“America is one, indivisible community,” Walter Mondale asserted as he introduced Geraldine Ferraro to the nation. “We believe we must be the family of America, recognizing that at the heart of the matter we are bound to one another,” added Gov. Mario Cuomo of New York in his stirring keynote address at the Democratic convention. It appears that this notion — the vision of America as one, great national community or family — will be at the heart of the Democrats’ message this year. But the Democratic vision of community is seriously flawed, and President Reagan must put forth his own ideals of community or risk conceding the moral high ground to Mr. Mondale.
Democratic presidents since Franklin Roosevelt have built their programs and rhetoric around an image of national community, calling upon Americans to substitute for their traditional self-interested individualism the compassion, concern and willingness to share benefits and burdens that are usually to be found only within families and tightly knit communities. Roosevelt, for instance, described his New Deal as “extending to our national life the old principle of local community.” Twenty years ago this summer, Lyndon Johnson — the prophet of national “consensus,” or unity — called upon America to come together in a “Great Society” that would serve “not only the needs of the body and the demands of commerce, but the desire for beauty and the hunger for community.” And now, in speech after speech, Walter Mondale lovingly describes the sense of mutual concern and community to be found in his boyhood home, Elmore, Minn., and urges the nation as a whole to embrace those virtues. This Democratic vision of national community has manifested itself over the years in a powerful central government whose programs have been designed to “integrate” marginal groups into the broader national society, and to ameliorate material inequalities and other differences that might disrupt national oneness.
The solid truth in this Democratic vision is that there are moments when we can and must become one, indivisible community — primarily in times of great national crises, such as depressions and wars. The difficulty is that such events are (happily for the republic) not always available.
The Democrats therefore turn to dynamic, articulate presidents who try rhetorically to recreate in ordinary times the extraordinary circumstances of crisis. A favorite device for doing so is the “moral equivalent of war,” which was Jimmy Carter’s method of handling the energy crisis. President Johnson used the image of a “war on poverty,” he said, because the “military image” would “rally the nation” and “sound a call to arms which will stir the people.” Gov. Cuomo, in his bleak portrayal of modern America as a “tale of two cities,” may have been testing a new version of this device — the moral equivalent of the Great Depression.
The extraordinary sense of community created in crisis cannot be sustained, however, even by the most skillfully crafted moral equivalent of war or depression. For a people with a deep tradition of individualism, the self-forgetting public spiritedness this requires is too strenuous. Not that Americans are selfish or mean-spirited; it is just that, as Alexis de Tocqueville observed 150 years ago, Americans satisfy their desires for belonging and community within smaller, sub-national groups, like the family, neighborhood, church, and voluntary and ethnic associations. Within such small groups close bonds can truly form, inspiring, without elaborate evocations of national crisis, the sort of sharing of benefits and burdens Gov. Cuomo would like to see. The ultimate irony of the attempt to extend this community-mindedness to the national level is that the massive federal programs undertaken in its name crowd out the social-welfare functions formerly performed by such smaller groups, thereby weakening them and undermining the true basis for community in America. When we try to transfer the town of Elmore’s virtues to the entire country, we not only fail to create a national Elmore, we also make it more difficult for Elmore itself to retain its community values.
Nonetheless, the vision of national community remains a powerful symbol for Democrats. They are clearly hoping that it will permit them to retain the moral high ground in this election. They will succeed if the Republicans confine their response to a celebration of economic recovery and entrepreneurial individualism. Nothing could suit the Democrats better; they have decades of experience in making this appear instead as a mean-spirited commitment to Social Darwinism and “survival of the fittest.” They could not do this in 1980, when Ronald Reagan built his campaign around the themes of family, neighborhood and local community. He persuasively made the case that a powerful central government does not facilitate but, in fact, undermines the cause of community in America. The outcome of this election may turn on President Reagan’s ability to make that argument again.