Rethinking the relationship between the collective and the individual.
Photo taken by Flickr user Jason Taellious
By Ruth Wilson
By arrangement with
People took note when Ronald Reagan, a presidential candidate in 1980, asked “Are you better off now than you were four years ago?” That question got people’s attention and is still often quoted today. Some say, it’s this question that won Reagan the presidency.
Now with election season fast approaching, it may be time to consider some new questions. I raise this issue because of concerns I have about Reagan’s question and people’s response to it. What bothers me about this question is the focus on “you” in the individual versus collective sense. Reagan could have asked, “Are we better off now than we were four years ago?”—but he didn’t.
Many people seem to think and vote primarily in relation to how an issue, event, trend, or proposed policy impacts them individually. Reagan’s version of the question is in line with this type of thinking, and it resonated with many people in the US.
I knew there were other major issues facing our nation but these seemed to have little or no impact on how the people in our community would cast their vote.
Thinking based on self-interest is not new. I grew up in a farming community where discussions at election time focused on how positions taken by political parties and presidential candidates would impact farmers and their families. I knew there were other major issues facing our nation but these seemed to have little or no impact on how the people in our community would cast their vote. Their focus was on how the outcomes of the election would benefit them personally. There was little talk about the common good or even the good of the country.
We live in an individualistic society where the needs and interests of the individual are promoted over the needs of the group as a whole. A more cooperative, collaborative society, on the other hand, would focus more on what is good for the group. Suggesting that there is a need to choose between what is good for the individual and what is good for the larger society may be misleading. In fact, the belief that contributing to the common good will somehow take away from what is good for the individual is not supported by research. A number of studies —available through the
It may be enlightening to critique the question—and the candidates’ answers—in terms of how they relate to the common good.
John F. Kennedy, in his inaugural address in 1961, also proposed a question: “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.” This question differs dramatically from the one raised by Ronald Reagan.
It’s now time to think about the kind of questions we’d like to ask the 2016 presidential candidates. If we’re concerned about the commons and the common good, the following ten questions might appear on our list:
From now until November 2016, many questions will be asked of the presidential candidates during a multitude of interviews, debates, and town hall meetings. It may be enlightening to critique the question—and the candidates’ answers—in terms of how they relate to the common good. We may also wish to introduce some of these questions in our own discussions with friends and neighbors about who will best serve the country in the future. If we get this right, in four years after the inauguration of the new president, we can then ask “Are we better off now than we were four years ago?” and feel confident that the answer will be “yes.”
Dr. Ruth Wilson worked as an educator for over thirty years and now devotes her time to writing and consulting. The focus of her work is on education, the environment, and spirituality. A regular contributor to On the Commons, Wilson’s most recent book, Nature and Young Children, integrates these themes with ideas on how to promote the holistic development of young children. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.