ST. PAUL LEGAL LEDGER CAPITOL REPORT
The 237th anniversary next week of the signing of the Declaration of Independence will generate predictable effusions about the place of individualism and personal freedom and lower taxes as the most (or only) important principles behind these United States of America.
Too often forgotten is that the very first of the “self-evident truths” spelled out in that declaration was that all humans “are created equal.”
And that declaration led soon to the creation of a strong new democratic national government, giving us the power to govern ourselves, tax ourselves, and to promote, among other purposes in the U.S. Constitution, “the general Welfare.”
The new idea was a government of the governed, one that responded to community consensus about what was best for all, not the demands of an overseas king and a few wealthy international commercial interests who ruled by divine right and illegitimate entitlement.
The “independence” we sought back then was from King George III, and aristocratic economic power, and taxation without representation. Today’s Tea Party movement has fundamentally confused that illegitimate taxation in 1776 with the legitimate taxation we now use to finance our own public investments, our own common good, and our own physical and economic security. (And it’s especially ironic that the original Tea Party in Boston harbor was an attack on private property and the monopolistic power of a multi-national corporation, the British East India Tea Company.)
The truly revolutionary thing about our revolution was not its antipathy for government and taxes, but rather the egalitarian idea that everybody would be part of that government and have a say about the law and policy of the community.
A healthier emphasis on patriotic unity and community seems particularly in order this year, because July 4th coincides with the 150th anniversary of the battle of Gettysburg. This was the crucial battle in which the First Minnesota Volunteer Infantry Regiment helped save the day, with greater loss of life than any unit in the conflict — five of every six members of the regiment died — for the cause of union, one nation indivisible, and ultimately, greater racial equality.
We as Minnesotans can take some patriotic pride that we have done a better job than citizens in most states, throughout our history, of balancing individual freedom with equality, opportunity and social justice. We properly value competition AND cooperation, public good as well as private gain.
We were among the first states to adopt a personal income tax and one of the most generous investors in public education. We wisely put lots of tax dollars in first-rate public buildings and transportation infrastructure, public parks and environmental protection, health care, and economic security for the young, the poor and the elderly. We literally built one of the more civilized places in this nation.
Our Minnesota distinctiveness as a progressive and communitarian exception to American individualism — heavily influenced by New England and Scandinavian cultural values — has been extensively documented by our own political scientists and historians for more than a century.
But any chest-thumping on the subject must be tempered by these facts: Growing racial and economic inequality in our state represents a clear and present danger to our traditions and our economic health. It behooves us as Minnesotans to elevate these concern above all others.
Going forward, we can redefine patriotism, wave the flags and take back the tri-cornered hats from those who idealize self-centered libertarianism as the essence of what it is to be American.
One of the best guides to understanding and living this healthier patriotism is a fine little pocket-sized book, “The True Patriot,” written by Eric Liu and Nick Hanauer, published in 2007. The book draws heavily from founding fathers such as Thomas Jefferson, and American leaders from Daniel Webster through Abraham Lincoln and the presidents Roosevelt, Theodore and Franklin D.
Here are excerpts, from a chapter entitled “Patriotic Values and Policies: A Ten-Principle Plan,” that send the patriotic spirit soaring.
American Exceptionalism: “America is exceptional. This is not boasting or jingoism; it is fact. We are exceptional in our provenance, founded as we are on universal ideals of freedom and equal opportunity… We believe America must be unafraid to lead in the world, and unafraid to lead with humility… not merely force of arms and bluster.”
Equality of Opportunity: “Freedom without equality of opportunity is false freedom. But today the gap between the richest 10 percent and everyone else is wider than it was on the eve of the Great Depression. As the new economy confers compounded advantage to wealthier Americans, and as the middle class takes on more debt just to keep from falling further behind, the implied promise of a fair shot is fraying. Too many people are inheriting disadvantage. We need economic strategies that will help working Americans accumulate assets and skills.”
Patriotic Capitalism: “We fervently believe in capitalism and the freedom that makes it possible. We also believe that capitalism is not an end in itself but rather a tool for the nation – and that it is proper for the nation to create rules, boundaries and incentives to harness economic power to national goals.”
So hurray for the red-white-and-blue, God Bless America, and all that. But guard against chauvinism and remember that the very best of American patriotism is not prideful arrogance, or the kind of selfishness exemplified by Grover Norquist’s anti-government rhetoric or by the title of his recent book, “Leave us Alone.”
Here’s a better idea, spoken by the great New England statesman Daniel Webster at the dedication of the Bunker Hill Monument in June of 1825:
“Our proper business is improvement. Let us be the age of improvement. In a day of peace let us advance the arts of peace and the works of peace. Let us develop the resources of our land, call forth its powers, build up its institutions, promote all its great interests…Let us cultivate a true spirit of union and harmony.”
Or, as our dollar bills say, E Pluribus Unum!
A version of this column originally appeared in the St. Paul Legal Ledger Capitol Report on Thursday, June 27, 2013