Opinion: Let's make 2022 the year civic participation, and looking out for the common good, returns

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The start of a new year is a time to think about beginnings and purposes.

Take the U.S. Constitution: it sets out our national purposes, the resolutions for our shared government, in its preamble. Part of the preamble, “to provide for the general welfare,” deserves special consideration this year.

The Constitution replaced the failed Articles of Confederation, which foundered upon the Tragedy of the Commons. The tragedy occurs when everyone has access to and motivation to exploit a resource, but no one has the responsibility to maintain it. That resource is then depleted or spoiled for everyone, like an over-fished lake.

The Articles had no mechanism for putting the common good over state-level interests. The Constitution created a strong central government with an obligation to the general welfare of “we the people,” while leaving states and local governments to look out for local interests.

And it worked. Our national commitment to the general welfare mostly managed our internal competitions, while our federalist structure encouraged local initiative and problem-solving.

Alexis de Tocqueville, who toured America in the 1830s to learn why our revolution flourished while France’s had failed, believed our strength lay in our ability to come together at all levels to solve problems democratically: “As soon as several of the inhabitants of the United States have conceived a sentiment or an idea that they want to produce in the world, they seek each other out; and when they have found each other, they unite.”

That commitment to the common good recovered even from the Civil War and was reinforced by our common experiences during the Great Depression and World War II. President John Kennedy famously captured America’s commitment to the common good, despite the Red Scare, desegregation and other contentious issues of the moment: “Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country.”

But starting around Kennedy’s death, we entered into a decline in both trust in each other and trust in government. Commentators from conservative David Brooks to liberal Matthew Yglesias have written about this decline in trust and how, correspondingly, civic participation suffers.

Factors from the media to partisan rancor to America’s wars have contributed to this loss. But these declines also line up with the rise of libertarian philosophy, which at its best amounts to “live and let live,” and at its worst becomes “screw you, I’ve got mine.”

We have increasingly seen more of the latter than the former. As this selfish and isolationist philosophy has permeated our social fabric, we’ve seen social involvement erode along with our commitment to the general welfare. Prominent examples include our decreased communal willingness to pay for family assistance, education and public health.

In short, the decline in our commitment to the general welfare is linked to our loss of faith in our common good and our common goodness. We believe we can renew that commitment and that faith by building up local communities.

And there is good news. President Donald Trump’s election spurred many to consider the state of our institutions and to act. Civic participation has increased: established groups have gained new members and new energy, and new groups have formed to encourage political engagement, mutual aid and neighborhood engagement.

Meanwhile, concern for the consequences of inequality and skepticism of the libertarian ideal are rising even among the business leaders we would expect to most benefit from them.

Our country faces a conflict between selfishness and distrust on the one hand, and civic and community spirit on the other. Its consequences are profound, impacting our health, our children, and our planet.

As de Tocqueville warned, “America is great because she is good. If America ceases to be good, America will cease to be great.”

For our part, we will recommit ourselves to civic participation and furthering the general welfare in 2022. We ask you to join us.

Writers’ Group members Kelcey Patrick-Ferree and Shannon Patrick live in Iowa City. And biannual time changes must be abolished.

This article originally appeared on Iowa City Press-Citizen: Opinion: It's time to rediscover the 'goodness' in America; join us

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