I remember quite vividly the Roaring Twenties and the philosophy of rugged individualism; the undreamed of prosperity, born on such flimsy foundations that when the economy crashed in 1929, it rocked not only this nation, but the whole world. The 1930s, in contrast, was a period of Depression and brought on a totally new attitude and philosophy.
With the New Deal, Franklin D. Roosevelt, marked the beginning of a new era. He utilized the power of government to stem the tide of Depression and restore confidence. His actions may well have saved the American economic system. But in the process he started a trend toward dependency on government that has grown steadily and, as time goes on, becomes more difficult to reverse. Well-intentioned programs sorely needed to help the needy and protect little people have ballooned beyond their original purpose and beyond fiscal reality. The nation's economic ability to sustain these programs in now being questioned. But of even greater concern is their impact on the spirit of the American people.
We are still a nation of individuals, but at times it appears to be an exaggerated kind of individualism that smacks of selfishness. You see it in a fierce preoccupation with individual rights. You see it in equally determined efforts to go to any lengths to protect the special interest groups. You see it whenever anyone attempts to reduce government spending: the outcry from all those affected is deafening. People come to view a particular reduction as a blatant attempt by insensitive officials to take away a personal right to government protection or assistance. Virtually everyone acts at times as though government owes them some part of the good life.
What is the proper relationship between the citizen and his government, particularly his elected representative? Edmund Burke once said: "Your representative owes you not only his industry, but his judgment, and he betrays you if he sacrifices it to your opinion." Burke's message was that government should not mirror the unpredictable vacillations of public opinion. Rather, it should be judicious in its handling of the people's business. In turn, the people must recognize this proper function of their government and their elected representatives, despite what may appear to be unresponsiveness to the public will at any given time. I am concerned that there is a growing antipathy to Burke's message.
I see more and more manifestations of a public that is single-issue oriented; their appreciation of government or its particular representative devolves down to how the government or the representative dealt with a particular issue. Each individual member of the electorate expects his representative to please him all the time. Too many are viewing our fundamental axiom of a nation "of the people, by the people, and for the people" not in total context, but in piecemeal fashion.
Centuries ago, the Greek philospher Pericles said that, for a democracy to survive, citizens must actively work at being kind and respectful of one another, that if individually citizens have not worked to establish bonds of respect, a time of crisis will find them unable to unite to act.
Today we need citizens committed to reaffirming respect and understanding in relationships within the community and in relationships with government at all levels. We all belong to numerous communities of interest. Unfortunately, it is becoming increasingly easy to simply belong without having to personally commit oneself to making a given community of interest work.
We are reaching the point where citizens and government will have to readjust their expectations. We must actively resist the tendency to trust to government or any other hidden source to provide all the goods and services that we once provided for ourselves. We must work to continously seek out and elect good public officials, but we must not expect that they will always vote the way we as individuals or members of special interest groups want them to. And finally, we must expect that our community and our nation will be only as strong as we make it. As public officials, we must expect to work to demonstrate a meaningful commitment to our fellow citizens to be " . . . one nation, under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all" -- not just a chosen vocal few.