Public Good vs Splintered Society

I was talking to a conservative about local politics and economics. This helped me to clarify my own liberal views about this liberal community.

I’ve lived in this relatively small city (Iowa City, IA) for most of my life and I’ve worked in many jobs here, including the last 10 years spent working for the city. I’ve seen the town change and I’ve studied the town’s history. To put it simply, I’m ‘invested’ in this town. This town is my childhood home. This town is the only community I’ve ever felt a part of.

I’m not sure how typical this city is, but it’s a good example of a planned city. It originally was intended to be the capital of Iowa. They even went so far as to build the capital building around which much of the downtown formed, but the capital was later moved to a more central location in the state. Iowa City wouldn’t exist as we now know it if not for that initial taxpayer funded investment. Instead of a capital, we got the University of Iowa which also has brought in massive state funding.

However, this city doesn’t survive on just the taxpayers kindness. There are two hospitals, a Catholic hospital and the University hospital, the latter being one of the best hospitals in the country. There is also a thriving downtown with hundreds of businesses, although it’s of course changed much over time.

Also, Iowa City has many parks, recreation centers, public parking ramps, a very nice public library (plus the university has numerous libraries all open to the public), and a very nice pedestrian mall (where many of the businesses are located). At one end of the pedestrian mall, there is a hotel and a conference center, both having been built on publicly owned land (the hotel being built on the very public street that was closed when it was turned into a pedestrian mall. The pedestrian mall was built and the entire downtown renovated in the 1970s with public funding (some combination of federal and local). A mall was also built near the pedestrian mall and was planned by the city government as part of the downtown renovation. The mall now only is half stores and half offices for the university (besides it now only halfway serving as a mall, it seems to be thriving as well).

Near downtown, there is a historic district which still has the original brick roads. The city government has only approved buildings in that area to fit in with the historical architecture. There is a genuine care (by the public and by the local government) about this town’s history… along with care about its future.

All of these public investments have paid off massively. Iowa City has often been listed in various top 10 lists of cities to live in. It’s even a favorite destination for the elderly and the disabled because of our fine public services, including a large senior center downtown. And, of course, people from all over the country and all over the world come to Iowa City to either attend or to work at the university. Because of the university, we have the oldest writers’ workshop in the world and have been given the title of the first UNESCO City of Literature in the US. The pedestrian mall, the downtown in general, the various parks and recreation centers; all of these are extremely popular destinations. During the warm times of the year, there are bands that play in the pedestrian mall every week and there are several festivals. Between the university, the city and the senior center, there are always events, activities and groups available for people of all ages and interests. We have a fairly popular public access channel with tons of locally produced shows.

There is a strong sense of community in Iowa City, but community doesn’t happen on accident. It must be created through civic action, through public participation and, yes, through a willingness of taxpaying citizens to support it all. People are willing to pay for it because they believe in the vision of a thriving community. We have community theatres, including a theatre building that was saved through public donations. Furthermore, there are many churches in Iowa City that are strongly community-oriented. This town is a place where even the most destitute will find their basic needs met.

Community is an odd thing. It’s hard to measure its value. The only aspect that can indirectly be measured is land value which is mostly created through public investment in infrastructure (road building and maintenance, plowing, water, emergency services, etc). Without such public infrastructure, land has little economic value in and of itself. But even the land value doesn’t begin to capture the value of community. As social animals, we collectively are the value of a community. We swim in and breathe community like fish in water. Community is often easier to notice when it’s gone.

“Not much that we do in our personal lives makes much economic sense, just as most things we do for money make no sense in personal terms.”
~ A Language Older Than Words, Derrick Jensen, p. 138

For some strange reason, most American ‘conservatives’ no longer seem to believe in community. Yes, they like community, but they don’t like what is required to create community. They’ll argue that governments can’t create jobs. If that was so, Iowa City wouldn’t have a thriving downtown with a strong downtown business association. Maybe it’s a midwest thing. Iowa City is a very liberal city, but many people on the city council are business owners. Even business owners want public investment. The nice downtown wouldn’t exist without public investment. Iowa City is an example of what Republicans think is impossible.

Before Iowa City’s renovation, the downtown was becoming rundown. There had been political upheaval with riots downtown. There were many old buildings that weren’t being maintained. There were empty gravel lots all over. The downtown wasn’t thriving and many citizens were afraid to go downtown. It would have been easy to let the downtown turn into a slum or simply die as has been allowed to happen in many cities. It would have been easy to have privatized all the parks and public services. It would have been easy to lower the taxes on the rich using the rhetoric that this would increase job creation and trickle down. But if that had been done, the downtown would probably still be rundown.

It wasn’t just taxpayer money that saved downtown Iowa City. The money could have been wasted, even with good intentions. What makes Iowa City unique is that it’s filled with liberals (and traditional conservatives) who actually believe in community and are willing to personally invest in building community. When the downtown was renovated, someone or some group obviously had great vision and it was far from utopian. This vision was very practical in its implementation and in its results.

