American language about government policy and economic life shifts from community to individualism

Here is an interesting argument about how common American discourse about public policy and economic life has shifted since the 1930s:

In 1934, the focus was on people, family security and the risks to family economic well-being that we all share. Today, the people have disappeared. The conversation is now about the federal budget, not about the real economy in which real people live. If a moral concept plays a role in today’s debates, it is only the stern proselytizing of forcing the government to live within its means. If the effect of government policy on average people is discussed, it is only as providing incentives for the sick to economize on medical costs and for the already strapped worker to save for retirement.

From the 1930s to the 1960s, as the Princeton historian Daniel T. Rodgers demonstrates in his recent book, “The Age of Fracture,” American public discourse was filled with references to the social circumstances of average citizens, our common institutions and our common history. Over the last five decades, that discourse has changed in ways that emphasize individual choice, agency and preferences. The language of sociology and common culture has been replaced by the language of economics and individualism.

In 1934, the government was us. We had shared circumstances, shared risks and shared obligations. Today the government is the other — not an institution for the achievement of our common goals, but an alien presence that stands between us and the realization of individual ambitions. Programs of social insurance have become “entitlements,” a word apparently meant to signify not a collectively provided and cherished basis for family-income security, but a sinister threat to our national well-being.

Over the last 50 years we seem to have lost the words — and with them the ideas — to frame our situation appropriately.

This is a fascinating line: “The language of sociology and common culture has been replaced by the language of economics and individualism.” This reminds me of the findings about how public opinion changes when asked about “welfare” versus “assistance for the poor.” The concepts are similar but the connotations of the specific terms matter.

Is the end argument here that changing the language will lead to more communal understandings or does reversing the “Bowling Alone” phenomenon have to come first? It would be helpful to know what exactly these commentators think happened in this period beyond simply the change in language. Could we argue that the success of the community-oriented policies of the mid 1900s that led to a booming economy, rising incomes, suburbanization, and homeownership was “too successful” in that it led to these shifts in language and focus?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s