“When I do good, I feel good; when I do bad, I feel bad, and that is my religion.”
Abe Lincoln, the greatest of U.S. presidents, said that, and I like it. Substitute the word “politics” for “religion” and you have a good idea of the way Lincoln governed the nation during the Civil War, the most turbulent and divisive period in U.S. history.
Good politics is, or should be, about doing good — and, no, I’m not talking about doing good for a select few, as in helping the wealthiest among us, the so-called “1 percent,” get even richer. Nor am I promoting an exclusively “utilitarian” notion of good, a philosophy that espouses the “greatest good for the greatest number.”
I have in mind a notion far more radical, one that that neither major political party is willing to embrace. Not yet, anyway. The idea I have in mind might strike some as entirely naïve, the byproduct of an idealistic mindset that has no place in a culture that, 30 years ago, under President Ronald Reagan, embraced a reactionary and brutal form of Social Darwinism.
So, here, very simply is the notion I want to promote: Good politics should be about doing good for the people who need it most, that is to say, the people who have the least. The true measure of a politician’s skill and effectiveness is found in the answer to this simple question: How did the least among us benefit from his, or her, time in office? That is same standard that should be used to measure the greatness of a society, especially one that professes to be ruled by a Judeo-Christian ethic.
If you live in and around Middletown you know the people I’m talking about. You may, in fact, be one of those people, or they may be your neighbors. In the Russell Library, you see them muttering to themselves, afflicted by hallucinations and personal demons the vast majority of us can’t begin to comprehend because, thankfully, our brain chemistry is functioning normally.
You may see others trudging down the street, backpacks slung over their shoulders, on the way to the homeless shelter, or huddled in front of the soup kitchen, waiting for lunch to be served.
Whatever their individual circumstances, the people I’m talking about are victims, victims of system that ignores the poor because they simply can’t afford access to those in power.
Would we regard Lincoln today as a great leader, a national hero, if he ignored the plight of the slaves, essentially telling them: “You’re on your own. Good luck.” Yet today, politicians on both sides of the aisle tell us we have to limit our compassion, or least compartmentalize it.
In the interest of fairness, we have to take something from everybody, including those on the lowest end of the economic totem pole. Students struggling to pay college tuition, senior citizens living from month to miserable month on their Social Security allowance, anyone living at or below the poverty line, the mentally ill, the physically disabled, those with catastrophic illnesses — everyone has to give up something, or so we’re told.
Meanwhile, Wall Street bankers, the U.S. military, corporations who ship good jobs overseas — these people and institutions are asked to make relatively paltry sacrifices.
Clearly, it isn’t fair. “Suck it up,” say the most hard-hearted politicians and social engineers. “Life isn’t fair. Who said life is supposed to be fair.”
Cynical types feed scraps to the “have-nots” in the form of platitudes such as: “It’s not that I don’t care about you, but I respect you too much to give you a hand-out,” they say. “You need to pick yourself up by your bootstraps.”
I would like to say that the results of the Nov. 6 election are a repudiation of that callous mindset; unfortunately, the data does not bear that out. A significant number of Tea Party Republicans were either returned or voted into Congress, setting the stage for more divisive rhetoric and partisan squabbling over the next four years.
How to find common ground? All the pundits are asking the same question. Alas, they are missing the point. Right now, there is no common ground to be had. The paradox is that President Obama’s willingness to compromise his principles has made the problem worse, not better.
What Mr. Obama needs to do is acknowledge, as Lincoln did on the issue of slavery, that, in seeking to do what is right and good, no compromises can be made. Ever.
Government has a moral obligation to care for those who have the least, a responsibility to create a truly fair, just society — even if it means asking more from the people who have the most to give.
Mr. President, use your office and your tremendously potent rhetoric to sell this idea to to a public that is ready, I think, to take bold step forward.
Do this, Mr. Obama, and you establish common ground where none now exists; do this, and you’ll be in good company with another favorite son from Illinois, Mr. Lincoln. Fail to do this, and history is likely to judge you as yet another president who squandered his opportunity.