 – – – 

So, why don’t conservative Republicans have faith in community in the way liberals do. I’ve written about this before, but it continually bewilders me.

Why is it that Republicans only trust the government when they are in power?

Why is it that conservatives have so little faith in what makes America strong?

If conservatives truly believed communism was inferior, why did they have such immense faith that it was probable communism might succeed?

“The core presumption of Soviet communism was that people would work hard for the well-being of the state, even with no personal payoff. That always seemed unlikely to me–in fact so unlikely that I always believed that Soviet communism was destined to fall of its own weight. The communist conspiracies were inconsequential because the system was certain to fail. I was then struck by the odd perception that the people most paranoid about the rise of this doomed ideology were the conservatives who should have been the most confident of the ultimate success of the American economic experiment. They were instead the least confident and the most fearful of being overwhelmed by the Soviet system.

“When communism fell at last I was not surprised because it seemed to me always destined to fall. Why was my liberal mind more confident of our system than the conservatives that constantly pronounced us doomed to fall to the evil Soviets?”

This demonstrates my point. Liberals have less fear of enemies because liberals are more confident in American society, in the American public, in the American economy, in American communities, and yes even in the American government. Liberals simply believe in America. Full stop.

So, why don’t conservative Republicans have an equal confidence?

I’ve recently become more clear in a particular insight. Republican conservatives, for the most part, aren’t traditional conservatives. The American political tradition originates from the British political tradition. The British conservatives were the the traditionally conservative Tories; and the Tories defended the British government. Since the American revolutionaries were fighting the British government, by default they were fighting against the conservatism of their day, the Tories. Henry Fairlie clearly differentiated between traditional conservatives and modern conservatives:

“The characteristics of the Tory, which separate him from the conservative, may briefly be summarized: 1.) his almost passionate belief in strong central government, which has of course always been the symbolic importance to him of the monarchy; 2.) his detestation of “capitalism,” of what Cardinal Newman and T.S. Eliot called “usury,” of which he himself calls “trade”; and 3.) his trust in the ultimate good sense of the People, whom he capitalizes in this way, because the People are a real entity to him, beyond social and economic divisions, and whom he believes can be appealed to, and relied on, as the final repository of decency in a free nation. The King and the People, against the barons and the capitalists, is the motto of the Tory.”

A traditional conservative doesn’t hate his own government. The government is a social institution which maintains social order. There is nothing a traditional conservative cares about more than social order and there is no more basic manifestation of social order than government.

This was further clarified by another discussion I was having with the same conservative that got me thinking about all of this. In the second discussion, I mentioned the phenomenon of the black demographic (which applies to some other minority demographics such as Latinos).

Blacks mostly vote for Democrats. In fact, they are the most loyal base of the Democratic Party. This is interesting as they are conservative rather than liberal. Democratic-voting blacks are even more socially conservative and more conservatively religious than even the average Republican. The division between the two parties isn’t liberal vs conservative. Rather, it’s traditional conservatives (aligned with liberals) vs modern conservatives (aligned with right-wingers). There are still some traditional conservatives left in the GOP, but not many. They are the last remnants of the Eisenhower Republicans. Most people today label traditional conservatives as ‘moderate conservatives’ or even simply as ‘moderates’ because they are, after all, moderate compared to right-wingers.

As I’m bewildered by the right-wingers who call themselves conservatives, the conservative I was speaking with was bewildered by these minorities who are so traditionally conservative and yet vote Democratic. He genuinely thinks they are brainwashed. No, they are just religious. Upper class and upper middle class white people (the base of the Republican Party) simply don’t understand traditional conservatism, especially as it relates to religion. To a poor and disenfranchised person (i.e., minorities), religion plays a much more pivotal role. If you are a well off white person, you grow up with lots of advantages and privileges which makes life easy. The well off white person is less obviously reliant on community and so they can focus on a more individualistic worldview. Most black Americans don’t have such luxury. For them, religion is their community in a world that is often against them. Religion isn’t merely an individual choice, isn’t merely a nice moral group to belong to. For minorities, religion is about survival.

This is why blacks (and latinos) mostly vote Democratic. Liberals only make up a small portion of Democratic voters, far from being a majority. However, both conservative blacks and liberal whites are aligned in defending traditional conservatism. The only difference is that the former wants more involvement from churches. Minorities want churches to be allowed to accept government funding in order to participate in the improvement of their own communities. This love and appreciation of community (i.e., it takes a village to raise a child) is a shared ideal of conservative blacks and liberal whites.

