Mutual Obligation Makes Us Human





“No, I don’t want to be obligated,” my father replied without hesitation.

The occasion was a 1973 visit with my father to help with some yard work. The task required prolonged digging. The old short spade in the garage meant bending and inevitable back pain.  That would not do. A long handled shovel would have been better, but he did not have one.

Simple, I thought. “Maybe we can borrow one from a neighbor,” I offered.

Naïve, twenty-something, left wing activist that I was, I was stunned by his reply. Even affronted. “Who is this?” I thought.  “How did he get this way?” He may have been more typical than I imagined. The man who grew up on the crowded, socially-connected stoops of Brownsville in Brooklyn had become the back porch, I-am-on-my-own suburban New Jersey individualist.

Therein lies the central conundrum of our time. As a nation, we officially profess E pluribus unum but we are not sure whether mutual obligation is an advantage or a liability.  More confounding, many Americans have come to believe that government cannot be an effective agent for the common good, effectively undermining unity and equity.

As individuals, most American answer, “Yes,” to the moral query, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” However, they vote for people who do not act that way because conceptions of who counts as brothers and sisters are constrained by all variety of prejudices.

Republicans act on, “No.”

Too many Democrats act on, “Well kind of, sometimes, but only if I get Republicans to agree ahead of time and only if I don’t risk losing any votes of folks who only want to help people like themselves.”

The Democratic Party has failed to clearly articulate how racism and purposeful divisiveness help the superrich at the expense of everyone else. They have not made a sufficiently strong case that advancing the rights and wellbeing of all ethnic and religious groups, immigrants, and women as well as men is a better strategy than looking out for your own subgroup. Most damaging, Democrats have not proposed anything substantive to address the precariousness that pervades the lives of most Americans. Only an integrated, pro-worker struggle can do that.  Until then, racism will continue to be the Achilles heel of a more just, equitable, and democratic America.

And so, the racist, misogynist, greedy, authoritarian-sympathizing inhabitants of the Republican Party continue to do their dirty work hidden behind the distorting lens of deep-seated historical prejudice. In 2016, they bet that the continual dust storm that is Donald Trump would provide an extra layer of obscurity.

My obligation-averse father was a life-long New Deal-wrought Democrat. Franklin Delano Roosevelt was his friend-of-the-working-man, Nazi-fighting, hero.  My father knew with certainty that the Democratic-supported New Deal legislation brought him the social obligation program, Social Security, upon which he depended in retirement. He know that the same New Deal put millions to work with the taxpayer-funded, government-administered WPA and CCC projects.  Those, he surely thought, were good things that Republicans fiercely opposed.

However, Democrats and social movements of the 1930s through the 1990s eventually betrayed my father. He never developed a sense of connection or identity beyond that of a once-persecuted Jew or a precarious sales employee always at the mercy of his boss.  So it is with so many other Americans today.

My father’s experience is illustrative of how Democratic political party loyalty was established, its limits, and why within a generation it faded.

He was born in 1903 in the Jewish ghetto of Slonim in what is now Belarus, and came to the U.S. as a little boy in 1911. His family fled virulently anti-Semitic pogroms along with thousands of others Jews, first to Paris and then to New York City. He grew up poor, and then became middle-class. Like many immigrants and workers of his generation, he invariably voted Democratic.

Despite or may because of it all, I am not sure how, my father managed to go to college and obtain a degree in metallurgical chemistry from Pratt Institute of Technology in 1925, and in 1929 take drafting courses at Cooper Union (free at the time).  However, some combination of bad economic times and anti-Semitism deprived him of his professional aspirations, leading to his life as a salesman, subject to the whims of his bosses. He worked 9 AM – 6 PM plus two evenings six days a week until he was 80. His outlook on life was framed by the persistent uncertainty of at-will employment and his sense of his vulnerability as a Jew. Having worked for others most of his life, he understood exploitation but never developed the class-consciousness that might have taken him beyond his circumscribed experience.

