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Finally, a Clearer Progressive Vision

David Callahan

Anyone who has hung around progressive circles for the past two decades has invariably logged a small chunk of their lives in frustrating "vision" conversations. The problem, always, was coming up with the elevator pitch for a Balkanized liberalism that was more a grab bag of specific causes than a movement guided by a few simple values. Progressives spent many long years envying the parsimony of a conservative ideology built around the mantra of small government, traditional values, and a strong defense.

Well, those envy years are over. Progressives now have a clearer vision, one that has been repeated often by speakers at the DNC -- most notably by Bill Clinton and Sister Simone Campbell last night: We're all in this together.

The idea of a common good -- that Americans have a mutual obligation to one another and that we all do better when we cooperate -- is hardly new to progressive ideology, of course. It's been a recurrent theme for over a century and, at times, a dominant theme. Yet it fell away from liberalism starting in the 1960s, amid important fights for individual and group rights, and only recently has the common good moved back front and center in progressive political rhetoric and started to feel like a cohesive vision.

A few years ago, the common good was just another big idea jockeying for attention in the endless progressive vision debate. Michael Tomasky wrote a well-known 2006 article in the American Prospect arguing that this idea was the logical anchor of progressive ideology. Tomasky wrote:

For many years -- during their years of dominance and success, the period of the New Deal up through the first part of the Great Society -- the Democrats practiced a brand of liberalism quite different from today's. Yes, it certainly sought to expand both rights and prosperity. But it did something more: That liberalism was built around the idea -- the philosophical principle -- that citizens should be called upon to look beyond their own self-interest and work for a greater common interest.

This, historically, is the moral basis of liberal governance -- not justice, not equality, not rights, not diversity, not government, and not even prosperity or opportunity. Liberal governance is about demanding of citizens that they balance self-interest with common interest.

Tomasky's article garnered tremendous attention, even landing him on the front page of the New York Times, but it didn't end the progressive vision quest. And when Obama won the presidency, he didn't come into office with any grand narrative -- save for a unity argument that quickly proved unworkable.

Gradually, though, the common good theme has moved to a spot of primacy in both Obama's rhetoric and other Democrats. As I he wrote here in January, the common good was the biggest idea in Obama's 2012 State of the Union address, in which he said:

No one built this country on their own. This Nation is great because we built it together. This Nation is great because we worked as a team. This Nation is great because we get each other's backs.

The shared, entwined fate of Americans has been a recurrent theme in Obama's campaign rhetoric -- so much so that it got him in trouble when his remark about the cooperation underlying successful businesses was taken out of context and turned into a theme of GOP attacks.

In his long speech last night, Bill Clinton hit the common good theme early and often:

We think “we’re all in this together” is a better philosophy than “you’re on your own.” 

The strength of the common good as a linchpin of progressive ideology is that it's easy to build additional arguments on this foundation. Clinton showed this last night. For instance, he invoked the common good in arguing for more broadly shared prosperity:

It turns out that advancing equal opportunity and economic empowerment is both morally right and good economics, because discrimination, poverty and ignorance restrict growth, while investments in education, infrastructure and scientific and technological research increase it, creating more good jobs and new wealth for all of us. 

And Clinton also showed how the common good theme can be harnessed to a call for more political cooperation when he said that the nation accomplished some of its biggest things when Republicans and Democrats worked together. In this sense, the common good is very compatible with Obama's previous brand of national unifier and a natural evolution for a president still determined to bring Americans together. 

Of course, the theme of looking out for one another contrasts positively with "you're on your own," and in that sense the common good frame provides a new and overarching way for progressives to attack conservative ideology.

As well, this frame offers traction in the "values" debate, where progressives have often struggled, as Sister Simone Campbell's speech showed, saying "our faith strongly affirms that we are all responsible for one another. . . . I am my sister's keeper. I am my brother's keeper."

The Obama campaign hasn't given many hints as to what the President will say tonight. But I bet he'll say a whole lot about how we Americans are all in this together.