If Not Now, When?

Without one another we are diminished. The more we have others around us, the stronger we can become. That is the idea of the common good.

It’s not a uniquely American idea, but it is one with which many of us identify.

Republicans in Congress have a different idea. It applies to guns, health care, retirement, and education.

Their value is a strain of individualism that stands in opposition to the common good.   Their strategies are: Promote fear and undermine public confidence in government as a vehicle to keep people safe. The goal is the further enrichment of the already privileged.

The Second Amendment was written to address maintenance of state militias (albeit, in part, to capture escaped slaves), not individuals with rifles. Fomenting fear of rampant crime and with it, the incompetence of government to protect people has become the go-to strategy to increase gun sales. It has been remarkably successful.

Similarly, conservative efforts to replace Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, the Affordable Care Act, and public education with individual vouchers appeal to the value of individualism that is in opposition to common-good collective solutions that depend on honest, effective government. Once again, the conservative strategy has been to undermine confidence in government by defunding it and thereby making it appear incompetent. Then, fear and just-worry-about-me individualism kick in as self-preservation.

Conservatives have been remarkably successful, as Republicans are now dominant across federal and state governments and public confidence in government has declined.

Centrist Democrats, acceding to conservative framing, have been loath to appeal to common good values, the obligation to pay taxes, or defend government as a common good institution. Too many­– in the Clinton years– accepted the premise that poverty is an individual failing and supported “Ending Welfare as we know it.” Too many–in the Obama years– accepted the Republican framing of the failure of democratically-governed public schools and supported individualistic solutions such as charter schools. Too many– before Bernie Sanders’s advocacy for Medicare for all– abdicated and supported the Affordable Care Act’s foundation in the private insurance market.

The tension between individualism and the common good is enduring, but need not be resolved in favor of the former without the latter. Over a millennium ago, Rabbi Hillel asked three questions:

“If I am not for myself, who will be for me? But if I am only for myself, who am I? If not now, when?” 

Today’s Republicans frame individualism and the common good in opposition to one another. They promote fear and the notion that another’s gain– usually a vulnerable or disenfranchised minority– can come only at the expense of those to whom they appeal. And, that an individual’s advancement is only achievable with suppression of another’s rise.

Today’s conservatives, divorced as they are from common-good morality, only ask the first question. If I am not for myself, who will be for me? Their answer, “No one,” assumes fear, scarcity, and inequity as the normative conditions of human existence. It assumes an inequitable distribution of power as unalterable. Their dystopian implied answer to the second question is, “Alone.” Their cynical subliminal answer to the third question is, “Not now. Leave it to us, the powerful.” Hopeless, but convenient.

Progressives, need not shame individualism, but rather reframe it. That is, we become our best selves through others. We can only become our best selves when we are all safe, healthy, well-fed, and well-housed. We can only learn to be our best selves when we are educated with the benefits of diversity and equity. Hopeful, but hard.

If not now, when?

If not now, never. So, organize.

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