Like so many other Americans, my father aspired to the symbols of middle class life.  During an optimistic period of steady employment in the early 1950s he bought a new mint green 1953 Packard Clipper because he remembered from his youth that Packards were luxury cars in the 1920s and ‘30s. Then he bought a plot of land in a rural and almost entirely Christian suburb, drew his own blueprints, and had a house built that he could not afford.

Alternatively, he despised the pretentions of wealthy Jews–some of whom voted Republican– who tried to join country clubs with a history of discrimination. He was not especially political, but became president of the local Jewish Community Center. He led a successful effort to buy land to build to a country club-like outdoor pool.  An infuriated, Jew-hating neighbor raised a fuss. With distain and pride my father reported how, when the neighbor proclaimed, “This is a Christian nation,” he and other Jews fought back and won.  The pool was his righteous middle finger. He simultaneously hated the rich and wanted what they had, but his identification was tribal.

And so today, the predominance of exclusionary subgroup identity coupled with historic racism continues to enable the divisiveness that props up the privilege of some at the expense of others. But contrary to popular myth, in-group /out-group schisms in the United States are not the result of free choice. Residential segregation, for example, was a result of deliberate government policy.

The New Deal legislative accomplishments that won my father’s allegiance were a Faustian bargain with southern segregationists that ultimately sowed the seeds of eventual decline in Democratic loyalty. Roosevelt’s achievements were a response to organizing pressure by industrial unions, socialists and communists, who often expressed overt, “An injury to one is an injury to all,” appeals to interracial unity. In contrast, domestic and agricultural workers in which African Americans predominated were excluded from programs such as Social Security. Similarly, the Federal Housing Administration (FHA) and the Veterans Administration promoted racial covenants and other instruments of segregation through underwriting standards that discouraged home loans in areas “infiltrat[ed]” by “inharmonious racial or nationality groups.”

Democratic-supported, racially segregated, public housing started during the Depression and continued after WWII.  After the war, the federally supported loans enabled whites-only home ownership in the suburbs, exacerbating segregation, enabling White advancement, while restraining Black job opportunity.  As Whites fled to the suburbs, Democratic support for public housing came to be associated not with supporting all working people, but instead judgment-tainted welfare for poor African Americans and Latinos– a program for them, not us.

The price of suburbanization for Whites was the normalization of perpetual residential and school segregation, the expansion of employment opportunity for Whites and its constriction for non-Whites.

My father’s house– secured no doubt with a government-supported loan– was his pride and joy.  While Jews in the neighborhood were a tiny minority, there were no African Americans.  In the early 1950s, they were confined to what was then a small, run-down community known as Hobbstown, in honor of it founder James Hobbes, a 1920s refugee from the Jim Crow south. If my father found this troubling or abnormal he never voiced it. Separateness and inequality were the norm.

In his tribal sentiment my father was not very different from many other once-persecuted Americans.  While his beloved Democrats claimed the mantle of friend of the workingman, they appealed to separate ethnic identifications rather than cross-group, working-class unity.

Nonetheless, my father voted for the Medicare, Medicaid, and civil rights supporter Lyndon Johnson and despised Barry Goldwater.  He had vicarious sympathy with the cause of civil rights in the 1950s and 1960s.  However, his life was circumscribed.  Like so many Americans today, his daily social interactions were with people of his color, ethnicity, and class, the product of residential segregation and inequality. No political party or organization challenged his tacit acceptance of the normative racism that pervaded American life.

By the time Jimmy Carter became president in 1976, the Democrat’s working-class identification had already seriously eroded.  With the election of Bill Clinton, the full scale embrace of corporate donors, deregulation, and the rhetoric of “ending welfare as we know it,” voting Democratic was more and more an easily relinquished habit.  Nearing the end of his life, my father’s attention to politics had waned, but many others came to perceive the Democratic Party as catering to the very wealthy and very poor and not the vast majority of Americans– it had transformed itself into the party of a bimodal Them.

