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A new way to blend Republican and Democratic values

Americans trust community approaches, not pure individualism or big, federal government.

By Matthew Dowd / May 18, 2010

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.

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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.