(Wisconsin) Thanks to regular reader Joe Sinatra, I recently read an article in which Michael Tomasky argued that the Democrats should use the language of “the common good” instead of emphasizing rights for various groups. David Brooks then did Tomasky no favor by endorsing his view in the New York Times and making him sound like a scathing critic of a caricatured version of “identity politics” (which he isn’t).
I’ve mainly considered the rhetoric of the “common good” in connection with the Progressive Movement. In 1900-1924, the original Progressives assumed that “the moral and the general were synonymous, and that which was unworthy [was] the private, the partial, interest.”* It was on this basis that they fought various forms of corruption and expanded the powers of the central state over the market. Appeals to the “common good” and “public interest” have been made at other times and from other points on the ideological spectrum. However, the Progressives contrasted the common good against special or private interests with striking consistency and fervor.
Mainstream liberalism since the 1960s has been quite different. I don’t endorse simplistic accounts of identity politics, but surely modern American liberals have been suspicious of the common good and more concerned about rights for distinct groups. Why?
1. In practice, the “common good” can mean the interests of the median voter, who (depending on how one describes the electorate) may turn out to be a white, working-class guy from the Midwest. That’s precisely the constituency that Brooks thinks the Democrats have lost by courting minorities, gays, immigrants, women, and so on. However, white, working-class guys from the Midwest are just one group with interests of its own. Liberals don’t want to identify those interests with the common good, even if doing so would help win elections. It wouldn’t be fair.
2. The phrase “common good” can be vacuous–available to anyone, and equivalent to saying that one’s positions are right or good. For instance, people claim the mantle of the “common good” in arguing that wealth should be redistributed, or that individual economic freedom should prevail. Some equate the common good with private liberty; others claim that it means improving public morality. Maybe it means nothing at all.
Nevertheless, I’m not sure that Tomasky is wrong. Talking about the common good has several advantages.