Silicon Valley, wait until the garages of Delhi, Mumbai and Bangalore get fully up to speed.

And on the personal level, Bob Herbert noted in The New York Times that

Nearly 15 million Americans are out of work...(Americans)...are riddled with fears and anxieties of many kinds. They are worried about the economic well-being of their families, the cost of securing a decent education for their children, their prospects for a comfortable retirement, the continuing threat of terrorism, and the debilitating effects of endless warfare.

The doctrine that serving the common good is something that only "socialists" could care about is not going to render invisible, Herbert writes,

...the needs, the hopes, the fears and the anxieties of the millions of Americans who are out of work, who are struggling with their mortgages or home foreclosures... and who lie awake at night worrying about what the morning will bring.

Policies that glorify greed and self-interest and portray that as somehow beneficial for all of society reflect both a myth and an emotionally deformed attitude. We should remember that the "un-American" theme of serving the common good has always been part of American culture, interwoven with individual efforts to face and solve common problems. For example, people helped each other survive in early settlements, and on frontier homesteads. They've take in orphaned children, and helped each other during the Depression. They respond with help to each other after natural disasters. The list goes on.

What should be debated is how to best use the powers and resources of government, public and private institutions to forge a more effective, functioning society - one that leads to greater well-being and security for all its members.

Douglas LaBier, Ph.D., a business psychologist and psychotherapist, is Director of the Center for Progressive Development, in Washington, D.C. You may contact him at