Democrats only seem predominantly liberal as compared to Republican right-wing values and rhetoric. What many call liberalism, especially fiscal liberalism, is in many ways the same thing as traditional conservatism. Because right-wing Republicans have largely abandoned traditional conservatism, liberals have sought to defend it against those very same right-wingers. Right-wingers have increasingly become viciously critical of traditional conservatism. There is an obvious race element here. Most Republican right-wingers are upper class whites and most Democratic traditional conservatives are poor minorities.

I think race is the key issue. There is still some overt racism, but mostly it’s not racism as we normally think of it. Research shows racial bias still exists and that it’s often institutionalized. It’s not individuals who typically hold racist beliefs, rather what some call racialism. More generally, it’s a sense of xenophobia.

Let me shift gears for a moment and then I’ll return to the racialism/xenophobia issue.

Americans once achieved great things as liberals still envision. The interstate highway system which allowed the post-WWII industrialized economy to boom. The national park system which might be the best in the world. The publicly funded higher education that almost singlehandedly created the middle class by encouraging social mobility. America wasn’t made great through privatization and tax cuts. During the Great Depression, the federal government created jobs (building the court houses and city halls we still have today, building the trails and picnic shelters we still use today, etc). We now have higher unemployment than even during the Great Depression. In response, our present federal government (along with local governments) have decided to cut government jobs and cut any services for those who have their jobs cut. This is what is called cutting off your nose to spite your face.

When Americans believe in and value community, they build community. When they don’t, they destroy community. Social mobility once was increasing in America and now it’s decreasing. Economic equality once was increasing in America and now it’s decreasing. Both directions are choices we collectively make through public policies and public investments (or lack thereof).

Right now, Germans are doing great things in their society as Americans once did. I brought this subject up with the same conservative with whom I discussed these other topics. His response went to the core of the problem. He pointed out that Germany has a more demographically consistent population, i.e., less multiculturalism and less racial diversity. This is true. And this is how racialism/xenophobia ties back in.

The Progressive Era and the post-WWII period were defined by three factors. Immigration was low, taxes were high, and liberalism reigned almost entirely unchallenged. It was the mirror of what America has been in recent decades (and it has similarities to what Germany is now).  It was also a time of cultural conformity because of the uber-patriotism during the two world wars. It was a weird mixture. Blacks were expected to know their place and yet prosperity gave a freedom for liberals and traditional conservatives to fight for civil rights. Whites dominated culture. It felt safe to whites to fight for the rights of blacks. But later on when blacks began fighting for their own rights it was seen as dangerous, especially by right-wingers.

Anyway, what my conservative discussion partner was saying was that Germany’s present success isn’t possible in the US because US no longer has a conformist culture. To be cynical (maybe overly cynical, I don’t know), what this translates to is that upper class white Christians (meaning the present conservative Republican demographic) are only willing to invest in the common good when majority of the population is like them or is forced through conformity to be like them. Most upper class white Christians if they were being honest wouldn’t disagree with my assessment, although they would state it differently.

Here is where my liberal attitude kicks in. Change isn’t something to be afraid of. Or, rather, change is only made fearful through resistance. Conservatives end up creating their own worst enemies. Even if conformity is always good, that is all the more reason to invest in the public good. If you want other groups to conform, you should encourage them to participate in society. Attacking Muslims and blaming minorities will simply splinter society. Wars on drugs and poverty, Culture and class wars will simply create a society of conflict and mistrust. Conservatives face the dilemma of the self-fulfilling prophecy.

As a liberal, I’d point out that even change passes. Yes, whites are becoming a minority. Yes, atheists and the non-religious are a growing demographic. Yes, change is happening. But change has always been happening in America. To mistrust change is to mistrust what America stands for. The previous 1950s status quo was built on massive changes that happened in the late 19th century. Now we face the results of massive changes that occurred with the late 20th century. But, as liberals understand, a new status quo will inevitably form. Society has to once in a while stop to catch its breath before moving on.

This doesn’t mean, however, that change can be stopped. Taking a snapshot of one moment in history such as the 1950s will offer a very distorted vision. But even if you admire the 1950s, then seek to re-create the positive conditions that made that era great: massive taxpayer investments in the public good (instead of massive taxpayer investments in the military-industrial complex, in building more prisons, in oil subsidies, etc).

We as a society have a choice. We can continue to invest in the future (our children’s and grandchildren’s future). We can continue to support the social compact America was built upon. And we can continue to believe in the American Dream. Or we can isolate ourselves and hope someone else will solve all of the problems that we collectively face.

Other Americans being different than you (whether black or Muslim or whatever) is no excuse. To believe in America is to believe in Americans, all Americans. Just realize that to not support a democratic government is to not support America. A representative democracy must represent, fairly and equally, all Americans and not just a single group seeking to maintain it’s power and privilege. As a liberal, I have faith that America is even stronger than the cynicism and political opportunism of even the worse racist right-wingers. As Americans, we will overcome the difficulties that face us, but there are many difficulties that could be entirely avoided if we were willing to work together.

3 thoughts on “Public Good vs Splintered Society

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