The language of community.

I was pleased to see this op/ed in the New York Times on how our national discourse around economic security has shifted since the Depression. As someone who finds the 1930s endlessly fascinating, I enjoyed what seemed to be an accurate reading of the differences between the communitarian language of New Deal-era economic policy (which was social policy as well, of course), and the more utilitarian language of today. This is consistent with my experience as a historian reading documents from the New Deal era. (Indeed, I make something of a parallel argument about the language of rural reform in my dissertation.)

The piece also makes a good point about the ways in which the language we use to frame issues also determines in part the ways we go about addressing them. Not a new point by any means, but one that is always worth driving home again. An excerpt:

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….

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 The language of sociology and common culture has been replaced by the language of economics and individualism.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 point about the othering of government is something I’ve been thinking about for years, as it’s become completely rampant in our political discourse. This way of talking about the U.S. government as something (however impossibly) completely apart from citizens was perhaps perfected by Barry Goldwater back in the ’60s: if you read The Conscience of a Conservative it’s everywhere. I’m no political historian, but I’m sure he had a huge impact on this.

The linguistic shift, from sociological to what the authors call economic but which I might argue is simply a different kind of economics, namely neoclassical, as opposed to the institutional (and, I might add, agricultural) economics that reigned in FDR’s day, which was very focused on local conditions, and closely allied in many places with sociology. Some of the greatest New Deal reformers were economists, alongside sociologists. There was a different tenor in the social sciences then, reflected in articles like Carl C. Taylor’s excellent “Sociology on the Spot”, which advocates for the importance of academic sociology to national and local problems, and beseeches sociologists to continue to make their work broadly useful to policymakers. It’s worth reading, and you can do so for free thanks to Cornell University’s Core Historical Library of Agriculture.

What the authors are spot-on about is the trend away from the community (however construed) and toward the individual in so many aspects of our public discourse, not to mention policy. Revisiting the 1930s reminds us that there are other ways to think about, speak about, and address issues of local and national import than the set of ideas that is currently dominant.

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