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Two Essays and a Video in Search of the Lost America

February 27, 2018
Robert Reich / San Francisco Chronicle & Robert Reich / RobertReich.org & Democracy Now!

Commentary: When Donald Trump refers to "America," what does he mean? Trump encourages a combination of tribalism, libertarianism and loyalty. But the core of our national identity has never been any of this. It has been found in the ideals we share -- political equality, equal opportunity, freedom of speech and of the press, a dedication to open inquiry and truth, and to democracy and the rule of law. Today, an unbridled selfishness, a contempt for the public, a win-at-any-cost mentality, is eroding America.


Has the Real Meaning of America Been Lost?
Robert Reich / Insight Magazine @ San Francisco Chronicle

(February 24, 2018) -- When Donald Trump and his followers refer to "America," what do they mean?

Some see a country of white, English-speaking Christians.

Others want a land inhabited by self-seeking individuals free to accumulate as much money and power as possible, who pay taxes only to protect their assets from criminals and foreign aggressors. Others think mainly about flags, national anthems, pledges of allegiance, military parades and secure borders.

Trump encourages a combination of all three -- tribalism, libertarianism and loyalty.

But the core of our national identity has not been any of this. It has been found in the ideals we share -- political equality, equal opportunity, freedom of speech and of the press, a dedication to open inquiry and truth, and to democracy and the rule of law.

We are not a race. We are not a creed. We are a conviction -- that all people are created equal, that people should be judged by the content of their character rather than the color of their skin, and that government should be of the people, by the people and for the people.

Political scientist Carl Friedrich, comparing Americans to Gallic people, noted that "to be an American is an ideal, while to be a Frenchman is a fact."

That idealism led Abraham Lincoln to proclaim that America might yet be the "last best hope" for humankind. It prompted Emma Lazarus, some two decades later, to welcome to America the world's "tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free."

It inspired the poems of Walt Whitman and Langston Hughes, and the songs of Woody Guthrie. All turned their love for America into demands that we live up to our ideals.

"This land is your land, this land is my land," sang Guthrie.

Pleaded Hughes:
"Let America be America again
The land that never has been yet –
And yet must be -- the land where every man is free.
The land that's mine -- the poor man's,
Indian's Negro's, ME --."

That idealism sought to preserve and protect our democracy -- not inundate it with big money, or allow one party or candidate to suppress votes from rivals, or permit a foreign power to intrude on our elections.

It spawned a patriotism that once required all of us take on a fair share of the burdens of keeping America going -- paying taxes in full rather than seeking loopholes or squirreling money away in foreign tax shelters, and serving in the armed forces or volunteering in our communities rather than relying on others to do the work.

These ideals compelled us to join together for the common good -- not pander to bigotry or divisiveness, or fuel racist or religious or ethnic divisions.

The idea of a common good was once widely understood and accepted in America. After all, the US Constitution was designed for "We the people" seeking to "promote the general welfare" -- not for "me the narcissist seeking as much wealth and power as possible."

Yet the common good seems to have disappeared. The phrase is rarely uttered today, not even by commencement speakers or politicians.

There's growing evidence of its loss -- in CEOs who gouge their customers and loot their corporations; Wall Street bankers who defraud their investors; athletes involved in doping scandals; doctors who do unnecessary procedures to collect fatter fees; and film producers and publicists who choose not to see that a powerful movie mogul they depend on is sexually harassing and abusing women.

We see its loss in politicians who take donations from wealthy donors and corporations and then enact laws their patrons want, or shutter the government when they don't get the partisan results they seek.

And in a president of the United States who has repeatedly lied about important issues, refuses to put his financial holdings into a blind trust and personally profits from his office, and foments racial and ethnic conflict.

This unbridled selfishness, this contempt for the public, this win-at-any-cost mentality, is eroding America.

Without binding notions about right and wrong, only the most unscrupulous get ahead. When it's all about winning, only the most unprincipled succeed. This is not a society. It's not even a civilization, because there's no civility at its core.

If we're losing our national identity it's not because we now come in more colors, practice more religions and speak more languages than we once did.

It is because we are forgetting the real meaning of America -- the ideals on which our nation was built. We are losing our sense of the common good.

