A new way to blend Republican and Democratic values
Americans trust community approaches, not pure individualism or big, federal government.
Austin, Texas — Since the inception of the United States, there has been a tension between two core American values. On one hand, we assign great worth to individualism and self-sufficiency and private property. On the other hand, we treasure community and affirm the need for collective intervention to support one another.
Our country's political history can be studied through the prism of these competing values. Americans have retained both values, but sometimes we favor one much more than the other.
For example, in the 1920s, individualism was the dominant value, shaping our politics, policies, and even our personal habits. Taxes were low, regulations were lax, and private property and business rights were a central concern.
But as the country fell into the Great Depression and then plunged into World War II, citizens saw a need for community and government action, relegating rugged individualism to backseat status. Thus, the government grew, regulations flourished, and taxes rose to support these efforts.
This pattern occurs many times in American history. And presidents – not just policies – have reflected this yin and yang of values. Franklin Roosevelt, John Kennedy, and Lyndon Johnson embodied citizens' desire for community and collective action. Calvin Coolidge, Dwight Eisenhower, and Ronald Reagan mirrored the country's desire for more individual freedom. In the past 100 years, Republicans have tended to emphasize the value of individualism; Democrats, the value of community.
The 2008 presidential election results were of course a sign that the country had turned from an era of individualism to one of collective action and community orientation. Barack Obama, the former community organizer, sensed the shift and ran a winning campaign of "Yes We Can."
Despite Mr. Obama's triumph, he and the Democrats face a conundrum. While voters desire collective solutions to our problems, most have little to no trust in the traditional collective actor: the federal government.
In fact, a Pew poll in April showed Americans' trust in Congress and in the federal government as a whole at one of its lowest points ever. Sixty-five percent of the public had a negative view of both the federal government and Congress. Many Americans see solutions originating in and centered on Washington as the problem.
Thus, as Obama and Democrats have pushed federal government solutions, they have received a chilly public response. In poll after poll, we see a growing frustration and anger at the approach Washington has taken in the past year.
The Republicans aren't doing much better. Their message has largely emphasized the traditional individualism of small government, less regulation, and low taxes.
In taking this approach, they are missing the mark and failing to meet the public's desire for a community focus. So neither party is meeting Americans where they are today.
What does the public want? I believe an approach organized around creating and empowering local, community solutions (not based on a federal government direction) would resonate exceedingly well with most Americans. Local governments, and even most state governments, enjoy a much higher degree of trust than Washington. And public schools, colleges, and universities are very well respected as well.
While I don't have the exact answers, some innovations come to mind. We could start by having the federal government share tax dollars with local entities so decisions would be based more in the community.
We could use local schools to deliver services so they're not always based in Washington or state capitals.
Or instead of bailing out large corporations and Wall Street firms, we could send the money to small businesses or collective associations of those. (Keep in mind: The Pew poll showed 64 percent of the public has a negative view of large corporations, while 71 percent of the public has a positive view of small business.)
There are many smart folks who could incubate and implement interesting community ideas around the country, if we just move the resources from inside the Beltway to Main Street America.
The bad news is that both major political parties seem to be trapped in the old paradigm of their approaches – Democrats representing the federal government and Republicans having no community plan.
The good news is that a vacuum exists for a leader or a party to take up the mantle of community and communicate it in a way that it isn't about growing the federal government – and if they do, voters will respond enthusiastically.
At this time of incredible partisan divide and acrimony, this is an approach the majority of the country would rally around.
Matthew Dowd is an analyst for ABC News who managed the winning reelection effort for President George W. Bush. He's also a founding partner of ViaNovo, a management and communications consultancy, and a coauthor of "Applebee's America: How Successful Political, Business, and Religious Leaders Connect with the New American Community."