Li: America, the community

Grant Li, Columnist

Last week, Republican Wisconsin Sen. Ron Johnson made comments about government assistance for childcare costs, saying, “I’ve never really felt it was society’s responsibility to take care of other people’s children.”

What is immediately clear is Johnson’s hypocrisy when it comes to his supposedly pro-life politics, as with many of his colleagues in the Republican Party. Beyond that, Johnson’s comments are emblematic of an attitude that celebrates a lack of commitment to others. Nobody desires, or even feels obligated, to help anyone else. It sometimes seems as if the prevailing ethos of American civil society is how much you can maximize being a jerk until you toe the line of illegality. 

We can trace much of this to the triumph of neoliberalism, or free-market capitalism, in the final decades of the 20th century. Ronald Reagan’s election brought about the era where every success was self-made, and every failure was self-wrought. It was a distinct turn from the final calls of an earlier political era that did not worship the economy, as embodied in the Great Society programs set by Lyndon B. Johnson.

By emphasizing individual responsibility within the context of free-market radicalism, neoliberalism hacked away at the sense and systems that helped connect us as citizens to each other. It ate away at the notion that we as citizens had in some way a shared fate and turned America into a gladiator arena where you are glorified if you become a millionaire, no matter how many people you bulldoze along the way. Perhaps it might have been the case before, but after neoliberalism, there was no question that the primary indicator of America’s success was the status of its most well-off, its GDP and the welfare of its largest corporations rather than the wellbeing of its poorest. Rather than America, the country, we became America, the market. 

Through this lens, we can interpret Johnson’s reluctance to provide economic assistance to parents as a manifestation of America’s still strong neoliberal attitude. On a deeper level, though, there simply is nothing to compel people like Johnson to have any commitments at all. 

From the nature of America’s constitution, we have oriented our politics toward rights. These rights enshrine the concept of negative liberty, which simply prevents the state (or other people) from doing certain things to you. There are no obligations to anyone else with negative liberty, and people are free to wield these rights in any way they want, even to the detriment of others. In effect, rights operate to clear a space of all moral claims, commitments and obligations to again create an arena where people can behave however they want. 

Because of this, we get people against vaccine mandates and masks. Besides the fact that many are conspiracy theorists, their reasoning often claims that mandates and masks limit their freedom and violate their rights. They could be right in some respects. Vaccine mandates might actually violate some concept of rights. There are some simple and quick rebuttals, such as the fact that vaccine mandates to attend school have been around for decades, and those complaining about masks probably weren’t complaining about other dress codes before the pandemic. 

But we should go further than that. We should think about what it means to be part of a community. To be part of a community means having some sort of commitment to others. You should be willing to help, and even potentially make, sacrifices for others in your community. What would it entail for us as citizens to think of America as primarily a community over all else? What are our commitments and obligations to our fellow citizens? Rather than individual economic aggrandizement and the arbitrary maximal exercise of rights, we might want to actually care about others. In the midst of a pandemic, that could involve wearing a mask and getting your recommended vaccinations. 

The combination of neoliberalism and the fetishization of rights has atrophied our sense of commitment and obligation to others in our community, or politeia, that is America. It is deeply discouraging, to say the least, to see that the most urgent concern of many people seems to be that their mask is uncomfortable when over 893,000 people have died in this pandemic. 

This isn’t to say that rights, freedom and negative liberty are bad. They’re entirely compatible with a sense of community that cares about others. Nevertheless, to forge a real community forces us to think beyond just rights. That is to say, rights shouldn’t be the limit to how we define our politics and society.

How, then, should we approach the issue of providing assistance to parents for childcare costs if we are to think of ourselves as members of a community? As citizens of our American community, we should help out parents who might need it. It is our commitment to do so. We all — as parents, children and members of the same community — share an intertwined fate. We all have a stake in the wellbeing of our community.

To live life free of commitments is to live outside the community. Community demands of us obligations and responsibilities, but it also yields many fulfillments and rewards. 

Grant Li is a Weinberg junior. They can be contacted at [email protected]. If you would like to respond publicly to this op-ed, send a Letter to the Editor to [email protected]. The views expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect the views of all staff members of The Daily Northwestern.