William H. Chafe: Wrestling Partisanship is the American Way

Roundup: Historians' Take

William H. Chafe is the Alice Mary Baldwin Professor of History at Duke University, and the former president of the Organization of American Historians.

THE partisan battles tearing us asunder in America today raise a fundamental question that has reverberated throughout our history — who are we as a people? Are we a community that places the good of the whole first, or a gathering of individuals who value first and foremost each person's ability to determine their own fate.

The choice is artificial, of course. Each day, our lives represent a mix of the two. But looking at our history in light of these competing values can illuminate the choices before us....

During the New Deal, Franklin Roosevelt called everyone's attention to that one-third of a nation that is ill-housed, ill-clothed and ill-fed, and Congress passed legislation establishing Social Security for citizens over 65, protecting the average farmer from foreclosure, and guaranteeing the right of working men and women to join unions.

This focus on the "good of the whole" culminated during World War II when everyone was reminded that they were part of a larger battle to preserve the values that "equal opportunity" was all about — the dignity of every citizen, the right to freedom of religion, freedom from want, and freedom of political expression. That same set of concerns resulted in enactment of civil-rights legislation in the 1960s, the anti-poverty program and Medicare.

Today, the conflict between the good of the whole and the ascendancy of individualism lies at the base of our political debates. Is health care a right, or something only the comfortable can afford? Is quality education something that every child deserves, or is it something that only those who can afford it should have?...

comments powered by Disqus