Kathleen Kennedy Townsend on ‘A More Perfect Union: A Dialogue on American Values’


Courtesy Denis Reggie

As you know next week I’m hosting an event called “A More Perfect Union: A Dialogue on American Values.” It’s the first in a series from the Ford Foundation and Georgetown University and during this one we’ll discuss how our values play into decisions about the budget.

CLICK HERE for more information about the event.

 There are 10 participants and before the event we asked them to respond to three questions.

 Yesterday I posted Georgetown President John DeGioia’s answers. And here’s what former Maryland Lt. Governor Kathleen Kennedy Townsend says:

1. Do you believe Americans hold a set of shared values, such as freedom, equality and community? What are some other important values in public life?

From my work on character education, I’ve learned that Americans–right, left and center–agree that respect and responsibility are two values that should be nurtured in every child. 

As far as values in public life go, I would add individualism. By this I mean faith in a fair society so that people who study diligently, work hard, are honorable and truthful, and play by the rules can rely on a secure future for themselves and their family. You can’t succeed simply by coming from the right family or religion or ethnic group. This civic faith is what makes America exceptional, a shining city on a hill.

A belief in individualism inspires us to apply ourselves and pull our own weight. But over the last thirty years, the Ayn Rand acolytes have distorted American individualism. Taken to its Ayn Rand extreme, it has been reduced to the notion that a person creates his or her own fate without the need for ties to family, friends, or co-workers. This view dispenses with the idea of an exceptional America, since the nation itself is secondary to the individual, and since free markets can exist in any country. Wealth, not work is the gold standard.

Like individualism, the ideas of freedom, equality, and community mean different things to liberals and conservatives.  For conservatives, freedom is primarily freedom from government interference, whereas liberals hold to FDR’s Four Freedoms, which include freedom from hunger and disease.

Equality also has different meanings. For conservatives, it implies color blindness, whereas liberals more readily acknowledge that some individuals face barriers to success having little to do with individual effort.

As for community, for conservatives it denotes country club sameness and mega churches, whereas for liberals it implies wealth distribution.

Wealth has emerged as a central value over the last thirty years—a big change. When I graduated from college in 1973, only three members of my Harvard class went on to attend Harvard Business School.

While the focus on wealth certainly has its upside–improving health, life expectancy, and living standards–it obviously has its darker side. Sometimes it seems that rapacious greed and dishonesty are snuffing out the candle of virtue in this country. All great nations depend on virtues that have nothing to do with money. Courage, self-sacrifice, honor, duty, stoicism, and truth: these are essential to a republican democracy, and none of them can be bought.

Finally, the Judeo-Christian values that could be the basis of civic virtue are also split. The right has shrunk God to the point where He attends to three questions: abortion, same-sex marriage, and stem-cell research. Many on the left have abandoned God altogether. We’ve lost sight of the God who created all of us, the one my father described in his Look magazine cover story, “Suppose God is Black.”

2. In your view, has identification with shared American values grown stronger or weaker over the past decade?

The free market ideology that promotes wealth over work has weakened our shared American identity.

Whereas corporations used to want a skilled and ethical American workforce and were willing to invest in public education to provide it, now they find their workers abroad.  As Christopher Lasch points out, the wealthy have fewer ties to their own country and thus to instilling shared values at home. Living in multiple homes, sending their kids to private schools, the Davos culture is based on ease of travel, lightness, and novelty, not on tradition, institutions, and solidity. As a result, the idea of America has weakened to the point where the Republican presidential front runner has even suggested secession.

The most fortunate Americans are less invested in America than they once were. Carnegie created libraries in the U.S., while Gates has an international foundation. Clinton is primarily international. The PEPFAR AIDS initiative is international, not in the U.S., although we have serious challenges with AIDS right here.

Pushed to its extreme, the idea of freedom means that individuals see themselves as alone in the world and not tied to a nation. As de Tocqueville said, setting people free makes them indifferent. The individual is the citizen’s worst enemy. Whereas citizens seek their personal welfare through the well being of the city, the individual tends to be lukewarm or wary of the common cause, the common good, the just society.

3. Which values do you think should guide decisions about our national budget?

Freedom, justice, equality, and happiness. I talked about the first three above. Happiness comes from applying one’s talents to achieve excellence. It comes from doing a good job, not from consuming. Work, not wealth.

So the focus of the budget should be to get America back to work, particularly the young who need to build their skills. Fix our roads, bridges, sewage and water systems, and my pet peeve, the escalators on the DC Metro!

Open more medical schools so more young people can be trained as doctors.

Invest in science, for energy, health, and transportation. Allocate more funds to AIDS treatment in the U.S. and Lyme disease research.

Raise the taxes of people who can afford it. When I grew up, the marginal tax rate was 90 percent, and we paid it because we thought America was our country and we wanted all Americans to do well.

Shrink the financial sector so people make money by working at productive jobs, not by charging hidden fees.

The vision of a city on a hill inspired both John Kennedy and Ronald Reagan. It wasn’t an “I” on a hill, but a city, with an inclusive, effective government and lots of different people working at many different jobs while caring for our parents, our children, and those too sick to care for themselves.

Please continue to check back here as we post more of the participants’ thoughts leading up to the Oct. 11 th event. And weigh in below on how you would answer those three questions.

 –George Stephanopoulos

Join the Discussion
blog comments powered by Disqus
You Might Also Like...