Maybe.  Just maybe, the times are changing. Thanks to women and men who speak up to expose sexual abuse.  Thanks to Black Lives Matter activists. Thanks countless community organizers who campaign for social, economic and environmental justice. Thanks to efforts to register new voters.  Thanks to courageous journalistic truth tellers. Thanks to the transparency of Donald Trump and his band of feckless congressional supporters.

Like light-sensitive eyeglasses in reverse, the sunshine of activism and truth telling has cleared the lens through which many Americans view politics.  The view is crystal clear and ugly. Anyone with minimally decent eyesight, the will to see, and even a shred of decency can see it.

However, exposure and issue campaigns are necessary, but insufficient. The Republican Party is morally and ethically bankrupt. And many of its committed adherents appear immune to even the most transparently egregious policies and behavior. It falls to the Democrats to provide an alternative morally compelling and unifying vision that will activate non-voters and the increasing number of political independents.

Countless state, local, and national offices across the country are controlled by Republicans who care only about protecting the privileges of wealthy white folks. They will spare no expense nor let anything stand in their way- not the health or education of children, seniors or the disabled; not the fate of blameless children of immigrants; not the threat of annihilation from a nuclear war; not the steady erosion of the right of every citizen to vote; not even the sustainability of life itself on the planet. Nonetheless, Americans elected them.  Americans need to vote to defeat them.

The dangers are imminent. For the foreseeable future an electable progressive third party is a pipe dream. Unless and until the Democratic Party unambiguously regains the trust and loyalty of working people and does so explicitly across racial lines, there is no hope of reversing the tide of growing inequality, alarming erosion of democracy, and destruction the environment.

The New Deal and to a lesser extent, the Great Society made social obligation through government action a normative value. However, the political failure to link racism with broader inequality sowed the seeds of an individualism that is defined by selfishness.

My father’s Democratic Great Depression- and World War II-influenced generation is gone.  The most recent chance to build cross-racial solidarity– the Great Recession– was squandered. However, that opportunity can yet be reclaimed.

A WPA-like massive job creation project to rebuild roads, highways, bridges, develop clean energy,  and fund scientific and medical research was never seriously considered– at least as a rallying point if not achievable legislation.  Instead we got some private sector so-called shovel-ready projects.

Federal action avoided complete disaster, but the nation got nothing on the bold unifying scale of Social Security to deal with dwindling retirement incomes or Medicare to address the unaffordability of health care.  Universal guaranteed healthcare for all was never on the table–even as moral and economic principle. Instead we got limited, private insurance-based, high-deductible plans.  For the vast majority of Americans with employer-provided health insurance, the Affordable Care Act was easily perceived, once again, as being for them, not all of us. Nothing is on the horizon to substantively address the unaffordability of housing.

On education– another potential unifier– Democrats, instead of addressing burdensome property taxes, pushed taxpayer funded, privately governed charter schools and high-stakes tests, with a hefty measure of anti-union rhetoric.

Whereas the New Deal wrought decades of allegiance to the Democratic Party, their response to the Great Recession ended in voter cynicism, a drop in voter turn-out among African Americans, and the election of a racist, wealth-protecting Republican.

Disconnected from either the unions or social movements that catalyzed the New Deal or Great Society programs, my father ascribed progress to great men. Because FDR and LBJ responded with tangible actions, they won his allegiance. Those same forces and responsive Democratic men and women can win back the allegiance of a vast cross-section of Americans.

In fact, it is when we bound in a web of mutual that we are most fulfilled and reach our greatest human potential.

That is the winning Democratic platform.

Arthur H. Camins is a lifelong educator. He works part time with curriculum developers at UC Berkeley as an assessment specialist. He retired recently as Director of the Center for Innovation in Engineering and Science Education at Stevens Institute of Technology. He has taught and been an administrator in New York City, Massachusetts, and Louisville, Kentucky. The ideas expressed in this article are his alone.

His writings are collected at

Follow Arthur on Twitter: @arthurcamins


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