Copyright 2018 Robert Reich
Robert Reich, a former US secretary of labor, is professor of public policy at UC Berkeley.

Why the Common Good Disappeared
(And How We Get it Back)

Robert Reich / RobertReich.org

In 1963 over 70 percent of Americans trusted government to do the right thing all or most of the time; nowadays only 16 percent do.

There has been a similar decline in trust for corporations. In the late 1970s, 32 percent trusted big business, by 2016, only 18 percent did.

Trust in banks has dropped from 60 percent to 27 percent. Trust in newspapers, from 51 percent to 20 percent. Public trust has also plummeted for nonprofits, universities, charities, and religious institutions.

Why this distrust? As economic inequality has widened, the moneyed interests have spent more and more of their ever-expanding wealth to alter the rules of the game to their own advantage.

Too many leaders in business and politics have been willing to do anything to make more money or to gain more power -- regardless of the consequences for our society.

We see this everywhere -- in the new tax giveaway to big corporations, in gun manufacturer's use of the NRA to block gun controls, in the Koch Brother's push to roll back environmental regulations, in Donald Trump's profiting off his presidency.

No wonder much of the public no longer believes that America's major institutions are working for the many. Increasingly, they have become vessels for the few.

The question is whether we can restore the common good. Can the system be made to work for the good of all?

Some of you may feel such a quest to be hopeless. The era we are living in offers too many illustrations of greed, narcissism, and hatefulness. But I don't believe it hopeless.

Almost every day I witness or hear of the compassion of ordinary Americans -- like the thousands who helped people displaced by the wildfires in California and floods in Louisiana; like the two men in Seattle who gave their lives trying to protect a young Muslim woman from a hate-filled assault; like the coach who lost his life in Parkland, Florida, trying to shield students from a gunman; like the teenagers who are demanding that Florida legislators take action on guns.

The challenge is to turn all this into a new public spiritedness extending to the highest reaches in the land -- a public morality that strengthens our democracy, makes our economy work for everyone, and revives trust in the major institutions of America.

We have never been a perfect union; our finest moments have been when we sought to become more perfect than we had been. We can help restore the common good by striving for it and showing others it's worth the effort.

I started my career a half-century ago in the Senate office of Robert F. Kennedy, when the common good was well understood, and I've watched it unravel over the last half-century.

Resurrecting it may take another half century, or more. But as the theologian Reinhold Niebuhr once said, "Nothing that is worth doing can be achieved in our lifetime; therefore we must be saved by hope."

Morality & the Common Good Must Be
At Center of Fighting Trump's Economic Agenda

Robert Reich and Amy Goodman / Democracy Now!

(February 20, 2018) -- As a presidential candidate, Donald Trump made a promise to the American people: There would be no cuts to Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security. Well, the promise has not been kept. Under his new budget, President Trump proposes a massive increase in Pentagon spending while cutting funding for Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security.

Trump's budget would also slash or completely eliminate core anti-poverty programs that form the heart of the US social safety net, from childhood nutrition to care for the elderly and job training. This comes after President Trump and Republican lawmakers pushed through a $1.5 trillion tax cut that overwhelmingly favors the richest Americans, including President Trump and his own family.

We speak to Robert Reich, who served as labor secretary under President Bill Clinton. He is now a professor at the University of California, Berkeley. His most recent book, out today, is titled The Common Good.

Robert B. Reich is Chancellor's Professor of Public Policy at the University of California at Berkeley and Senior Fellow at the Blum Center for Developing Economies. He served as Secretary of Labor in the Clinton administration, for which Time Magazine named him one of the ten most effective cabinet secretaries of the twentieth century.
He has written 15 books, including the best sellers "Aftershock", "The Work of Nations," and "Beyond Outrage," and, his most recent, "Saving Capitalism." He is also a founding editor of the American Prospect magazine, chairman of Common Cause, a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and co-creator of the award-winning documentary, "Inequality For All." Reich's newest book is "The Common Good." He's co-creator of the Netflix original documentary "Saving Capitalism," which is streaming now.

Posted in accordance with Title 17, Section 107, US Code, for noncommercial, educational purposes.




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